You can break down field audio recording into two categories:
Recording for the purpose of profit
Recording for the purpose of posterity
By the very nature of my online sound effects business, I tend to record sounds with the intention of turning a profit in sound effects sales. But as an audio enthusiast, I find it beneficial to remove my business cap every once in a while to record sounds for a greater purpose of posterity. Depending on which cap I wear, the way I approach the audio recording process will differ. I want to break down these differences in a couple of ways:
- Recording Technique
- Filenames & Metadata.
While the intention of the sound effect (to sell it or to record for posterity) seems pretty straightforward, it is not necessarily an either/or proposition. I want to expand on this idea by solidifying the greater importance of recording for posterity—in the event the its significance is not yet understood.
Listen to the audio clip of these church bells.
The cadence and tonality of these bells may be foreign to you. I might be tempted to take it and sell it as a generic church bells sound effect. The problem though, is that this sound effect is well-known to a substantial number of people.
Now take a look at the image below:
This is, in fact, a recording of the church bells from the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. These bells rang in monumental moments of history. They rang throughout the French Revolution. They rang to signify the end of World War I. They rang to signify the French liberation in World War II. These iconic church bells continued to ring daily, until April 15, 2019, when the cathedral suffered substantial fire damage. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, the emotional and historical significance of an archival recording of the bells should be apparent.
Given the historical significance of the sound, possessing such a recording also has some intrinsic value in the documentary market. This can be where the line blurs between intent to sell and intent to preserve.
Regarding Intent to Sell
Field recording sound effects with the intent to sell often leads the recordist to be subjective with when and how effects are recorded. I recently attempted to record some wildlife sounds in a nature preserve in Kansas. Regrettably, I did not do the proper research before visiting the site. It was not until I arrived and pulled out my recording equipment that I discovered the nature preserve was near a small regional airport.
I was irritated by the sounds of plane traffic invading my ambient recordings. Of course, I was recording sound effects with the intent to sell. Had I recorded with the intent of posterity, I could easily argue that the sound of casual plane traffic, juxtaposed with the bustle of wildlife, is indicative of the area. If I cherry pick my recordings in between the sound of planes flying overhead, it would not be accurate representation of the soundscape.
As with the subjectivity in choosing what and when to record, I also make artistic decisions in choosing how to record. This takes form in both my choice of microphone and the distance or direction I choose to capture a sound.
This is one of the reasons I like to travel with my Zoom H6 portable recorder. The Zoom H6 (or alternatively, the smaller Zoom H5) is most notable for its interchangeable mic capsules. This makes it a highly customizable unit with a relatively small footprint in my gear pack. If I am field recording with the intent to sell, my goal is to capture a sound as clean and close as possible in order to maximize the sound isolation. Like a photographer changing lenses to customize his shot, the H6 allows me to choose the mic type and pickup pattern best suited for the sound source at hand.
For a budget option, take a look at the Zoom H2n. You can read more in my full review: Zoom H2n: The Most Versatile Budget Recorder
The biggest differences in recording for profit vs archival take place in the editing process. This makes sense, as the natural role of editing is to establish some order and purpose to the raw source material.
The art of editing a sound effect that can capture the attention of a potential buyer is akin to the process of producing a quality stock photo. Using sophisticated programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, the highlights and shadows of photos are adjusted, textures and gradients are added, and color correction is applied. The finalized photo, designed to catch your eye, is rarely identical to the original. A stock audio file should be given the same consideration using the editing tools available.
My files are processed through iZotope RX 7 for noise reduction, and an EQ curve may be applied for further reduction or to emphasize certain characteristics within the sound. While louder doesn’t truly mean better, to a potential buyer, a quiet sound played next to a louder one reveals less detail and could easily be perceived as lesser quality. I adjust the gain on my files and apply a gentle compression to ensure the detail in my recordings is heard. Many clients will not shop for sounds using a quality set of speakers, so ensuring that my effect sounds great even through laptop speakers is a must.
Need editing tools? Read: Free Software for Sound Designers
File Length and Looping
While not true in all cases, the audio files I have prepped for sale tend to be shorter than the ones I’ve made for posterity. This is because all of the unsellable bits (unnecessary silence, background noise, etc) have been cut out. With ambiences, creating a clean looped variation will improve the flexibility of the file for any potential buyer. The process naturally creates a shorter overall file length.
Filename and Metadata
Once my sound effect is sounding marketable, I still need to put effort into getting it discovered. This is where file labeling and metadata come into play. My sound filename is likely the first interaction a potential buyer will have with my sound effect. Therefore, my naming convention will differ greatly whether the sound file is designated for stock audio or archival.
I recorded some tropical birds on the island of St Lucia back in 2010. If my interest was in recording these sound effects for archival I would document as much information about the field recording as possible — the specific birds, location, and date of recording. I would label the file like this:
Grey Tremblers-St Lucia-July 2010.wav
This naming convention is detailed. If it was a submission in a nature library, the filename would tell you everything you need to know at a glance. For marketing purposes as a stock sound effect, however, it significantly narrows the range of potential buyers. While it is true that the file contains chirps from Grey Tremblers recorded in St Lucia, a more generic name would expand its use to a wider variety of projects. After editing the file into a loop, I would rather post this sound effect for sale with the following filename:
Tropical Birds Ambience Loop.wav
More specific details about the field recording could be included in the metadata, but the filename includes just enough information and is far more approachable. This makes it more likely to get a sale.
There are valid reasons to either record a sound with the intent to sell it, or to preserve that sound for the annals of history. The best photographers plan ahead, and your field recording should be no different.
If you are unsure of how to record a sound, first consider your intent. Then skip to long after the recording is complete and the file has been edited.
How do you imagine the file will sound?
What words would you use to describe it?
By making these decisions in advance, you will prepare your ears for the task ahead. You can make informed decisions about mic choice and recording technique out in the field. This will only serve as a benefit to you in the editing room. Happy recording!
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