In this video, I explain my process for recording quiet street ambiences. I go through various steps to demonstrate my reasoning and some methods to achieve the best results. This video also serves as an on-location example. It was initially shot entirely on the streets of Hoi An in Vietnam. However, since my video recording skills are still in their infancy, I had to redo almost the entire video in a more controlled environment.
I am pleased to share some of my processes, and I hope this can be helpful. By no means is this a comprehensive how-to video; it’s merely an exposition of how I’ve been doing things. I may be mistaken on some points, and there might be better ways to explain them. Additionaly, I could have delved into more details and created a 1-hour or 2-hour video, but that wasn’t the intention. This video serves as a concise introduction. I have attempted to mention gear as sparingly as possible because it’s easy to become overly dependent on equipment. I always strive to detach my process from gear, as it fosters greater creativity and productivity. If this topic generates interest, I may create more videos like this and delve into further details.
Here is the transcript of this video:
Today I am going to show you how I record quiet streets ambiences. I might use a variety of different gear but for the purpose of this video I am gonna use very very small and lightweight gear. Hopefully through this video you will find some information or ideas that will be useful for your own recordings.
I am not going to lie; I am not a newbie with field recording, however I am still learning every single day.
I believe the ‘sharing’ of information is primordial for making our craft overall improve.
This is why I am making these videos and this is also why I am inviting you to share and comment down below.
Well with our theme of the day ‘Quiet Streets’, this has been a recuring kind of ambience I have been capturing throughout the years; and I did release some great sound libraries on this theme.
My approach when recording is that I usually think of the end-use of the sound even before I get my gear out. The main question I ask myself is: what is it that I want to achieve? And how this will help the user of the sound for their projects. In fact, most of my ‘customer’ are sound editors or sound designers for the movies, television, or video game. And because I have been working in the past on few similar projects, I can try better to envision the kind of ambiences that will be beneficial for the end user.
At first, ‘quiet streets’ may seem very banal and without any importance, but this kind of ambience is a primary requisite for almost any project. These ambiences will make the basis background of many scenes, they will set up the mood and allow fill the blank.
Obviously, they need to be natural and authentic, but they also need to be unobstructive, meaning without any louder noise that would distract the main subject. So the best recordings would be a constant ambience not completely dead-quiet, with some kind of interesting, authentic sounds, be it from humans, animals, or machines, but these sounds should be balanced and subtle, not too strong or close-up. I like to get recordings that have unique elements but that stays low-profile in the background, a little washy but not too boring either. Just a great balance for a quiet street ambience. Therefore, I am aiming for somewhat constant ambience that last at least 3 or 4 minutes, but not longer than 10 minutes. 5 to 6 minutes is ideal, in my opinion ambiences above 10 minutes are not necessary, they take too much space, moreover it is also possible to loop any ambience to make it longer if it is really necessary.
Now that we have in mind the objectives of our current endeavor, we can take better actions towards our goal.
The next step will be to plan beforehand a place and time for the actual recording.
Indeed, the location and the timing of a capture are in my opinion the most important factors that will influence the result and make a great ‘Quiet’ ambience or not. This is even more important than any gear choice. You see until now I have not talked about gear, microphones or recorders. There is a profound reason why so as I truly believe gear is secondary to any recording process. With nowadays technology, it has become easier to get great ‘sounding’ recording. So, I don’t want to focus on gear here. I am more interested in the sound itself and what our body experiences when hearing these sounds.
But of course, I have been recording with all kinds of microphones and setup in the past; I can attest that multichannel setups can deliver great sense of space and are useful for people working in surround. Furthermore, some high-end microphones that costs thousands of dollars sounds just fantastic. However, for this video session I will be only using very small stereo recorder that almost fall into the pocket, with very small microphones. Although I wouldn’t recommend recording ambiences with smartphones either. But with this small kit, I can still get excellent recordings. My motto is that: the subject recorded is always more important than the gear you use to record it.
When choosing a place to record, I usually look at the map and the topography of the city. If I am in a new country, I try to understand the culture and absorb the local customs as they will largely influence the soundscape. It might happen that I spend hours scouting the map for the ideal location but also directly on the terrain, walking or bicycling are great ways to discover the area with the ears. Small streets and back alleys are always interesting places to explore. But large squares are equally interesting as they will produce a larger wider sense of space. I try to be aware of the institutions around the area, shops, restaurants, office, schools, clubs, parkings, … They all will influence the ambience. I also try to think of the evolution that might happen throughout the day. Different places might sound completely different at different times of the day. Some areas are busier from 6am to 9am, but deads on evenings. Others are quiet during the day and start to be very noisy after 7pm.
Then I decide a time to start my recordings. Usually, early mornings or late evenings are a great time as there are less agitations. But the fauna sounds might be different than during the day. The weather is also an element that comes into play and will probably influence the schedule of any recording session. So checking the weather forecast in not a bad idea, in tropical area I look more at a real-time rain map than a traditional daily weather forecast, in fact in these area the rain is so unpredictable that real-time rain map are more reliable and useful to know which area are still dry or might get wet soon.
Nights are very suited in terms of quietness; it will be way easier to record quiet streets at night however the recordings will be very tinted and usually tagged right away as being recorded at ‘night’.
Also I like to capture at various time of the day, so I can get an extended sonic variety, which will make great alternative options for the end-user of the sounds. What happen usually is that I start record in the early morning up until mid-day, for few hours then I make a break. This gives me time to rest and recharge batteries; then I can do another session from afternoon to late evening up to the night. It’s always great to give some leeway because there usually are a lot of unexpected events. So, with that in mind, we can plan accordingly, and go start the recording session.
I usually like to record in the middle of the street with the mics facing the length of the street, in my opinion this way is the more balanced result I can achieve in term of acoustic. I might also record parallel to the street, the difference will be very subtle, but it depends also on the dimension and architecture around. If I can, I like to record from a higher perspective, if I have access to a balcony this can make great large and rich soundscape. I always try to avoid placing the microphone too close to the ground as this might introduce undesirable reflection and distort reality. I usually like to have the microphone at the height of human ears, it just sounds way more natural in my opinion, this is why I usually use some kind of tripod. Once I set up my gear, I try to move away at least a few steps or more, this way I avoid my own body noises to pass through the recording, like breathes, cloth rustles or feet adjustments. This is something I learned the hard way; in a quiet environment you tend to not hear your own noise, but the microphones are merciless. If recording is made with directional microphones, it is of course better to stay on the back side of the mic. I always like to slate each one of the recordings at the beginning of the track, for this I just say in the mic where it is, when, what gear I use and any interesting comments about the place. This way when I listen back, I know exactly what the track is about, and I can name and insert metadata accordingly. Here today I only use a small Sony A10 with small external omnidirectional microphone equipped with EM272 capsules. I attach that on a tripod, the one I use here is an extendable selfie stick, very lightweight and useful. It all fits in a very small bag ready to record on the go. However, the best sounding configuration in my opinion is ORTF, and it can multiple into double ORTF, 4 channel surround, and even 8 channels ORTF as in the 3D ORTF array by Schoeps. But anything you have available at hands is better than nothing at all.
With all these considerations it might seem as if the quiet streets are there waiting for us to record! But the reality is that a city is a giant canvas that is in constant evolution, and even if I plan carefully as much as I can, there will still be unforeseen circumstances, thus I need to be flexible and ready for any unexpected changes. I always stay open to improvisation. I can easily stop the recording and move to another place. In fact, a perfect quiet street ambience can completely change and becoming the most horrendous noisy street ambience in just a matter of few seconds. But frankly, unless you completely lock the area, it is preferable to be patient and perseverant. Covid and lockdown times were great for this, it might have been the best time to record quiet streets. However, in a ‘normal’ street, anything can happen anytime, that’s the difficult challenge but it is also what makes it interesting too. That is why I like to go by myself absorb the every-day streets, this is where I can get the most authentic sounds. I believe that this authenticity that can happen during a recording, loud or quiet, is what makes an ambience unique.
Although any sound can be deemed interesting enough to be recorded, that is why I oftentimes record more than what I had envision; even sounds I would qualify as ‘ugly’, who knows sometimes it can become interesting for other projects like a rattling truck, or a group of screaming kids passing by.
If I like an area, I will also try to move around, and record different locations and perspectives. Streets are great for this purpose, you can easily walk, move to junction, take a perspective from a small alley, and in the same fashion you can also escape from impromptu noises. After the recordings, I usually back up the files on a hard drive as it is more secure than a SD card, oftentimes with multiple backups or on the cloud. Generally, I leave the recording to rest for some time until I find the time to listen back. This is when I usually do a first pass of pre-identification where I will transcribe by writing the slate, then I would do a thorough editing pass, a selection pass, a master pass, and finally I will embed the metadata. I am not going into details of all these post-recording steps in this video, as it would require much time, it is better I’ll do a specific video on these.
But you should know that in my field recording life, I am usually spending more time and effort in the post-recording work than the recording itself.
To conclude, I hope you liked my little introduction on how I approach field recording for quiet streets. As you can see there is no one recipe, the spectrum of possibilities is large, but the path to achieve my recordings is as simple as these 4 steps: define the target, plan the session, go record, and then review the recordings. But because there are many unexpected events that can pop up, I always try to cultivate these 3 skills: curiosity, patience and perseverance. In my opinion, the biggest draw for any field recording project is the passion for sensory immersion and the wide spectrum that the world has to offer to our ears. I have captured sounds in hundreds of cities around the world, and each time I am still amazed to explore new places.
If only people were listening more than they speak, they would discover there is a mesmerizing world of amazement available for free just in front of their doorstep.