You are here

Why I Love... Handheld Recorders

Michael Denny By Michael Denny
Published May 2022

Why I Love... Handheld Recorders

Modern, computer‑based music technology has revolutionised home production. For all the positives, though, one downside is that we spend the majority of our music‑making time staring at computer, tablet and smartphone screens. Making a conscious effort to get away from the screen for part of the process can help breed creativity, boost our enjoyment of the process, and enable us to develop a unique sound.

As a guitarist, recording my performances has always been an enjoyable part of my workflow and one that gets me out of my chair. To take more processes away from the screen, I have introduced a couple of hardware synths, a drum machine, a growing collection of effects pedals and a hardware sequencer to my arsenal. However, my favourite means of getting away from the screen, and out of the studio environment altogether, is to use a handheld recorder: in other rooms in my house, exploring the local area, or while travelling to new locations.

The Chase

Capturing audio with a handheld recorder encourages active listening; you can consider the auditory characteristics of your environment and focus on sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed. The more you undertake this practice, the more you observe the details and nuances of the soundscape around you. In some environments you find yourself focusing on ‘melodic’, ‘harmonic’ and ‘rhythmic’ elements and the relationships, contradictions, and dissonance between them.

The thrill of the chase is part of the appeal of getting out of the studio environment — you never know when you might find your next sound. Sometimes I may plan certain sounds I’d like to capture on a visit to a specific location, but for me, the pleasure comes from listening, discovering and capturing the unexpected.

When capturing sounds with the handheld recorder the process becomes much more about listening and observing, stimulating and heightening your awareness of the sounds around you.

Once you have collated and edited your recordings, you have access to your own sample library of unique source material to incorporate into your next production. These recordings evoke memories of people and places, and they can trigger an array of emotions. Sounds that you have captured can document and tell a story. One tip I would share here is to remember to name your files and store them in an organised manner so you can easily search for and identify your recordings when needed.

Raw Material

Field recordings can be utilised in a range of contexts. In my work, the natural sound of waves and rivers has been combined with acoustic instrumentation to be used in mindfulness and relaxation soundscaping projects. In contrast, some of my more abstract and found sound recordings have been processed through effects and programmed to make virtual instruments, textural beds and soundscapes. My virtual instrument collection includes pads made from the sounds of a chainsaw, a rusty farm gate squeaking on the Isle of Mull, and the ambience of a city centre train station. When working on a recent collaborative project, the main melodic instrument was created using a sample from a ceramic lamp that made a perfect, almost marimba‑esque tone when gently struck.

I take the handheld recorder with me almost everywhere I go. Over the years, this has allowed me to capture an ever‑growing catalogue of sounds, from a Gaelic choir rehearsing on the remote Isle of Ulva, to a 1am drive through a Cumbrian summer thunderstorm. If you haven’t captured your own field recordings before, I highly recommend it. Most smartphones have voice recording apps, so you have probably already got a portable recorder in your pocket ready to go.