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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to Choose A Field Recording Kit

Do you use sound effects every day? Are you interested in recording your own?

Perhaps you're the adventurous type, and wish to capture sound clips outside, beyond your home, classroom, or studio.

This is known as field recording. It is much different than studio recording, inside. It requires new techniques, and, of course, different gear.

How do you begin? Which equipment do you need to capture audio in cities, markets, and swamps?

The answer is detailed, but don't worry. I'll explain what you need to start. And, I'll also share a way to choose gear that helps you record wisely.

What Do You Need?

Let's begin by looking at the facts. What, technically speaking, do you need to record sound effects outside of studios?

There are endless gadgets and trinkets that a field recordist can add to their kit. However, at its simplest, a field recordist needs:
  • A microphone to capture audio.
  • A preamp to amplify the microphone's signals.
  • A data-capturing device known as a recorder.
Those are critical. Without them, sound can't be captured.

You'll also likely need:
  • A windscreen.
  • A stand, shock mount, or pistol grip to secure the microphone.
  • A bag to carry everything as you travel.
These are the essentials. However, a thoughtful consideration of field recording equipment is more important than just a shopping list.

How to Begin

How do you begin collecting field recording equipment? What's the best way to arm yourself, and start recording sound clips in the world around you?

It seems like a bewildering task. The pro audio world is difficult to understand. After all, recording sound takes finesse, skill, and precision. The equipment needed to do this can be elaborate.  You will encounter a jumble of manufacturers, equipment versions, firmware revisions, and more.

What do you use to record audio? It's common to find advice that suggests one particular model. Some pros sneer at certain brands, and praise others. That attitude isn't helpful. There isn't a single way to record audio. There is not a single, proper answer that works for everyone.

Instead, this article will suggest a different way to choose a field recording kit.  It is an approach that will help you choose gear throughout your journey recording sound.  This will help you find the right equipment, no matter what sound effects you pursue, or how you do it.

I believe find the right kit is answered by considering three qualities:
  • Fidelity of audio.
  • Usability, or how easily gear helps you capture sound effects.
  • Budget.
These three factors are tightly linked. Simply providing suggestions based on price or sound quality alone is incomplete.  Why?

Context is key. Even an inexpensive recorder can capture excellent audio, depending on the subject you choose. And spending on a pricey kit when you are just learning may be wasting money spent better elsewhere.

Let's look at gear suggestions a different way: based on how you'd like to record sound. Of course, veteran field recordists capture sound differently than new people. How someone learns field recording happens in three stages.  These are:

  1. Beginning field recording.
  2. A little more time, and a bit more money.
  3. Becoming a professional.
Each of these stages uses a separate mix of equipment, and produces different sound. Let's look at each of them.

Note: I will refer to specific models. Use these as a guide to inform your search, not as a final answer. They are relevant for late 2012. Prices are in US dollars.

1. Beginning Field Recording

When you begin recording, the best thing is to get a recorder, any recorder at all, and start. It's true that iPhone recording apps such as Audiofile Engineering’s FiRe 2 are not ideal fidelity. Dictation recorders are similar. You'll certainly want better fidelity as you record more sounds. However, if you have nothing else, use them. Why?

You'll learn not only how sound interacts with equipment, but how to accommodate for challenging gear. And, you'll get away from your computer screen and actually record sound effects.

The significance of doing this cannot be overstated. Beginning is the most important step when exploring field recording. Many new recordists waste weeks or months reading reviews and flipping through catalogs. They dither instead of beginning practicing. Every step you take right now starts building an invaluable sound library for your projects, no matter how small and with which gear.

In many cases you'll have more flexibility than apps and Dictaphones. The best, first step is to choose equipment that integrates a microphone and a recorder.  These portable recorders are popular, produce decent audio, and are cheap. Options such as the Zoom H1 record high resolution audio with a stereo microphone for less than $100.  If you have a higher budget you can climb Zoom's ladder to the H2n ($180). Sony offers a well-reviewed recorder, the PCM-M10, which is $250. That recorder will provide fine recordings. Other manufacturers, including Tascam, Olympus, and Roland offer a few tiers of recorders under $250.

Since you're gathering field recordings (as opposed to recording inside), you'll need a windscreen to protect your microphone from the buffeting and fluttering aspects of wind. Most manufacturers offer custom windscreens for a bit extra. There are also after-market manufacturers that sell them, too. Find them on eBay for half the price.

2. A Little More Time, And A Bit More Money

Once you've recorded for some time, you may find yourself wanting more sophistication. Perhaps you've learned as much as you'd like from inexpensive field recording gear. You're want to spend more time recording outdoors. You want to focus on capturing expressive sound, instead of wasting time competing with cheaper, yet limited, gear.

For a little more cash you will gain significant benefits. Recorders that range from $300 - $600 capture finer sound, and provide a smoother recording experience. Features such as pre-roll, sophisticated user interface (level control, buttons, switches), inputs, and rich displays will help you get your job done easier. Many offer multiple stereo patterns: wide for atmosphere recordings, and narrow for specific sound effects. They're also built more sturdily. Durability means the recorder can handle trickier field recording shoots, and can be toted with you anywhere.

This means you'll produce better sound more easily, and more often. This allows you to move beyond merely operating equipment, and focus more on developing your skills.

Explore recorders like the Zoom H4n, Sony PCM-D50, and Tascam DR-100 mk II. Use your budget to move beyond table-top stands, and purchase sturdier options.

3. Becoming a Professional

As you continue to record, you will encounter unusual sound effects. The method to capturing them won't be immediately apparent, and that will make recording them challenging. Some may be too quiet, such as forests and fields. Others may be too loud (jets), or complex (cars). To record these advanced subjects properly, you will need professional equipment. How do professional kits differ from what we've explored so far?

Well, there are many ways, but the most obvious is that they use separate components. Professional recorders no longer combine the recorder, microphone, and preamp into one pocket-sized package. Instead, each piece is purchased separately, and is larger. Why are they separate?

This is because a manufacturer will be very good at one technology, such as digital-to-analog conversion in recorders, but not as experienced with others, such microphone transducers. Choosing separate pieces means that a recordist is picking gear that is specialized, and superior. The components will be better, resulting in cleaner, smoother sound.  Features will become more sophisticated, and add equalization, limiters, and other frills that help during challenging recording sessions. They allow professional inputs from XLR cables. The design becomes more thoughtful.

And, of course, prices grow to match this specialization.

Separate components also allow a recordist more flexibility. Instead of being limited to either a narrow or wide recording perspective, recordists are now free to swap out microphone types at will.

They may choose to spend the majority of their budget on a preamp. They may select a recorder based on their recording style.  This idea also allows a recordist to expand their kit over time, adding or swapping new equipment as they need it.

Microphones vary greatly. Your choice will depend on what you want to record. Brands such as Røde and Audio Technica create good entry-level microphones. The Røde NT4 is popular, and costs just over $500. You may wish to choose binaural microphones, which are compact and cheaper, but produce entirely different recordings. Higher-end brands of microphones include Sennheiser, Sanken, and Neumann, among others. Some cost as much as $3000, with sound quality to match.

Since the microphones are no longer integrated with the body of a hand-held recorder, you will need to buy stabilization to support it. Options include pistol grips, boom poles, or professional stands with a shock mount. Also, you'll need to buy a custom blimp windscreen to protect the microphone from wind.

A kit's preamp has great power to affect field recordings. Good preamps allow a recordist to capture sound clips with little noise, and may contribute a "smoother" and pleasing aspect to the sounds. Recordists choose separate, dedicated preamps to control this aspect.  Examples include preamps and mixers by Sound Devices, such as the MixPre-D.

Recorders vary tremendously. Some are made from metal. Others are plastic, and are meant to sit at home on a desktop. Their price increases based on their construction, the amount of tracks they record, storage space, and more.  They range in price from $600 to $3000.  Examples at the lower end of this range are the Fostex FR-LE 2 and Tascam HD-P2. Sound Devices also produces recorders. Models such as the 702 and 722 occupy the upper end of this price range.

And, as you add components, you will need cabling to connect them, and batteries to power them.

When a field recordist chooses to expand their kit with separate components, they are doing more than just spending additional money for superior gear. They are choosing to specialize themselves.

Some Tips When Purchasing Field Recording Gear

Every field recordist will prefer a different brand, size, and design from their equipment. Perception of sound quality also varies.

Whichever the case, look for these features to ensure you're making a wise purchase.
  • A long warranty.
  • An established, reputable company.
  • Good customer service.
  • Sturdy manufacturing.
It's a good idea to rent or borrow gear before you purchase. Test recordings in a variety of environments.  When you do purchase, consider buying pre-owned gear if the recorder has been gently used.

Choosing Gear to Compliment Your Recordings

Field recording is much more than the hardware that's involved. This is why the best way to choose field recording equipment considers the tightly-meshed trio of budget, fidelity, and usability.

What are your goals? Are you looking to simply get started? Do you have more time, and an moderate budget to help you focus on developing your skills? You can choose to upgrade futher.

Are you looking to specialize? Then, and only then, is the most expensive pro gear the best choice. There is not point to buying a Ferrari if you only drive it around the block. It was built to race. Buy pro gear when you are ready. Until that time, inexpensive options are appropriate and wise.

Choosing gear can be overwhelming. There are many options. You'll hear contrasting opinions. It's difficult to make a decision. Don't let this stop you the most important decision: actually stepping outside and gathering sound.

About the author: Paul Virostek travels worldwide recording the sounds of cities and cultures. He shares his collection at airbornesound.com, and writes about his experiences field recording, and sharing sound effects at jetstreaming.org. He is also the author of "Field Recording: from Research to Wrap - An Introduction to Gathering Sound Effects", which was published in 2012.


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