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Sounds Are All Around Us, and They're Yours for the Taking

 

By Craig Anderton

 

They're out there, and they're everywhere: Sounds. And they're just waiting for you...all you need to do is find them, which is maybe why they're called "found sounds."

 

You've probably heard more found sounds in recordings than you realize. Although capturing and warping sounds was a mainstay of classic electronic music, artists as diverse as Pink Floyd, John Cage, the Beatles, and a zillion techno producers have all used found sounds in musical - and not so musical - ways. Whether it's the nature sounds behind a new age recording, sound effects in an audio-for-video production, "quotes" from old movies in a dance floor hit, or even swarms of bees providing a menacing backdrop to the TV show "Cold Case," having a collection of unique samples sitting around can come in very handy.

 

YOU WON'T GET THE SOUND IF YOU DON'T HAVE THE RECORDER

 

Capturing sounds requires a certain attitude that's very much like a  good photographer, who never leaves the house without a camera. If  you're serious about treating the world as your waveform, you need the  audio equivalent of a camera: Something simple, small, and convenient  enough to use that you actually use it. Here are some of the options.

 


Fig. 1: Sony's PCM-D1 was one of the first high-end, solid-state field recorders that was also well-suited to musicians.
 
 

Solid-state recorder. Typical models are made by Roland, TASCAM, Sony, M-Audio, Yamaha, Olympus, Zoom, Marantz, Fostex, and others (Fig. 1). These have no moving parts, because you save audio to a memory cartridge - so they're totally quiet.

 

Hard disk-based recorders. These move up a notch in terms of storage, but go through batteries faster and make some noise (although the subcompact hard drives they use are pretty quiet). Korg's MR-1 is a good example of this kind of device.

 

MP3 player with voice recording. Sure, it has a little tiny mic designed to capture audio notes like "Don't forget to pick up the cat litter." But when all else fails, they work - and you can capture some gloriously lo-fi samples that are the perfect complement to electronically-inclined music.

 

Cell phone. Some cell phones have voice recording options; if not, call yourself and record into your voicemail.

 

Minidisc. I admit to a bias toward these "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" devices because they've served me well for a decade. They sound good, are convenient, get good battery life, and of course, are terminally unhip in the Age of iPod.

 

Video camcorder. The audio recorder inside a tape-or SD cartridge-based camcorder can often record with excellent fidelity. Although clunkier than carrying around a tiny solid-state recorder, you can get good fidelity and video to boot.

I hardly go anywhere without at least one of these - just in case.

 

ACCESSORIZE, BABY!

 

If you're just trying to grab a few sounds here and there, a recorder is all you need. But if you're on a serious sonic safari, you'll need accessories.

Additional recording media. This will also determine what type of recorder to take with you. If the only way to offload files is via a computer, then you gotta bring a computer. With cartridge-based solid state recorders, you'll need to bring plenty of memory cartridges - unless you've also brought a computer to which you can transfer files. And for Minidisc, bring extra discs.

 

Additional power. You don't want your batteries to die just as you're capturing the sound of a lifetime. That's why I always like devices that have rechargeable batteries, but the option to slip in additional batteries if needed. (For serious battery power, make a box with D cells or lantern batteries, and in most cases you can go through the AC adapter input. Once while in Alaska sampling whales, I had a Casio DAT recorder (really) and because it went through batteries like a glutton through filet mignon, I brought several 6V lantern batteries with me - a pain in the butt, but I got the samples.

 

Mics. The internal mics on many recorders are surprisingly good, but it's worth bringing some external mics. This is particularly important if your recorder of choice has moving parts; for quiet sounds, you'll want the mic as far away from the recorder as possible.

 

Plastic freezer bag. Fold this up, and put it in your pocket. If there's rain, oceanspray, or other environmental nastiness, put the recorder in the bag and seal it up. If you still need to record, feed the mic cable out one corner of the bag; it's almost certain you'll be able to manipulate the buttons and work controls while the recorder is in the bag.

 

Notepad. Keep notes on what you've recorded, as you really don't want to have several gigabytes of data staring you in the face without a clue as to what sounds are where.

 

SEEK OUT THE OPTIMUM RECORDING SPACE

 

Airports are great for found sounds: You get crowd noises, announcements of planes going to exotic destinations, restaurant sounds, cars in the parking garage (including door slams with killer ambience), and of course, the roar of airplane engines and the strangely annoying announcements for shuttle trains and such. But whatever you record, consider the best way to record it.

 

For example, with one project I needed to get some airport announcements in isolation, especially the one in the Atlanta airport warning you to watch your luggage ("Maintain control . . .") which with a little cut and paste, would make the perfect "Big Brother" counterpoint to a hip-hop tune. What to do?

 

Well, they have speakers in the bathrooms, and as it was 2 AM and I was delayed coming back from Europe due to a hurricane, I just camped out in a bathroom, found where the speaker was, stood on a toilet seat to get as close to it as possible, and waited for a stretch of time when no one came in and flushed. (However, I do wonder what one guy thought when he came in and saw me pointing a mic in the general direction of the ceiling, while the announcer said "Report any suspicious behavior...".)

 

When you're looking for found sounds, there's always a sweet spot to record them. For best results, wear earphones that enclose your ear to block out noise, and listen as you test different miking positions. I used to use big honkin' headphones, but the latest generation of in-ear earbuds do a pretty good job of sealing out ambient sounds. They also allow for surreptitious recording, as people will think you're just listening to an iPod or other portable player.

 

A RECORDER'S BEST FRIEND: DIGITAL AUDIO EDITORS

 

It's not just enough to record the sounds - you need to massage them with a good digital audio editor. It's hard to recommend a specific one, because they all have their own cool little DSP processes; I especially like processing a sample by using a convolution reverb that has an impulse loaded other than reverb (see Fig. 2); this can make just about anything sound cool.

 


Fig. 2: Convolving sounds with unusual impulses, such as guitar bodies or even thunder (as shown here with BIAS Peak), can turn garden-variety found sounds into truly otherworldly effects.
 
 

Excessive pitch transposition is a sure-fire route to uniqueness (just remember to remove DC offset if you're shifting way down), as is vocoding, delay, resonant filtering, ring modulation, and those other cool tools in the sound designer's arsenal. I also recommend noise reduction; if there are unwanted background sounds, taking a "noiseprint" of the offending signal and removing it can do wonders for the overall quality.

 

Also, don't forget gating and enveloping. For example, "radical recording" enthusiast Dr. Walker is a fan of taking vinyl hiss, amplifying it way up, gating it, and using it to replace the hi-hat sample in drum kits. Gated shortwave radio noises with really fast decays can sound like weird percussion, and just about anything mixed in with a snare drum can sound interesting.

 

AND FINALLY...

 

Treat the sounds you've found as a real sample library: Back them up, document them, and keep both the original and processed versions. I've even used some samples made way back in the 80s in music I'm working on now...you never know when a found sound will turn out to be a found treasure.

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