Sound Design For Visual Media - Tutorial Notes Ep05
Episode 05: Field Recording Tips, Editing & Mastering
In this episode we’re gonna go out and do some field recordings, then we’re gonna come back to Reaper, Edit and master them, then add them to our library for future use. I'll also show you my field recording template, some custom actions, my recording journal, and tons more!
Why field recording and not libraries?
In past episodes we talked about using libraries, but libraries alone shouldn’t be your source for sounds. First of all, original sounds are always preferred. Some bigger films have a budget set aside to record all original files, but beyond that, it’s more badass if you ask me. Admittedly, certain sounds are hard to acquire, but certain other sounds are arguably easier to record than to rummage through libraries for hours trying to find, like if you need the sound of drawers opening and closing, you can check libraries, or you could just grab a mic and record your own drawers opening and closing. Same applies for finding sounds of New York Ambiences when you live in New York. Just go outside for 45 minutes. It’ll do you good!
Field Recording trips are also really fun! You grab your best gear, your best sound pals and you go to different places to record. I’ve done field recordings all over the world, In Turkey, East Asia, and here in Canada. I’ve gone to shooting ranges, helipads, airports, forests, lakes, you name it!
These days with COVID going on, those trips are on pause, but I still carry a recorder with me anywhere, and record constantly. Even within a few miles from your house there’s tons of stuff you can record and use in films, from BG tracks of traffic, rain, or general supermarket ambiences, to sounds you can design with, like crazy construction noises, room tones, and so on.
Every field recording task comes with unique challenges, but with these general tips you can at least go on your first field recording trip, which is your homework for this week! Also remember that field recording is not a guaranteed success. I’ve gone on 3-day field recording expeditions where most of what I recorded was unusable, which is why you need to plan ahead. You can’t rely on field recordings to go perfectly and give you everything you need, when you have tight deadlines. You plan ahead and you record tons of stuff, and that way when a film comes up you are ready to go. A good rule of thumb is to allow two weeks before needing a sound to record it, so you can leave room for failure, weather conditions, and so on. You also need time to edit & master them! Field Recordings are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get!
Things you want to avoid with Field Recording:
-Handling Noise: Handling noise is what it sounds like. It’s the noise introduced by you holding the microphone, as your skin rubs on the body of the mic, it sends vibrations up through the body to the mic, which gets captured. When possible, you want to place your mic down, hang it from something, or use a boom pole. I have a gorilla pod which I take with my recorder. It reduces but doesn’t eliminate handling noise, but also allows me to set it down on the ground, or wrap it around something.
-"Magic" Layers: A recording with too many types of sound present in it has very little use. You don’t want to record the sound of traffic, rain, wind, people walking, and talking, all in the same audio file. You want to capture these sounds one by one so you can layer them based on the film you’re working on.
Note: Some things are hard to separate, you can’t record thunder without getting the rain, but other things require good timing to record. Record rain at night when there are no cars. Record wet car tires after It has stopped raining, so you can get the wet tire sound, but no rain.
-Best times to record: For ambiences, the quieter times are best to go recording. Late at night or early in the morning. In busier times, it’s likely that you can’t get a pure enough recording to serve as a good ambience track, but you can record specs, just cut up various sounds you hear and you can use them to spice up your more levelled-out BG Tracks.
-No Music: You don’t want to record in cafes, malls, or any indoor environment where music is playing. Music in a record makes it unusable in films unless you clear the rights for it, which is a pain. Furthermore, your director may want to put music of their own in the film, and not something random you recorded somewhere.
-Be ready for anything: Field recordings are done in the field, obviously, meaning it’s not a controlled environment. Sudden loud sounds, unwanted noise or many other undesirable noise may occur, so you need to prepare for them. Record more than you need, don’t set your levels as hot as possible for safety, and always put a lot of consideration to where you record. You want to also position your mic away from any movement and noise source that moves. If you are recording people walking, you don’t want people to walk by the mic, you want to get the overall sound from a safe distance.
-The 10-to-1 rule: You always need to record for way longer than the duration of the sound you need. For a 1-minute BG recording, you need at least 10 minutes, and for one usable sound effect, you need at least 10. If it happens that 5 are usable, great!
Note: When recording in indoor spaces or businesses, you got to be nice, respectful and always ask if it’s okay to record. In fact if you scratch a business’ back, you can probably get them to do stuff for you, like open a bit early when it’s less crowded, or even turn off the music so you can use the recording!
Field Recording Journal
I keep a field recording journal. On it, I have a wishlist for sounds I need, but also I document what I’ve recorded. It looks like this:
My field recording journal from April 2019. It has 5 fields: File Name, Description, Details, Mic & Wishlist.
In file name, I just add the name of the file as is on my recorder. Writing these manually is a pain, so this is my procedure:
-Go to finder, select all your raw recordings, and press ⌘C to copy.
-Open TextEdit and press ⌥⌘⇧V to ‘Paste and Match Style’. Normal pasting will give you the files. Paste and Match style gives you their names.
-You will see that they all have their formats written, so in text Edit I can go to Edit>Find>Find and Replace (or hit ⌥⌘F) and then in the search bar above, I put their format (.WAV) and without typing anything into the replace box, I click on All.
-Then I select all the names and paste them to my Google Sheet Field Recording Journal. You can download this here.
In Description I, well, describe what I hear! I do this while listening to the audio, often on my phone and on my commute back from the recording trip.
In details I will include file type (Stereo, Mono, Ambisonics), sample rate and bit depth. I also include the mic type I used.
In wishlist, whenever I have an idea or there's a specific sound I need, I take note, and try to find that sound in my next trip.
Every month I start a new recording journal to avoid cluttering. Simple Make a copy of a previous journal, then erase all the rows after one, or save a blank version as a template.
In Reaper, I have my Field Recording Template and my Field Recording toolbar. It looks like this:
My Field Recording Editing Template. Raw Tracks go on 1-8 Raw after being cut up, Then they move to DSP for Basic EQ & Compression. Then they get Normalized and sent to Mastering Tracks. Final rendered files and their raw counterparts end up in the Bin Track, but not deleted!
In the RAW Group, I import my Raw audio. As I listen to the track, I quickly chop up the recordings. For example, when I record car by sounds, I will put single car by sounds on one track, multiple ones on another, all the quiet parts on one so I can use as BG, and any extra sounds go on their own channel. Everything that’s unusable gets delete. With one listening I already have a bunch of sounds I can cut together.
Then the sounds get EQ’ed and Compressed then send to 1-8 DSP tracks. I use a custom action for this as you will see in the video.
At this point, they will be named by the raw audio file name, plus the word glued. I rename them here to what the sound is, check it one more time and add fades if needed. For loopable sounds obviously you don’t add fades and you make sure to cut your file start and end times right at a zero crossing. I got a loopable one-minute BG track from my recording session, which I edited, but ultimately cut out of the video for time. You can still download it below and check it out. I will cover this in a rapid-fire Reaper tutorials next week! All the other sounds I mastered will be available below!
After that, another custom action takes care of normalizing and rendering the item into my library, and then taking all 3 versions of the sound (Raw, DSP, & Normalized) and puts them in the bin track. They will be on top of each other, but you can use the command ‘Show overlapping items in lanes’ to see them on top of each other. By doing this I know what sounds I’ve already finished mastering, but I don’t delete them.
Note: Mastering Field Recordings and Music are totally different things. In Field Recordings it’s mostly normalizing. You want to Normalize your entire library files to -0.1dB, so that when they are on a track with the fader at zero, the sound peaks at 0 (ish) and if I turned it down 12dB then it peaks at 12dB.
So your homework this week would be to get some field recordings if you have the gear. If not, and you want to work on films, it’s definitely a worthwhile investment that quickly pays for itself and then some!
Field Recording Gear Below are some common field recording gear types from the affordable and portable to the super decked-out. Portable and affordable doesn’t always mean bad. They are simply portable. That said, the best gear is always gonna give you the best sound the smoothest workflow, at the expense of weight.
We discussed production sound gear in Episode 00, and field recording gear is basically the same stuff. I highly encourage to do further reading on this by going to the blog post for episode 00, but I will briefly review some things.
To do field recordings, you will need 4 things:
-A recording device
Back in the day, a Mixer and a recorder were two separate devices. The mixer would provide phantom power and allow us to set levels and send different signals to different channels. That would then be plugged in to a recording device that simply burned the audio onto a file. So you would connect you mic to the mixer, the mixer to the recorder and record away.
These days, there are a lot of combination mixer and recording devices like the Zoom F-8 which is beast of a device. I myself have the Zoom L-12, which is similar to F-8 but has faders. I use it for both live music recording and field recording applications, but it definitely has some drawbacks compared to the F-8 like no feature to record multiple formats, and severe sample rate and bit depth limitations. All in all though, it’s a good combination interface, recording device and mixer.
Zoom L-12 Recorder, Mixer & Interface. I use this for Live Music and Field Recordings, as well as my secondary Audio Interface.
There are even devices that provide ultimate portability by combining a mixer, recording device and microphone in one small device. Zoom H4n, Zoom H6 and the recently released H8 are such devices. I’ve not used H8 but both H4 and H6 are solid devices with tons of capabilities and priced under $300. My portable gear, the Zoom H3-VR is an ambisonics mic. Unlike H4 and H6, it doesn’t allow for connecting extra mic inputs, but on the flip-side, comes with 4 mics in ambisonics array, and allows for Ambisonics A, B, Binaural, as well as stereo recordings. Overall I like it a lot and at $320 it’s the cheapest ambisonics mic in the market, but it also suffers from some limitations both in conversion software and in terms of handling noise being a large issue. However, if you have a Gorilla pod, it works.
My Zoom H3-VR in the wild!
In the more high end of the spectrum, you find devices like Zoom F-8, or Sound Devices MixPre series, which offer tons of functionality and as many channels as you want, as combo Recording/Mixing Devices. However, you do need to also buy your own Microphones.
Sound Devices MixPre10, the very top of the line!
If you are looking at field recordings as a career path, you need a variety of different mics for different uses, but also for capturing the same sounds with multiple microphones. Some of the most popular microphones are: Rode NTG Series for indoor spaces, EarthWorks Microphones for outdoors, or the Shure SM57 for loud sound Effects. This is a whole topic onto its own but those few names should get you started!
A tripod, Gorilla pod, Boom pole, or a mic stand is necessary so you don't have to hold the mic and introduce handling noise.
You also need a headlamp for late recordings. You need tons of batteries and SD cards to power your devices and record audio.
Finally, I recommend buying Billiard Gloves for when you have to hold your mic, their soft and slippery cloth reduces handling noise drastically!
So that's it for today! Next week we will dive deep into EQing and Compression, or as like to call them, the salt and Pepper of Audio Production!
Here's the video for episode 5 below:
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