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Field recording of natural sounds, also called phonography (a term chosen to illustrate its similarities to photography), was originally developed as a documentary adjunct to research work in the field, and foley work for film. With the introduction of high-quality, portable recording equipment, it has subsequently become an evocative artform in itself. In the 1970s, both processed and natural phonographic recordings, (pioneered by Irv Teibel's Environments series), became popular.
"Field recordings" may also refer to simple monaural or stereo recordings taken of musicians in familiar and casual surroundings, such as the ethnomusicology recordings pioneered by John Lomax, Nonesuch Records, and Vanguard Records.
Field recording often involves the capture of ambient noises that are low level and complex, and, in response, the requirements from the field recordist have often pushed the technical limits of recording equipment, that is, demanding low noise and extended frequency response in a portable, battery-powered unit. For this reason, field recordists have favoured high-quality (usually professional) recorders, microphones, and microphone pre-amplifiers. The history of the equipment used in this area closely tracks the development of professional portable audio recording technology.
Field recording is typically recorded in the same channel format as the desired result, for instance, stereo recording equipment will yield a stereo product. In contrast, a multitrack remote recording captures many microphones on multiple channels, later to be creatively modified, augmented, and mixed down to a specific consumer format.
Field recording experienced a rapid increase in popularity during the early 1960s, with the introduction of high-quality, portable recording equipment, (e.g., the Uher, and Nagra portable reel-to-reel decks). The arrival of the DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in the 1980s introduced a new level of audio recording fidelity with extended frequency response and low self-noise. In addition to these technologies, other popular means for field recording have included the analog cassette (CAC), the DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), and the MiniDisc. The latest generation of recorders are completely digital-based (hard disk/Flash). It is also possible to use personal electronic devices, (e.g., a smartphone or tablet), with software, to do field recording and editing.
The use of field recordings in avant-garde, musique concrète, experimental, and, more recently, Ambient music was evident almost from the birth of recording technology. Most noteworthy for pioneering the conceptual and theoretical framework with art music that most openly embraced the use of raw sound material and field recordings was Pierre Schaeffer, who was developing musique concrète as early as 1940. Further impetus was provided by the World Soundscape Project, initiated by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the 1970s; this work involved studying the acoustic ecology of a particular location by the use of field recordings.
Field recordings are now a common source material for a range of musical results, from contemporary musique concrète compositions to film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and effects. Chris Watson, formerly of Cabaret Voltaire, is now perhaps the world's leading exponent of this art, with his recordings used for David Attenborough's series for the BBC, programmes for BBC Radio, and many other outlets.
The sounds recorded by any device, and then transferred to digital format, are used by some musicians through their performance with MIDI-interfaced instruments. A contemporary artist with great success for his compositions is Christian Fennesz.
Earlier innovators who are noted for the importance and boldness of their projects are Luigi Russolo, who, in 1913, with his manifesto, L'arte dei rumori (The Art of Noises), gave musical value to environmental noise. He also designed and built the Intonarumori—the first instruments for making noise. Francesco Balilla Pratella utilized the Intonarumori in his opera, L'aviatore Dro, which was written in close collaboration with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, (the founder of the Futurist movement).
During the early years of commercial recordings, the speeches of politicians sold well, since few people had radios. The HMV ("His Master's Voice") catalogue for 1914–1918 lists over a dozen such records. Probably the last time such records sold well was in 1965, when the LP, The Voice of Churchill, reached number 7 in the UK album charts. This was immediately after Churchill's death.