How to Record Waves
Photo credit: Chris Lamarca
The ocean is a drum
There is something magic about the music of wild beaches, confirmed by the fact that ocean albums outsell all other nature albums on iTunes and seacoasts are among the most popular vacation destinations. If you aspire to become a professional nature sound recordist then surely you’ll want to master these beguiling and rewarding soundscapes. I recorded my favorite beach in Washington State more than 700 times before I stopped counting. I’ve recorded ocean waves in Hawaii and along the entire east and west coastlines of the United States.
Let’s jump straight to what is needed to make a classic bestseller and then we’ll work backwards to find out why.
Find a beach exposed to the open ocean (high-energy) with a large tidal change (higher latitudes) at least several miles from the nearest frequently used road (wilderness) that slopes sharply, so at low tide you encounter diverse substrates (sand, gravel, cobblestones).
Record during late winter on the new or full moon, when the tide is high, between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Preferably the forecast calls for overcast skies, calm wind, no precipitation, with swells three to six feet high and at least 10 to 12 seconds apart.
During the first light of day when the tide is incoming, record from these three positions:
- Water’s edge, standing with microphones on monopod, axis tilted slightly downward, facing out, body perpendicular to beach (not necessarily perpendicular to wave breaks). Keep recording bag closed and expect to get wet from knees down.
- Low to ground (within 18”), microphones handheld, facing towards the surf, perpendicular to the beach line, far enough from the water’s edge that incoming waves will not pass behind you. Ideally, at full wave retraction there will be exposed more than 50 feet of wet beach.
- Near driftwood or other large objects, microphones on tripod in a position that feels the best to you based on listening only. Explore. Feel--don’t think.
Return to your digital audio workstation, review your beach recordings, pick your favorite based on feeling (not thought), and then arrange intuitively if there is to be more than one file in sequence (such as tide cycle). Use relatively long cross-fades (10-20 seconds) and finally render to desired file format. You’re ready to release an unforgettable classic.
Substitutions in that recording recipe can be made according to your tastes. Let’s review each of the ingredients to find out how changes will affect the outcome.
Waves are energy. There are two types of shore-crashing waves --swells and wind waves. Swells are formed far away and are larger and more widely spaced than wind waves, which are formed locally when windy conditions persist. Surfers ride swells, not wind waves.
There are also two kinds of beaches—low-energy beaches and high-energy beaches. The high-energy beaches are exposed to large, open bodies of water and have swells and wind waves. Low-energy beaches are relatively protected and subject only to wind waves. Because high-energy beaches can have swells with wider spacing, your audience will naturally come into synchronicity with your recording and relax. If the sound design calls for a tense audience, then go to a low energy beach and record the chop created by wind waves.
The slope of the beach determines how far offshore the waves will break. When a wave approaches a coastline the bottom of the wave will begin at some point to drag on the bottom. When the depth of the water is less than half the wave height, drag starts and the top half of the wave, which continues to travel at normal speed, tumbles forward. It is at this distance from shore that surfers line up. If the waves are huge, they break far out; small waves break close in. The problem with gradually sloping beaches is that most of the time the waves break far out and continue to roar, more than one wave front at a time; whereas a sharply sloping beach ideally means just a single wave breaking upon the beach, creating an easily recognizable and relaxing rhythm. If you want roaring surf, go to a gradually sloping beach. Because the substrate of the beach (sand, gravel, and cobblestone) will determine how much detail will be present in a wave’s three final stages--crash, advance, and retraction--having a wide variety of substrates will add a variety of details. A sand beach has a soft sound, whereas a pebbled beach will provide clatter and very loud wave retractions.
Beaches commonly go through an annual cycle that imports and exports substrates. Winter commonly has rocks exposed at the high tide line, while the summer stage commonly has sand. In addition, the spring and fall transitional seasons tend not to have well-sorted substrates--sand gravel and cobblestones can all be mixed together. The winter beach is most likely to have well sorted substrates, often a distinct band of sand, then a sharp border with gravel only, followed by only cobblestones, etc. A winter wave washing over such a beach will pass over all of these bands--and the changing sound can be marvelous. If you want lots of detail, go in winter; next best, go in summer.
Recording during an incoming tide allows the audience to experience greater detail as the time elapses because the waves are getting closer. Conversely, recording on the outgoing tide, the experience gets progressively duller.
Recording a beach with an extreme tide change allows the water to come closer more quickly and the details develop more quickly during incoming tide. This will require a higher latitude beach as opposed to an equatorial beach. A new or full moon amps the extreme tide changes even more.
Finally, a wilderness beach on a cloudy day will minimize noisy tourists, noisy traffic, and of course dogs barking for another stick toss. Single wave breaks do not mask unwanted noise well because there are quiet times between wave breaks. Multiple wave breaks that produce a constant roar do a much better job of this.
An absence of wind will allow more delicate high frequency sounds to propagate well. Use a light windscreen in any event, because beaches are exposed and breezes, albeit brief, will likely occur. Dry weather eliminates noisy raindrop taps on microphones.
I have recorded from many positions, but only three have produced consistent results at beach areas.
The first position is at the water’s edge. I usually make this my first position of the morning, because it allows me to also get a good look at the day’s conditions and adjust the settings on my recorder. This is the loudest sound I will be recording all day. I then leave all the knobs in this position for the rest of the day so all of the other sounds line-up well. One caution, prompted by two devastating ocean slaps early in my recording career when I foolishly turned to face the shore: Never turn your back to the sea.
The second spot is much farther back near the high water mark (as indicated usually by a line of seaweed). On bent knee, I handhold my microphones low or on the beach surface and then slowly straighten my legs, gradually moving the microphones upwards, always facing the sea. I often hear a slow Whhhyyyyyyyeeeee and other cool sounds caused by the foreshortening that occurs when an advancing wave rides on top of a retracting wave. Explore sounds that are audible only low to the beach.
The third position is my favorite and practically the only position available during the highest of high tides. This is the upper beach where the driftwood rests and dry land begins. Here, you can record a wide variety of sounds. For example, some driftwood logs will vibrate more than others, imparting warm tones into a surf recording. The largest logs in the northwest are Sitka spruce, often hollow at the base and large enough to walk into. Recording inside these logs provides a perfect seat to enjoy a private concert by nature’s largest violin. If you step out of the trunk cavity but remain in the vicinity of the logs, low frequencies from the log resonance will still be present. This adds a warm feeling to the surf sound. You can also position the microphone close to flat surfaces that angle towards the wave crashes. This will reflect the brighter highlights of wave crashes and wave retractions into your sound portrait.
All of these recording opportunities are available at Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park.
There are also other waves: wind waves on inland lakes and seas where the waves are small, and often confused (crisscrossing in several directions). And blow holes or spouting horns, tidal surges, gently lapping lake margins, and micro surfs. All are fascinating and beyond the scope of this article.
If you want to record an instant hit, find a steeply sloping high-energy beach with diverse substrates during a new or full moon and wait for the tide and weather conditions to be just right. Don’t settle for just one perspective. Get close, get down, and explore the driftwood forest.
Sound Designing with Waves
Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park
Moon Phase Calculator
Tide and Current Map, NOAA Swell Forecast
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