RESEARCH: papers, conference presentations, books, residencies

A Brief History of Field Recording

Conference presentation

ISSTA 2016, Ulster University (Magee campus), Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland. 7 September 2016.


The term "field recording" exists only because this task was once difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Recording sound outside the formal studio setting was a disruptive practice that challenged normative conceptions of music, nature, and scientific study. This perspective has been lost in today's culture of ubiquitous recording. We can now readily regard quotidian sounds as suitable material for contemplative listening, even musical composition. Within the field of electroacoustic music, this practice is usually traced back to John Cage's "Williams Mix" (1951-53), implemented using the first tape recorder in North America. However, little attention has been given earlier practice. This paper will address this oversight.

On 5 March 1910 in Bremen, Germany, Karl Reich recorded "Song of a Nightingale", soon released as a one-sided 78 rpm Gramophone disk. This is the first fixed recording of an animal, and the first commercial release that can tentatively be regarded as a field recording. But the bird was not wild, rather housed in an aviary. In 1929 at the Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell, stock broker Albert R. Brand funded birdsong recordings in order to demonstrate the new technology of synchronized sound for the Fox-Case Movietone Corporation. In 1934, German publisher Verlag Knorr & Hirth released "The Wood Resounds", the first commercial disk from Wilhelm Koch, soon to be a popular figure on BBC Radio. By the late 1950s the practice was gaining traction. In 1956, John Hutchinson began recording wildlife sounds in Australia. In France, Jean Roché released the first of his recordings in 1958. Walter Tilgner created the soundtrack to a film about the Frankfurt Forest in 1959.

This paper describes these practices in a historical context, with attention paid to the equipment required and methods employed. The purpose is to demonstrate the varying imperatives -- aesthetic, documentary, commercial, educational -- that drove the development of field recording across disciplines including birding, bioacoustics, film soundtracks, ethnomusicology, and popular music.


This description was entirely too ambitious! The presented paper covered some highlights.