Field recording

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M. C. Schmidt of Matmos recording cow audio samples for their 2006 album Matmos - Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast - Martin mics cows.jpg
M. C. Schmidt of Matmos recording cow audio samples for their 2006 album

Field recording is the term used for an audio recording produced outside a recording studio, and the term applies to recordings of both natural and human-produced sounds. It also applies to sound recordings like electromagnetic fields or vibrations using different microphones like a passive magnetic antenna for electromagnetic recordings or contact microphones. For underwater field recordings, a field recordist uses hydrophones to capture the sounds and/or movements of whales, or other aquatic organisms. These recordings are very useful for sound designers.


Field recording of natural sounds, also called phonography (a term chosen to illustrate its similarities to photography), was originally developed as a documentary adjunct to research work in the field, and foley work for film. With the introduction of high-quality, portable recording equipment, it has subsequently become an evocative artform in itself. In the 1970s, both processed and natural phonographic recordings, (pioneered by Irv Teibel's Environments series), became popular.

"Field recordings" may also refer to simple monaural or stereo recordings taken of musicians in familiar and casual surroundings, such as the ethnomusicology recordings pioneered by John Lomax, Nonesuch Records, and Vanguard Records.


Two individuals recording ecoacoustics in the field. Ecoacoustics recording in Rural Illinois, USA.jpg
Two individuals recording ecoacoustics in the field.

Field recording often involves the capture of ambient noises that are low level and complex, and, in response, the requirements from the field recordist have often pushed the technical limits of recording equipment, that is, demanding low noise and extended frequency response in a portable, battery-powered unit. For this reason, field recordists have favoured high-quality (usually professional) recorders, microphones, and microphone pre-amplifiers. The history of the equipment used in this area closely tracks the development of professional portable audio recording technology.

Field recording is typically recorded in the same channel format as the desired result, for instance, stereo recording equipment will yield a stereo product. In contrast, a multitrack remote recording captures many microphones on multiple channels, later to be creatively modified, augmented, and mixed down to a specific consumer format.

Field recording experienced a rapid increase in popularity during the early 1960s, with the introduction of high-quality, portable recording equipment, (e.g., the Uher, and Nagra portable reel-to-reel decks). The arrival of the DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in the 1980s introduced a new level of audio recording fidelity with extended frequency response and low self-noise. In addition to these technologies, other popular means for field recording have included the analog cassette (CAC), the DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), and the MiniDisc. The latest generation of recorders are completely digital-based (hard disk/Flash). It is also possible to use personal electronic devices, (e.g., a smartphone or tablet), with software, to do field recording and editing.

Newly developed techniques include the creative placement of microphones, (including contact microphones and hydrophones, for example), the diffusion of captured sounds, and individual approaches.



Bela Bartok using a phonograph to record Slovak folk songs sung by peasants Bartok recording folk music.jpg
Béla Bartók using a phonograph to record Slovak folk songs sung by peasants

Field recording was originally a way to document oral presentations and ethnomusicology projects (pioneered by Béla Bartók, Charles Seeger, and John Lomax). In the case of Bartók, his own studies helped alter the generally unfavorable view of Eastern European folk music at that time. He grew to admire numerous regional styles from both firsthand experience and recordings, eventually incorporating these styles into his own compositional works. [1]


Field recording is an important tool in bioacoustics and biomusicology, most commonly in research on bird song. Animals in the wild can display very different vocalizations from those in captivity. Ambient noise in urban environments have also shown to alter the vocalizations of local bird populations. [2]



The use of field recordings in avant-garde, musique concrète, experimental, and, more recently, ambient music was evident almost from the birth of recording technology. Most noteworthy for pioneering the conceptual and theoretical framework with art music that most openly embraced the use of raw sound material and field recordings was Pierre Schaeffer, who was developing musique concrète as early as 1940. Further impetus was provided by the World Soundscape Project, initiated by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the 1970s; this work involved studying the acoustic ecology of a particular location by the use of field recordings.

Field recordings are now a common source material for a range of musical results, from contemporary musique concrète compositions to film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and effects. Chris Watson, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire, is now perhaps the world's leading exponent of this art, with his recordings used for David Attenborough's series for the BBC, programmes for BBC Radio, and many other outlets. Another notable application of field recordings as of contemporary music is its inclusion in some vaporwave tracks, commonly recordings of public areas such as malls or grocery stores to add atmosphere.

The sounds recorded by any device, and then transferred to digital format, are used by some musicians through their performance with MIDI-interfaced instruments. A contemporary artist with great success for his compositions is Christian Fennesz. In addition, electronic musicians, such as DJ Throwing Shade, have been using field recordings to create music that has "someone actually playing an instrument in real life, something which cannot be re-created in the same way through synthesised sounds". [3]

Earlier innovators who are noted for the importance and boldness of their projects are Luigi Russolo, who, in 1913, with his manifesto, L'arte dei rumori ( The Art of Noises ), gave musical value to environmental noise. He also designed and built the Intonarumori—the first instruments for making noise. Francesco Balilla Pratella utilized the Intonarumori in his opera, L'aviatore Dro, which was written in close collaboration with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, (the founder of the Futurist movement).

Radio documentary

Radio documentaries often use recordings from the field, e.g., a locomotive engine running, for evocative effect. This type of sound functions as the non-fictional counterpart to the sound effect.


During the early years of commercial recordings, the speeches of politicians sold well, since few people had radios. The HMV ("His Master's Voice") catalogue for 1914–1918 [4] lists over a dozen such records. Probably the last time such records sold well was in 1965, when the LP, The Voice of Churchill, reached number 7 in the UK album charts. This was immediately after Churchill's death.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sound effect Artificially created or enhanced sound

A sound effect is an artificially created or enhanced sound, or sound process used to emphasize artistic or other content of films, television shows, live performance, animation, video games, music, or other media. These are normally created with foley. In motion picture and television production, a sound effect is a sound recorded and presented to make a specific storytelling or creative point without the use of dialogue or music. The term often refers to a process applied to a recording, without necessarily referring to the recording itself. In professional motion picture and television production, dialogue, music, and sound effects recordings are treated as separate elements. Dialogue and music recordings are never referred to as sound effects, even though the processes applied to such as reverberation or flanging effects, often are called "sound effects".

Microphone Device that converts sound into an electrical signal

A microphone, colloquially called a mic or mike, is a device – a transducer – that converts sound into an electrical signal. Microphones are used in many applications such as telephones, hearing aids, public address systems for concert halls and public events, motion picture production, live and recorded audio engineering, sound recording, two-way radios, megaphones, radio and television broadcasting. They are also used in computers for recording voice, speech recognition, VoIP, and for non-acoustic purposes such as ultrasonic sensors or knock sensors.

Binaural recording

Binaural recording is a method of recording sound that uses two microphones, arranged with the intent to create a 3-D stereo sound sensation for the listener of actually being in the room with the performers or instruments. This effect is often created using a technique known as "dummy head recording", wherein a mannequin head is outfitted with a microphone in each ear. Binaural recording is intended for replay using headphones and will not translate properly over stereo speakers. This idea of a three dimensional or "internal" form of sound has also translated into useful advancement of technology in many things such as stethoscopes creating "in-head" acoustics and IMAX movies being able to create a three dimensional acoustic experience.

Production sound mixer Member of a film crew or television crew

A production sound mixer, location sound recordist, location sound engineer, or simply sound mixer is the member of a film crew or television crew responsible for recording all sound recording on set during the filmmaking or television production using professional audio equipment, for later inclusion in the finished product, or for reference to be used by the sound designer, sound effects editors, or foley artists. This requires choice and deployment of microphones, choice of recording media, and mixing of audio signals in real time.

Headphones Device placed near the ears that plays sound

Headphones are a pair of small loudspeaker drivers worn on or around the head over a user's ears. They are electroacoustic transducers, which convert an electrical signal to a corresponding sound. Headphones let a single user listen to an audio source privately, in contrast to a loudspeaker, which emits sound into the open air for anyone nearby to hear. Headphones are also known as earspeakers, earphones or, colloquially, cans. Circumaural and supra-aural headphones use a band over the top of the head to hold the speakers in place. Another type, known as earbuds or earpieces consist of individual units that plug into the user's ear canal. A third type are bone conduction headphones, which typically wrap around the back of the head and rest in front of the ear canal, leaving the ear canal open. In the context of telecommunication, a headset is a combination of headphone and microphone.

Boombox Portable music player with tape recorders and radio with a carrying handle

A boombox is a transistorized portable music player featuring one or two cassette tape recorder/players and AM/FM radio, generally with a carrying handle. Beginning in the mid 1980s, a CD player was often included. Sound is delivered through an amplifier and two or more integrated loudspeakers. A boombox is a device typically capable of receiving radio stations and playing recorded music. Many models are also capable of recording onto cassette tapes from radio and other sources. In the 1990s, some boomboxes were available with minidisc recorders and players. Designed for portability, boomboxes can be powered by batteries as well as by line current. The boombox was introduced to the American market during the late 1970s. The desire for louder and heavier bass led to bigger and heavier boxes; by the 1980s, some boomboxes had reached the size of a suitcase. Some larger boomboxes even contained vertically mounted record turntables. Most boomboxes were battery-operated, leading to extremely heavy, bulky boxes.

Nagra Series of audio recorders produced by Kudelski SA

Nagra is a brand of portable audio recorders produced from 1951 in Switzerland. Beginning in 1997 a range of high-end equipment aimed at the audiophile community was introduced, and Nagra expanded the company’s product lines into a new marketplace.

Recording studio

A recording studio is a specialized facility for sound recording, mixing, and audio production of instrumental or vocal musical performances, spoken words, and other sounds. They range in size from a small in-home project studio large enough to record a single singer-guitarist, to a large building with space for a full orchestra of 100 or more musicians. Ideally both the recording and monitoring spaces are specially designed by an acoustician or audio engineer to achieve optimum acoustic properties.

Surround sound

Surround sound is a technique for enriching the fidelity and depth of sound reproduction by using multiple audio channels from speakers that surround the listener. Its first application was in movie theaters. Prior to surround sound, theater sound systems commonly had three "screen channels" of sound that played from three loudspeakers located in front of the audience. Surround sound adds one or more channels from loudspeakers to the side or behind the listener that are able to create the sensation of sound coming from any horizontal direction around the listener.

Multitrack recording

Multitrack recording (MTR), also known as multitracking or tracking, is a method of sound recording developed in 1955 that allows for the separate recording of multiple sound sources or of sound sources recorded at different times to create a cohesive whole. Multitracking became possible in the mid-1950s when the idea of simultaneously recording different audio channels to separate discrete "tracks" on the same reel-to-reel tape was developed. A "track" was simply a different channel recorded to its own discrete area on the tape whereby their relative sequence of recorded events would be preserved, and playback would be simultaneous or synchronized.

A sound editor is a creative professional responsible for selecting and assembling sound recordings in preparation for the final sound mixing or mastering of a television program, motion picture, video game, or any production involving recorded or synthetic sound. Sound editing developed out of the need to fix the incomplete, undramatic, or technically inferior sound recordings of early talkies, and over the decades has become a respected filmmaking craft, with sound editors implementing the aesthetic goals of motion picture sound design.

Sound design is the art and practice of creating sound tracks for a variety of needs. It involves specifying, acquiring or creating auditory elements using audio production techniques and tools. It is employed in a variety of disciplines including filmmaking, television production, video game development, theatre, sound recording and reproduction, live performance, sound art, post-production, radio and musical instrument development. Sound design commonly involves performing and editing of previously composed or recorded audio, such as sound effects and dialogue for the purposes of the medium, but it can also involve creating sounds from scratch through synthesizers. A sound designer is one who practices sound design.


Bioacoustics is a cross-disciplinary science that combines biology and acoustics. Usually it refers to the investigation of sound production, dispersion and reception in animals. This involves neurophysiological and anatomical basis of sound production and detection, and relation of acoustic signals to the medium they disperse through. The findings provide clues about the evolution of acoustic mechanisms, and from that, the evolution of animals that employ them.

Luigi Russolo Italian Futurist, artist, composer

Luigi Carlo Filippo Russolo was an Italian Futurist painter, composer, builder of experimental musical instruments, and the author of the manifesto The Art of Noises (1913). He is often regarded as one of the first noise music experimental composers with his performances of noise music concerts in 1913–14 and then again after World War I, notably in Paris in 1921. He designed and constructed a number of noise-generating devices called Intonarumori.

Stereophonic sound Method of sound reproduction using two audio channels

Stereophonic sound or, more commonly, stereo, is a method of sound reproduction that recreates a multi-directional, 3-dimensional audible perspective. This is usually achieved by using two or more independent audio channels through a configuration of two or more loudspeakers in such a way as to create the impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. Thus the term "stereophonic" applies to so-called "quadraphonic" and "surround-sound" systems as well as the more common two-channel, two-speaker systems. Stereo sound has been in common use since the 1970s in entertainment media such as broadcast radio, TV, recorded music, internet, computer audio, and cinema.

Sound recording and reproduction recording of sound and playing it back

Sound recording and reproduction is an electrical, mechanical, electronic, or digital inscription and re-creation of sound waves, such as spoken voice, singing, instrumental music, or sound effects. The two main classes of sound recording technology are analog recording and digital recording.

History of sound recording

The history of sound recording - which has progressed in waves, driven by the invention and commercial introduction of new technologies — can be roughly divided into four main periods:

There exist a number of well-developed microphone techniques used for recording musical, film, or voice sources. Choice of technique depends on a number of factors, including:

Dan Dugan (audio engineer) First sound designer; inventor of the automixer

Dan Dugan is an American audio engineer, inventor, and nature sounds recordist. He was the first person in regional theatre to be called a sound designer, and he developed the first effective automatic microphone mixer: the automixer. Dugan's sound design work was acknowledged in 2003 with a Distinguished Career Award by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and in 2020 with an Emmy Award for technology relevant to remote working.

Remote recording

Remote recording, also known as location recording, is the act of making a high-quality complex audio recording of a live concert performance, or any other location recording that uses multitrack recording techniques outside of a recording studio. The multitrack recording is then carefully mixed, and the finished result is called a remote recording or a live album. This is in contrast to a field recording which uses few microphones, recorded onto the same number of channels as the intended product. Remote recording is not the same as remote broadcast for which multiple microphones are mixed live and broadcast during the performance, typically to stereo. Remote recording and remote broadcast may be carried out simultaneously by the same crew using the same microphones.


  1. Cedarville University; Nelson, David (2012). "Béla Bartók: The Father of Ethnomusicology". Musical Offerings. 3 (2): 75–91. doi: 10.15385/jmo.2012.3.2.2 .
  2. Warren, Paige S.; Katti, Madhusudan; Ermann, Michael; Brazel, Anthony (2006). "Urban bioacoustics: it's not just noise". Animal Behaviour. 71 (3): 491–502. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.07.014.
  3. Darton, James (January 19, 2017). "Between Worlds: How Field Recordings Can Challenge Our Perceptions of Electronic Music | Thump". Thump. Retrieved 2017-01-19.

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