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Noise and field recording -

Noise and field recording

Often over- and misused, ‘noise’ has a specific meaning in the context of acoustic ecology and field recording. It is generally an unwanted element, whether natural or a product of equipment/software. We can talk about wind noise in a calm soundscape, or microphone self noise in a very soft recording, or digital noise generated by quantisation. 

From an acoustic ecology perspective, anthropogenic noise (alternatively anthropophony or anthrophony) is an ever-increasing side effect (and sometimes desired outcome) of urbanisation, modernisation, globalisation, etc. Very clear examples of this include the sounds of aircraft flying overhead, industry, road and ocean traffic, sonar, weapons testing, and many others. A slightly different way to look at this is to consider natural quiet: the absence of human-made noise and the presence of natural sounds. 

Sound recordists try to ensure the best signal-to-noise ratio by getting very close to their sources, using high quality kit (microphones, preamps, recorders), and by recording at the correct gain values. For someone like me who records natural soundscapes for a living, anthropophony is a perpetual nemesis. It’s also a challenge I’ve worked hard to overcome – learning a lot in the process. 

Our brains (the auditory cortex in particular) are adept at stripping away irrelevant content, like the distant sound of road traffic when you’re a seven-year-old exploring a previously unknown part of the local forest.

I take considerable pride in having had a pretty feral childhood, roaming the wild hills and forests in North East Romania. My childhood memories are mostly of pristine natural spaces full of birdsong, of heavy winters with crazy blizzards and mountains of snow, or of clear streams and rivers full of wildlife. 

I have no recollection of distant traffic sounds – though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Our brains (the auditory cortex in particular) are adept at stripping away irrelevant content, like the distant sound of road traffic when you’re a seven-year-old exploring a previously unknown part of the local forest. 

Even later in life, most people don’t register all the various anthropogenic elements they can hear at any given moment. Whether it’s the din of traffic, neighbours’ arguments filtering through walls, or low vibrations from heavy vehicles passing nearby – this is all discarded in favour of more immediately relevant acoustic information.

I won’t go into the wider implications of anthropogenic noise and its effects on animals, including humans, but here’s a bit of relevant reading if you’re interested in this: 

So how did I become aware of my newly identified nemesis? Well, the first time I put on a pair of headphones to listen to the world through microphones, all of the content that my brain wasn’t registering became painfully apparent. I was in a semi-urban park and I could hear birds singing, soft wind in the trees, and ducks in a pond, but listening through headphones added to the mix vehicle engines, aircraft, and people playing football nearby. I was not expecting a pristine, untouched soundscape, but I wasn’t ready for all the anthropophony either. 

Many years later, I can now disengage the management part of my auditory cortex in order to be fully aware of what I’m listening to. If I’m in the recording mindset, I can identify sounds that I would normally be unaware of. Sometimes I can hear things I’m not supposed to or don’t want to hear. 

Even so, certain sounds can be masked in a complex soundscape. Others are just below the threshold of hearing, but will become audible in recordings. This is where, as a sound recordist, I have to work extra hard to avoid capturing distant human-made sound when I’m after clean nature ambience.

Clean or pristine natural soundscapes are mainly relevant for purposes like sound design or meditation. In other fields it can be argued that focusing on clean ambience is missing the point, and that it is preferable to record everything as it is. I have mixed feelings about this – on one hand I agree that only presenting clean recordings might be misleading, but on the other, these recordings are needed, if only to preserve the sound of these spaces for posterity. Let me offer some examples.

In the Amazon rainforest, from Peru to Colombia and Brazil, I have had to contend with the constant sound of distant boats. During the day, it was mostly people fishing or travelling from village to village. At night, smugglers, cocaleros, loggers, miners, pirates, and people carrying out other illegal activities. Close to rivers, the din never died down. I had to walk away from navigable waterways for many miles through the jungle to get away from human-made sound. It was a similar story in mangrove forests in Borneo, coastal deltas in Senegal, and estuaries in Madagascar.

It’s almost impossible to get far enough away from human-made sound, because there is rarely enough forest to offer shelter from it and to preserve some natural quiet.

In the inland rainforests of Borneo and Madagascar, it’s very difficult to avoid the sound of mopeds and motorcycles. People living and working in plantations (oil palm, eucalyptus for firewood, cash crop vanilla, etc) move around on these very noisy vehicles, and have to do so constantly, day and night. The sad reality is that there is much more plantation than old-growth rainforest in these areas, and the disparity keeps growing. It’s almost impossible to get far enough away from human-made sound, because there is rarely enough forest to offer shelter from it and to preserve some natural quiet.

In the savanna areas of sub-Saharan Africa, subsistence agriculture and cattle farming permeates the boundaries of most ‘wild’ areas. The Masai Mara has become home to many cattle herds, with the tacit approval of the authorities and at the expense of wildlife populations due to increased human-wildlife conflict. While the sound of cattle mooing isn’t as damaging as distant engines, it is still associated with humans in the minds of wild creatures, with all the expected implications. It is also something I try to stay away from when recording wild soundscapes, with varying degrees of success.

The high-altitude plateaus of Ethiopia – home to the Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canid in the world – have become grazing grounds for sheep and goat herds which are guarded by dogs. In similar fashion, Fulani herders move constantly around the [semi-arid] Sahel region and south into savanna. Though they’ve done this for aeons, it is now becoming problematic because of overgrazing, human-wildlife conflict, and conflict with non-nomadic populations. As human populations increase, the natural quiet goes away.

These are extremely complex issues that involve humans, wildlife, and nature equally. They are not definitively negative or positive, and require sensible approaches at a variety of levels. I don’t have any answers or suggestions on how to keep wild spaces wild. I don’t even know how realistic or beneficial it is to intervene in these situations. Knee-jerk reactions like banishing people from national parks can be even more damaging in the long term. 

From an acoustic ecology perspective, it’s difficult to draw the line between what should be there and what is considered noise. Sometimes it is a matter of labelling a soundscape as countryside rather than wilderness. That seems fair if the recording includes the sounds of cattle, roosters, or people tilling fields. It might also work if there’s only the occasional distant engine. But in the case of anything more ‘human’, it becomes clear that this is no longer a naturally quiet soundscape.

As soon as you start asking these questions, you have to consider the philosophical implications of where humans sit in the overarching order of things. There are clear arguments for separating what’s natural from what’s human-made or -introduced. The sound of constant city traffic is damaging for your mental wellbeing, according to many authoritative sources. Exposure to naturally quiet nature is beneficial, according to many of the same sources. What sets these extremes apart is how much influence humans have on these environments. 

At the other end of this spectrum, we humans live in the environment, and thinking of ourselves as superior and/or separate from it can only deepen this divide. There’s an argument for considering ourselves as part of nature so that we feel more connected to it, and hopefully more inclined to protect the wild spaces left – soundscapes included. 

Over the years I have worked in countless places that might seem amazingly wild. The Congo basin rainforest, the Atacama and Namib deserts, South Luangwa in Zambia, the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, and the Sahel in Senegal/Mauritania, to name a select few. Humans have lived in each and every one of these places for untold millennia, in smaller or larger numbers. They have left their mark on the environment, to a greater or lesser extent. They’ve influenced these places’ soundscapes and continue to do so. While some effects can be detrimental, successful conservation endeavours require working with the humans who call these places home – and that includes the soundscape.

George Vlad is a sound recordist, photographer, and expedition leader who specialises in recording remote soundscapes, rare wildlife, and extreme environments. Fore more information check out his website and listen to his work on his YouTube channel.

Photos courtesy of George Vlad is a completely free streaming service of 700+ nature sounds from around the world, offering natural soundscapes and guided meditations for people who wish to listen to nature, relax, and become more connected.

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