Compose with Field Recordings, Kill Your Babies, Adapt to Text

This is a two-part assignment that begins with field recording and ends with adapting musical material to recorded text. It asks students to engage in active listening, record environmental sound, and shape found material into original compositions using a DAW. Next, (with help from their peers) they find or create text that appropriately responds to the composition, apply acquired microphone techniques to record it, and then merge the recorded text with reconfigured versions of their original compositions. In the end they must successfully adapt (or remix) their original composition (which was initially a self-contained musical assignment) to fit and support the text. This gives students an opportunity to compose something wholly their own out of found sound, then teaches them to avoid being too precious about their initial ideas and shows them the many possibilities that found sound can offer when approached creatively. It also gets them thinking like a theatrical sound designer who is almost always tasked with supporting spoken text, and like all designers, needs to exhibit flexibility, creativity, and a responsiveness to elements outside of their control (a narrative, actors, a director’s vision, the ideas of other designers, etc). The project can be adapted in many ways to fit the needs of different instructors.
This assignment is good for building critical listening skills, thinking creatively about environmental sound as musical material, adapting sound/music to fit spoken text, and learning basic DAW skills. I find Ableton Live to be an ideal DAW for this assignment but any sound editing software (including the free program Audacity) could be used.

Activity Objectives

Summary of Objectives
• Compose a 3-5 minute long piece of music using only found sound that exemplifies both creativity and technical proficiency.
• Demonstrate an understanding of musical motifs, complex rhythm, musical form, pitch transposition, tempo manipulation, plug-in effects, and variety in dynamics and spatialization.
• Utilize proper exporting/mixdown settings.

Detailed Objectives
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music using only found sound that exemplifies both creativity and technical proficiency
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that utilizes the concept of a musical motif
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that includes 30 seconds to one minute of complex rhythmic material. The rhythms should include at least four separate voices/tracks that are accurately synchronized, exhibit syncopation, and that develop over time
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that shows an understanding of and utilization of musical form (i.e. their must be sections/movements)
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that shows an understanding of and utilization of pitch transposition and tempo manipulation (or tempo variety)
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that shows an understanding of and utilization of (only) one audio effect (this is dependent on the software being used and the discretion of the instructor but I find limiting students when it comes to effects, at least at first, is crucial for getting them to focus on the other compositional and technical objectives of the assignment)
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that shows an understanding of and utilization of dynamic and spatial variety (i.e. they should tastefully use panning and volume automation)
• Construct a 3-5 minute piece of music that shows an understanding of and utilization of proper exporting/mixdown settings (i.e. sample rate, file format etc. as determined by the instructor and/or the software used)

Activity Goals

• Hone their listening skills by learning to listen for the musicality inherent in everyday environmental sounds
• Learn to construct a composition without relying entirely on traditional musical training
• Understand and utilize the concept of a musical motif
• Understand and utilize melody, rhythm, and timbre as part of a musical composition
• Gain proficiency with a DAW (digital audio workstation – i.e. Ableton Live or a comparable audio editing software)
• Understand how to construct complex rhythms in a digital audio environment
• Understand how to precisely control and creatively use volume and panning in a digital audio environment
• Learn how to use simple musical strategies to create compositional development rather than rely on digital effects
• Understand the fundamentals of audio mixing and mastering


PART 1: Find fodder in the Field (and turn it into music)

1. Field-Recording in Context. Describe briefly what field-recording is, how it is used in anthropology, musicology, film sound, experimental music etc. Perhaps the most direct and useful reference point if more focus is desired/needed would be a brief lecture about Musique Concrète and sample-based music traditions. Additionally some thoughts about the musicality of all sounds (an opportune time to discuss the work and influence of John Cage) and ideas for how environmental recordings can be used creatively and musically is important. I also find it important to stress that environmental here does not mean only organic “nature” sounds. Encourage them to close-mic things inside so they have options free of the ubiquitous full bandwidth background noise often found outside.
Discuss wind and handling noise, mic gain vs. headphone levels etc. and the overall functionality of the recording device. I use Zoom H4N portable recording devices. I have a hand out that addresses some issues (practical, aesthetic, ethical) relevant to field-recording that can be found at the following link:

2. Bring an interesting personal sound object. For the first or second class during this project ask the students to choose one small object from their lives that they feel makes a very interesting sound (even if very quiet) and bring it to class. Have this be the first thing they try recording (before setting them loose outside). This allows you to coach them on technical issues and encourage them to be a creative recordist. This is not for National Geographic, this is for music making.

3. Record in the field, transfer files. Set them loose (ideally in pairs) outside for at least an hour. When they return discuss any issues/revelations that came up and proper organization (labeling/notating tracks as you go) and file exporting etiquette. Discuss any issues with clipping/distortion and poor gain structure as well as issues of wind and handling noise. This also includes file/folder management tips on the computer they will be using. Later discuss how to identify interesting material and sort through the glut of audio for promising musical material and, if possible, any tips for “cleaning it up”. It is useful to immediately start employing simple musical terminology: i.e. searching for material that is blatantly rhythmic or melodic or unique in terms of timbre helps them sort the wheat from the chaff. In any case, stress that this part is about listening, remind them that the material should speak to them and present ideas. They shouldn’t already have detailed compositional ideas that they are trying to impose on the material.

4. DAW Fundamentals. The next phase is all about teaching them the fundamental ins and outs of the audio software you are using. I use Ableton Live. What you do at this stage and how long it takes will vary. Only show them what they need for the project at hand now. As far as I am concerned that is largely the basic stuff that any editing software does: cutting, pasting, re-arranging, looping, fading, layering, panning, EQ etc. Again, this part of the assignment is about finding good source material and doing simple things to highlight what is already interesting. Post-production bells and whistles can come later. Certainly you need to show them the aspects of the software that will allow them to address the criteria outlined in the “Activity Objectives” section above.

5. In-Progress Critique. Have a rough draft critique day when they play rough drafts of works in progress. Half the battle is simply reminding them of the criteria outlined in the “Activity Objectives” and clarifying what is already being covered in their draft and what they still need to cover. Help them strategize creative ways of achieving the objectives not already present in their drafts and make sure you help them through any technical barriers to those goals. I like to use Soundcloud for this because I like how you can comment on someone’s track at specific moments in time (and you can do it from home). Then again, if you are able to do in-class critiques it is easier to quickly address the technical barriers by showing them how to do things in the software right away.

6. Final listening session & student responses. Have an in-class listening session of their final compositions. If you can do it in the (at least partial) dark, do it. Take your own notes to help you grade (did they meet the main “Activity Objectives” criteria? What creative things did they do above and beyond those criteria? Etc.). I have really liked this simple exercise that bridges the first part of the assignment with the second: start an email thread to the whole class called “Sound Composition 1 Reactions” or something similar (this could easily be done on pieces paper as well). Have each student’s name listed in the body of the email. Ask each student to respond to what they hear under the appropriate name as they listen to the pieces. It is largely a free association assignment but do ask them to respond by answering these questions: What mental images or associations does this piece suggest to you and what, if any, narrative do you feel could be unfolding? These are strictly abstract sound pieces and as a result these responses can be quite funny and surprising. Students have fun. There are two primary pedagogical benefits to this. One, students learn that sound is very slippery world of signifiers and despite all the time they spend thinking about how their piece sounds and what it might mean they are often surprised to find that others hear radically different things. At the same time they often get inspired by the other possibilities presented and on a basic level it shows that their little piece (most of my students have never done anything like this) is getting a rise out of people and making them think and react. Furthermore it can actually give them ideas for what kind of text to use for the second part of the assignment…. 

PART 2: Kill Your Babies (but Remember Them Fondly) and Adapt composition 1 to Recorded Text

7. Save As. Stress the importance of frequent saving of DAW projects and insist they do a “save as” to their original session file as a back-up and to preserve their original composition for posterity.

8. Listen for narrative, plan to remix. Have them listen back to their original composition (as objectively as possible) but explain that now they should not think of it as a self-sufficient musical piece anymore. Instead, ask them to think about what sort of story or narrative it may suggest, however diffuse or abstract that narrative may be. They can interpret “narrative” very loosely and poetically, and it is likely that such an approach will make the most sense given the nature of the initial compositions. This is where they can draw on their peer’s responses to their piece if they wish. Ask them to either choose some pre-existing text or write some original text to record, preferably using their own voices but I can be persuaded on this point if they make a good case. Explain that the new text will be the new organizing principle for Sound Composition 2. Their first piece should now be thought of as source material for a soundscape to accompany the new narrative, a narrative that will in turn re-shape their original soundscape. You can see how talking about remixing may be useful here, and is a way of discussing it that they are likely to understand. As far as what the text is, I deliberately keep this very open but this could be easily modified such that the instructor chooses the text etc.

9. Add new musical material. For this second part there is a lot of room to allow entirely new material to be added (new recordings, midi-instrument sounds etc). In fact I require that they have to add some new material and at least two new sections. I return to DAW instruction and add lessons on MIDI and encourage them to add software instruments to their sound pallet. We also cover some more advanced aspects of the software, go into more detail about a greater number of effects, and allow them to use as many effects as they want (but make sure they never use effects just because they “sound cool”).

10. Record text. This could happen in any number of ways depending on the particularities of your equipment, space, and time. But it allows for instruction on basic studio recording techniques including tips about acoustics, microphone positioning, plosive noise, gain structure, and (acting) advice about delivery appropriate to the tone of the narrative. This is a great part of the project to humbly request the assistance of an acting/directing colleague if possible so that you can focus on helping students with the technical aspects of recording (and ensure they end up with decent performances).

11. Have another in-progress critique session. If you can spare the time include the whole class in the critique of each piece. Otherwise, do it one-on one with each student (i.e. while others continue to work).

12. Have a “public” listening session of the final projects (which may simply mean invite people in or play them during lunch hour). For my class we now have a tradition of a Halloween listening session on or near Halloween because a. that is when the final composition tends to fall in the calendar and b. because when you make pieces with found sound you tend to get dissonance and end up with a lot of creepy sounding material.

Time Required

We usually spend 6 weeks on this assignment in a studio class that meets 6 hours a week (two three-hour class periods per week). Within those 5 weeks I allow students to work in class for a significant amount of time. We are
simultaneously doing other things during the six weeks (lecturing to prepare them for a quiz, for example).

Required Materials

• Portable recording devices with closed-ear headphones and microphone windscreens
• Computers with appropriate audio editing software
• Midi keyboards (desirable but not mandatory)


Adaptations are covered within the Description section above.


For this assignment, they are evaluated primarily in two ways. The first is one-on-one verbal feedback from me in the classroom as I visit each computer station and listen to their work in progress. The second is written feedback that I give them by attaching comments to specific moments of their audio mixes on

Seth Warren-Crow
Texas Tech University – School of Theatre & Dance