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Ambient Academy. Field Recordings

Brian Eno experimenting with tapes, 1970s

Field Recordings are one of the foundations of ambient. When Brian Eno first started his sound experiments, he liked to mix together various recordings of environmental sounds on two reel-to-reel tape recorders. And at the dawn of the digital age of sound recording, tons of CDs and audio cassettes were released with classical or light instrumental music with the addition of natural sounds (the sound of the sea, birdsong, etc.).

Today, almost more than half of modern music called ambient uses field recordings in one form or another. Indeed, the sonic potential of field recordings is inexhaustible. No two raindrops sound alike, as the attentive ear will detect, R. Murray Schafer notes.

Speaking of field recordings in musical practice, it is also worth noting what positive effect the recording process does. Clairaudience is a state when all attention with maximum concentration goes into the process of listening to surrounding sounds. Listening must be learned, it can be learned, and one of the most effective ways to develop the ability to listen is through the practice of field recording. For the Indians of North America, the ability to silently listen to the surrounding sound space was a necessity and a natural skill. When in a dense forest the eyes can see no more than a few steps ahead and danger can lie in wait behind any tree, the ability to listen saves lives. But modern man, as a rule, is not accustomed to listening and prefers to speak or focus on visual images.

So, as soon as we take a stereo recorder and go in search of sound landscapes, we will encounter the first difficulty that we are used to not noticing in ordinary life. This is noise pollution. The sounds of cars can be heard even in the woods if we don't go far enough. The rumble of air conditioners, the sound of airplanes, the sirens of firefighters and police cars – all these sounds not only become an obstacle to the sound hunter but also negatively affect birds and other living creatures, who are less willing to produce their natural sounds due to an increased sense of danger caused by human-made noise.

Removing noise from the recording of a birdsong

In some cases, you can find a way out by using an equalizer in the studio. For example, birdsong sounds in high registers, and the noise of the freeway in the distance will occupy predominantly low frequencies. Thus, by removing the lows, you can get rid of noise pollution and use in your mix a clean recording of birdsong from the trails closest to your house. But this method will not help if the sounds we record are in the same register as the noise pollution. However, the use of an equalizer is necessary in any case, not only to eliminate unwanted overtones but also to make the recording more expressive.

Again, unwanted sounds in one case may become the desired sound material in another. Field recordings can include not only sounds of nature, but also any man-made sounds, the soundscape of a city, or even sounds recorded inside an ordinary house (for example, the sound of a washing machine, creaking floorboards, the hum of a refrigerator, etc.). So, you don't have to go out into the field to get field recordings.

Modern sound recording devices allow you to get high-quality sound material even with a small budget. But the lack of basic skills can ruin the recording even with expensive professional equipment. One of the most important rules is not to hold the recorder in your hands while recording. Use a tripod, stand, or optional holder. Any subtle movement of the fingers can add unwanted sounds, clicks, or noise to the recording that you may not even notice until you arrive at the studio with the recorded material.

Also, remember to wear a windscreen over the microphone if you are recording outdoors. Even a slight and imperceptible gust of wind can ruin your recording. Of course, you can then try to remove unpleasant wind noise with the help of an equalizer or simply cut it out, thus sacrificing most of the recording, but isn't it easier to just take care of the wind protection beforehand?

To sum up, use an equalizer, don't hold a recorder in your hands, and don't forget about the windscreen – these are three simple, but very important rules for working with field recordings. And most importantly, listen carefully and develop clairaudience. Not only is it good for ear development, but also for mental health and balance.


Sebby Kowal – Take This Moment (2022) Text by Dionis Afonichev (Dionisaf)

More ambient music with sounds of nature in our Spotify playlist


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