Urban field recording Asbjoern Andersen


Want to capture the sounds of the city? This new guide by Anne-Sophie Mongeau – packed with examples – helps you record sounds that truly stand out:


Written by Anne-Sophie Mongeau



 

In this article, I wish to share my approach on urban field recording. It consists of some tips and pointers I have come to learn and put into practice when doing field recording in urban environments. They are not based on practical or technical knowledge, but are rather meant to ignite creative thought processes. You could argue that the following tips are not limited to urban soundscapes and can very well be applied to any sort of field recording, but what I would like to convey here is how the sounds we find in a city can be incredibly revealing about a space we think we know extensively, and that listening and paying attention to those sounds may very well shine a new light on our surroundings.
 

As the recordist, it’s about listening to your surroundings and find a perspective which you feel can communicate this sonic personality

When going out recording in the city, one quickly realises how noisy it can get, and how homogeneous it can sometimes feel in terms of soundscape. Urban recording is rarely about capturing bird songs or other quiet events – the loudness and ubiquity of other elements such as traffic noise can make that quite difficult. So although it is possible to focus on those soft sounding occurrences, it can be a challenge. If you embrace that fact though, it is still possible to make the most of it – for instance I think most cities have their own sonic personality, which can be very interesting to capture. As the recordist, it’s about listening to your surroundings and find a perspective which you feel can communicate this sonic personality. And that brings me to my first tip, which takes the form of a question to ask yourself about your subject when hunting for sounds:
 

1. What makes it unique?

 
How does this city’s soundscape sound different than any other, what do you hear in this place that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else? What gives it its special vibe? I found that Amsterdam was an excellent example of this atypical urban sonic personality: its soundscape is persistently composed of an amalgam of bicycles, trams, cars, motorbikes, and boats! You won’t find a similar composition of sounds in just any city in the world.
 

 

If you compare this Amsterdam recording with the following, which was made in Montreal, you can quickly hear how different those two spaces sound:
 

 

There is so much more to the urban soundscape than what shows on the surface

But if sometimes traffic and general city ambiences are good things to record in various places and from various perspectives, if only for the sake of building diverse libraries, I believe there is so much more to the urban soundscape than what shows on the surface. And to be honest, a unique soundscape doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Which brings me to my second tip:
 

2. What makes it interesting?

 
The quality of being interesting may not have anything to do with the fact that it is a city recording or with how it was recorded. Interesting has to do with how you feel when you listen to that sound, and what is the emotion it transmits. Does it arouse your curiosity or catch your attention? Does it make you discover anything new? Is it suggesting something you haven’t considered before? Is it making you think about the subject in a different way? Is it simply enjoyable to listen to? Or rather uncomfortable? Compelling? Intriguing? Disgusting? Engaging? Typical or atypical? Surprising? Challenging? Impressive? Etc, etc.

In an urban context, especially if it is your own city, you may be almost desensitised to the specific sonic personality and uniqueness around you – you’ve been exposed to it for so long that it might sound only moderately interesting to you. When I realise that this is the case for me and that the most predominant elements of the soundscape in my immediate surroundings don’t present much of an interest, this is what I ask myself:
 

3. Is there anything hidden?

 

Revealing those elements of our environments can be a way to reconsider what we sometimes take for granted

Is there anything else? Is there anything I can reveal about this environment that is not obvious to the ears or eyes? Are there any sounds here that I may not be able to listen to with naked ears? Is there anything I can uncover about this space that is here yet we forget about it or maybe even don’t know about it? Can I represent this space in a way that will make its inhabitants rediscover it? Can I present this space through a different angle that would make one think differently about it, or if not differently, then at least acknowledge it and possibly re-connect with it? I find that revealing those elements of our environments can be a way to reconsider what we sometimes take for granted.

More than the mere rediscovery, it’s about acknowledging that these sounds, these vibrations in the air (and in other elements), they do exist, even if they are not obvious to our human ears, or if we are a priori indifferent to them, whether it’s because they are masked by other noise or because they resonate in a way that we are not sensitive to. Even though they interact with our environment in a way that we may be blind (or deaf) to, they may still have an impact on it. It’s kind of like the tree in the forest – if it falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The sounds I am interested in capturing and revealing in our urban environments, they interact with our surroundings, or are manifestations of our surroundings (and ourselves) interacting with them, without us realising it. Maybe thinking about those events can make people think similarly about other elements of our environment that are taken for granted, but are equally important to acknowledge. So put simply, when hunting for sounds in an urban environment, in which so many of us are immersed everyday, I ask myself: how can I make people think about their surroundings?
 

Example 1 – Contact microphones on a fence under the rain

 

Example 2 – Electromagnetic microphone on a car dashboard

 

 

And this brings me to my next tip:
 

4. How best can you capture it?

 

If you wish to use conventional air microphones, you might want to consider unconventional techniques

In order to reveal the hidden, some thinking outside the box may be required. If you wish to use conventional air microphones, you might want to consider unconventional techniques, which will themselves highly depend on your subject. For instance, mics such as the small DPA 4060s are so tiny that they can fit in many places and offer a very different perspective on sounding objects than what we are used to. What if you hung a pair of these down a sewer pipe? What if you stuck them in a car engine? What if you squeezed them in some tiny crack of a wall in your house when it is raining? What if you hid them inside a sculpture and captured how the air moves through it? What if you used them as contact mics so that you capture both the vibrations in the air as well as the ones that resonate through the surfaces?

Similarly, if you would first think of recording a stereo ambience, consider using a directional mic instead, and get a focused perspective on something very specific within the environment. Maybe come back at different times of day (or even different seasons!) to reveal sounds that may exist only under certain conditions. Or rather place various microphones in different spots to get a custom multichannel recording, composing a unique soundscape of what you believe are the most relevant elements in it. Let your subjectivity shine through as the recordist. Involve space and time in the recording and give it a sense of place – situate it within a context.

Air microphones are one way to capture sounds, but what you might realise is that they may simply not be the solution to reveal the hidden, since they capture the same variations of pressure in the air as our eardrums do. Here are a few examples of unconventional microphones that can help you capture and represent your environment differently:
 

Contact microphones on a flagpole:

 

Electromagnetic microphone on an eclectic line:

 

Hydrophone in a park’s lake:

 

Train recorded with VLF receiver (recorded by Philip Eriksson):

 

Some fantastic work from Jez Riley French also involves geophones and ultrasonics (headphones or conventional speakers are required for the geophone aspects):

Kettles Yard Piano Room
Gallery Three
Voyage Ultrasons
 

 

Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:

 

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Need specific sound effects? Try a search below:
 

 

The ways the tools are used determine how interesting the results are, not the tools themselves

My point here is that these microphones are tools that can help you interpret or reinterpret your environment, and present it through different angles. The ways the tools are used determine how interesting the results are, not the tools themselves. Once you realise the options you have, it can even become overwhelming to start thinking about all that exists in your surroundings which you had never thought of before! Here are a few more examples which hopefully help to illustrate my point :
 

Contact microphones on an antenna under the rain:

 

Contact microphones set up on a metal bridge structure:

 

More electromagnetic recordings from Jez Riley French:

 

And finally more from geophone and ultrasonics examples from Jez Riley French can be found here .
 

This brings me to my last tip:
 

5. What are you trying to represent?

 

There is a lot of subjectivity involved in field recording

What my previous tips and examples have tried to show, is that the job of the recordist is more than simply pressing record. There is a lot of subjectivity involved in field recording. How it manifests is for instance through the choice of subject, the recording methods and tools, the emphasis and focus, even the length of the recording, etc. All those decisions are made according to the recordist’s intuition, artistic preferences and inclinations.

So what are you trying to share? What are you trying to tell the listener? Knowing this will determine the answer to most of the questions above – once your intention is clear, the where, how, and when are only technicalities. In other words, the recordist’s subjectivity is ultimately what will make the recording interesting.
 

Happy field recording!
 

 

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    “Tiny Transitions 2” is the successor to the very popular Tiny Transitions sound effects library.

    If you already knew the first library you know what to expect: even more, even better and more versatile to bring instant sonic support for all kinds of small animations, motion graphics, pass-bys, menues, projectiles and more.

    Re-load your ammo belt with not-so-intrusive production elements that come in very handy for any Sound Designer, All-In-One Film Editor or Web-, App- and Game-Developers.

    All the small motion elements that you need in your everyday work for games, apps, commercial, films or general motion designs.

    You get 350 ready to use designed sounds+ a composite selection of 320 cleaned and edited source soundsthat were used to design the Tiny Transitions. These sounds are mostly different props that are scraping or sliding on different surfaces and also some vocalized whoosh attempts.

    If you don't need the extra source sounds you can grab the “Designed Sounds only” pack.

    All source sounds were recorded with Sonosax SX-R4+ with a Sennheiser MKH8050+MKH30 M/S rig, a Sound Devices MixPre-6 with a MK8060+ATE208 M/S rig and a Sony PCM-D100. All sounds come with embedded Metadata.

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    Onboard multi-track recordings are in 4 separate mono wave files. Drag & drop or import each of the files into your audio editing software, then align them for creative mixing. There are also stereo mix versions of the OnBoard recordings. The External recordings are in stereo wave files. The combined recorded driving time is more than 35 minutes long.

    Onboard Settings:
    Channel 1 = Engine, Channel 2 = Airintake, Channel 3 = Cab, Channel 4 = Exhaust

    External Settings:
    Stereo in Left and Right Channels

  • Foley Old Drawers Play Track 151 sounds included $14.99

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    Opens, Closes, Slides, Rolls, Creaks, Wrestles and more!

    All audio files have been recorded at superb 192KHZ 24BIT. Multiple mic positions to capture all the little details such as rollers, creaky wood etc

    Comprehensive Soundminer's metadata. Over 20 different, old, traditional, wooden drawers.

    LOCATION: Spain, Costa Blanca. Traditional Spanish hacienda before renovation.
    RECORDED WITH: Sound Devices MixPre 6 + Sennheiser MKH 8060
    EDITED AND MASTERED WITH: Pro Tools, iZotope RX (mildly).

  • Water & Oceans Liquidation Play Track 180 sounds included $35 $29

    Liquidation is a liquid texture library covering everything from water to slime to fizzes and bubbles. Source material in this library includes wet slimy pasta, giant water balloons, large containers being submerged underwater, leather fizzing in a chemical bath, pool water splashes and more. Plus it was all recorded at 192kHz/24bit so you can really stretch and thrash these sounds – and the vast majority of the sound files are in stereo. Whether you're designing an underwater adventure or an alien autopsy, this library is full of complimentary textures to layer together.

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    The library contains 72 onboard, 36 external and 38 foley recordings. Onboard recordings consist of 3 channels (two exhaust and one engine). A mix of these 3 channels has been included. Each single channel is included as well, so it can be layered as you please and make a different mix of the onboard recordings. External files include a stereo setup and a following shotgun.

    The riding recordings, where many different actions are happening, contain descriptive markers to highlight interesting events in an otherwise featureless waveform. These markers can be read in programs such as Izotope RX, Reaper and Soundminer. The markers are also included as .txt files in a separate folder.

    All files come in 96 kHz/24 bit with embedded metadata.

    Gear used: Zoom F8, DPA 4066, Sanken Cos11, Sennheiser 416, Sony D100.

    Sounds included

    False starts, startups, shutdowns, idles, revving, accelerations, decelerations, constant RPM at different speeds, passbys at different speeds and distances, approaches, driving away, kick starts, kickstands, horn, switching on and of with and without keys, light switch, opening and closing storage compartment.

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