A Method for Organizing Field Recordings – part 1

This is an article I have been wanting to write for a long time and it was recently that I felt very secure about this method. To my own workflow and needs it seems nearly perfect. However, before we get to how I do this, I want to make clear there has been many trials and errors on my part before and I have researched quite a bit on how very experienced recordists have been mastering it (hey, pun!). The main reason for this is that I can be a chaotic person but also organized to the millimeter. This can reflect on many audio files lost in a sea of folders in an ocean of hard drives. It can get exhausting and frustrating. But in the latest years, particularly since the biggest field recording project in the Atlantic Forest I have learned and put together a few tricks that help me have fun in the midst of being hyper structured.

There is excellent and broad information on this topic, shared by other pros who have been doing it for decades which I strongly encourage you to check out, if you haven’t already. Paul Virostek’s book Field Recording – From Research to Wrap was an eye-opening in terms of how to think and categorize field recordings.

Back in the day, the excitement about recording and editing was so strong that ensuring that I would be able to remember where I was recording, what exactly was my main impression of the object ended up being disregarded. Some of my earliest recordings are still somewhat foggy about the exact location, equipment and only thanks to metadata I know the recording date.

Sometimes I was slating some basic information in the beginning of the recording, but how could that be enough if I’d like to have a more precise, almost scientific approach?

To start off I needed to recognize my faults during the entire process. During my first times doing field recording I didn’t take proper notes. On my first field recording trip (a workshop to my newbie soul) I would slate something like “small waves on sand”. Stating the world’s vague obvious never helped much. How would that help once I got home and ready to catalogue my files? Not much. Possibly that would trigger a memory and I could locate it slightly but I was left to the recording itself. Additionally, the more time it went by from the field recording itself to sit down and organize the files, the harder it became to do so.

In 2016 as I was preparing my trip to Brazil to record some areas of the Atlantic Forest, I started to develop a method that so far has been truly helpful.

Recording

There, both in São Paulo and Minas Gerais states, I was lucky enough to have the time and opportunity to do a ‘recon walk’ first. For spots that intrigued me I would save the location coordinates on Google Maps, take a picture and save it all together in the ‘notes’ app (on the iPhone) and write down any quick relevant information.

This is the basis for noting the recordings.

Therefore I started to take proper notes on paper on what I thought it would help me to categorize and organize all the content later. These notes included:

  • location name
  • coordinates
  • picture file name
  • atmospheric conditions
  • complete date
  • file name
  • dB measurement
  • recording technique
  • gain on the recorder
  • any other observations

I made this into a simple document that you can download here.

The timecode I use is the local time of the area I am in; I found this to be crucial to keep things neat and clear to understand later. In the recorder I name the main folder ‘Atlantic Forest’ and as a personal preference I prefer to leave the file names as default. Being a numeric structure makes it easy for me to catalogue and be faster on location (I am also very impatient in occasions when time is everything).

Cataloging

Now that I have the actual recordings – let’s say it’s morning and I just picked up the equipment that I hid somewhere (it’s the most exciting time ever!): what happened during that time? Have I recorded a never before heard creature? Will it be scary? Beautiful?

But this is the moment I have to tell myself to calm down a little and to not let some steps move faster then others (I can get excited pretty easily).

First: backups.

I will have a folder named ‘Originals’ to where I will copy everything and let those files rest untouched for life.

So the folder structure would be:

Field recordings > Atlantic Forest > Originals > 20170116 / 20170117 / 20170118

However, if I have had a totally failed recording, if I pressed REC by accident, those will go directly into the thrash. But these would be files that really don’t contain anything useful!

From the remaining “good files” I will make a full copy to my working hard drive and will create a second folder named RX to which I will export the files resulting from the following steps:

Exploring the files

Now it’s one of the most lengthy parts of the whole process – but also so rewarding! I will open the files on a spectral visualization software (I have been happily using iZotope RX for years).

The first thing I might do is to cut the very first bit of the file – have this been the one where I press REC and walk away.

Secondly I will start to add markers and regions to important occurrences – usually very easy to spot looking at the spectrum. This is the phase of labeling species (or adding ‘?’ to study it later), observe patterns and detect intruding noises.

[For those recording natural soundscapes in North America and Europe The Cornell Lab Api is a fantastic starting point to catalogue bird calls’ species.]

As an example, see the following screenshot:

Markers and regions window on Izotope RX 6 Advanced

By accessing this window I am able to name makers and regions. This is the sort of data I want to preserve in a general way for any future use.

A note on intruding noises: the recording can have more than one use. If I am 200% sure I won’t ever in any circumstance be needing the ‘intruding sound’ I can clean it immediately with spectral repair (if possible) or cut the very edges where it occurs and place a marker named ‘CF’ – cross-fade – as a note for the main editorial process later. The goal here is to have a sound file that contains only the relevant information for my purpose. If in doubt I am going to preserve that intruding sound for later, I usually export that region directly to another folder and name it accordingly. It has happened one early morning to hear a cow from one of the closest farms; although always nice to hear it, I didn’t it want to be part of the “Atlantic Forest” soundscape – the main purpose of the recording project – so I cut it off after exporting. These bits go into a folder called ‘other sounds’ and have an acronym for the project, date and brief description: AF-20160113-0701-cow (although this can vary slightly from project to project).

Once the major apparent events are marked, it’s time to listen through. It’s almost a therapeutic moment but I do keep a notebook open and take notes of whatever occurs to my mind while listening; this doesn’t have to be strictly precise except when a segment gets my attention for what it could be a nice sample to upload on SoundCloud or a nice candidate for the album. I also take notes of any question that comes to mind. It’s common to make additional markers for occurrences I haven’t noticed at first.

At this point I also have a look on the waveform statistics – just to check – and usually write it down on my notebook for reference.

This process’ stage can take several days, of course depending on how much it has been recorded, but it has been a fundamental base of work for later editing. The purpose is to be aware of the general picture and the details occurring so the editing is faster, more objective and flexible if I have more than one goal with these recordings.

Finally I export the file with all the metadata included thus creating the files I will next open on my DAW.

On ‘part 2’ I will show you how I organize the files on Reaper and how I color code them to guide me in the segments to use for different purposes.

You are more than welcome to comment below if you think this is helpful or if you’d like to add something or even to disagree.

Happy field recording!

3 responses to “A Method for Organizing Field Recordings – part 1

  1. Pingback: A method for organizing field recordings – part 2 | Melissa Pons·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s