Andrew Lackey Special: 11 Field Recording Tips

by Andrew Lackey, December 30, 2009

Sound recordists are a special breed. On a recent trip to Zambia, the safari guides were very interested in the sound I recorded of the animals and villager’s ceremonial drumming. Apparently no one ever records sounds there. Here are 11 general tips from my experience field recording for film, games, music and fun.

1) Put together a really great rig.

Building your rig is an ongoing process, and includes a whole lot more than just a recorder and a mic. If you do enough recording you’ll eventually need stuff like walkie talkies, a high quality battery charger, tools, wind protection, mic mounts, tape, zip ties and cases to carry it all. I have 5 plastic bins and 2 hard shell waterproof cases that I can load up pretty quickly. I usually don’t need everything, but on really involved sessions like cars and guns I do. Its nice knowing I’ve got everything I’m likely to need in the ‘rig’.

2) Buy a cheap handy recorder.

You can get terrific results with cheap handheld recorders like the Zoom H2. No, they are not going to knock your socks off with fidelity, but tuck this little thing in your bag and grab all those great door creaks, printer paper jams, and car alarms happening in your world. I use stuff I’ve recorded on mine all the time in my sound design. Have you ever heard an airplane toilet flush…awesome!

3) Stay Lean and Mean

Field recording is all about thinking on your feet. When recording, I like to work with as little gear as possible. I even use really short mic cables because I don’t like carrying around the extra bulk. Also, by simplifying as much as possible you are reducing the likelihood of things going wrong and focuses your attention on what matters.

4) Keep the process in perspective.

It is helpful to keep in mind the relative importance of factors to good sound recording.

Sound Source > Environment > Mic Placement > Mic type > Mic Quality > Mic Preamps > Recording Resolution

So in other words, you wouldn’t get the full benefit of your 24bit / 192khz recording if you are recording in a noisy environment. My point is that you can optimize your recordings by paying attention to the things that matter the most. Recording sessions can get pretty hectic, and its easy to get caught up in changing mic position and not realize that the wind is picking up.

5) Give midrange microphones a try.

I love my Neumanns, but they’re not the best mics for every situation. I have a number of mid range mics from Audio Technica and Shure that sound great and have useful features. Overall, mid grade mics tend to be more rugged and able to withstand tough environments. Also, you won’t cry as much if it ends up in the water or run over by a car.

6) Keep an arsenal of mics.

To be fully equipped, I recommend a small diaphragm condenser stereo pair, a stereo shotgun and a few dynamic mics. Having contact mics, PZMs, hydrophones, and omni capsule mics on hand can also be interesting for experimenting. Having an assortment of mics available can be useful when you’re going for a unique sound.

7) Rent

There are a number rental houses with really sweet mics available. If you have an important shoot that you’re gearing up for, renting is a great way to keep your costs down and quality high. This is also a great way to try out new gear.

8) Ship your gear instead of flying with it.

You have to pay for extra luggage these days anyway. Plus you get better insurance and you don’t have to lug it around. Plus, mics and pistol grips tend to alert the screeners…and when they swab your gear…are they gonna find some gun powder residue from that firearm recording session you just did? Avoid the hassle.

9) Master it immediately

The memory fades quickly. The entries into your library will be better if you remember all the circumstances of a recorded take. Speaking of 7 gigs of Zambian safari recordings to master.

10) Noise Reduction

Buy a program restoration program like Izotope’s RX. I’ve rescued a number of contaminated takes using RX. If a sound is useable don’t mess with it until you actually need the sound for something. Unusable takes on the other hand can often be rescued and added to the library.

11) Practice make Proficient.

Field recording can be a humbling experience. In-climate weather, demons in the gear and mute animals can yield a wasted day. Experience will teach you to watch the weather, troubleshoot the gear and research mating of season of alligators before you fly to Florida to record them.

Good sound hunting.

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