Stepping away from the studio and computer screen is worth doing now and then, and you might think it'd signal the end of your sound exploration. That's not the case - there's literally a world of sound available to us everywhere we go; be it in the home, the city centre or out in nature - available to record with no sound design skills or production courses required! You'll uncover different rhythms of life in every corner of the globe, all of which are immensely rewarding to find and can be extremely creative tools for your music.
A wide range of affordable portable recorders are available to capture sounds along the way, with all kinds of phone apps and portable devices out to go as far as producing outdoors! You'll find your own, personal....sound source in the most unassuming places, with tones and textures beyond the limitations of an oscillator, MIDI, or CV. The recorded sounds form a strong personal bond with you and your experiences making them - prepare to find beauty in everyday life!
Get What You Need
Finding equipment for found sound can be as simple or elaborate as you want to go. Most mobile phones today are capable of recording sounds, and there are numerous applications which will not only allow you to record and playback sounds (such as Koala Sampler) but even sequence and expand on those ideas. Andrew Huang has a history of vast dexterity using found sounds, and his Flip sampler is essentially a sampler, mixer, and DAW for them:
Going the more high-tech route, both Zoom and Tascam offer a selection of handy recording devices suited to a range of needs. The dinky Zoom H1 has been gradually improved upon over the years to become an affordable and highly-portable stereo recorder, which does all you will need to get started. The Tascam DR-05 is a little bigger, but more sturdy and small enough to put in a bag or pocket without too much hassle. The more hard-wearing H4N / H4N Pro is a little less portable but does offer 2 XLR inputs for external mics, multi-track recording and alternative mic positions - while conveniently resembling a taser, which makes going through customs way more exciting!
Low-fidelity devices like the Pocket Operator KO with it's built-in mic offer excellent experimental possibilities, making kitchen techno or garage...garage instantly using the on-board sequencer. The trusty contact (piezo) mic is one of the most versatile types of microphone you will ever use and incredibly cheap - see them in action below. Adding a microphone to devices like the Novation Circuit Rhythm is a great way to add your own natural grooves on a dedicated studio grade-groove box, anywhere you go!
Look no further than your own home or studio space to discover some incredible sounds. Resonant objects like bowls are great - anything with a circular or conical shape will normally emit a tonal sound, while a host of different materials like wood, metal, glass and plastic will have their own qualities. Sometimes all you need is a stapler or aerosol can for the best snare ever! Here's Hainbach exploring the the surprising musicality of vintage German knobs:
When seeking out sounds to record, we don't have to limit ourselves to individual sounds - recording the ambience or atmosphere or a space for a longer duration can also be rewarding and sonically powerful. A foyer in a large hotel reception, an art space or an indoor arena all have their own characters and moods embedded in the reflections - there's a reason why some bands used to record drums in the stairwell!
Slow textures like scrapes, scratches and abrasions work really well when layered with conventional drum sounds for more energy. You'll find the sounds of nature are particularly engrossing as well as having a calming quality. Here's Kristoffer Lislegaard recording the sound of water in Norway:
Here he is again using contact mics to record the sound of a tree in the wind. Water, fire, snow, and ice are all excellent sound sources with their own clicks, crackles and crunch! Finding great sounds in unusual places will always surprise you; let's stay in Scandinavia to hear the otherworldly sounds of skating on ice:
We often filter sounds out without knowing - a good example of this is when we're in a busy space with a friend and we focus in on what they're saying while shifting focus away from the surrounding commotion. You'll be surprised by the heightened experience of sounds when the headphones are on - a tapestry of noises reveal themselves, in an unfiltered and candid way akin to listening from someone else's ears. Perhaps there's something there you missed earlier...
Sound artist and producer Kyoka uses fragments of found sound in her compositions and art pieces - she is very fond of the process of recording, and recalled to me a time she was recording in a busy space and followed the sound of a bird which was otherwise inaudible in the chaos of a city. Here she is exploring noise with Ableton:
Voices are another source of found sound: the roar of a crowd, the unified screams emitted on a roller coaster or the gentle babbling of a tea room on a Sunday. Voices individually and in groups offer you a range of sounds across the full range of the frequency spectrum. In a sound piece by sound artist Hannah Kemp-Welch, she uses snippets of radio transmissions at the time of social distancing – making a compilation of CQ calls between amateurs, international stations, met reports, naval communications and continuous wave code. Entitled Receive-Transit-Receive, it's a mesmerizing audio relic, which takes us on a journey around the minds of people during a very strange time.
If you do take your recorder out into public, it's worth mentioning that (like taking photos), some people may not be comfortable with being recorded so be aware of allowing people privacy - this is not an exercise in disruption, quite the opposite! Being in balance with the surroundings always makes for better recordings.
We're not limited to audible sounds either - those which are out of our range of hearing can be picked up too, like electromagnetic waves. A number of these have been explored by Simon James aka SimonSound, most notably in his Shenzen Electronics Markets project. Even a secret radar isn't off limits when it comes to electro magnetic recordings, as evidenced by LonerShy in the video below:
Tim Exile once took the opportunity to record sounds of the data centres of the Large Hadron Collider, and turn them into a live performance in this unique TedTalk in Cern, Switzerland:
Using Found Sounds
Once you have the sounds recorded, they're there to be used in whatever creative means you choose. Playing sounds backwards, adding effects or re-pitching them will add some new magic - try layering octaves of the same sound for more impact and gravity! Using a single sound as an instrument is also a completely viable option - here is ELPHNT sharing some ideas on creating instruments from found sounds:
During his 'Against The Clock' for FactMag, Rival Consoles uses a textural sound in a way I'd never even considered before - converting the sustained crackles and crunch into textured one shot sounds.
I once had access to a farm toolshed one summer, and a friend had by chance brought a Zoom H4N with him. We used it to record all kinds of mechanical tools, equipment, petrol tanks, railings, gates and machinery, which eventually turned into Junkyard Percussion which I released with Loopmasters in 2013. Never would I ever have expected that the sounds we made would have been possible to release professionally...and as Drum & Bass! It remains one of my best loved and collections:
So, field recording and found sounds offer you a world of sonic experimentation, all provided completely for free by the world around us! Making a collection of recordings is not only a great way to capture the feeling of a place or scene and use it to embellish your music - it's also a wonderful archive to listen back to, packed with the intangible essence of a place or time fused within it. It'll get you out of the studio for a while too!
If you're interested in more sound adventures, I highly recommend Trevor Cox's book Sonic Wonderland, where he explores some of the strangest and most iconic natural sounds across the globe. As evidenced in the video below from Free To Use Sounds, field recording can not only inspire you musically, it can actually change your life!
What are some of your favorite or most surprising found sounds?
What equipment do you use to record with?
For Digitakt, Digitone and Syntakt
Music Stats for nerds
Massive sonic experience from Alexander Hacke
Digital heart, analogue filters