Usefulness of "guerrilla" vs. "pro" recordings



Many of the sounds used in feature films are recorded by professional recordists using professional gear, ie. expensive mics, multiple mic setups, multichannel recorders, and multiple days on location.

I believe that a well-recorded sound is a useful sound, no matter the mic or the medium. So much of the success depends on the context in which the sound is used. If money were no object I'm sure we would all be recording our stuff with the highest-end gear at the highest bit & sample rates. But when it comes down to the real world, most of that super-high detail is converted down to 24bit/48kHz and jammed into an already full soundtrack of music, dialog, foley and sound effects.

Which begs the question: How useful are your "guerrilla" recordings?

Rather than a discussion of the pros and cons of high-end or low-end gear, I'd love to hear success stories of your guerrilla recordings actually making it all the way through to the final mix of your film (or other project).

Jay Jennings

Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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"jammed into an already full soundtrack of music, dialog, foley and sound effects." - this is quite a strange take on the process of mixing films, care to explain or have you had bad experiences? – None – 2010-04-14T08:29:33.350

I don't see it as strange nor would I say it is a "bad experience", but rather it's quite common to arrive at the dub stage to find that all departments have come loaded for bear, ie. the score is full, the ADR/Group is teaming with alts and added lines, the FX and BG are fully fleshed out, and let's not forget about foley. Many film schedules do not take into account (nor do they see the value of) advanced communication between the various disciplines. I'm fortunate to work with a team who recognizes the value and makes every effort to deliver a cohesive vision that serves the film. – Jay Jennings – 2010-04-15T18:37:27.193



To paraphrase Chase Jarvis, "The best recorder is the one you have with you." Lower-end gear does just fine on some material, as Andrew points out, and sometimes it's the only way you'll capture a killer sonic moment. As long as the signal-to-noise ratio is clean enough, I think guerilla recordings are every bit as "valid" as highly produced recordings.


Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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I totally agree with you. Any success stories you care to share? – Jay Jennings – 2010-04-13T17:44:49.397

Emergency vehicle 'bys are a good example; no really articulate, delicate highs that suffer from being recorded by lower-end, built-in condensers. Mechanical noises from vehicles like boats and aircraft interiors recorded on the janky ol' Zoom H2 have also gotten used in a few projects. I've gotten some nice gibbon vocalizations from a kayak in Thailand...maybe not professionally usable, but aural memories that will last forever. – NoiseJockey – 2010-04-14T04:44:14.637


I always keep my Zoom H4n on me so I can record useful or cool sounds along the way. Just the other day, while doing sound for a documentary, I used an ambience I had recorded of a plane. It worked well and I was glad I had it.

I often hear these kinds of stories where top notch sound designers use sounds from their little handy recorders and the sound finds it's way in a big productions.

I think that in general, these kinds of recordings might be more useful as a layer than as the main sound, but who knows.

Andrew Spitz

Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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Thanks for the comments, Andrew. I carry my Zoom H2 with me as well, and have been able to use many "surprise" recordings in my work in films, sometimes as layers and sometimes as the "main" sound. – Jay Jennings – 2010-04-13T17:46:40.253


Interesting question. I backpacked around Europe for two months and I took my H4n. (My friend brought a camera.) I was recording ambiances, sound effects for two reasons:

  • It's a nicer way for me to remember how I felt at the time
  • Perhaps I can use some recordings in the future. (If I do, I'll post it here)

SPOILER ALERT --[Watch "Elephant" (2003) before reading any further!]-- SPOILER ALERT

As an interesting fact: Gus Van Sant used a few recordings by Hildegard Westerkamp in "Elephant". These originated from the material which Westerkampf recorded in the 70's. If you listen at around 11minutes and 30seconds into the film, you are going to hear the recording which was made in Vienna at a train station. It's worth looking for the synchornisation (door bangs).

Another Westerkamp recording was used around 66 minutes.

These were my unrelated two pieces of interesting facts for you. :)

Balazs Varga

Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

Reputation: 91

Thanks for sharing! Funny, I feel the same way about aural memories - often captures the moment so much better than a photograph. – Jay Jennings – 2010-04-14T20:11:17.870

i didnt know that baout elephant, I'm going to watch it again, we had to listen to a lot of Westerkamp at uni as one of our lessons was sound culture. – edmatthews82 – 2011-07-19T09:00:22.223


Having only recently begun my sound design quest, I don't really own any high end, professional gear. An MBox Mini on a Mac Mini, Zoom H4n, and a couple of $60 mics (maybe I should post that on Colin's post that's been empty for months). In that regard, I feel like all of my recordings are guerrilla. I suppose the trick with less-than-professional sound isn't so much what you use, but how you use it; Handling the guerrilla recording with the same respect that you would a professional one. Does that sound too "Care Bears"?

Matt Cavanaugh

Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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1Matt - great response, thanks. I am in a similar situation as you, have some gear but have yet to acquire the "good stuff"! I find that, with care, you can get some very usuable results with inexpensive equipment, patience, and some luck! – Jay Jennings – 2010-05-04T18:51:08.147


I agree with NoiseJockey, both are valid. With masking and layering in the edit, many times it's hard to tell if the recording was pro or guerrilla (assuming that one is using said recording device to their greatest advantage in terms of proximity, mic direction, etc). In some cases it's the only way that some of the most money sounds are captured.

A personal story: I was at my local grocery store near the long line at the checkout where there was a gnarly-sounding, broken freezer unit where cold drinks and beer and stored. I didn't hesitate to bust out (of all things) my iPhone to record it. I recorded a medium closeup and then an extreme closeup to capture all of the ratty metal scrapes. No music was playing and the store was relatively quiet which made for perfect conditions. I'm glad I recorded it because when I went back to the store a few hours later, humoring the idea of bringing a higher quality recorder, I found that the mechanic was there to fix the freezer unit - and it has never made that sound since. Same situation happened at a friends apartment complex with one of the ventilation shaft fans (although I was slightly more prepared that time and was able to rush home to grab my good gear).

Jay, you are absolutely correct about obtaining very usable results. My experience is that there tends to be a bias toward a recording if somebody is made known of what gear was used to record it, whether that be a bad or good bias... so that's why I prefer to keep my entire gear usage as my own business. Because in the end, as long as it SOUNDS good, it IS good!


Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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I'm constantly making guerilla recordings and using them in films.

Common ones include crowds, traffic, neighborhood dogs, sirens, birds, etc. I once did a massive metal door that I found while out on vacation with the wifey that still sounds incredible.

My D50 probably gets as much screen time as any other larger scale recording device I have.


Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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I was making a game effects CD a few years back, assembling lots of different sounds for gamers to use in period RPGs. I had a windy outdoor ambience recording where the windscreens had not really done their job and there was lots of bad buffeting. I cut together all the really bad wind noise, put a motor sound behind it and called it "Dirigible." It wound up being one of the more popular tracks on the disc.

Joe Griffin

Posted 2010-04-12T05:57:51.397

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