How to Record Wave Sounds - 5 Tips to Grow Your Field Recording Craft
Next week we will be releasing three new sound libraries of wave sounds. Today we’ll take a first look at the sounds from the upcoming sound effects releases.
It was a huge job creating the collections – from the countless hours finding and recording many shorelines, to editing and mastering the final sound clips. Curious how we created the sound libraries? We’ll explain today.
Maybe you’re a field recordist yourself. Want to learn how to record wave sounds? Today’s article includes 5 essential tips and tricks for recording ocean wave sounds, sea shorelines, crashing surf, beach sounds, and trickling water laps. The tips aren’t about equipment – that’s been covered elsewhere – instead, they offer insight of field recording craft learned from years recording thousands of hours of wave sounds.
Bonus: at the end of the post we’ll share how to get an early bird discount for the upcoming libraries, so stay tuned.
Gathering Wave Sounds
Why record wave sounds?
Well, in 2015 I departed Canada permanently to travel throughout the sunny lands of South East Asia. Unlike living in South Western Ontario, shorelines are not far from most cities in the east. In the tropics, shorelines twist around the edge of most countries. It’s an easily accessible sound. Because of this, there’s a vast variety of textures in the wave sounds: waves on sand, trickling laps and gurgles around rocks, and stony shores – each with their own voice and expression.
There’s something about the water here that’s different. Maybe it’s the swish of palm leaves as the waves softly boom in the distance. Perhaps it’s the feel of a tranquil seaside resort. I had recorded on the coasts of North America and across Southern Europe. Those shorelines there have their own textures and moods. In the tropics, though, wave sounds create a feeling that make it one of the most popular sounds. It’s this feeling that beckons millions of tourists every year to recline by the ocean.
While shorelines cover most of the planet, no two are the same. When your project calls for a tropical seaside, using an Atlantic shore won’t work. It won’t match. We know you need just the right clip for your equatorial projects. So, we travelled across Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia with one goal: to capture the unique voice of the water and the feeling of the tropics.
Recording Wave Sounds
With wave sounds being so common – water covers 71% of the earth’s surface – there’s ample opportunity to record surf and shorelines. Just don’t think it will be easy. Why?
Wave Sounds Recording Challenges
1. Wave Sounds and Wind
Wind is one of the most common challenges to field recording in general. Too much wind creates deep rumbling that overlaps the booming bass of wave impacts. It may overload microphones capsules, ruining all sound entirely. Let’s not forget the smaller things, too: wind can shake microphone stands and rattle cables adding more problems when editing recordings later. Wind is exceptionally difficult to remove from sounds afterwards without damaging the heft and soul of recordings; often windy wave sounds need to be abandoned completely.
For beach, wave, and surf recording, these problems are more pronounced. Why?
Well, most shorelines are unrestricted – unlike in forests or in cities, there is nothing to block the blustery power of the wind. It blows from the ocean to the shore constantly. The threat of wind ruining wave sounds is ever-present and relentless.
2. Interference and Problem Sounds
Everybody loves the beach. For field recording, this creates a problem. Regular tourist beaches are filled with screaming kids, yelling hawkers, and swerving Sea Doos offshore. Just like the problem wind creates from unobstructed locations, marine traffic from ferries, trawlers, and other boats carry a long way and can halt recordings for half an hour or more until they disappear.
What about in the tropics? Sun worshipers and fishermen appear even in remote locations, damaging recordings with voices and radios. Stray beach dogs roam shorelines and sniff curiously at field recording equipment.
It’s incredibly difficult to find completely pure, natural sound needed to record evocative wave sounds.
The character and expression of waves is shaped from two sources: the surface the water interacts with and the power of the waves. It’s easy enough to control where you record. However it is impossible to control the tide itself.
Knowing the behaviour of the ocean is essential. Ignoring it may mean the difference between capturing powerful waves smashing on rocks or showing up to an empty beach. Without planning for tides risks capturing the wrong sound, or perhaps no sound at all.
The ocean is strong. Here in South East Asia, it’s common to hear stories of people posing for Instagram shots on picturesque oceanside bluffs before a rogue wave surges and pulls them into the sea. It’s terribly tragic, but it’s vital to be aware that the ocean is dangerous.
There are smaller health risks to think of too: heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and sunburn and windburn are no joke.
Equipment is at risk as well. Waves are unpredictable; it’s common for swells to leap forward unexpectedly and engulf a shoreline kit. I’ve lost a recorder to the sea myself.
How is time a challenge when recording wave sounds? You’d have to rush when to record an approaching siren. A dawn chorus will begin, swell, and end. It’s important to be at the right place and time for these sounds. But waves? They are ever-present, aren’t they?
That’s true. However, recording waves is a race against time. The character and expression of waves can alter quickly as tides evolve. With the swift shoreline winds, changes in weather can sweep up quickly. With the prevalence of sound from marine traffic and people combined with how easily sound travels across water, the chance to capture uninterrupted wave sounds can evaporate quickly.
Tips for Recording Wave Sounds
How did we sidestep these problems while recording our new sound libraries?
Avoiding wind while recording wave sounds requires a four-pronged approach: meterology, positioning, equipment, and using educational tools.
It’s vital to know when the wind will be quietest. I learned a lot about wave recording from renown field recordist Gordon Hempton. He includes invaluable tips for recording wave sounds in his book Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox. In the book, Hempton describes how wind grows throughout the day as the sun heats the planet. So, it’s usually less powerful in the morning. Record then.
Knowing the pattern of wind is important, too. While scouting for recording locations on the tropical island of Ko Samed, I learned that the west side of the island was constantly pummelled by powerful winds. The rise of the island cut the wind as it travelled east, leaving the other side relatively windless.
Just the same, wind can twist and turn and sneak into any location. So, it’s vital to shelter equipment, too. Repositioning a recording set up only a few meters nestled behind a rock face can protect it from directional wind, and may mean the difference between success and failure.
Like many other field recordings, protecting microphones themselves from wind is essential. When I first started, I used a typical Rycote modular windshield with a windjammer. It was useless. The shoreline winds were just too strong. Standard windshields just wouldn’t do. I upgraded to a Cinela Pianissimo with a thick pile windjammer and the difference was incredible. A Rycote Cyclone may be just as good, but I don’t have first hand experience with it. Whichever you choose, equipment makes a substantial impact on improving wave recordings.
Don’t forget to arm yourself with educational tools. Windy is great site and app that can help you know the best time and places to record, as well as the motion of the wind. Surf cams are a second-best substitute for scouting locations. Many surf clubs have live camera feeds of shorelines so you will know how much wind you’ll face before you put on your shoes.
2. Interference and Problem Sounds
The soft sizzle of wave sounds on sand just isn’t the same with a jet ski buzzing around. A beachgoer’s boom box music can make any recording spot useless. How can you avoid noisy beaches?
It’s self evident, but it’s important to mention anyway: scout a location first. Visit hopeful spots before recording to know when marine and foot traffic is greatest. It’s not easy to find isolated shorelines, but they do exist. Usually they’re in remote places that are tricky to get to. One great beach I found in Pran Buri, Thailand could only be accessed by a gruelling hour-long hike over a mountain. The reward was 8 hours of uninterrupted recording.
While it’s best to avoid tourist hotspots, it is possible to record wave sounds on more accessible beaches, too. How?
Start recording before dawn. Stay at a place next to the shore and have your gear ready to go the night before. Then, hit sand before anyone wakes, the traffic starts buzzing, or generators begin to kick in. You’ll also avoid most of the marine traffic, fishing trawlers, and so on.
For the upcoming libraries, I was quite lucky to record during COVID lockdown – the beaches of Ko Samed, Rayong, Koh Phangan, and Pran Buri in Thailand were completely empty.
For more immediate tips, insulate your microphone stand to ensure that footsteps on the sand don’t resonate through the ground, into your mic stand, and onto your recordings. Stand at a distance so the microphones don’t pick up movement or breathing – yes, the waves are loud, but you’d be surprised what microphones can pick up.
I also use the apps MarineTraffic to get a heads up on boats in the area. FlightRadar24 keeps an eye on the skies to plan around intrusive aircraft.
It’s important to plan recording wave sounds around the tides. Tides change drastically within even a few days. This can alter your recording start time – it may mean the difference between a high tide on an empty beach or one packed with screaming kids.
Tides add important character to the water: pushing or pulling, surging and swelling or draining and ebbing. They may be lifeless or lively. Each has their own character.
Use the site or app Tides Near Me to know what to expect.
The sea is powerful. It’s deceptive, too. The entrancing sound and motion has a primal call. Just the same, be careful. Slippery rocks can lead to snapped ankles or toppling into the sea. Rogue waves may surge closer and higher quicker than expected. Keep your distance. Respect the sea. Always be cautious and remember safety is paramount. Risks aren’t necessary; the waves will be there tomorrow.
I wear beach shoes since they’re less bulky than other footwear, have great grip, and work well in water. When recording rocky shorelines, you’ll find yourself moving around to capture the watery trickles in channels and under rocks. I use a pro messenger bag with a waterproof interior for my gear because it’s easy to quickly pick up, sling over your shoulder, and move from one place to the next. A tactical flashlight or headlamp ensures I don’t slip on rocks recording before dawn. Choose appropriate clothing: I record completely covered up with tactical-style clothing to protect from the sun, chill, and wind. Don’t forget sunscreen and aloe vera if you’re recording in the heat of the day.
Protect your equipment, too. Despite my best planning, I lost a Sony PCM-D100 to rogue waves. Some people use dry bags to protect their gear; I personally find them too finicky but you can’t argue that they keep water out. Neutrik waterproof XLR connectors are a good idea if you have your cables exposed to the shore. Gorilla waterproof tape is a good backup. I use wet naps to clean any cables or bags that are exposed to sand. It’s important to do this immediately; sand will get everywhere otherwise.
Nearly every time I recorded wave sounds was a race against time. Even the most ideal shorelines can be interrupted by distant trawlers, surging wind, or curious tourists. Sound travels, so even a good beach can quickly turn into a nightmare.
Of course, there’s no way to beat time, but it is possible to cheat it.
One way is to record with multiple microphones at once. I often use 4-6 microphones at a single location. Some can cover for others in case of failure. It’s much more rewarding to spread out your kit, too. How?
In addition to my main microphone, I’ll place portable microphones at different distances and locations across the shoreline. This is especially helpful on rocky shorelines where waves surging in one cluster of rocks sound much different than another even a few meters away. Clippy and Uši microphones are superb for this; they’re easy to set up and transport, and capture good sound. Recording with multiple microphones allows you to record different wave textures in parallel instead of sequentially, saving considerable time. Experiment with different microphone techniques: ORTF, AB, M/S, and so for further character variations. (Beware though, M/S wave recordings can often result in phase-like sound.)
Of course, ensure they are placed safely; if you’re monitoring your main microphone, you won’t be able to dash down the beach to save a Sony PCM-D100 from a sudden, surging tide. Believe me, I know.
Mastering Wave Sounds
What’s the best way to edit wave sounds?
Well, the good news is that wave sounds are quite forgiving. It’s easy to edit out a problem sound and then simply cross-fade the remaining audio together seamlessly.
The true difficulty in mastering wave sounds is removing wind. An otherwise excellent shoreline recording can be damaged by even a slight breeze. Equalization is usually not helpful for repairing them; even subtle EQ can gut wave recordings. It usually takes the heft and power out of the beauty of the sound. Normally, I discard any recordings with disruptive wind. For truly special recordings, iZotope RX’s Spectral Repair can help. Lately, I’ve found that using Ambience Match on just a sliver of the wind-filled spectrum gives the best, most transparent results.
Wave Sounds Curation
When the editing was complete, each sound was tagged with both a detailed, sort-friendly name, as well as a human-readable sentence-style name.
The names include the type of shore, the strength of the waves, tide characteristics, and distance from the water. The text has ample search-friendly keywords to ensure you’ll find what you need.
Waves are some of the most interesting sounds to record since they have endless means of expression:
- Power: strong, weak, calm
- Period: the time between the waves)
- Size of wave
- Distance from shore
- Tide: time, high or low, pushing or pulling
- Surface: rocks, sand, shells, cliffs, vegetation
We added these characteristics help people imagine and find the type of wave they need. Think about these ways to describe wave sounds when recording and curating your own.
Wave Sounds Library Results
The result? Three collections with hundreds of hours of wave sounds. The libraries come in three flavours.
During editing, some wave recordings did have interfering sounds, but they were still interesting and useful. So, I split off happy sounds of children playing in the waves, beach dogs barking, water laps on boat launches and stone steps, waves with patrolling squid fishing boats, and others. These were organized for people that want the sound of resorts, cities by the sea, and shoreline fishing villages into their own library: Tropical Shores.
The pure natural sounds of waves became their own collection: Tropical Waves. They feature the sound of waves on different shorelines: rocks, coves, channels, as well as classic sandy beach waves. Many of these are looped seamlessly for ease of use.
A third collection offers hour-long loops of almost 100 wave sounds for those interested in soundscapes for meditation, yoga, studying, relaxation, and so on.
Thanks for joining us for this sound library preview. Stay tuned! We will release the full library next week. Join our free email newsletter to be notified when the collection is available, as well as receive a special deal for newsletter subscribers only.
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Field Recording 2023/02/25
Tags: wave sounds