Just last week, I came home to find my brand new Zoom H4n Handy Recorder on the doorstep. Initial dickings-around revealed that it operates exactly as expected, no worse and no better, except that, against my assumption, those crossed microphones on top don't move. (But now that I consider it, why would I want to move them?) So, you ask, why did I drop the 300 bucks on such a device? To make some sort of radio, you probably answer. And that I'll use it to record mobile interviews and the like is a partially correct guess — its twin XLR jacks significantly helped in the choice over its competitors — but I'm also looking to produce field recordings. Er, listening. Listening to produce field recordings.See, field recordings, for those not in the know, are the new ambient — or at least that's what this one obscure British blog told me. I think it makes a certain sort of sense that one can, when properly equipped, find and capture equally interesting naturally-occurring sonic textures in the wild as they could painstakingly assemble in the studio. (Former Marketplace of Ideas guest) Lawrence English releases some of the better modern field recordings I've heard; please enjoy this link to "Terminal Motor", a sample cut from his all-field-recording album Studies for Stradbroke. EARLabs posts as decent a coverage of field recording releases as I've found. Low Light Mixes once put out an eminently returnable-to field recording mix.
My hands quaking to get out there and field-record, I immediately put on my headphones, fired up the H4n and spent the evening walking all the way down Garden street to the very end of Stearn's Wharf. Along the way, I managed to snag an ambulance, a whole bunch of regular cars, snatches of conversation in four or five languages, joggers, televisions in nearby homes, a freeway, pier sounds, the Pacific Ocean and the background music of several crab joints. Unfortunately, when I checked to see that everything had recorded correctly, I found it hadn't recorded at all. D'oh.
But the night was still young! I decided to get what I could and field-record my journey back home via State street, on which roughly 70% of the stuff that happens in downtown Santa Barbara happens. I caught fountains, music, hobo confabs, arguments, all that sort of thing. You, too, can be transported to a Thursday night State street by donning your headphones and downloading.
Some lessons I learned about field recording from this early experiment:
- Walk slower. My normal walking speed turns out to be about three times faster than would make for optimal sound-capturing. You can't really experience the sound of anything when you dart past it.
- Aim for the interesting. I kept the mic positioning simple for this recording: hold it at chest level and point wherever I look. With some finesse, thought, it's possible to strategically angle toward whatever looks like it's going to produce a fascinating sound — if, indeed, it is possible for something to look like it's going to sound a certain way. (Most of the way through my walk, I found myself tilting toward streaming water, fighting couples and a three-legged pug I hoped would bark or something.)
- Secure your headphone cord and pocket change somehow. They make sounds! Sometimes interesting sounds, yes, but not ones you'd choose to effectively loop for half an hour. (Unless you would.)