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A Beginner's Guide to Field Recording, Pt 2

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This post is part of a series called Location Sound: Field Recording for Beginners.
A Beginner's Guide to Field Recording, Pt 1
Producing Great Sound on Location

Field recording seems to be 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 2 part tutorial will give you a brief introduction to field recording. In Part 1, we looked at tools of the trade, some tips and and tricks for having a successful session, and a walkthrough of a recording session. In Part 2, we will examine one of my field recording sessions, 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.

A Brief Look At A Session

I recently went on a field recording session with a friend, capturing various ambient sounds from Seattle. We had prepared a list of the places we wanted to visit, and scheduled the trip so that we could hit the maximum number of spots in the most efficient manner. As with any field session, things didn't go 100% according to plan, so several stops were cut from the trip. Our first stop, however, was generally a success, and the steps below outline what we did.

Flickr photo by N6DN

Step 1 - Location and Setup

Our first stop was the beach at Golden Gardens, an area with lots of people, boats, planes, and surf from the Puget Sound. Our recording setup consisted of the following:

  • Zoom H2 mobile recorder with 8GB storage
  • Tascam HDP2 mobile recorder with 2GB storage
  • Audio Technica MH50 headphones
  • Matched pair of Oktava MK-012 microphones
  • Homemade windscreen
  • Boom microphone stand with 2-microphone adapter
  • Spare cables and batteries

The Oktava microphones were setup up in ORTF fashion, connected to the Tascam, and guarded with the windscreen. The Zoom was used to get up close and personal with the surf and shoreline, while the 'big rig' setup was about 50 feet back from the waterline.

Step 2 - What Went Wrong

Flickr photo by Torri 479

Some with sharp eyes may have noticed something missing from the above setup. When you've got 2 people, and 2 recorders, you would think that 2 sets of headphones would be handy. Well, the first mistake we made was in forgetting the second set of headphones. If we were recording one-after-the-other, this wouldn't be a problem. But we tried recording at the same time, and the result was the loss of some great material due to microphone blowout. Despite having our makeshift windscreen in place, the wind was still reaching my mic setup, and as a big train passed by in the background (Wow - what a great sound!), the wind kicked up and clipped the microphones making the recording useless. Here's a sample:

Our microphones were clipped by the wind during a great recording moment.

We adjusted the volume and location of the windscreen on our next attempt and managed to capture some better material. But our moment with that train had passed, and we lost an opportunity to get some good stuff.

Additionally, I made the mistake of setting my recorder on the ground as I was configuring the microphones, just as a curious dog came by to check things out. The result was a paw full of sand landing right on the recorder. Fortunately, the Tascam is a hardy beast, and no permanent damage was done, but I was quickly reminded how important it is to have portable gear protected at all times.

Step 3 - What Went Right

On the bright side, we had arrived at our location early, and given ourselves enough time in the day to sit for another round of recording. We did end up getting a lot of good material, including shore ambience, boats, people, dogs, sea-planes, and a short Amtrak train in the background. Lots of great ambience from one location. We also made notes of things that needed tuning for our next stop, so on our way there, we stopped by my place to get a few extra items - including that second set of headphones.

Back In The Studio - Cataloging and Editing Your Field Material

After a day in the field, we were both exhausted, so we didn't do anything other than transfer our captured material for future listening and editing. We managed to get through about 50% of our list, and scheduled another day of recording later in the summer.

Now that I have the material, it is time to listen, edit, and start mining for the gems held within.

Flickr photo by Erik

When you've returned to the studio and transferred all your recordings to your editing machine, the next step is to begin cataloging and editing your material. Chances are you'll have a fair amount of good material, and a fair amount of material that wont be as useful. The importance of listening to all the material and generating a good reference sheet for it is invaluable. It will allow you to easily and quickly find this material when you need it.

Many sound designers and recordists use dedicated software for archiving their recordings. Applications such as SoundMiner, Basehead, and Net Mix Pro offer database-driven access to your files, while apps like AudioFinder and Snapper extend the existing filesystem to make finding and editing your files a snap.

For my own sanity, I will usually catalog my material into at least three sections:

  • Original unedited recordings - this is the material transferred straight from the field
  • Edited raw recordings - this is the material after I've gone through and edited it, selecting the takes I like, giving them unique names, etc. However, I've done no post-processing to this material.
  • Edited and Processed Material - This section is usually a 'living' section, because my needs for a given sound may change depending on the project. For example, I may use a plane sound unaltered except for volume and EQ adjustments, or I may use it in conjunction with another sound when trying to create some kind of third sound that isn't necessarily a plane. In this case, I may have several versions of the plane sound that have been processed differently.

Take your time with this step. One of the greatest teachings I've ever received as it pertains to working with sound - be it composing, sound design or engineering - is that a good (fill in the blank) is a good librarian. The more organized you are with your source material, the more efficient and effective you'll be at finding, creating and editing when the time counts!

Editing and Mastering Field Recordings

The last step in our tutorial is to look at a few simple ways to edit and manipulate your field recordings to yield useful material. There are an infinite number of ways and combinations to tweak your sounds to get the results you want. Below are a few techniques I use frequently that consistently yield useful material.

  • Volume/Gain - This is a no-brainer, but it isn't to be overlooked. Meticulous listening to a long ambient track may reveal that some subtle volume changes are needed over time to accentuate specific moments. Alternatively, if you're selecting one or two slices of sounds, you might be able to adjust volume differently than if you were manipulating those sounds in the context of a longer ambient track.
  • Noise Reduction - Depending on your source material, using a Noise Reduction plugin may help in getting rid of unwanted noise in your recordings. Be very careful with these types of processes, however. They often result in unwanted aliasing and artifacts.
  • Equalization - Selective equalization is a great way to start to isolate the material you want from a field recording. Let's say you're recording the ambience of a forest, and you want to focus on the leaves and the birds - it is safe to do some cuts to lower frequencies in this case, because much of that material will simply add noise to your final recording. You might be able to boost the gain of your recording after some selective EQ to a range much higher than you would without it, since you'll not (necessarily) be boosting the noise with it.
  • Multiband Compression - This is one of my favorite techniques, and while explaining the full process of using one of these is beyond the scope of this tutorial (are you reading this, Mo?) a multiband compressor allows you to adjust the apparent volume of a sound across multiple frequency bands. The result is that you can, for example, reduce the low-end frequencies while increasing mids and highs in a way that is distinctly different than simple equalization.
  • Limiting - Of course, at the end of the chain, you may simply want to increase the apparent volume of an entire recording. Using a brickwall limiter is a simple way to do this, with the understanding that you'll be increasing the volume of the good and bad parts of your recording.

Conclusion

I hope this brief look at field recording has given you some ideas for recording your own sounds, and offered a few useful pointers on improving the quality and workflow of your sessions. Below is a short clip of the seashore ambience that we finally managed to capture in the steps above. I've applied some EQ, volume adjustments and multiband compression, and limiting to yield a really nice ambient background.

Seashore ambience - Golden Gardens, Seattle, WA, USA

If you've found this tutorial helpful, or have ideas or questions - please share them in the comments! Until next time, keep listening!

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