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June 14, 2010


Street Recordings – Classifying Them

by soundlandscapes

This post is about classifying street recordings.

Whilst it is not absolutely necessary to classify recordings, I find that it helps if you do classify them not only to bring some sort of order to an overstretched filing system but also to give one a sense of focus and structure when making a recording. Providing the classification is not too rigid and you recognise that there may be some degree of overlap between the classifications then I find that it is better to classify than not to. Any classification you apply to your recordings will depend on the kind of recording you do. The wild-life recordists will have different classifications from the street recordists as will the documentary makers.

For my street recordings I use three main classifications: “Atmospheres”, “Locations” and “Targets”.


“Atmospheres” are common to all field recording. Sometimes referred to as “atmos” or “wild-tracks” they provide a context to a recording. They are especially important to programme makers in the editing process. Correctly used in a film or in a TV or radio programme, “atmospheres” are barely noticed but they are, nevertheless, an integral part of the programme sound. Imagine a TV documentary, a radio play, a film or a David Attenborough blockbuster without “atmos” and you will see what I mean.

Street recording is one of the areas where “atmospheres” can sometimes take centre stage in their own right but this has to treated with caution and used sparingly. If one regards street recording, as I do, as the compilation of an historical record then the atmosphere of a street, a town, a city or any other location at a given point in time is an integral part of that record.

It is important to consider sound levels in relation to “atmospheres”. Remember that whether they are used as stand-alone pieces or as a background to a broader recording, “atmospheres” are there to provide a context. When recording them the normal rules apply, set the record levels to capture the best dynamic range. The difference between “atmospheres” and other recordings is the level at which you play them back. The object is to listen to the recording when you play it back at the same level as you heard it originally which is not necessarily the same as the level at which you recorded it. Less is most definitely more!

Here is an “atmosphere” recorded in a churchyard in Montamartre on a Saturday afternoon in May. Do not be tempted to turn up the volume too much! Atmos Montmartre


This is the second of my street recording classifications.

“Locations” in this context means recordings of specific locations with distinctive sounds which clearly define the location. Making these recording can be a time consuming process. I may visit a specific location several times before I make a recording, varying the time of day or night, to try to establish what the specific sounds are that define the location. I also consider the best vantage point from which to make the recording. Only after doing this preliminary groundwork do I think about making the recording.

Here is a location recording I made in the Gare du Nord:   Gare du Nord

To those experts in Paris railway stations, this can only be the Gare du Nord. The giveaway is the public address announcements, only the trains mentioned depart from the Gare du Nord. It’s easy really! However, there is another distinguishing feature that is more subtle. The Gare du Nord for some reason has a different reverberation characteristic from other Paris stations. I know, because I have visited them all. This in itself makes the Gare du Nord unique.

More about sound levels. During the recording of “locations” again the standard rules apply, set the record levels to capture the best dynamic range. For play-back more latitude is acceptable than with playing back “atmosphere” recordings. It depends what you want to achieve. Playing back at the same level as the original sound you heard is a good starting point but, depending on the texture of the “location” recording, it is acceptable to play it back slightly louder if you want a more punchy effect.


This is the third classification for my street recordings.

Target recordings are those made of a specific sound or sounds which are distinct from the background atmosphere or the location in which they occur. The range of “targets” can be very broad – buskers, barrel organs, individual vehicles or aircraft, singers, machinery, steam engines, police sirens, speeches, the list goes on and on.

The important thing when making these “target” recordings is to be very clear about the specific sounds you want to capture before you start recording and then make a plan about the best way to capture those sounds. Sometimes you can do this in advance. As with recording atmospheres or locations time spent on a thorough recce is time well spent. However, sometimes a target sound appears from nowhere and you have to think on your feet and react quickly. If using your recording equipment is second nature and you are constantly building a sound map in your head, then you should be able to capture something of value.

Here is a “target” recording I made of the Chinese New Year here in Paris in 2008. The specific target sound was the special type of firecrackers the Chinese use on such occassions, something notoriously difficult to record.  Chinese New Year

Again, to the sound levels. Recording something like firecrackers with their staccato effect plays havoc with recording levels and so great care and attention is called for. As far as the play-back level is concerned, “target” recordings do merit a louder play back level than either “atmospheres” or “locations”. After all, the purpose is to make the target sound take centre stage.


1. It is not essential to classify your street recordings but if you do, you will have a better chance of recording and subsequently listening to your recordings in a structured way.

2. Remember that “atmosphere” recordings are exactly that. They are background sound that provide a context, they are not usually designed to take centre stage even though in a street recording context they may sometimes do so. The play-back level is key, less is always more!

3. “Location” recordings are designed to give a unique sense of place. Prepare carefully and capture the sounds that define the location. More latitude is acceptable with the play-back level.

4. “Target” recordings are designed to lift the target sound out of the background atmosphere and the location. Make the target sound the centrepiece of the recording.

… and finally …

These are my own thoughts about the classification of street sound recordings and others may look at things differently. All I can say is that it works for me. Clearly, there are areas of cross-over between the classifications that I have outlined so we should not get too precious about the classifications themselves. The big advantage I find in classifying street recordings is that it brings a structure to the recordings both during the actual recording process and also in the subsequent listening. For that purpose alone I think it is worthwhile.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 20 2010

    Yours looks like a good classification system. There seem to be different levels or kinds of attention implied by the three categories, ranging from very diffuse, through ‘locations’ where there are perhaps different sounds competing for attention, through to the focus of the ‘targets’.

    How would you classify the hubbub of many different conversations going on in a pub, where you can’t make out any of them?

  2. Jun 21 2010

    Thank you for your comment Ian.

    You ask about classifying hubbub in a pub. Clearly this would not be a ‘target’ recording unless you were singling out one particular sound or conversation. It might be a ‘location’ recording if there was a sound or sounds that clearly defined the location and made it unique e.g. what sound or sounds distighuishes say the Red Lion in Campden Town from the Red Lion in Sunderland?

    For me, the hubbub in a pub that you describe would fall into the ‘atmosphere’ category. It is a background sound, it provides a context, there is no single sound or sounds that identifies the location other than in a general sense and there is no single sound that dominates the scene. To look at it another way, consider what you would hear with your ears and not via your recorder. If you walked into the pub you describe you would hear the hubbub around you and it would probably dominate what you hear. Imagine then, walking to the bar, ordering a drink and engaging in conversation with the landlord. Suddenly, the brain’s audio filter would engage, you would be very aware of your conversation and much less aware of the hubbub around you. Your brain would, in effect, accentuate the words of your conversation with the landlord and diminish the background sounds that are not relevant to that conversation. The background sounds that dominated your listening before have now retreated to provide the context in which your conversation is taking place, at least as far as your brain is concerned. In reality the hubbub is still there and at the same level but you are much less aware of it. Take out the conversation element and you are still left with the hubbub providing a context or, as I would classify it, an ‘atmosphere’.

    Just a word about ‘locations’. Yes, there maybe different sounds competing for attention but what really defines a ‘location’ recording for me is the sound or sounds that make the location unique. When you make a location recording you are trying to define the location – “This can only be xyz location and nowhere else”.

    A bit long-winded but I hope I have answered your question.


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