Avosound Field Recording Tips

Field Recording Tips: recording beaches, waves and ocean sounds

Author Guido Helbling - Avosound Author: Guido Helbling, Avosound - Last updated June 6th, 2019

The many sounds created by water are among the most impressive ones found on our planet. The roar of the waves, the thunder of breaking waves on gravel and sand beaches, and the soft, steady rhythm of small waves are all part of the ocean sounds that have been fascinating us since the dawn of time.

Listening to the sound of waves and the roar of the surf is like travelling in time: just like the sound of weather and wind, the sonic experience of water and ocean has been with us since primordial times - and it is likely no different in distant galaxies and on faraway planets.

Are you from a planet far away? Send us a recording!

Field Recording - Recording Wave Sound Effects

As a Swiss person, I am particularly fascinated by all things ocean, as we do not have access to the sea in our small country. We learn about the tides and the surf from books and great films like Point Break. Recording the tame ripples of a tranquil lake is about as exciting as it gets here.

Then again, there are benefits to living far away from the sea: I don't have to eat any oysters or mussels...and thank god for that!

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Sound recordings made on the beach or by the sea tend to have many layers and endless variations. Ocean Sounds contains sound recordings of waves on the beach as well as sounds and recordings of rocky seashores, cliffs, sand and gravel beaches, and open water (in the middle of the ocean).

Reason enough to take a closer look at the category wave sounds, sea and ocean sound effects, and share a few tips in regard to recording water sounds.

We will examine how to make your own high-quality recordings of the surf without having it ruined by strong winds...or how to avoid having your equipment swept out to sea by a big wave!

The calming effect of waves sounds

Recording Ocean Sounds - Tips and tricks for field recording
Picture: An ancient spectacle: thundering surf on a beach

The sounds created by water, the ocean and the waves are an impressive listening experience.

The calming effect of waves on the beach and the consistent, relaxing drone of the surf have been used for medicinal purposes for a long time. Particularly highly stressed people will find the steady rhythm of the waves on Ocean Sounds extremely relaxing. Personally, I will seize every possible opportunity to record near a beach - particularly on my travels around the world.

Sound Recording - Waves on the beach, recorded in Iceland

Sound recording of the polar sea in Iceland - recorded with the MS-Stereo set Neumann KM120/KM140 and the Sound Devices 788T recorder.

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The sounds and tones created by the sea and the ocean are wide-ranging and highly diverse. Waves, for example, sound very different close to the beach than at sea. Recording ocean sounds in the open sea is quite tricky as you will obviously have to venture out there with all your gear. Getting on board a big boat or even an ocean-going vessel is not the best way to record water sounds, as those tend to produce a lot of noise themselves.

Small sailboats or yachts are better suited for the task as they do not depend on noisy engines to get around. The float silently across the waves, which allows you to capture great sounds. Depending on the swell, you might also experience first hand what it means to be 'sea sick'...

Recording Beach Sounds and waves

If you're not keen on rocking boats and sea sickness, you can simply stay on the beach and record sounds from there. Recording sounds while sitting on the beach must be one of the best perks of the field recordist's job.

There's nothing better than sitting cross-legged in the sand, listening to the sound of the waves and realising that a few yards away your microphones are about to be swept out to sea by a big wave - just before the tide moves in and forces you to abandon your carefree position.

Seriously, though, this kind of experience might be rare but it is definitely something that could happen when tempting the elements. And it's something you'll want to avoid at all cost. So make sure to follow our advice before you pack your equipment along with your bikinis and swimming trunks:

Poseidon does not care about your recordings

Let us start by saying this:

The Avosound health delegate recommends that you get away from the surf before it will endanger your health!

We are naturally drawn to prohibition and warning signs. The most dangerous beaches are usually the ones that are the least populated - nobody wants to mess with big waves, sea monsters or strong currents or whatever the reasons given might be. No people means no talking and no screaming to ruin your recordings.

I assume you are mature enough to know how far to push the limit in this regard. But even though you might be a very experienced sound recordist, I must stress that we often become careless when making sound recordings in dangerous places - all for the sake a better quality. You often don't notice this until your shoe fills up with water or mud. The goal, after all, is not to lose your sound equipment at the bottom of the ocean or to get swept out to sea. When recording on the beach, you have to keep an eye on your environment at all times. Don't let your headphones shield you from the environment - else you (and your equipment) will end up riding a wave as a sacrificial offering to Poseidon!

Sound recording - gravel beach with roaring surf and strong waves

This sound recording of waves on the beach was made in New Zealand. You can clearly hear the grinding sounds of rough gravel, for example at 2:35. The waves in this recording are undifferentiated because the beach is very wide and the waves are strong. This creates a broad, thunderous sound.

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Dangerous Beaches - Poseidon does not care about your Equipment

Field Recording at the polar sea - recording water and wave sounds
Picture: pulling out a shoe filled with water. A bit too cold for swimming: the polar sea at Iceland’s northernmost point.

I myself have also pushed my luck with the elements, big waves and dangerous beaches on occasion. Luckily, my equipment has not been swept away (so far) but there were a few close encounters. One second you might be standing on solid ground, the next your up to your bum in a strong current of water. The force of a wave can easily send you and and your equipment flying, which is quite an unpleasant situation.

So if you are recording the surf, make sure to keep an eye on your surroundings - the tide can change very quickly.

Recording Water and Wave Sounds - Getting close to the Action

Recording wave and ocean sounds - field recordist Gordon Hempton braves the icy water
Iconic image by Gordon Hempton: like a wizard with a magic wand, field recording legend Gordon Hempton braves the icy water.

As with all other sound recordings, you should always aim to get as close to the source as possible with wave and water sounds, i.e. record the direct sound of the surf.

But that doesn't mean you need to submerge your microphone - just look at the picture of Gordon Hempton above.

Naturally, it also depends on what sound you are trying to capture. If the microphone is close to the breaking waves, you will capture characteristic wave and water sounds. In essence, you need to get as close as possible to the waves in order to get good, clear audio of the wave; otherwise the structure of the water will get lost in the overall noise of the surf, which will make the recording sound like white noise.

If you move farther away from the individual wave, you will capture a more general, sweeping sound of the beach and the breaking waves. These recordings can be quite beautiful too. But if you actually want to feel the foaming and the structure of the water, you will need to get closer to the source, ideally with a boom pole.

Sound recording: waves on the beach, recorded up

Field Recording - Field Recordist Rob Nokes prepares a microphone to record wave sounds

In this recording from the Sounddogs sound archive, you can clearly make out individual waves as well as distinctive water sounds (e.g. foaming and splashing).

The waves have a good structure and are clearly distinguishable from the thunder of the surf. You can only achieve this result by getting really close to the individual waves.

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Angling Ocean Sounds with a Boom Pole

Rather than cast a fish hook, the field recordist will mount his microphone to a boom pole (in a wind basket, of course!) and go 'angling' for sound effects. And while a boom pole might look quite similar to a fishing rod, its purpose is ultimately a lot different.

But it's a good way to blend in with the angling crowd... which should keep them from coming close and asking questions.

Important note: if you get the impression that field recording is a bit of an anti-social job, well... maybe read this text here about how to avoid becoming entirely anti-social during field recording trips. In some rare cases it might be okay to record other people's chit-chat - but in most situations you will definitely try to avoid it.

A boom pole extends your reach, which is a tremendous advantage when recording water. You can hold the microphone just above the surface without having to get too close to it. If you don't have a pole, you will get pretty decent footage too by going as close to the surf as possible.

Generally speaking, though, microphones should always be mounted on stands. There's a reason why they were invented: they will help you get cleaner recordings. There's no better way to avoid capturing unwanted noise caused by handling a hand-held mic.

And if the wind is strong enough to blow over your stand, you shouldn't be out there recording anyway - time to pack up your stuff and have a cup of tea!

Ocean Sounds - Waves and Wind

When recording ocean sounds or the waves by the sea, the choice of beach is very important. Strong winds might create beautifully big waves, but they will also ruin your recording because of all the noise captured by the microphones and wind baskets.

The only solution is to wait for the right moment when the wind has subsides before pressing record.

So if there is a storm out there, you might as well stay at home because your recordings would get ruined anyway. There is, however, a natural phenomenon that you can use to your advantage: high winds create big waves and rough; these tend to continue for a while, even after the winds have subsided. Right after a storm is the best time to make great recordings of impressive waves and heavy swell.

Long cables are the Field Recordist's zoom lens

Field recordist Rob Nokes uses a long cable at the bowl in santa cruz
Sounddogs Image: Field Recordist Rob Nokes uses a long cable in 'The Bowl' at Santa Cruz, California

Legendary Field Recordist and Sounddogs Founder Rob Nokes explains:

Our bodies conduct sound that enhances our auditory experience where as a microphone does not capture this feeling. When recorded, Water sounds a lot like noise, the recordings never translate to the original feeling of the moment we experienced. My goal when recording elemental sounds is to find staggered timing that provides dynamics that will sound less like noise.

Acoustics can be used to naturally EQ and focus the recorded sound in a range, again to sound less like noise. In the case of the photo at Santa Cruz, the rock face is used to capture the direct sound and reflected sound.

When I moved over to "the bowl" which is shaped like the front of a toilet bowl, the timing and acoustics were enhanced because the tide was directed to my apex point. The natural rock created a type of narrow parabolic that reflected and built specific frequencies. A large body diaphragm was used so that the low frequencies would be collected, I used an AKG C4000B. It's got a good bottom and if I lost it to the Pacific Ocean it would not be catastrophic.

Field Recordist Rob Nokes Records the Bowl
Sounddogs Image: Rob Nokes Records 'The Bowl' in Santa Cruz

On the North Shore of Hawaii, there is an inlet called Dragon's Breath. The Ocean shoots water through a narrow rock formation and then slams it into a cave at the end. Using a 25 boom pole, my goal was to capture the shooting water and the booming of the water in the cave. The Rock formation changed the timing of the water and the Cave collected the sound. This is how I approach elemental sounds.

Next to Shark's Cove, a rogue wave wiped out a guy standing on the shore when I arrived. On another open rock face the water slammed into the wall below me and to my shock a blow hole blasted a couple feet from me. That was scary.

Sound recording beach - distant waves / surf

The surf, recorded from a distance. This highly particular wave sound is very calm and uniform. The ocean is still; the waves roll onto the beach consistently.

Recorded in Djupivogur, Iceland.

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Beach and Bay Sound Recording

Recording wave sounds and the sounds of the surf is not as easy as it looks. Some beaches and bays are better suited for this task than others. Spacious beaches create consistent and uniform wave sounds that are very similar in structure. These ocean sounds (as well as those of spacious beaches) can have a very meditative, calming effect; wave sounds, recorded at spacious beaches sound very different from waves in a bay or waves that smash against cliffs.

Recording Waves in a Bay

Bays are great locations for recording waves. They are often more protected from high winds than spacious beaches (unless you're in New Zealand). The sound of the breaking waves in a bay is highly characteristic and loud. It is important to find a good position that is not too far away from the breaking waves yet distant enough to capture the entire width of the surf (this helps with the stereo panorama).

It goes without saying that wave/surf sounds should always be recorded in stereo.

The Sound of Sand and Gravel Beaches

The Sound of Sand and Gravel Beaches
Picture: banks of gravel on a sandy beach create their own characteristic sound. And, yes, those are penguins-yellow-eyed penguins, to be precise. You can find them in New Zealand. I wonder what they are talking about...

Gravelly spots on sandy beaches create very interesting sounds. They are easy to spot: just look for dark patches in the bright sand; on volcanic islands, you'll find them in black sand. They also make very distinct and loud sounds. The recording below gives you an idea how loud these gravel banks can get. Their sound is harsh and loud, created by countless little stones being smashed together in the churning water.

These gravel banks on the beach create a very typical grinding/crunching sound that is very distinct and loud - and very different from the typical sound of sandy beaches.

Listen to more recordings of sand and gravel beaches

It pays to keep your ears and eyes open not just in regard to your own safety but also in order to find the best spots for ocean recordings and other water/wave-related sounds.

Sound recording - waves and gravel beach

Sound recording gravel beach: roaring surf hits a sandy beach with gravel banks.

You will hear the typical sounds of gravel beaches at 0.20 and 1.11. This recording was made on a very wide beach, on a windless evening in New Zealand.

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Waves and Water on Rocks and Stones

Rocky parts of the coastline are excellent spots for recording all kinds of water sounds. Rocky parts of the coastline littered with big stones full of pockets and tunnels are a treasure trove for field recordists, as they create very interesting sea water sounds: bubbling, gurgling, chortling, and splashing in every imaginable variation.

If you don't mind a bit of rock-climbing, you will find all sorts of great water sounds created by the sea hollowing out the rocks.

Bubbling and Gurgling between Rocks and Cliffs

With a bit of luck you will find gurgling and bubbling water sounds between stones and rocks. Hollowed out parts create sucking and hissing sounds caused by the sea water smashing up against the coast. Small microphones can be inserted into cracks and openings inside the rocks, allowing for the gurgling noises to be recorded in all their glory.

The sounds change according to the tide as well: one minute the water might be creating these bubbling and gurgling noises, the next you will find the same spots to be dry. But the sinking tide will reveal bits of landscape that create very different but no less interesting noises.

Our advice for your beach trip: make sure to bring decent slippers to climb around on the rocks - as well as enough time to make sound recordings of the water between the rocks and many other places along the coastline.

Sound recording - water gurgling between rocks

Sound recording: gurgling water between rocks and cliffs. Rocky coasts or beaches are the perfect spots to record all sorts of gurgling sounds.

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Get your Hydrophone Out!

Dolphin Ear Hydrophon and Sound Devices 788T Recorder Tonaufnahmegerät in a waterproof bag
Picture: Dolphin Ear Hydrophone and Sound Devices 788T Sound Recorder. An Exped waterproof document bag protects sensitive electronic devices from the sun and splashing salt water.

Once you have recorded every possible sound that the beach surface has to offer, a hydrophone will open up a whole new range of possibilities to capture the acoustics of oceans, lakes, rivers, beaches and even your backyard pool.

If you happen to be extremely wealthy, you can purchase the amazing DPA 8011 underwater microphone and make us all turn green with envy. Unfortunately, DPA no longer manufacture the 8011; if you are serious about getting one, you will need to scour the second hand market for it.

A less expensive hydrophone that won't deplete your savings account is probably a more sensible choice. I decided to purchase the model from Dolphin Ear. The Dolphin Ear is a relatively small, handy mic that comes with a 10 metre cable (or at least my version did). Luckily, I abandoned my initial decision to shorten it - a longer cable is definitely required to capture sounds from a safe position. With 10 metres you can cast the hydrophone far into the sea to make your recordings.

The Dolphin Ear Hydrophone

Please note that I am in no way affiliated with (or related to) the manufacturer of the Dolphin Ear Hydrophone. I chose the Dolphin Ear Hydrophone mainly because of its size and price. When you work with a hydrophone submerged in murky water, you risk getting it caught somewhere.

If you are really unlucky, your recorder and everything else connected to it via cable will be pulled from your backpack. The Dolphin Ear Hydrophone comes with an instruction leaflet that reminds us never to wrap the cable around any part of the body. And while it might sound far-fetched that some sea beast could mistake your hydrophone for bait and snatch it (along with everything else connected to it via cable), it never hurts to err on the side of caution.

Sound Recording with a Sound Devices 788T Recorder and a Dolphin Ear Hydrophone
Picture: simultaneous sound recording with a Sound Devices 788T recorder, a Dolphin Ear Hydrophone in the water, and two microphones above water (admittedly hard to spot - but you get the picture, no?).

Unless you are filthy rich, you should not look at microphones as expendable items. There is definitely a higher risk of losing a hydrophone mic in the ocean (or in a lake) than with regular microphones in dry land situations. The loss of a Dolphin Ear is annoying but at least it doesn't break the bank. The second important tip from the Dolphin Ear manual reminds us not to drop the mic into the water from a moving boat or ship, as the cable could get wrapped around the ship's propeller (which would make the boat's captain very, very angry).

Multi-Channel Recording Above and Below the Surface

If you are willing to put in a bit of extra effort, you can add one or even two hydrophones to your mic selection and capture multi-channel recordings above and below the surface. Admittedly, there are a lot of cables that can possibly get in the way of a good recording (the hydrophones can easily get tangled up or bounced against rocks), but it is nevertheless worth a try. This kind of recording technique can yield fresh new sounds of water, waves and swirls!

Multitrack recording with a Dolphin Ear Hydrophone. On the left channel, you'll hear the above-water recording; the recording with the underwater microphone is on the right channel.

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Sunlight, Sand, Dirt and Salt: General Equipment Maintenance Tips

Salt water is the natural enemy of all electronic things. Salt water will corrode metal, eat through your conductor boards, and leave its residue in every little nook and cranny of your equipment.

Ocean spray is also highly saliferous; you don't even need to accidentally drop your equipment into salt water to ruin it!

Salt water, sand, and dirt are extremely dangerous for your equipment. All of these elements will speed up your gear's ageing process. Salt and sand dust will not only settle between the knobs and inside the electronic parts, they will also find their way inside the sensitive microphone membrane and make it more inert. In the long run, this can cause a loss of sound quality, particularly with condenser microphones. We therefore recommend that you take every possible precaution to keep dirt away from expensive and highly sensitive gear.

Windshields and Windjammers protect sensitive Microphones

Microphone stand on a beach in New Zealand with Rycote windshields
Picture: Professionally mounted stereo microphone with Rycote windshield and windjammer on a stand. Unfortunately, the field recordist himself did not have a shield against sandflies - the darn beasts nearly ate him alive!

Sensitive equipment like microphones belong in closed windshields and should be protected by foam covers or windjammers. Windjammers need to be dried after the recording. If the hairs are sticky, you can use a comb to get rid of the salt - no different than brushing your cat!

If the windjammer is extremely sticky, you can use clear fresh water(!) to wash it out and then dry accordingly. Try this with your cat too and make sure to send us a picture...

Professional windshields with decent jammers from reputable dealers like Rycote will not only reduce the amount of wind noise in your recordings, they will also protect your expensive studio microphones from sunlight, sand, dust and salt water.

Good windshields can be disassembled for cleaning and washing in order to be re-used again for your next job.

Don't forget to protect your Recorder too

Tonaufnahme Gerät Sound Devices 788T in einem Dokumentenbeutel von Exped
Picture: Pack your expensive gear into a waterproof (or at least water resistant) bag. This keeps everything tidy and dry..

Nobody likes to hear a crunching sound when turning a knob. It's also the last thing you want to hear when buying a great recorder from the used market. Let's face it: sand is your enemy. It gets into every tiny crevice, grinds down the conductor path with every turn, messes up the mechanics of the knobs and eventually ruins the whole device. Although professional recorders are built to a very high standard, there is only so much abuse they can take from sand, dust and other environmental influences.

Shoulder bags are ideal for location sound mixers who work on film sets - and they have many fans in the audio industry too.

But for field recording I would recommend a simple, waterproof bag that can be closed completely with a zipper. These bags are much smaller and more convenient than the big shoulder bags. Plus, they fit really well into compact backpacks.

Picture: Vista Organiser all-purpose bag with zipper (A4 size).

Waterproof bags can be bought in any outdoor store for relatively little money. Put your recorder along with all the accessories (batteries, chargers) into the bag to make sure everything is protected. You can leave the recorder in your backpack during recordings - zip it up and keep it safe, no need to check the levels all the time.

Recording Audio on the Beach - Beach Sounds

Sitting on the beach and recording approaching waves has always been one of my favourite field recording gigs. Quite likely, this is because we don't have any oceans near Switzerland.

I hope these tips will help you capture impressive recordings of beaches and breaking waves - without any gear write-offs due to salt water damage.

If you happen to have a picture of yourself and your equipment on the beach, please do send it to us. We'll be happy to attach it to this article!

Beach Sound Recordings - Impressions

Preparing for sound recording on the beach in Nha Trang
Picture: Preparing for sound recording on the beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in perceived temperatures of 50°C!

Sound recording on the beach - microphone with windshield
Picture: Let the microphone do the work for you! Sound recording on the beach, somewhere in Italy

Sound recording of cliffs and ocean sounds
Picture: Protecting the equipment from being blown away: sound recording on a cliff (in mobile phone picture quality).

Rob Nokes

Field Recordist Rob Nokes records the surf in Santa Cruz

This photo was taken at Santa Cruz, California near what surfers call "the bowl."

I used an MKH-60 and a long cable which was used to lower the microphone closer to the water and away from the wind and ground noise above.

Picture: Rob Nokes, Sounddogs, thanks you Rob!

Helge Schwarz

Helge Schwarz recording sounds in goa

This picture was taken in Goa, India with the old Zoom H2. The only piece of equipment left to me after a very long train ride. Shame on you thief, stealing my recording equipment!

Picture: by Helge Schwarz on the beach in Goa. - Helge, we feel so sorry. To be robbed is really not nice at all.

David Farmer

Sound Designer David Farmer records the sound of a creek

Sound Designer David Farmer records the sound of a creek.

Set it and forget it

I don’t muck around with my levels while recording. I have a couple of settings that I generally use, and it’s basically one for really loud stuff, and one for quiet, like ambiences.

That mic was actually a Schoeps CMXY into a Sound Devices MP-2 and then DAT. That was for Fellowship of the Ring around 2000, and pre-disk recorders.

Image by David Farmer - thanks Dave!

Chris Hass

Field Recordist Christine Hass records beach sounds at harris beach

This photo was taken along the coast of Oregon. I wrote about that recording adventure in my blog post.

All of those recordings were made with just the Sony D100. The Sony D100 has become my "go-to" mic if I have to walk very far. Otherwise I tend to use some omnis in a spaced array, plugged into either the D100 or and Sound Devices MixPre-3.

Picture: Chris Hass at Harris Beach, Thank you Chris!

Tim Prebble

Field Recordist Tim Prebble, his equipment and a seal.

For a brief moment I had a nightmare of this seal lunging at one of my furry microphones, biting it and diving off into the ocean taking my 788T and other five mics with it...

Read more

Picture: Tim Prebble, thank you Tim!

Magnus Bergsson

Field Recordist Magnus Bergsson recording sounds

I am actually recording birds in the cliff. I am using there parallel MKH8020/8040 in AB setup, inside Rycote WS AG windshield. Recording four channels on MixPre6. The location is Látrabjarg which is the largest sea-bird cliff in Europe.

The ocean is about 350m below the cliff edge, so it was barely audible through the bird noise :-)

Picture: Magnus Bergsson, thank you Magnus!

Eric Mooney

Field Recordist Eric Mooney recording ocean sounds at olympic national park

This was taken at Olympic National Park in WA. This specific location was shown to me by Gordon Hempton several years ago, so I decided to come back here again to record some more on my own. My setup here was a Sennheiser MKH 40 and an MKH 30 MS configuration inside of a Rycote Cyclone, recorded with a Sound Devices 744T.

Picture: Eric Mooney, Thanks Eric!

Hide Aoki

field recordist hide records ocean sounds in pshima island

I found this spot while on the recording trip to Oshima Island, Japan.
Oshima Island is a small island and has an active volcano, so there are many unique cliffs made by volcanic rocks. Because of its unique landform, waves hit hard and make a boomy sound.
I used MKH8040 ORTF setup and lom audio usi pro spaced omni setup.

Picture: Hide, thank you Hide! Read Hide's blog

Rick Hannon

Rick Hannon Recording beach sound at gulf cost of florida

The attached pic is from a pre-dawn sound recording trip to Navarre Beach along the Gulf coast of Florida in November 2014. I was there to attend the funeral of a friend who died much too soon. He was a scuba diver and boatsman, so recording this peaceful sound on that morning definitely made me think of him.
The setup consisted of a pair of AT 3032 in a DIY yoga block quasi-binaural configuration. Those mics ran into a SD Mixpre-D and then a Sony PCM M10 recorder.

Picture: by Rick Hannon, Thanks Rick.

Are you a sound recordist? Send us a picture of your beach setup and we will share it on this website.