Field Recording: 10 Ways to Use Found Sound in Your Production

Innovating in art and music is about pushing boundaries and breaking away from traditional molds.

One way adventurous musicians challenge conventions is by using non-musical sounds in their work.

Sonic elements from our everyday world can be powerful parts of a musical composition.

Capturing these sounds in the wild is called field recording. Field recording opens up endless possibilities, but using these found sounds in your production isn’t always easy.

This post will walk you through how to incorporate field recordings into your music as well as creative ways to manipulate found sounds in your DAW.

What is field recording?

Field recording is the term used to describe any audio recording that takes place outside of a recording studio.

Field recording is the term used to describe any audio recording that takes place outside of a recording studio.

Field recording comes from the practice of field work. Researchers would travel to cultures and places unlike their own and document what they found there.

In the 1940s, composer Pierre Schaeffer began experimenting with recording of the human voice and natural environments.

These unique compositions were the beginnings of Musique Concrete, which laid the foundation for much of today’s experimental and avant-garde music.

In the past, capturing field recordings required expensive equipment and specialized skills. Today, thanks to modern technology, anyone with a smartphone has the ability to record audio.

Getting started: What equipment will you need?

All you need to capture field recordings is a microphone, a recording device and a set of headphones.

If you have a smartphone, you already have a device capable of making field recordings.

If you have a smartphone, you already have a device capable of making field recordings.

However, if you invest in a device specifically meant for field recording you’ll get superior audio quality and some helpful features for your workflow.

Check out our list of the 13 best field recorders to start capturing found sounds from the world around you.

What kinds of sounds should you record?

The beauty of field recording is that you can capture any sound you can imagine to use in your tracks.

Once you’ve decided on what type of equipment you want to use, it’s time to get out there and start recording.

Here are some ideas to get you started with field recording:

  • human voices
  • distant incoherent conversations
  • sounds from nature
  • industrial sounds such as machines, construction, etc.

How to use field recording in your productions

Once you’ve captured your field recordings you’ll need to incorporate them into your tracks.

Layering found sounds over musical elements is a great way to add depth and interest to a track.

Layering found sounds over musical elements is a great way to add depth and interest to a track.

But you can also get creative by manipulating the sounds with effects or using the recordings to create musical elements like rhythms or basslines.

The possibilities are pretty much endless, but here are a few suggestions for how to work with your field recordings in your DAW:

1. EQ

It may seem obvious, but there are plenty of creative and useful ways to use your EQ.

Maybe you just want to isolate certain sounds from your recording by filtering out undesirable frequencies.

You can also use EQ to highlight certain frequencies and create unnatural and interesting sounds.

2. Gating

Gating is a slightly more advanced technique that can completely isolate certain sounds from your recording.

Along with compression, gating is one of the main tools for controlling your dynamic range.

One of the challenges you might face while recording outdoors is picking up excessive background noise.

Setting the threshold of the gate in your DAW determines the level where it will kick in and cut off the signal.

Anything above the threshold won’t be affected, anything below will be muted. Tweaking the attack and release will help you make the gating sound natural and transparent.

3. Transpose

Transposing is the process of adjusting the pitch of the recording, but it can completely alter the feel of a sound.

This is a great technique to use with vocal recordings. Adjusting the pitch up or down even just a few semitones can give the recording an otherworldly feel..

4. Reverb and Delay

Adding reverb or delay to a field recording is a great and simple way to add a lot of depth to your track.

Between your DAW’s built-in reverb plugin and those from third-party developers, there are literally thousands of reverb and delay textures to choose from.

Experiment with reverb and delay parameters like density, reflection, and shape to add spatial interest to your track.

5. Panning

Playing with the panning of your field recording is another simple technique to add spatial interest to your tracks.

For vocals or nature sounds, try using duplicate tracks panned at opposite ends of the stereo field.

You can also layer the sounds so the timing is slightly off, which will create depth and a delay-like effect to the field recording.

If you want to experiment with something more complicated than the built-in pan on your audio tracks, much like reverb, there are tons of possibilities for panning your recordings both in the presets in your DAW, and through external plug-ins.

6. Reverse

One easy way to manipulate your found sounds is to simply reverse them.

This can add a menacing vibe to vocal recordings or create a completely new sound when used on recordings of machinery.

Taking a few of your found sounds and using them both forwards and reversed in a track is a great technique when using field recordings as an instrument.

7. Cut it up

Depending how you use your field recordings in your tracks, layering bits and pieces in a nonsensical order is another way you can add interest and depth to your track.

8. Sidechaining

Rules are meant to be broken, and you can create some interesting effects by using sidechains in non-traditional ways.

If you have a recording of a texture or static sound, try sidechaining it to a percussive element like a drum loop. Mute the loop and see what kind of rhythmic volume curves emerge.

9. Create custom instruments

Using a custom instrument or sampler in your DAW is a great way to create your own drum patterns, basslines or synth parts.

Many producers use short samples of different sounds (kicks, hats, etc.) to write their own patterns.

Before doing this you’ll probably want to use the previously mentioned tip of cutting up your recordings.

Cut each recording down into multiple one bar segments and then them into your custom instrument.

That way you can create arrangements and adjust the parameters of each individual sound as you go.

10. Use creative plugins

There are thousands of third-party VSTs you can purchase or download to process your found sounds in unique ways.

Here are a few plugins that are great for processing field recordings:

Sinevibes Hologram
This effect processor resynthesizes sound in real time. It converts your sound into a series of related sine waves of different frequencies.

Two flexible, multi-waveform modulators apply rhythmic motion to the resynthesized sound.  This way you can create basslines, synth parts and drum patterns from your field recordings.

MDSP Smart Electronix Livecut Beat Chopper
A live beat-slicer that’s algorithm is meant to simulate the automatic cutting of breakbeats like the style of early jungle and drum and bass tracks. You could get some really interesting results if you ran cut up pieces of field recordings through this free VST

Stagecraft Echothief
Echothief is a convolution reverb that lets you model real spaces with convolution. Stagecraft’s advanced IR techniques give you access to impulse response of spaces that are too noisy to record with traditional methods.

The possibilities when using plug-ins with your field recordings becomes endless, check out this list of 200 Best Free VST Plug-ins Ever for a solid list of effect plug-ins to add a unique twist to your found sounds.

Recording the world around you

Much like digital music production, incorporating field recordings into your tracks allows for endless possibilities.

It can be difficult to know how to use field recordings well in your tracks and make them sound cohesive with your music, but with some simple effects and basic production techniques you can make non-musical sounds musical.

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