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So I got a chance to visit an old church today which is over 300,000 square feet total with my recording equipment to poke around and see what I could find to record. Not a soul was on the premises except myself, so I decided to record some ambiences and room tones and at least get a head start on material for the upcoming Hiss and a Roar Room Tone library.

While recording, I thought of some great tips for recording quiet ambiences which I have not seen written anywhere else (forgive me if it's already been covered on this site or another):

  1. Don't wear a loud watch. I was wearing an analog watch today which has a ticking second hand which is not even that loud (unnoticeable when I'm wearing it) but when you boost your mics up to capture that wonderful wafting air in an old stone church, you're going to hear every tick of that darn thing.

  2. Watch how loud you breathe if you're staying close to your mics. The slightest whistle of your nose or breath will be amplified to digital 0.

  3. If you have the chance, get the recorder started and just walk away and leave for 5 minutes and then come back. I found it hard to be perfectly still and not make a sound while sitting kneeling in gravel or trying to hold a mic up towards something and not have to shift my weight to be more comfortable or twitch my grip or scratch a leg, etc. It's far better to just take yourself out of the equation - especially when capturing quiet sounds. I understand if you are afraid of your setup getting swiped by someone, but try to leave it for a bit. In this case, it would probably be good to bring a headphone extension cable so you can still monitor your recording from afar to make sure a raccoon or something hasn't begun slashing away at your windjammer.

  4. Take your time to find the right mic placement. I spent an extra 3 to 5 minutes to find the exact right spot for the mics. I found the perfect placement to get an even spread of my ORTF configuration on both my Schoeps pair and Senn pair - and they each had quite a difference in position to get a similar spread. It is tricky but I wanted to capture an even and not lopsided balance between left and right.

  5. Traffic is sometimes a good thing to have in the recording. Sometimes when you're in a house close to a street, it's good to have that wash of traffic outside because some movies will have that situation where you see traffic passing by outside a window and to have a completely dead ambience and trying to low-pass an outside recording of traffic isn't the most realistic sound for it - traffic from an indoors perspective is valuable, too.

  6. In addition to the above, if there are any doors or windows, it's great to have that door opening and closing to that outside ambience. For when a character walks in or leaves, I always find it hard to re-create that phasey ambience that happens when a door opens or closes. I record this by having the door unlatched before I do anything, then open and close the door without making a sound from the door latch or knob, so I get that washy, phasey, shhhhhhwheeeewwhwhhhhh of the outside ambience getting louder and then fading when the door opens and closes respectively.

  7. Keep an eye out for holes in the wall or skinnier doors. Great suppliers of whistles and moans.

    • Funny anecdote from today: I was inside the extremely large chapel and I hear footsteps on the roof start from the back of the chapel al the way to the front and then every so often I hear a footstep or stirring on the roof. They were definitely something human because there was a definite left-right-left-right cadence to them - not like an animal or something. So I go upstairs and make it to the roof and look to see who's up there because I'm already scared out of my wits being alone and all, and lo and behold - no-one was there. Spooky.
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@utopia, if you listen close enough and long enough you can hear voices in pink noise too... –  g.a.harry Apr 16 '11 at 6:12
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Fan-farking-tastic post, by the way. Have you considered doing IRs stimulated by a nose whistle? I bet it would be pretty cool. –  g.a.harry Apr 16 '11 at 6:16
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Great post! Scary about those footsteps though?! –  Fred Pearson Apr 16 '11 at 13:38
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Number 3 will always be a personal favorite of mine, especially when recording silent places or crowds. –  Morten Green Apr 17 '11 at 19:14
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Number 3 actually makes a lot of sense.I will try that... thanks for the post –  chrisnanny Aug 20 '11 at 10:51
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3 Answers

Nice list of tips and ideas there, thanks!

Re. footsteps on the roof: crows can make that noise. They settle a lot on the roof of my local railway station and when they're swaggering about it sounds like there's a person pacing about up there in a quite slow and deliberate way.

Probably more of relevance to people using binaural or other headworn mics, but you can cancel the sound of your breath by holding a thin cloth to your mouth, eg a handkerchief, and breathing through that.

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Also try recording at different heights, sometimes placing the mic/mics really close to the ground or in corners gives a more complex sound due to comb filtering.

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Great advice there! I always try and record quiet ambiences in a way that will roughly correspond to where you think such sounds might play out in the mix. I don't see much point in cranking the gain up too much. Maybe 6-12db max more but nothing too crazy. I might record with an average of about -40dbFs when recording digitally.

What levels are the rest of you setting at? Cheers!

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