Water is a fascinating recording subject because it can create a huge variety of possible sounds! Splashing, gurgling, crashing, bubbling, trickling, dripping and draining are all useful as sound effects and design elements, but they can be challenging to capture if not prepared. I've assembled 4 tips for capturing evocative water sound effects, with examples to demonstrate. We've also bundled together a selection of these water recordings, which can be downloaded for free! See the link at the bottom of the post for details.
Protect Your Gear
While it can be fun to get wild and crazy when recording, water and humidity are dangerous and damaging to electronics. Saltwater is especially deadly, as small amounts can corrode over time, slowly destroying your gear from the inside. RF condensers, such as the Sennheiser MKH series, are more resilient to humidity and liquid intrusion. Still, most if not all microphones will suffer serious damage if soaked while receiving 48v.
- To prevent damage, always contain microphone arrays within protective blimps with furry windshields. While designed to create neutral air space and prevent strong air movement around microphone diaphragms, blimps and furries can also save your mics from a surprise splash. I've had good experience with models from Rycote and Rode, but there are many options available for almost any microphone configuration.
- If you are sure your gear will get splashed, but must record anyways, you can place your mics inside of non-lubricated condoms before securing inside wind protection. This can cause a slight loss of high frequency, but it can also prevent your microphones from being soaked and destroyed.
Whether you are recording water sound effects for a library or a specific piece of media, you should always consider perspective before rolling your first take. Moving water sounds very different from different distances and in different environments. For example, a close perspective recording of water rushing between large boulders in a stream may not function well when used to represent a stream distant from the characters in your show. The close perspective recording will have a lot of details, dynamics and texture, characteristics usually not present when recording more distant, diffuse perspectives of similar subjects. If you have access to a hydrophone (see Kate’s post on homemaking one here), it is another great tool for finding sounds and perspectives that won’t be audible elsewhere. If possible, capture multiple perspectives that exaggerate the difference in sound the space and environment impart, giving you options later when editing. The example below shows the 2 different perspectives of the same stream, recorded at different distances.
Find Points of Interaction
When recording environmental water sound effects, such as rivers, streams and waves, it is important to search for points of interaction, where obstructions give the moving water a voice. Often these are rocks, but there are many examples available, such as shells and bones, plant life and man made obstructions like piers and docks. All of these points of interaction shape the character of the sound and create interesting variations and textures. A rocky shoreline with water pooling and splashing will often enable a more dynamic recording than one created on a flat sandy coast, though both have value.
Record Long Takes
There are several reasons to record more than you need. Dynamic recordings in unpredictable environments can develop and evolve over time, as tide rolls in or out and water levels rise or drop. By recording longer takes, we can capture more variety in our recordings, giving us more material to work with in the post-process. Environmental factors, especially man-made noise are another factor to consider. By rolling longer recordings, we have more material to cut through to remove unwanted sounds such as aircraft and road noise. When recording in a quiet and isolated environment I like to roll for at least 4 minutes on steady sounds, with a goal of having 2 minutes of usable material. In louder and more unpredictable environments I tend to record longer takes for safety, in case I don’t notice extra noise sneaking into my recordings. Following the same philosophy, it is important to always leave a significant head and tail on recordings of momentary sounds, such as splashes. This gives us “room tone” of our environment which can be used for edits later on, or to create a clean noise profile when performing noise reduction.