Beginner’s guide to ambient field recording by SMOKE THIEF

These are just my thoughts on field recording. IMO there are two types:

  1. Intentional
  2. Opportunistic

In intentional recording, you go out seeking sounds armed with a full rig. This rig is something that you’ll spend a lifetime trying to upgrade. In opportunistic recording, the sounds find you and you record them with whatever tools are most convenient at that point in time.

Both of these approaches are insanely valuable artistically. Let’s go into a little more detail.

In intentional recording you really want the best recording gear you can get. When you’re actively travelling to locations, you’ll often have heartwarming listening experiences, it might be the warm glissando of harmonics of a running river or the shared notes of conversation between two birds calling across a forest to each other.

In my experience, no matter what positioning techniques you try, you won’t quite capture the full depths of your experiences with budget equipment. That said, even small upgrades will make a difference and it’s something you can keep working to improve.

A good minimal setup for intentional recording is

  1. A recorder with proper pre-amps – these usually record onto SD or CF cards, the latter seem old now, but they’re still perfectly respectable in this field and both formats handle hi-res file formats well.
  2.  Usually at least two quality mics, to allow creative use of microphone positionings (see useful chart here).In pre-amps and recorders – the name to look out for is Sound Devices, these are the film and audio industry gold standard and they cost a pretty penny. Even when buying used most of these babies, like the 744T, cost at least around 1500$. That’s because they don’t cut corners making their pre-amps, and without decent pre-amps, your mics are kind of being cheated on – the message they’re trying to convey gets lost in cheap components. Now, obviously not everyone has money for a 744T, so you may want to look at something more mid-range, but it’s definitely going to take you above the $300 mark to get something more tasty – Fostex, Roland and Tascam seem to be the most popular makers of mid-range recorders.
    Me experimenting with Rode NT-5s and a Tascam DR-680

    When it comes to mics,  there are a lot of choices, if you’re going after a very focused source, shotgun mics are popular and if you’re trying to capture more immersive sounds, paired stereo cardoid or omni design mics are usually the way to go as they let you play with the sense of space/stereo width. Ideally you’re going to want to look at something mid-range for your first purchase, Rode, Shure and Sennheiser all have great mics for around the $400/500 mark which, provided they’re paired with a decent recorder, will bring you pleasing results.

    I’ve still got a lot to learn about intentional recording, but hopefully that gives you some useful basic info. I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post from  for more information, that post also has the most informative comments section I’ve ever read!

Coming back to opportunistic recording, as I’ve said, I feel intentional recording is a lifetime pursuit, something that could take thousands of dollars and a lot of expensive experimentation to get near-perfect,  and opportunistic recording is really the elixir for that blues.
The key balance we want to strike here is between quality and convenience. You’re not going to have your mic stands and dedicated recorder most of the time, but it can be really thrilling to still capture what’s around you with good accuracy. The technology has come a long way in recent years, with iphone mics and smaller portable devices yielding some seriously credible results.

ryuichi imgext.php
Here’s Ryuichi Sakamoto rocking the Shure MV88 iphone mic, recording his latest album Async

Living in Japan, I often bump into crazy soundworlds – it might be a chindonya (kinda old skool form of musical advertising) or an exciting festival. Here, we’re not aiming for perfection, just to capture the moment in the best possible way at that time. UK composer  Dougie Evans is a real pro at this and has made some great recordings with a Zoom H1 + Rycote mic cover setup (to reduce handling noise).

Here’s an example of Dougie Evans’ work. Anyway, hopefully that’s some useful food for thought. Ambient recording definitely takes a lot of experimentation and trial and error, I think this distinction between intentional and opportunistic recording can help you pursue environmental recording in a way so as to not get hung up on not having the best equipment, run with what you’ve got and make the most of the sounds around you – cos even if you have to edit and EQ like YOLO, when you get a sound that enhances your mix or sounds beautiful as a solo recording, that will add a dimension of uniqueness and presence that you only get from recording vibrations from the real world.


2 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to ambient field recording by SMOKE THIEF

  1. Thanks for featuring my recording! There’s some really helpful advice in this article, and I hadn’t considered thinking about recordings as Intentional or opportunistic. By that definition nearly all of my work is opportunistic, which i guess isn’t surprising given my love of ‘found sound’.

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