Every time you hear a non-human sound in a movie, TV show, or a game, it might be the ghost of your grandfather trying to communicate with you from beyond the grave. Or, more likely, it might be the work of a field recordist. They are the people who go out of the studio to record natural sounds of streams, trees, animals, you name it. We never really think about them, but without field recordists, every piece of media you own would sound off and Michael Winslow would probably be a billionaire. I reached out to some of those sound specialists to learn more about their jobs, and this is what they told me:
Field Recordists Need To Often Channel Steve Irwin
With our modern technology, we are able to record the sound of a claustrophobic mosquito having a meltdown in an underground bunker half a mile underground. But the quality of it wouldn’t be too great. Definitely not good enough to put in a sound effect library. That’s why, when Dawid was recording nature sounds for his company, Soundholder, he had to get right into Mother Nature’s face, and one time she looked back.
“In 2015 I was recording stags in the forest. It was a special time, during their rutting season. I’ve set up my gear in very tall grass. I also put a big blanket to see all the ticks coming into my direction, since this location was known for huge amount of parasites. As I was listening to all the roars, I’ve got a little scared with a close-up sound, coming out from my headphones.”
“I quickly stood up and ended up staring at the eyes of big stag 2 meters from me. Thankfully those animals are very easy to scare, and few seconds later he disappeared in the forest.”
Few other jobs let you get this close to nature, and one of them usually involves a gun. So field recording sounds like the perfect job for nature lovers. But you really need to LOVE nature because in some cases, you’re going to be surrounded by more of it than you can handle.
“In 2015 I had an opportunity to record wild Eurasian Cranes in their natural habitat,” Dawid recalls. “It was a big colony, more than 1000 birds singing at the same time. I was completely unprepared for the conditions I had to work with. I set up my gear when the pond was empty, one hour before the birds flew back to spend the night in their secure location. I was knee deep in mud, with thousands of mosquitoes biting me constantly. I’ve spent 2h there, before I gave up and went back to my car where we were sleeping, to repeat the process in the morning.”
“My gear was covered in mud, I was wet and covered in mosquito bites, but I’ve gathered some interesting material.”
The Job Presents Some… Unusual Challenges
“The police showing up can sometimes be a problem,” Carl admits. “People see you with your equipment and get suspicious. It’s a lot of devices with wires strapped to your chest etc. It can be misconstrued. It’s usually fine when they arrive, we get along … then it’s a lot of apologizing. Most productions I work with they take care of it, though.”
Then there are the fires to worry about.
“My mic windscreen caught on fire once.”
“We were covering a cooperage, the making of wine casks and whiskey barrels and part of the process is the burn, the scorch inside of the barrel. So the cameraman and I are near the barrel when they light it up and a swirling hurricane of fire launches out of the barrel and my furry mic windscreen caught on fire. I had to get a new fur cover for it. It smelled terrible. The mic was OK.”
Dealing with the police and sudden fire hurricanes? Throw in a cape into the mix and field recording would almost start to sound like being a superhero. It would if it wasn’t for the other shit, by which I mean literal shit. During one of Carl’s jobs, he had to get the sound of flies buzzing around a pile of manure so that’s what he found and aimed his mic at one time:
“I recorded poop.”
“Or rather the flies around it. The camera was pointed at horse manure and the client wanted the sound of buzzing flies but they didn’t sound good. So I got bumblebee sounds instead and hopefully that’s what they used.” Unfortunately, the client later commented that it sounded like shit.
It Can Be Pretty Dangerous
“In 2016 I was recording a sound library called River Flow,” Dawid recalls. “It was a compilation of sounds emitted by rivers. It was winter, and I ended up deep in the forest, few minutes after the sun showed on the horizon. I was recording a wide stream surrounded by frozen water … Ice turned out to be thinner than I assumed, and I ended up in cold running water, during winter in temperature well below 0’C. I had to go back, about 2km to my car, through the snow in wet shoes and trousers,” and I wasn’t planning on making another superhero analogy so soon but the same thing did also happen to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins so…
Tim, another recording specialist I talked to, also had a close call with Mother Nature while working for some scientists in Costa Rica. They were doing an animal survey and one of the ways to easily find out what species are living in the area is by sound, especially during the so-called “dawn chorus,” the time when animals like birds and monkeys start their activity. And apparently the first thing they do in the morning is just start yelling and making noises because *sniff* animals really are just like us. Tim takes it from there:
“There were rumors of Jaguars and some other big cats in the area, but they had only been seen on remote camera traps.”
“On one particular morning, I happened to walk by a camera trap and trigger it. No big deal, I’d done that before and the people doing the camera logging would always get so disappointed when the only picture would be of me. But less than 30 seconds later, a Jaguar walked by in the same direction. I never heard it, and I never saw it. I don’t ever feel like I’m in danger with animals, and if it’s my time, then I get to go out being in a (hopefully) cool location.”
That is actually a very admirable way of thinking. It shows just how much field recordists value their work and the world of nature. It’s kind of beautiful. But it’s also nature, so another time, when Tim was camouflaged and recording a bunch of bison, one right next to him “took a massive shit, I mean, I could hear the stomach gurgle. It was gross and so so funny and just an amazing recording.”