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How to Record Flowing Water

Flowing water is one of natures’ sonic miracles. It produces every frequency audible to the human ear, from the faint taps of melting snow, to the gurgling flow of a winding brook, to the roaring thunder of a mighty waterfall. Plus, it is among the easiest, safest, and most enjoyable of the planet’s music to record.

Matt looking at waterfall

I have recorded the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans (twice), backpacked the west face of Mt. Lyle high in Yosemite National Park to capture what John Muir called Song of the Merced River, including its dramatic plunge to the base of Vernal Falls. I’ve gone with the flow on six continents and never fail to marvel that everywhere the sounds of flowing water are surprisingly different. And always fascinating. As in most nature sound recording the single most important decision for the field recordist is: where.

Location

Do you want to record a sparkling trickle, a babbling brook, a gurgling stream, or a raging river in flood stage eroding its banks? There are lots of choices but your project needs, time considerations, and budget probably determine this for you. Under ideal conditions this is what I recommend.

Pick a remote watershed relatively free of transportation noise with cool temperatures and be prepared to record at night. Cool temperatures will reduce insect activity, and recording at night will minimize distant road and air traffic. If you operate in a flash flood zone stay alert.

Start as close to the headwaters as you can and work downstream. The actual beginning of a stream will be small enough to step across and even onto stones and will allow you to maneuver freely with minimum risks, whereas the farther downstream you go, the more likely you are to encounter dams and noise pollution.

Stream Orders

Streams are generally classified by orders using the Strahler rating system. First order streams are the smallest. Should they join another first order stream, the result is a second order stream, and so forth. The length of each order is usually longer than the preceding.

numbered branching towards upper left

Just imagine yourself on a leaf…another flowing system.

leaf

Depending on where you are, the streambed might be made up of large angular rocks (splashy), smaller rounded stones (babbling), fallen logs with mixed substrates (gurgling), or even smooth wide beds of sand or mud (rippling surges). This is the natural series of substrates you will encounter as you travel from higher to lower elevations. Higher elevations are characteristically steeper (faster release of potential energy), often with rapids and waterfalls, while lower elevations are more gradual or nearly level (slower release of potential energy). The higher elevations are younger and the lower elevations are older. The changing sound of water from headwater to mouth will be addressed in Sound Designing with Flowing Water.

Stones are Notes

pile of stones in stream close Each kind of substrate makes its own kind of sound with flowing water. Think of the stones as the musical notes. Try these demonstrations.

First, walk along the edge of stream or river during the dry season when the stones are completely exposed. Hear how the unstable stones will teeter and clatter as you go? The different stones make different sounds depending on kind, size, and shape. You can also shuffle your feet to make this even more obvious. The water that flows around and over these stones during other times of the year will make different sounds, too. Now sit and look at where you just walked. Notice that your feet disturbed the rocks and stones and some are now tilted. When the wet season returns and the stream flows over these stones they will be pushed into new positions, out of the way, like stragglers in front of stadium exit at the end of a game. As this process continues, the stream in effect becomes naturally tuned--it sounds smoother and more eloquent than disturbed streams. When major disturbances occur such as major floods--the resulting stream is rougher sounding. But over time, without further disturbance, the stream once again moves everything into positions of least resistance and the music of a naturally-tuned stream returns.

Now, simply sit beside a small stream about two feet across that you know has not been disturbed in awhile. If you can’t recognize this by sound then look at the stream bank. Are there large trees on both sides or otherwise well vegetated without exposed soil? If so, this is a stable stream. Look at the stones, again, notice how the water is flowing. Listen. Memorize the sound. Take your time—as long as five minutes. Notice that what initially might sound like “just white noise” soon becomes an elaborate braiding of individual streamlets. Now, slowly pluck stones out of the stream, one at a time. Ten should be enough. The stream will sound different. Then place the stones back and attempt to return the stream to its original tuned condition. This is nearly impossible. Only the stream can tune itself.

Field Recording

water ledge pours over mossy stones Unlike forest creatures, the water is not going to run away--so take all the time that you need. You’ll want to explore freely every nuance of flowing water, recording close-up, moderately distant, and even far away. Even if you think a minute is enough, record at least three to five minutes at each location. Although the final product might only use one minute, five minutes will give you plenty of room for editing out handling noise and adding cross fades.

One’s first assumption might be to record as close as you can, as if you might be interviewing a person on busy street. But these recordings are often harsh sounding. Back off and twist the broader stereo field just a little to add spatial definition and have more opportunity for capturing numerous sound sources in the same recording. Holding the microphone steady for five minutes can feel like an hour if you’re in an odd position. If so, loosen your grip and relax. Consider wearing padded bicycle gloves and using a monopod instead of a boom. The monopod can double as a trustworthy wading staff.

If you want to naturally brighten a composition then get close to rock surfaces and take advantage of boundary influence. You can also boost low frequency content by positioning your microphones near rock cavities, sometimes discovering rhythmic patterns that are inaudible elsewhere. I particularly like recording near the current-exposed twisted roots of a large tree. I find these wood spaces bring out warm tones.

Distant perspectives are becoming increasingly more valuable for replacing digital silence in mixes, especially when highly processed files show digital anomalies that need masking. If the air is still and all else is quiet, 250 feet would not be too far away.

Waterfalls & Rapids

Active volumes of water are sometimes called white noise; nothing could be further from the truth. John Muir describes Yosemite Falls in The Yosemite.

Loud water events create complex acoustic patterns that are unpredictable. If you want to turn white noise into a rich powerful voice you are going to have to maneuver your microphone through the air and into rock spaces before you find it. Don’t give up—it’s there!

Underwater

Hydrophones can be used to explore the underwater world, where sound propagates much more readily than in the air, especially when stones on the streambed are in transit during flood conditions. When I dropped my hydrophone into the Hoh River in Olympic National Park for the first time during a spring flood I thought I was hearing concrete hurtling down a shoot. I could hear pebbles tinkling, boulders thud-by, and tree roots breaking.

Wildlife

ouzel with colorful autumn water Flowing water naturally attracts thirsty wildlife. But it offers a double-edged sword. As an animal approaches to quench its thirst, the relatively loud water sounds interfere with the animal’s ability to maintain auditory surveillance over its surroundings. Each step closer to its drink renders it more and more vulnerable. Deer, for example, approach a stream slowly, look around often in every direction, and then quench their thirsts quickly, without lingering. While recording flowing water your surveillance may be jammed, too. Look around often. While recording the headwaters of the Merced River at night in 1994, I wore a headlamp. Each night the amber eyes of a cougar would shine back at me.

The more you listen, the more you learn. Some wildlife vocalizations are adapted for communication in areas with high rates of water flow. Muir describes the song of the American Dipper, a robin-size grey bird that lives beside mountain streams and waterfalls,

We will learn about wildlife sound recording in How to Record Wild Voices.

Summary

So go with the flow by starting high and ending low. Record when the nights are cool and try lots of different perspectives. Flowing water is one of the easiest and most enjoyable nature sounds to record.

Additional Resources

Sound Designing with Flowing Water

USGS Water Watch

List of Wild and Scenic Rivers

World Waterfalls Database

Footwear for wadding

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