Mark Smith, with the help of three artists, explains why field recording has the power to shape the world around us.
Field recording has never been a bigger topic of discussion than it is today, but it's also never been so unremarkable. Barely a day goes by without the release of a new techno track containing a vaguely industrial field recording, supposedly adding artistic depth. The use of field recordings has also become formulaic in certain types of minimal house. But no matter your views on its value, it's clear that field recording as a practice—the act of actively listening to your surroundings in an open, exploratory way—can change how you think about sound, music productions and the world at large.
There is no lack of guidance out there for improving any given production technique, but field recording resists technical optimisation. Rather than a lesson in production, field recording offers a lesson in hearing itself. With amateur producers spending so much time honing their skills on specific tasks (for instance, parallel compression or layering) it's all too easy to miss the wood for the trees. It's difficult to overestimate the value of zooming out and looking at sound and listening in a broader way—field recording is one way of breaking out of a habitual mindset.
But what are we talking about specifically when we say "field recording"? The earliest examples were colonial powers documenting their subjects to aid the Western understanding of the world. The impact of access to recordings of non-Western music had a profound influence on music in the 20th century, but it's a story intimately associated with exploitation. It's telling that many key early recordings are connected to state institutions or funded by dynasties like the Rockefellers.
Field recordists used to lug kilos of expensive equipment to the ends of the world, but the miniaturisation of recording technology has made this a thing of the past. While dedicated recordists still journey to far-flung places, field recording has expanded into other contexts. Now when we say field recording, we could be referring to any number of things—such as measuring how human sounds affect the ecology of natural ecosystems. What's more, the field is now virtual: you might be eavesdropping on a Counterstrike argument like M.E.S.H., or covertly recording phone calls like Sam Kidel. If it's a sound occurring out in the world or somewhere online, it's up for grabs.
Field recordings can have effects that aren't even audible. Burial used a recording of a man walking down a street and into a church on "Prayer," but you'd never know that if he hadn't said so. "You can't analyse what the change is," he said, "there's just some change in the air, the air in the tune." He's referring to a perception of presence that operates on a level below consciousness, an instinctual response that affects our mood without us knowing why. In this sense, field recording is a way to manipulate how people feel about music in potentially profound ways.
Field recording opens a Pandora's box of perspectives and begs a million questions, because it sits at the intersection of several powerful forces, such as human perception, history, science and technology. But possibly its most powerful trait is its effect on how you listen. It's striking how effective our ears and minds are at filtering the sounds around us, whether it's traffic noise, wind or entire genres of music. Embarking on a task with the sole purpose of listening is more remarkable than it sounds. It doesn't take long to begin hearing structure within the random sounds of everyday life, injecting utility into objects and occurrences usually considered banal, whether it's the whir of a washing machine or the screech of a train. For some, this change in perspective alters how they relate to the world around them.
It's obvious that field recording isn't best explored dogmatically, so we asked three artists utilising the practice in different ways to share their thoughts and techniques.
Klara Lewis was recently described by Peder Mannerfelt as one of Sweden's only true musical innovators. Despite her relative youth, Lewis has already released two LPs on Editions Mego, presenting spectral landscapes whose sound sources are transformed into unique instruments by her unusual processing techniques.
Kyoka is a Japanese artist affiliated with the Raster-Noton label. Like Lewis, Kyoka has a distinct way with sounds, arranging them into streams of impacts and silences, especially evident on her last EP, SH.
Fis's early output aligned him with the fringes of drum & bass, but he's since become more interested in mass, size and space than genres. His forthcoming album on Subtext is full of crushingly sensitive sound design and further sets the New Zealander into his own inimitable world.
While each has a distinct sound and different approaches, the crossover between them is telling: they all value the active relationship to their surroundings that field recording indoctrinates.
I like the feeling of zooming into the microscopic level of sound. With my earphones on and listening through the recorder, I feel like a small insect. Everything is so big and so many unexpected sounds jump into my world. It's a very different experience to working in a studio. Some people find recording outdoors calming, but I feel like I'm inside a gigantic adventure where you hear things emerging from the invisible.
I started field recording seriously in around 2008. Before that, I was using analogue noise to create a different sense of atmosphere in my recordings. I believed making original music required you to control your sounds from the very beginning, so I avoided soft synths and thought of field recordings as an instrument rather than sounds. But then I met a proper field recording geek with a lot of microphones and recorders. When he talked about field recording, his eyes would light up. After this, I purchased an expensive recorder but realised it wasn't for me. Now I'm happy with a cheaper, more casual setup. The recorder itself can change the artists' expression but I'm not too concerned about having the highest fidelity device. Of course, I trust a nice recorder to capture better quality sounds but I'm more of a music composer. I use other instruments so I might think of a field recording like a vocal sample. It's raw material.
I used to deliberately try and create sounds in the field for specific purposes. For instance, if I wanted a kick drum, I'd go and physically kick something. Now I enjoy finding these sounds by chance. I really like the strange, unstable phase you can get from these recordings. They create a funny atmosphere that doesn't hit you so much as spread out into the air. It gives sounds a dimensionality that a sample can't offer. You can hear this in my last EP for Raster-Noton, this mixture of solid, steady phase sounds with more washy, off-centre signals. It can sound a bit strange on mono club systems but I feel my audience accepts and enjoys it, so I'll keep exploring it. I want natural and unnatural sounds to be balanced in terms of shape and size. Most of my work is about composing in these terms. I want the sounds to go where they want to go.
Some people like to move the microphone around when they're recording to produce spatial effects but generally I keep the recorder still. This also helps to minimise noise. I keep my earphones on and slowly move the mic around to find the nicest sound, and I'll only start recording when I land on something I like. I cut, cut and cut constantly and only take the parts I like. Even so, often when I'm editing the recordings later on, I don't recognise which sounds came from which source. On that note, I tend not to use sounds that betray their origin.
Sometimes I wake up at 4 AM and record the sound of the cars zooming by outside my window. For some reason, sounds always seem stranger to me at night. There's no traffic so you can hear the engine approaching from a long way off and they drive past quite quickly. The way the atmosphere changes is very interesting. It sounds unbelievably futuristic, like a spaceship.
I always found that bringing the outside world into the music-making environment was an easy way for things to feel alive and organic. It also puts you in a mentality of recycling sounds around you. Looking around, listening, picking up on little details and placing them in a completely different context and building something bigger out of it—it's a technique that's always felt nice to me somehow.
The amount of field recordings in each of my tracks varies a lot. If I made a rough guess it'd be about 40% field recordings, 40% sampling and 20% synthetic stuff. I feel like I get blocked when I'm using synths or something like Ableton because of the huge range of possibilities. It's easier for me to have my finite, limited library of field recordings. It's a good challenge to work within self-imposed boundaries, even if some of your recordings aren't the best quality or have sonic disturbances, like wind sounds. I often notice that the recordings with these disturbed elements end up being the most interesting after you've manipulated them.
I edit the sounds so much that I often can't remember what the original source was. It's like building your own instrument. I often play with the speeds and pitches of recordings. This tends to break down the fidelity of the sound to an extent that some people would consider it unusable, but that's often when things start sounding interesting to me. When the recordings start disintegrating and glitching, when they start getting that grainy texture, to me it sounds like a human touch. Obviously I use typical effects too, but I'm generally overloading and maxing them out in different ways.
Sometimes I like countering effects against each other so that they almost cancel each other out. So maybe I'll pitch a recording up in one plug-in and then turn it back down in another. Even though it returns to the original pitch, something has changed. But typically I don't want to be able to hear the effect—I want it to shape the recordings but I don't want to be able to easily discern that this has been flanged and that's been delayed.
I have phases where I record tonnes of stuff and others where I sift through my library. Since I started quite early, I have quite a lot of recordings to sift through. What I end up using depends on how I feel when I listen to it, if something happens to spark the imagination. Often there's a subtle tone or texture that I try to follow, isolate and increase before combining with other things. I never have a plan—it grows out of the way the sounds change when I'm manipulating them. It's a bit of a cliché but I like to listen actively and follow the sound.
Even when I'm not out recording, I find it difficult to turn off this type of focussed hearing. When I finished my first album, I deliberately stopped taking my recorder with me to try and take a break from it. But I think it's nice because it becomes part of your life, it's always around you and you can't switch it off. But this can happen to anyone, it's not some special ability. Some of my friends know I like to use these recordings, and now they come and tell me about sounds they've heard that they thought I might want to use. They started listening in a totally different way and noticing stuff they'd never thought about before.
I think the act of recording changes your environment, and I'm aware of the discourse surrounding this idea. Basically it's to do with the quantum problem of the observer shaping the observed phenomena; that the act of your recording somehow influences the environment you're in. But I think people are more greatly changed by the act of recording than the environment they're trying to capture. You can see how paranoid people get at the sight of a recorder, but I don't think recording something like a metal railing would change the railing.
I think it can change the environment in a different way, by altering how people relate themselves to it. If everybody started noticing these small things, then stuff that's been habitually ignored could become a new form of stimulus and information. Something that could be considered annoying can be remade into something beautiful. For instance, I have a track that is quite sad and intense but there's a recording of my parents' dishwasher in it. This everyday, boring sound became part of something beautiful. That kind of contrast can be interesting because it upsets your typical way of valuing sound.
You know how you get that feeling of being looked at, even if you don't know you're being observed? Quite often you'll catch yourself turning around and instantly looking straight into the eyes of the person who's been looking at you, but you couldn't see them before that point. I think if something's being observed, if someone's paying attention to something, you can start to actually influence and act upon it.
The idea of having this type of presence or energy within recorded music has become interesting to me. This relationship between the observer and the observed is present in traditional field recording, but what I'm doing is a little bit different and might sound a little strange to some. I'm not sure you could even categorise what I'm doing as field recording. It ties into stuff that's personal but it's become a part of how I shape my purpose when I'm making music. It provides grounding for why I'm even bothering to do it. It's a good way for me to be clear and firm about what I'm doing.
I use a pair of Roland CS10EM microphones, which look like a pair of earphones. They're in-ear microphones that take a full spherical, spatial, binaural recording whose quality has always been good enough for my purposes. The idea of using these is to replicate the experience of hearing. So I place these in my ears and make recordings when I meditate. You could do this anywhere. You could be at Burger King. Or on a plane or on the toilet.
I make electronic music from the perspective of working with sound and energy. These kinds of meditation exercises are really good for clarifying exactly what energy and relationship to the world you actually want to have. And I'm experimenting with whether or not I can actually carry that energy through sound in a more direct way. That's what making these recordings has been about. Like a lot of people who work with sound, I feel like it can carry things. When you start meditating more, or just experiencing a kind of inner life and inner engineering, you think about how you're resonating. I think it's natural to start to think about whether sound actually has a way of capturing and then passing on your own personal frequency.
Lately I've tried inserting the recordings into my music to see if the sense of presence and energy can become part of it. At this stage, I just want to experiment with whether the recording captured during the meditation actually influences what happens after it's inserted into the composition process. It's been quite exciting to feel a reciprocal kind of conversation going on between what a sound world is revealing energetically and what you're feeling while you're making music. They feed into and against each other into a mutually elevating ping pong. It just feels nice and it's inspiring from a creative point of view.
It makes sense to want evidence for something, but I'm not really interested in saying whether or not these meditations cause empirically measurable changes in sound waves. It's not because I'm not interested, but because it's all good either way. If there's someone out there who can speak to these things from experience, then let's hear it. At the moment, what I'm working on operates on more of an intuitive level, of noticing or observing things. That's where the experience of being conscious and generating topics actually happens.
When I'm listening back to the recording, I'm not really deconstructing it or analysing any perception of there being narrative movements. I'm just feeling it. You could almost see the recordings as an infinite room. You meditate on creating an infinite room that is always welcoming to anyone who comes into contact with your music, now or in the future. And that presence is always going to be there in the music for the listener from that point onwards. It's an energetic fingerprint.