Sound Hunting: History of an expression

But what is exactly sound hunting? Sound hunting was the practice of recording sounds, outdoor or indoor, human-made or not. Nowadays, the practice is known as field recording. The sound hunter practiced as a hobby, that is to say sound recording was not his paid occupation. He could be a professional, but he had to use his personal equipment and operate outside of professional facilities. In the words of René Monnat, also known as Jean-Marie Dubois at the beginning of the 1950s and one of the main figures of sound hunting in Switzerland and on the international level:

“To practice this hunt is to have the curiosity to discover if fishes emit sounds, to patiently keep an ear out at night for the sound of worms gnawing wood, to walk through forests with a parabolic dish to tape the song of a bird, to be sensitive to the beauty of a voice, to perceive the poetry of an old barrel organ, to have the intuition of words that will stand the test of time and that everyone will want to hear again, to be tactless enough to cut into pieces the serious speeches in order to turn them into jokes, it is, finally, to move through the unchained world of noises and sounds like a cineaste within the world of images.”[1]

The practice had therefore a wide range and was unified by an attitude toward sound: a curiosity toward everyday sonic environment, and an imagination to try and test ideas. Thus, the expression is an umbrella term that groups different practices: wildlife recording, music recording, train recording, interviews, documentary, sonic letters, technical experiments, family recordings, to name a few. Sound hunters did not necessarily perform all of them, and the majority had a specialisation. In the same way as Benjamin Piekut studying experimentalism, I would say that sound hunting was a grouping rather than a group, and that, as a grouping, it was performed.[2] Sound hunting as a grouping was re-enacted every week in Thévenot’s radio programme, that brought together all the different practices named above. Contests, national and international, were other moments when the grouping of sound hunting was enacted and when a consensus was tried to be reached about the purpose and aims of this grouping. The difference with the experimentalism as described by Piekut, is that sound hunting, as I describe it, had an ethos that unified it. More than what was recorded, it is how it was recorded that was important:sound hunting defined an attitude, an ethos, towards listening and sound “recording.”

That attitude was present in the name: ‘sound hunter.’ To hunt sound, to track and catch sound. To lie in wait, to be on the ‘ear-out,’ senses in alert, constantly aware of the sonic ambience, ready to draw the microphone and fire the recorder. There is also analogy with the hunter and their relation to the milieu: a capacity to read sonic traces, to interpret the sensory information that are constantly received, to track specific sounds, to go in the field for a location scouting before the actual recording. It should be noted that Thévenot, one the main promoter of the practice, always used the singular: chasseur de son [hunter of sound], and not the plural, chasseur de sons [hunter of sounds]. The difference is lost in ‘sound hunter,’ and can seem trivial, but nonetheless remains of a significance. Especially because other sound hunters used preferentially the plural and/or move between singular and plural, Thévenot stood apart in his consistency of using only the singular. This denotes a different conception, with Thévenot dealing with the concept of sound, an uncountable quality. The use of the plural orientates on the diversity of sound, on specific and separated entities. Thévenot’s focus was different, on the essence, on the sonic that lies behind every sound.

The term ‘chasseur de son,’ ‘sound hunter,’ seems to appear in the French press for the first time in the 1930s. One of the first occurrences appear in the newspaper L’Ouest-Éclair on the 3rd March 1939, with an article entitled “A sound effects library: How the wind, the rain, the sea waves and all nature sounds are created at the TSF.”[3] The author, Maggie Guiral, was a pioneer of radio editing and author of radiophonic novels. In the article, she mentions that the majority of sound effect discs came from New York City, where a group of sound hunters” was formed. “Every day, carrying a suitcase and a microphone, they comb the countryside, spy on human sounds, pick them, make discs of them.” The suitcase was most probably a disc-cutter (such as the one on figure 1.10 in the first chapter). Notably, concerning nature sounds, Guiral said that “the microphone fails sound, by giving it another quality.” She did not elaborate, but I will develop that point: that is, of technology as a translator, in the third chapter. Guiral subsequently described various method of foley to recreate specific sounds. Her explanations were very close, if not the same, to the ones present in the sound effect manuals of the 1960s and 1970s (and of Guy R. Williams’ book, which had a small section dedicated to tape recorder and sound effects).

The reference to the New York team scouting the countryside to record sounds reminds the ‘sound-canners’ described in the US press in the late 1920s and 1930s.[4] So were called sound recordists working for the cinema industry and specialised in the recording of sound effects. With the advent of talkies, there was a wish to have ‘real sounds’ rather than foley effects for the soundtrack. These recordings were made on sound film, which were stored in a metal can, hence the nickname of ‘sound canners,’ who were ‘canning sounds’ – that is, putting them in boxes. At the same period, also in the United States, the ornithologists Arthur A. Allen, Albert A. Brand and Peter P. Kellogg, of Cornell University, gave a paper entitled “Sound Hunting with a Sound Truck” at the Semi-Centennial Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, in November 1933.[5]

That being said, the reference to hunting was sometimes very direct in the presentation of the equipment. Take for instance what René Monnat said:

“Weapons… The sound hunter has several of them: microphones, sound recorders, scissors and adhesive tape being his panoply. (…) Finally, what will matter for him more than the equipment, will be the taste, the perseverance, the originality, and luck… We shall not forget to add a bit of boldness.”[6]

And still nowadays, some the equipment of the sound recordist has kept up the hunting analogy. Thus, one uses ‘sound traps,’ that is, a recorder with one or several microphones that is left unattended for usually a long period of time, to record the sonic ambience without the recordist being present to avoid any interference with the milieu. And there is the ‘shotgun’ microphone, which designates a microphone with a very narrow directivity that allows the recordist to focus on a very narrow point without picking up the surroundings. It should be noted that a similar analogy exists in photography and cinema: to shoot a film, to shoot a picture, and the alter-ego of the sound hunter, the ‘image hunter.’ The analogy was sometimes more than direct, with the rifle and the camera being shot together, as the historian Gregg Mitman has showed for the early American wildlife documentaries.[7] For sound hunting, the link between sound and hunting remained abstract, and on the contrary, the creative aspect was emphasized. As Jean Thévenot, the main promoter of sound hunting, wrote: “The hunt is opened! The only one that creates instead of destroying: the sound hunt.”[8]

Finally, the practice of recording sound was not an isolated activity. It was indeed often practiced in relation with amateur cinema, and therefore sound in itself was not the aim, but a part of a film or a diorama that was the final aim. Often cited by sound hunters as another hobby they practiced, the organisation to structure amateur cinema at an international level predates the one in sound recording by twenty years: the Union International du Cinéma Amateur, UNICA [International Union for Amateur Cinema] appeared in Switzerland in 1931 and is still active to this day.[9] As I will show for sound hunting in the second chapter, such an organisation is built on an existing basis and its existence reveals a practice already established – and established in several countries in the case of an international organisation.[10] A sign of the proximity between the two practices, Jean Borel (1906-1994), was one of the main sound hunting characters in Switzerland and a constant support for Thévenot, besides being an early member of UNICA, and its past General Secretary. A literature teacher, he wrote an history of UNICA,[11] and was one of the founding members of the Cinémathèque Suisse de Lausanne in 1948.[12]

[1] Jean-Marie Dubois, “Le IVème Concours International du Meilleur Enregistrement Sonore, CIMES 1955,” Radio – Je vois tout, 1 September 1955. Soon after the mid-1950s, Jean-Marie Dubois changed his name to René Monnat.

[2] Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 6.

[3] Maggie Guiral, “Une discothèque de bruits : Comment on crée le vent, la pluie, les vagues de la mer et tous les bruits de la nature à la T.S.F.,” L’Ouest-Éclair, 3 March 1939, 6. The article is available on Gallica:

[4] See for instance Andrew R. Boone, “Canning Nature’s Noises for the Talkies,” Popular Science Monthly, November 1931, 54-5, 138-9.

[5] Though, there is an uncertainty on the actual title. In the written report of T. S. Palmer, it is written as “Sound Hunting with a Sound Truck,” while in the programme at the end of the report, as it is listed as “Song Hunting with a Sound Truck.” T. S. Palmer, “The Semi-Centennial Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union November 13-16, 1933,” The Auk 51, no. 1 (1934): 52-66.

[6] Scissors and adhesive tape are the necessary tool to edit the tape by cutting and paste. Jean-Marie Dubois, ‘Le IVème Concours International du Meilleur Enregistrement Sonore, CIMES 1955,’ Radio – Je vois tout, 1 September 1955. As already mentioned, Jean-Marie Dubois was the alias of René Monnat. He stopped using it during the second half of the 1950s.

[7] Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009 [1999]), 5-25.

[8] Jean Thévenot, press release for the Chasseurs de Son 1972 contest for Informations Radio 22, 27 May to 2 June 1972. Archives Jean Thévenot et Chasseurs de Son, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (hereafter, Archives JT et CdS), 19910681/28, folder Concours Chasseurs de Son 1972, sub folder Chasseurs de Son 72, Communiqués de presse radio, tv, presse publiée.

[9] UNICA organises the Nations Film Competition, whose 82nd edition will occur in August 2022: (accessed 25/10/2021).

[10] The literature on amateur cinema is reduced. For a study of the situation in the United States, see Patricia Rodden Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995; Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia Rodden Zimmermann, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[11] Jean Borel, Histoire de l’UNICA (Neuchâtel, 1951 [1950]).

[12] Roland Cossandey, “1950-1970, Une filmographie neuchâteloise, ou les motifs dans le tapis,” in Cinéma et Télévision. Petit traité de filmographie cantonale : Neuchâtel (1900-1970), ed. Aude Joseph, Roland Cossandey, Christine Rodeschini (Hauterive: Éditions Gilles Attinger, 2008).