The Field Recording Challenge: What Did We Learn?

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In the Spring of 2022, The Field Recording Season Challenge was a way for podcasters to get out and about, listen to the world around them in a new way, and capture some of it to share with others. Many people submitted audio clips from their environments. The variety and depth of sound were inspiring and instructive. Hopefully, you’ll get a charge out of the submissions, too. Here are five things we learned from The Field Recording Season Challenge.

Smartphones Are Good Recording Devices

Yes, obviously, a smartphone is good for recording the human voice and sending it across the miles. Some of the field recordings were made on phones, with or without separate microphones; some come from digital recorders. The difference between them isn’t noticeable to the average person. It shows that, in a pinch, if you need to record your podcast and don’t have access to your usual equipment setup, your smartphone will do.

That being said, a fit-for-purpose microphone makes a big difference. The zoo field recording used a stereo XY microphone, and you can hear the difference. When you listen through headphones, some of the sounds in the environment come through on the left, and others come through on the right. The environment wraps around the audience and grabs more attention.

Podcasters Will Take Any Opportunity to Self-Promote

It must have seemed that our participation site was fully automated and that the submissions would appear on the display without a human being checking them first. One podcaster sent us a recording that was the trailer to their podcast. Another podcaster sent us not a .wav file but a text file with their podcast’s description.

We get it. Podcast promotion feels like a never-ending challenge. It makes you want to promote your podcast everywhere and anywhere. Just remember, targeted promotion to the right opportunity that’s genuinely relevant to your show is always better than slapping your art and name around everywhere, like stickers on traffic signs and dive bar bathrooms. What we wanted was a field recording, so… thank you?

Human Beings Are a Lot Louder Than Anyone Realizes

People who can hear conventionally don’t realize that unconsciously, their brain helps them filter out the sounds they don’t want to pay attention to at the moment. Microphones have no such option. They pick up whatever’s loudest or nearest.

The human body is so much louder than we think it is. We don’t notice until we’re trying to record something other than people. You can go out to record a peaceful forest glade, then get home and listen to the replay to find that you also captured someone’s conversation, multiple sneezes in the far distance, and your own breathing like Darth Vader.

When it comes to recording and editing, headphones are your friend. They show you what the microphone picked up, so you know whether or not you need another take.

To be a good podcast host, practice curiosity
To be a good podcast host, practice curiosity.

Tangible Rewards Outweigh Cooperative Goals

When we planned this challenge, we thought that people would be itching to get out after a long winter and appreciate their environment in a new way. Many folks said yes and sent us some unique, multi-layered field recordings. There wasn’t as much participation compared to surveys we’ve run in the past, though, where we offered a random prize drawing.

We achieved quality over quantity, so I’m not disappointed. Offering a prize for “best field recording” isn’t right, though. The comparison is highly subjective. We could have offered a random prize drawing. This taught us that you have to offer something more concrete and specific than “let’s make a Creative Commons library.” Lesson learned: when you need to get help with your podcast, offer a tangible reward.

listening to a podcast mowing the lawn

Powered Lawn Equipment Is Inescapable

All podcasters know that the second you press “record,” someone within a 100-meter radius will turn on their lawn mower, leaf blower, electric hedge trimmer, or whatever sound is most likely to overpower your recording. The final field recording in the submission pool was no exception.

Field Recording is Challenging but Worthwhile

Field recording an audio backdrop for your podcast adds a layer of verisimilitude and immediacy to add interest to your podcast episodes. Soon, we’ll have a small library of sounds for people to use under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Practice makes perfect, or at the very least makes your podcast more exciting and enjoyable.