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A Beginner's Guide to Field Recording, Pt 1

by
Gift

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Field recording seems a dark art to many sound designers and composers, yet it is one way to create rich libraries of original material. Through some simple guidance and advice, this two part tutorial will give you a brief introduction to field recording. In Part 1, we'll take a look at tools of the trade, some tips and and tricks for having a successful session, and a walkthrough of a recording session. Part 2 will address some post-processing techniques for captured sounds, librarianship, and what to do with your recordings once you've got them back in the studio.

Step 1 - What is field recording?

Put simply, field recording is the process of capturing sounds from the real world, for future use in analysis, archiving, sound design, foley, or composition work. The process of recording these sounds can range from simple to covert to extremely complex. Additionally, the material you wish to capture may be staged (e.g. recording weapons), or spontaneous (e.g. recording crowds in a public place) or some combination of both.

The important thing for beginners to recognize is that field recording can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. Don't allow yourself to be discouraged by the possibilities, but rather start by taking a simple walk around your neighborhood with a low-profile and simple setup. The results will surprise you and you may find that you are instantly rewarded with unique, original material to add to your library.

Step 2 - Tools of the Trade

Flickr photo by BoomeraATV

Before taking your first field trip, you'll need to collect some capturing equipment. As noted previously, don't be discouraged or convinced that you can't have a productive recording session without thousands of dollars of expensive equipment. What you choose to record, and the techniques you use to record, are often as important as the equipment you use. Below is an overview of the basic equipment you'll need to get started.

  • Headphones - You will need some decent headphones for monitoring in the field to ensure your recordings are being captured the way you'd like. If you're on a covert recording operation, you may want or need to use earbuds. If you're doing a more elaborate session, some studio-grade headphones may be in order. Personally, I've found that a comfortable set of closed-back studio headphones such as the Audio Technica ATH-M50 are really useful for blocking out unwanted noise when you're trying to capture a particular sound in the field. You can expect to get a good sounding pair of headphones for less than $150USD.
  • Audio Technica ATH-M50 Headphones

  • Microphones - The type of microphone you select for your field recording session will vary widely depending upon the source material you wish to record, your budget, the type of recorder you're using, and the particular method of recording you use. Audiotuts+ has a number of great tutorials on film recording and on selecting a microphone. These tutorials will be useful in helping to determine how to proceed, but below is an overview of some common microphones that might be useful.
    1. Stereo Microphones - These microphones come in a variety of price ranges and configurations. They include microphones where there are two distinct 'heads', and some wherein the capsules are enclosed within one head. Additionally, these will use varying pickup patterns and recording schema such as Binaural, XY, ORTF, and M-S. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand USD.
    2. Schoeps CMXY 4Vg

    3. Shotgun Microphones - Shotgun microphones are particularly useful for targeting a specific sound source at a distance. These microphones tend to cancel out more side and rear signals, resulting in a recording that is highly directional. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand USD.
    4. Uni and Omnidirectional Microphones - You may already be familiar with microphones of this type - they include, omnidirectional microphones, cardiod, hypercardiod, etc. These types of microphones can be used for a variety of field recording functions, and can be especially useful when using a matched pair of like microphones when recording in stereo or when using HDR techniques. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand USD.
    5. Built-In Microphones - Many portable 'prosumer' recorders such as those offered by M-Audio, Edirol and Zoom, have built-in microphones that allow an all-in-one field recording package. These microphones tend to be of fair quailty, and utilize some form of stereo scheme such as ORTF or XY. For beginning field recordists, these are an ideal way to get started without the hassle of larger, more cumbersome units.
  • Windscreens - In field recording, wind is often the most challenging opponent to good recording. There are numerous ways to block or reduce wind, however, if you're willing to spend some money or get creative. On the high end, companies such as Rycote offer high quality windscreens for specific microphone types, which results in a dramatic reduction of wind noise in your recordings. On the low-end, a trip to the fabric store and some DIY know-how can result in a perfectly useful windscreen using a wireframe and some fur-like fabric. Most portable recorders ship with some form of foam windscreen. Prices range from several hundred dollars to less than $20USD and some elbow grease.
  • Rycote Softie Windscreen

  • Recorders - Last but not least, portable field recorders range widely in price and functionality. On the low end, units from Zoom, Edirol and M-Audio are great tools for inexpensive and good quality stereo field recording. On the higher end, units from Fostex, Sony, Sound Devices, and Zaxcom provide more flexibility and fidelity, including multitrack recording and improved converters, preamps and conversion. Prices range from $200USD to several thousand.

Zaxcom Deva Recorder

Step 3 - Pre-Recording Tips

In terms of raw technique, field recording isn't much different from recording in the studio. However, because you're adding an element of chaos to the mix (i.e. real world interference), you must be especially mindful of a few things when making your first trip. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before venturing out.

Flickr photo by Khalid Almasoud

  • Weather - Ideal field recording conditions depend heavily on what, exactly, you're trying to record, but for most situations a warm, dry day with low wind is ideal. If you have to contend with extreme heat or extreme cold, you'll need to take extra precautions for your equipment and yourself. Additionally, whether or not you're intention is to record the sounds of the weather, such as rain, be mindful of protecting your equipment from the elements. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and any exposure to rain or snow is BAD NEWS for recording equipment!
  • Time Management - Even under ideal conditions, field recording takes time. More often than not, it takes more time than you think it will. Allow yourself plenty of time for travel, setup, recording, review, more travel, more setup, more recording, more review, and strike. And don't forget that, because you're dealing with the real world, things like traffic (foot and auto), cooperation of the weather and environment, and unexpected equipment malfunctions can all add time to a well planned day.
  • Power Planning - If your equipment is battery operated, be sure to bring LOTS of extra batteries, or the ability to recharge batteries quickly. Always carry spare batteries with you - both on your person and in your equipment storage bags. You never know when you will need to replace them, and having to make a trip back to the car or to the store may mean the difference between capturing the sound you want and missing it entirely.
  • Self Care - Believe it or not, a day of field recording can be hard work. You need to plan ahead with snacks, water, and even meals. If you're brain and body aren't operating at 100%, no amount of high-end equipment will make up for your poor judgment.
  • Mobility - Before leaving for your first trip, test out the mobility of your setup. Can you comfortably move around with your headphones, recorder, windscreens, microphones, mic stands, cables, and batteries? Try to maximize your portability, keeping cables coiled and tidy, and batteries handy.
  • Set Goals - This may seem obvious, but it is important to know exactly what your goal is for your field recording trip. Know your destinations if you're traveling, know who to contact in case of emergencies (equipment or otherwise) and have a clear picture of what you'd like to come back with. This will go a LONG way in ensuring you get the material you need.

Step 4 - A Day In The Field

Flickr photo by inchadney

Now that you're primed, prepped and have all your pre-planning taken care of, it is time to journey out into the field. Here's a breakdown of what a typical recording session might look like.

  • Transport - You depart your location and head to your recording destination.
  • Scouting - Arriving at your destination, you scout the area to determine the best place for you to set up your equipment. In some cases, you may be doing mobile recording, moving while recording. If this is the case, you'll want to do a walkthrough of the area to establish your trajectory.
  • Check Conditions - As part of the scouting mission, you'll want to check your conditions. How's the weather? Might it rain? Will there be issues with moisture or extreme heat today? Are there a lot of people nearby? Any stray dogs who might foul your recording (or equipment?). Just having an awareness of your surroundings is important, because it allows you to adapt quickly as the situation changes. Additionally, it will aid you in setup.
  • Setup - Next you'll get all the equipment setup, powered up, and ensure that all is functioning properly. You'll also want to make sure your backup power and equipment (if any) is standing by, readily accessible. Depending on conditions, you'll want to have wind and weatherscreens handy.
  • Setting Levels - Before doing your first official 'take', you'll want to do a few practice runs to set levels. Do a few recordings at various distances and input levels to maximize the particular sound(s) you wish to capture. Remember the old adage: "GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT". If your recordings are too quiet to begin with, when you go back to the studio they may be too noisy when you have to boost their volume in post. Likewise, if the recordings are too loud, you run the risk of clipping, which will ruin your day and, if done to extremes, your equipment.
  • Record! - You've done all the planning, you're equipment is ready - now it is time to record. Take your time, be patient, and get as many takes as you can of the particular sound(s) you want. It is easier to wade through too many recordings than to make a second trip out to capture a sound you could have gotten the first time around.
  • Take Notes - One of the keys to being a great sound designer or composer is to be a good librarian. Take notes of your recording session, including when, where, how, with what equipment, as well as specific notes about each take. These will serve to make your time in post be more productive and will act as a learning tool for future field sessions.
  • Have Fun! - Last, but not least - have fun! Recording and capturing sounds is fun, exciting and often surprising. Some of the most amazing sounds you'll capture are those you least expect. Be prepared for the unexpected, and you'll be rewarded with great material for use in all your future endeavors!

Conclusion

In Part 2 of our series, we'll take a look at a field recording session that I recently did, including some audio examples. We'll then examine what techniques we can use to improve these sounds back in the studio.

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