How to use field recordings as a songwriting tool


Illustration: Pedro Lourenco

Defined in simplest terms, field recordings are audio captured in any place outside of the confines of a traditional studio.

The art of field recordings was first driven by a fascination with nature. In 1899, eight-year-old Ludwig Koch made a recording of a common shama using his father’s wax cylinder recorder. No longer subject to the passing of time, audio captured ‘in the field’ could now be reproduced at will. Celebrated as one of the great natural history broadcasters of the early 20th century, Koch’s landmark recording set the stage for a decades-long practice of creating scores of music from the rhythm and exploration of found sounds.

As technology progressed, field recordings became common source material in avant-garde, ambient, and experimental music. In the 1940s, the ‘godfather of sampling’ Pierre Schaeffer coined the term “musique concrète,” outlining the compositional practice of looping, splicing, and reversing organic sounds. Alongside composer and philosopher John Cage, Schaeffer was instrumental in transforming field recording from solely an ethnomusicological undertaking into a form of expression of its own.

Brian Eno cites the creation of ambient music to a period of illness in the 1970s that left him hospitalized. Rather than overpower the sound of a rainstorm outside his window by turning up the volume on an LP of 18th-century harp music, Eno shifted how he listened, focusing instead on the beauty of both soundscapes interacting as one. Listening remains the common thread that unites our modern understanding of field recording, a familiar yet sprawling pursuit.

As access and exposure to the activity increases, the number of artists utilizing field recordings as a component of their songwriting, composing, or general artistic practice continues to grow. With insight and expert advice from musicians and intermedia artists, we’ve compiled this guide to illuminate field recording as a tool for sonic and personal exploration and provide a general framework for how you might weave them into your own creative process.

The experts:

Creating a fingerprint

In 2021, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who cannot identify the sound of an electric or acoustic guitar. In addition to an enormous cache of YouTube tutorials and videos, sites like Equipboard can quickly pin down the exact make and model of guitars, amps, and effects used by your favorite musicians.

In contrast, field recordings insert an immediate sense of mystery, allowing an artist to create a fingerprint—a distinctive sonic element untethered from traditional instrumentation. “There’s literally an infinite number of sounds available in the universe. I like the idea that people listening to my music most likely won’t be able to determine what I’m doing and how I’m doing it,” Leah Toth tells us. Under her Amelia Courthouse moniker, she relies heavily on treating (editing or manipulating) her field recordings to further establish a sense of agency, and with respect to the original source, take ownership over the music she’s creating.

Whether treated or left as-is, field recordings often create a connection to a specific time, place, or memory. While a lyric or guitar line may hint at an idea, field recordings are a direct portal to the source. For Matthew Sage (M. Sage), field recordings are multi-purpose, adding both space and color to tracks while embedding emotional relevance. On The Wind of Things (2021), all of the field recordings came from places Sage had sailed or hiked as a child. “It has an emotional tender that the audience is not responsible for decoding, but I think they can sense that it’s there. That’s what matters to me,” he added.

Found sounds have the ability to drop us into a place in a way a photograph or video cannot. Establishing mood can be a critical component of how music is processed. When used intentionally, a field recording can enliven an arrangement, drawing a listener even deeper into a melody or phrasing. “It sounds funny to say, but I do think it’s kind of a sensual thing,” Sage described. When you know a song intimately, you know its personality—its fingerprint. The incorporation of field recordings into traditional music means letting a sense of place in, rather than working really hard to keep it out.

Accessibility and confidence

Music and recording equipment can be prohibitively expensive. Focusing on amassing the right gear can become a crutch, hindering creative progress and generating feelings of inadequacy. The art of field recording shifts that mindset from one of scarcity to abundance. Requiring little beyond a curious ear and a phone or any device that captures audio, field recording is a highly accessible songwriting tool. It carries a punk ethos—no degree required or predetermined notions of success.

For Karima Walker, it’s a practice that has allowed her to more confidently identify as a musician. Despite never feeling proficient at one instrument, she’s come to recognize the power involved in viewing her ear as a compositional tool. “You start to think about the language of arrangement in shaping sound. It almost feels more comfortable for me to identify with something more abstract,” she shared.

Greenwald encourages those new to the field to “not feel weird” about using their iPhone. Toth and her husband James (Wooden Wand) have accumulated a bunch of cheap gear over time, yet she still makes frequent use of her phone. “I try to record acoustic piano tracks whenever I am near one, with whatever handheld recorder I have on hand, even if it’s just my iPhone. Because I don’t have a proper piano in my home any longer, I feel like I’m stealing little pieces of music from anywhere I go where a piano is present. This also prevents me from overthinking parts or arrangements; I get what I get.”

In addition to your phone, here’s a quick list of gear our experts recommend:

A sense of wonder and adventure

Getting out of your own way is a common hurdle amongst songwriters. Staring at a DAW can heighten anxiety—a blank workstation waiting for you to hit record and strike gold. We tend to visualize songwriting as stationary (ie.. sitting behind a drum kit or in front of a piano).

Field recording is a far more active endeavor with a sense of magic and adventure baked into the process. “You aren’t looking at the recording, you’re looking at the world. You’re asking more of your ears than it does your eyes,” Sage described. It’s a chance to practice ‘shoshin’ or ‘beginners’ mind’—having an attitude of openness and wonder to what you’re listening for.

Both Sage and Walker’s interest in field recordings began while traveling and / or living overseas. For Sage, a trip to the UK in his youth set the stage for continued sound experiments. Remembering the moment he realized a field recorder could act as a different set of ears, he tells us, “I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a kid; I spent almost the entire trip with my headphones plugged into the camera filming. At one point my dad tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Are you trying to get the sound? You’re just pointing the camera at the ground.’”

For Walker, time spent teaching in South Korea began to shift how and what she was listening for. “There was something about not knowing what was going on around me that changed the way I was hearing things. I was hearing languages that I was starting to understand. I started recording on my phone but didn’t have intentions to turn them into samples. It was more just documenting a place that I didn’t understand yet,” she explains. Walker’s catalog, including this year’s Waking the Dreaming Body, holds a deep connection to the environments in which they were created.

Whether recording the hum of your refrigerator, a thunderstorm, or the wag of your dog’s tail, try to keep that sense of wonder alive. Don’t know what to listen for? Try making a recording of your daily activity. Carry your phone in your pocket while you make breakfast or when you go for a walk. Listen back. If you have the equipment, listen on headphones while recording. All of the parameters that you may or may not have control over will shape what you hear and teach you about your own ears. If you like it, you can keep it and explore it. Try looping sounds and see if you hear a phrase or melody appear. If not, you’re still developing taste.

A compositional tool

If you’ve exhausted your usual tips and tricks, weaving field recordings into your work can encourage experimentation. You might consider putting all of your files in stereo to add color and space to a track, or treat a sound to mimic a real instrument or rhythm.

Having a backlog of field recordings to listen back to might also help answer two of the hardest questions: “How should I get started?” and “What else is missing?”

“When I’m not directly in a space where I’m wanting to capture sound, I keep a list of things that I’m hearing that I want to return to. We just moved into a new house. There are these new sounds happening around me. Where we live, every night we hear coyotes. That’s something I can’t just plan on or perform, or something I can plan to return to when preparing to record,” Walker added.

If working within constraints is helpful, you might leave all of your found sounds in their raw form or manipulate them to where they are no longer recognizable. “I think it’s important to re-contextualize the sounds in some way and leave a fingerprint. It’s no different to me than sampling a few bars of a disco track or something. The original sounds can remain just as sacred—no one is going to patent or trademark a bird’s song—even after a human manipulates them. Those ideas are not mutually exclusive,” Toth adds.

They can also be a means to capture the politics of place and provide insight into the reality of a moment. In 2017, Danny Greenwald released “Day 1,” an experimental single made completely from sounds captured at the Women’s March. 2019’s “Éxodo” shares the story of a Guatemalan mother who sought asylum in the U.S. In these contexts, Toth suggests that recordings should be handled delicately and with a lot of consideration for ethics.

Mindfulness and healing

Field recording is a great way to become more sensitive to sound and more importantly, to yourself. To create music using field recordings, you need to pay attention. Allowing yourself permission to pause and take note of the sounds around you (even without hitting record) doubles as a mindfulness practice.

Pauline Oliveros, a composer who championed deep listening (intended to heighten and expand the consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness as possible) argued that compassion and understanding come from listening impartially to the whole space / time continuum of sound, not just what one is presently concerned about.

“My approach is rooted in Oliveros’ work, where we are the listening bodies. Everyone has the potential to be a listening body. It’s a choice you have to make. When you sit down and offer yourself that chance to be a listening body, the world presents itself to you in a way where you are not usually permitted access to,” Sage says.

Despite it sounding a bit woo-woo, he has reason to believe that when we do make ourselves available, we can hear “the orchestra we’re inside of all the time.” Sage, who has moderate OCD, is no stranger to the healing properties of awareness. “On days where I’m having a hard day and dealing with spikes of intrusive thoughts of anxiety, I’ll just go and sit in my yard and turn into a listening body for 20 minutes. That vanishing that happens… your body becomes a channel instead of programming,” he explains.

Toth comes from a similar camp, allowing sounds to present themselves to her rather than act as a butterfly collector. “I know songwriters who claim to be vessels for words and music; they are doing something and suddenly an idea occurs to them. This is how sounds strike me; I’ll be reading a book or watching a film and I’ll hear something—it could be anything—and I find myself drawn to the sound. Immediately, I think about how I can record the sound, amplify it, or simulate it,” she adds. She likens the experience to the radio, where you’ll ignore most of the songs, but then one will come on and just capture you.

The bottom line? Keeping an open ear = keeping an open mind.

Looking to get started?

As we explored above, recording sounds yourself is a unique and invaluable experience. That said, you can also experiment with pre-recorded field recordings if you want to expand your palette even further beyond the limitations of your environment. With Splice Sounds, you can access hundreds of thousands of sound effects and millions of loops and one-shots (including plenty of found sounds).

Explore cinematic sound effects on Splice Sounds:

May 31, 2021

Jeffrey Silverstein Jeffrey Silverstein is a musician, writer, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. He is also the host of Felt Time, a bi-weekly show (Tuesdays 7 pm - 9 pm PST) on Dune Buggy Radio.