Hi everyone. Just wondering if anyone had any tips on recording city and town ambiances?

I have access to a few different kinds of microphone so is there any specific type I should record with? Stereo, Omni etc.

Also im not too sure on what the best levels would be for recording fairly quiet parts. I need to get some clean recordings so dont want to go trigger happy with cranking the levels up and getting noisy recordings.. If it helps im using a Zoom H4n and a PSC mixer.

If anyone has any other tips that would be great!

Thanks Sam

  • Based on your gear, you're best bet is to gain up the mic Input on the PSC as much as you can, followed by the Output of the PSC, then followed by the H4n. That should help keep your noise down, since the Output and H4n will be noisier and by running the Input as hot as you can, you won't have to amplify these 2 as much. I'd recommend recording a little on the softer side and then boost it up in post - in my own experience the Metro busses in LA are loud mothers and if you run too hot for an "average" level on your ambience all it takes is one of these to drive by and you're gone. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 17:41
  • If it helps to figure out a good record level, when I'm using the H4n with the internal mics or a Rode NT4 direct-in with nothing else in the signal chain, I rock by ambience levels for city as about Level 40, then gain it up by about 12dB in post if there's room (I like to master them loud for waveform robustness purposes in Soundminer, but some don't like to master them this loud). And in the end, ambiences are going to be playing pretty low in a mix so even if there's some light noisefloor you capture, when you reduce the total signal, the noise is also attenuated. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 17:46
  • Thanks a lot mate, some very good advice there! I will get out and experiment! Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 11:49

3 Answers 3


Hi Sam,

Sounds like a cool project.

There are a lot of traffic and crowd sound effects already out there, so you may want to consider recording things that are unique to your environment. Not sure on the requirements for your project, but I find these sounds get a lot of milage.

In Toronto, for example, we have streetcars here that aren't anywhere else and make some characteristic traffic tracks. Another idea is a specific farmer's market, or a classic location (Champs-Elysees, Times Square etc).

Of course stock ambiences are necessary for flexibility. I'd suggest also seeking out those characteristic recordings to make recording even more interesting.

As far as the technical aspects, I'd choose the most transparent yet lush gear you can find. This will make sure you represent the location well.

Because there is a lot of overlap (i.e. crowds over traffic, birds over crowd) you may want to find a mic that has so options at isolating sounds (different capsules or matrix box).

I would think you won't be facing many ambiences that are especially quiet, except perhaps room tones or air tones.

Good luck and enjoy,

Paul Virostek

  • Thanks Paul! Im recording it in Manchester so I will definitely hone in on areas that are unique to the city! Thanks again :) Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 15:19

If you're looking for a quite, overall city ambience, you might try to get up a high building. Here you wont have any pronounced sounds, just the over all city hum. I usually like ambient recordings made with a AB stereo set (two omni's with a distance of 70 cm between them). The omni's usually have a more clear sound on them. The record level on a digital recorder as the H4n should be pretty easy (low) I guess, it's not necessary to record your ambience any louder, you'll only have to pull your faders down in the mix where the dBscale is harder to manage. Good luck!


Record in layers, so that you have flexibility when mixing. I've recorded urban ambiences at street level, on a 3rd story, and on an 8th story rooftop, mics pointing down and up, and it all sounds incredibly different. A mix of perspectives, times of day, and amount of traffic (vehicular and/or human) will all make a huge difference. To get really usable layers, it's harder and takes more time than you'd think.

If you do it right, IMO, recording urban ambiences is pretty much the same as shooting natural ambiences: Scout locations, listen keenly, think about final use, record longer than you'll need by a factor of 2x-3x, and determine per location if a spot sound or the broader scene is what you want to capture. Biggest difference, though, is that you don't really need to worry about mic self-noise in a city the way you do for rural recording.

I like ORTF for the widest and most enveloping ambiences, but truth be told, for portability and convenience I usually roll with an M/S rig. This has saved my bacon loads of times as I try out a location ambience session and find that actually that truck/streetsweeper/car/motorcycle/crazyman is a far more interesting spot source, so I switch focus in the field and then break it down as a mono layer in post.

I often just run experiments where I build urban ambiences in post against specific emotion keywords: Stressful, intimidating, bucolic, etc. Good practice to see where the holes in your library exist!

  • Yeah I was definitely going to record from a number of perspectives and times of day. My mic catalogue is fairly basic so I will have to try an make the most of what I have and see how it comes together. Thanks! Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 11:52

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