Field recordings and tourism are two activities that have always been closely connected for those involved in sound design. The art of travelling offers a great opportunity to capture sounds that are not available to us on a daily basis.
Whether it’s for personal use or to turn them into sound libraries that others can use for their projects, it’s an activity that involves some advance planning if you want to get good recordings. Some factors such as weather, local holidays, season of the year and many other factors can also have a massive impact on your recordings.
We asked to Pablo Valverde from Gain Walkers, a Spanish sound designer and field recordist based in Southern England, to share his experience about recordings sounds while travelling around the world.
Capturing sounds while travelling is one of my favourite ways of discovering new cultures. Each country and each community has its own unique sound, mixed by its people, its language, its architecture, its roads, its fauna, its weather. All those factors, among others, build up the soundscape of that city, town or area.
As a sound designer, one of my goals when I travel is to capture the soundscape of the places I am visiting. It’s my way to remember that trip, and later on I can always use those sounds in upcoming projects or release them as sound libraries so they can be used by someone else.
However, this is not as simple as showing up and pressing rec. There are a few factors that we need to consider before the act of recording begins.
Note: this article refers to travelling for tourism with family, friends, partner or on your own.
Research is a must before travelling. Where I am heading, when I am going, who will be with me. The soundscape will change dramatically depending on if it is high or low season, summer or winter, sunny or windy, or even the mere presence of a local event such as Christmas or Easter.
We need to anticipate all this. This will save us from surprises out in the field. Most of these trips occur only once in our lifetime, so better be safe than sorry.
To put it in context, I will use Cordoba in Spain (my hometown) as an example. May is a month of endless festivities in my hometown. This will mean that the streets will be fully crowded, but also brings with it music everywhere. It is also very famous for being one the warmest cities in Spain, so cicadas will always be very present during summer.
Consider also who you travel with. If you are accompanied by someone else, he/she will most likely not understand that even the most subtle footstep can be picked by the mic. Or it may be the case that your friend is tired. I have travelled to the other side of the world with friends and taken a day off them just to go to some areas and record without anyone interrupting me. As long as you are polite and friendly they will understand you.
Keep in mind all those factors and your recording will sound more similar to what you are expecting.
Recording on the go implies portability. We all know how long a day of tourism is. We feel exhausted after walking all day long. Other than that, just the idea of travel brings enough hassles such as baggage allowance, security check or flight connections. Keeping things simple makes it easier.
My gear at home changes a lot compared to what I use abroad. Due to logistics, it is not possible to carry over several microphones, a tripod, a recorder, bags and cables and do tourism at the same time. This is where handheld recorders come to the rescue.
My go-to handheld recorder is the Sony D100 . High quality microphones, battery life and storage are the main reasons. It is a very solid machine that has never let me down. Batteries last for hours and it has 32 GB of built-in flash memory and a SD Card/Memory Stick slot for expandable storage.
I usually combine the D100 with a couple of Mikro Usis or Clippys , by using the stereo mini jack input. This allows me to do stealth field recording without worrying about being spotted. I can focus on the space and respond very quickly when inspiration appears.
Even though the D100 is my favourite choice, any small and easy to carry recorder will do the job. I started out with a Zoom H2n. It is easier to get into the habit of recording if our recorder fits in a small bag. I always say that the best recorder and microphone is the one that you have close by, not the most expensive one.
Stealth field recording is one of my favourite ways to capture sounds. It is unconventional but very rewarding. When you are surrounded by a big crowd in tourist areas such as plazas, churches or museums, taking out a big tripod doesn’t seem to be the smartest idea. We have to go unnoticed, so a small recorder is what we have left.
Stealth recording means that we are recording in a hostile environment. We cannot be seen, otherwise we will compromise the recording. People will behave differently if they know they are being recorded.
In order to do so, I use the gear mentioned above in a bag like the one in this picture.
When recording in less noisy environments (countryside, residential areas, room tones) where other factors may interfere, I use a couple of apps in my phone. Apart from Google Maps, Windy and Flightradar have saved me a lot of times. You can imagine the reason. Bad weather conditions and planes overflying will ruin our recording, unless that is what we are after, of course. Predicting this will save us countless headaches.
” This is just my personal experience. I am sure other field recordists will take different approaches or may even disagree with mine, yet it has worked out for me. I encourage people to start doing field recording while going on vacation. The more you record, the more you know. It is very satisfying! “
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