Tired of stale-sounding tracks? Then stop using stale-sounding samples — after all, the 808-style kick/handclap-as-snare thing has been done to death.
The same goes for VEH3 Synths Root C 238 stabs, lo-fi trumpet samples, KSHMR Short Fill No. 2, and anything that sounds like a high-pitched "woooh." Truth be told, any commercially available sample library becomes passé once everybody starts using it.
The easiest solution to this problem is to create your own custom samples. And one of the most inspiring ways to make this happen is to step outside your studio.
In this post, we'll explore how to capture field recordings, as well as creative ways for you to use them in your own productions.
What's a Field Recording?
Before we dive into capturing field recordings, we should first define the term. In essence, a field recording is any audio that's captured outside of your studio.
Field recording is a vital part of both sound design and foley work (foley = the addition of recorded sound effects after the shooting of a film), and it's a great way to add character and authenticity to your productions. Best of all, every sound you capture will be uniquely yours — nobody else will have access to them.
Where to Capture a Field Recording
The first thing you need to do when capturing a field recording is to decide on a location. You'll want to find a place that has interesting acoustics, with minimal background noise, and that’s safely accessible.
Natural environments, such as the woods or the beach are a treasure trove of interesting sounds. Thunderstorms are another great source of organic sonic textures and ambiences.
Urban settings, such as street scenes, crowded markets, and train stations are replete with attention-grabbing ear candy. Construction sites are especially cool, enabling you to craft the most authentic-sounding industrial music possible.
You can also find all sorts of compelling sounds around your own house. Drop flatware on a table, scrape metal objects together, stomp your feet, creak a door, ping on a drinking glass — there's an endless array of sounds in every environment.
How to Capture a Field Recording
If you want to capture high-quality field recordings, you need a high-quality signal chain, just as you would in your studio.
The most complex — and arguably effective — solution would be to employ a portable audio interface, a compatible laptop or smart device, and an appropriate selection of microphones.
Your audio interface will ideally be bus - or battery-powered, enabling you to roam freely without worrying about plugging into an AC outlet. As for microphones, you'll probably want a shotgun mic for distance miking, as well as a pair of small-diaphragm condensers for capturing stereo sources.
An alternative to a full-blown audio interface/computer setup is to use a portable field recorder, like the Zoom's series of Handy Recorders. These devices capture sound with a quality that rivals a studio setup — directly to an SD card — and they often include built-in microphones and other features field recordists will find incredibly useful.
One of the biggest sonic hurdles when capturing outdoor recordings is getting rid of unwanted wind noise. Therefore, you'll want to invest in a foam windscreen and/or a "dead cat" windjammer to ensure clean-sounding audio.
You'll also need a high-quality set of closed-back headphones, so you can monitor your recordings in real-time. This will ensure that the sound you capture sounds the same as what you're hearing in the real world.
How to Process Your Samples
Once you've accumulated a cool-sounding library of unique sounds, then the real fun begins: the sound designing. During this stage, you'll use all the processing tools at your disposal to augment, sculpt, and mangle your samples into never-before-heard masterpieces.
There are many creative ways to process your samples:
Compression and Gating will allow you to sculpt the envelope — the attack and release — of your sound. Whether you want a sound to be punchy and sustaining or short and rhythmic, a compressor and a gate are the right tools for the job.
Time stretching will allow you to take any sound and make it either sustaining and ambient or choppy and percussive.
Pitch shifting will allow you to completely alter the feel of a sound. This can lend an otherworldly quality to a sample, and you can even build melodies out of it.
Layering more than one sample together is a great way to build unique, one-of-a-kind sounds that nobody else has thought of. A croaking frog layered with a jackhammer? Hey, why not!
EQ and filters allow you to isolate certain sounds in your recording by filtering out frequencies. You can also highlight specific frequencies to create interesting sounds that couldn't possibly exist in the real world.
Reverb and delay add depth and dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional sound. The sky's the limit — don't be afraid to experiment with densities, reflections, and other settings you wouldn't normally use.
Distorting a sound is another great way to mangle it beyond recognition, while also thickening it, adding character, and rounding off sharp transients.
Slicing a sound into bits and placing the pieces in a nonsensical order is an effective way to inject it with an ear-grabbing unpredictability.
Modulation, such as chorus, flanging, phasing, or an LFO is a terrific way to add movement to your sound.
Auto pan effects can add movement and stereo width to your sounds. You can also pan random hits to create a mind-bending effect.
Sidechain sustained sounds like pads and drones to clean up your mix and minimize frequency conflicts.
Reversing a sound is a great way to transform it from ordinary to "how did they do that?". Reversing a sound and combining the result with other effects will really take it over the top.
Moreover, apply automation in your DAW to add movement, control effects, and introduce variation into your sounds.
Applications for Your Samples
After you've manipulated and mangled your field recordings into interesting samples, it's time to apply the samples to your productions. Don't be afraid to think outside the box — your samples can be used in a zillion unorthodox ways.
For example, any short sample can be pitched downward and used as a kick drum. Likewise, any blast of white noise can function as a snare.
A long, sustaining sample can be repurposed as a synth pad. Or you can layer your sounds with existing synth patches to give them new textures.
You can also import your created sounds into a sampler instrument, such as Native Instruments Kontakt, UVI Falcon, AIR Structure, Apple Logic EXS 24 mkII, Ableton Sampler, or an MPC or other hardware unit, and play them like musical instruments.
If you've captured an interesting atmosphere or ambience, transform it into drone or soundscape at a low volume to add fullness to your production and fill in gaps in your arrangement.
Add real-world percussive elements to your beats. For example, you could accent your rhythm section with stomps, handclaps, and industrial machinery to really make it pop.
You could also use sounds as transition effects. For example, reverse a sample of an airplane taking off, add an upward fade, then process it with effects and use it as a riser.
At the end of the day, you want your productions to stand out from the rest of the pack. And you can't do that if your music sounds exactly like everyone else's.
Keep following our blog, and we’ll keep providing you with creative and inspiring ideas that are guaranteed to help you level up your production skills.