In Defence of Modified Sounds – 2’30”

Since I began working in the area of field recording I have been surprised at the level of disdain that modified sounds can raise. There seems to be a strong belief that field recordings should be left unedited; that those who manipulate their recordings are presenting an impure, or at worst dishonest, sonic experience.

While I believe that any modifications such as the layering of sound should be declared by the field recorder, I don’t think it is fair to impose value systems upon the way we create and listen to Sound.

What strikes me as ironic is that even the most “unedited” of field recordings still require a measure of artifice. Before a recording is presented decisions have to be made as to how to emphasise the focal point for the listener. Carefully choosing when to begin and end the clip in order to frame the desired focus, using filters or graphic EQs to accentuate sounds are all common techniques in the construction of a “natural” field recording – each with its own level of manipulation.

As someone who works in “raw” field recordings and soundscapes I would like to think that my engagement with both forms enhances my ability to listen. Consequently this active listening stimulates an appreciation of place. In an age when so many natural sounds particular to specific locales are being smothered by the noise of the industrial world, shouldn’t our role as field recorders partly be to guide others into the same joy of listening without imposing a prescriptive hierarchy?

2 thoughts on “In Defence of Modified Sounds – 2’30”

  1. This is an important post for anyone interested in field recording. You have expressed the argument very well … and I completely agree with you but I would take it even further. You are absolutely right, even completely unedited sound recordings still have the bias of the recordist embedded in them. I think that we can get far too hung up with the ‘purist’ argument. While so called ‘raw’ field recordings have their place, and a valuable place, I cannot understand those who argue that the editing, processing and layering of sound is somehow a ‘bad thing’. I think that it’s entirely acceptable to process field recordings to enhance the sense of atmosphere and the sense of place. My only caveat would be that processing should not be used to enhance bad work – the ‘photoshopping’ of sound. The field recordist should aim to get it right first time rather than using computer tools to disguise mistakes.

    What I think is more worrying, is that the ‘purist’ argument often extends to a criticism of sound art. Any good field recordist (those who are more concerned with the finished work rather than the means of getting there) have an artistic streak in them and I am fully in favour of letting that artistic streak speak. If someone chooses to take original recordings and then edit, process, manipulate and layer them to create an original work of sound art then I applaud that.

    Chris Watson is probably the finest wild life sound recordist in the world and he knows a thing or two about ‘raw’ filed recordings. In another life he has taken the manipulation of sound to the extreme in his cutting edge sound art. If it’s good enough for him then it’s good enough for me.

    Excellent post and you are quite right to raise the issue.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond with such an articulate comment. I could almost swap what you’ve written and enter it into the post. I look forward to listening to more of your soundwalks – your sounds from Monmarte were a pleasure to listen to.


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