Starting out with field recording

Suggestions for anyone starting out with field recording. Disclaimer: I’m an academic researcher, not a professional media producer. Much of what I have learned has come from people far more skilled and experienced than myself, particularly sound artists. This is an updated version of some stuff I wrote here. If you disagree or think I’ve missed something, post a comment.

1. Think about why you want to make field recordings. Your answer might be wispy and vague, “I just want to experiment, play around with sound, see where it takes me”, or it might be more specific: to document, to represent, to explore hidden aspects of a place, to understand everyday life, to produce research data, to make the soundtrack for a film, for music… Having some sense, however vague, of what you want to do will help with decisions about technology, technique, ethics etc.

2. Start out with a small, affordable, easy-to-carry audio recorder. Several sound artists I’ve spoken to have said this. It’s easier to get into the habit of recording if your recorder is small enough to carry around with you, ideally in a pocket. Look for one with a stereo pair of built-in mics that will record uncompressed audio (i.e. WAV or AIF files).

At the bottom end of the price range, current models to consider are the Zoom H1 and H2n, Edirol R-09, Olympus LS-12, Roland R-5, Tascam DR-05 or DR-07. If you want a recommendation, I think the Tascam DR-05 is very good for not much money.

If you have a bit more money and audio recording is more than just a passing interest, a model with XLR inputs will give you more flexibility for using external mics. I’ve found both the Zoom H4n and Tascam DR-100 to be excellent. They’re heavier and bulkier than the likes of the H1 and DR-05, but feel more robust and have more features.

What about those toy pocket computer things like iPhones? I’m a total smartphone refuser, so not the best person to advise. Last time I checked, the standard built-in iPhone audio recording quality was laughably terrible – it sounded like gerbils mating in a crisp packet. I guess it has a certain lo-fi grit if that’s what you need, but it won’t do much else. You can get apps that improve things a bit though, recording in uncompressed wav files. But you’ll still be limited by the low quality mic. A mic input add-on, like the Tascam iM2, should improve things considerably.

I’d avoid machines that record only in highly compressed formats like WMA or MP3, usually marketed as digital dictaphones or voice recorders. Again, it’s personal taste – if you want a lo-fi sound then these will be fine, and they are very portable and discrete. They’re just not designed for field recording or serious audio production.

3. If money is tight, consider second hand gear especially if you’re just experimenting. Portable minidisc recorders can be had for peanuts from eBay or similar (make sure it has a microphone input – not just a line in), or you could even consider a good quality old tape recorder such as the Sony WM-D6C. Compared to newer machines, it will be a hassle to transfer files into the computer for editing and distribution, but on the plus side this will force you to listen back to everything you’ve recorded, which is no bad thing.

Minidisc and good quality tape recorders often have no built in mics, so you’ll need an external one. I started out with a Minidisc recorder and a Sony ECM-MS907 mic which was an affordable set up that gave me pretty good audio quality. My main problem with sound quality when starting out was actually wind noise due to lack of good windproofing, rather than any issues with the mic and recorder. In the field, wind noise is a much bigger problem than the slightly higher self-noise of a cheaper mic or recorder.

Field recording on a budget. This Sony WM-D6C cassette recorder and ECM-MS907 microphone were donated to me by a University department.
Field recording on a budget. A Sony WM-D6C cassette recorder and ECM-MS907 mic, given to me by a University research centre. The format may be obsolete, but the sound quality is excellent.

4. Practice. Get out there and make recordings, hone your technique, experiment. If you look at someone like Chris Watson, most of what makes his work interesting is down to the ingenious way he works. It helps that he has awesome gear, but I bet you could give him some old shitty microcassette dictaphone and he’d still come up with something good.

5. Listen. Forget about recording for a while, just find a space you’re interested in and listen to it. Field recording is in many ways an art of patience attentiveness, a bit like bird watching. Once you’ve heard something interesting, then think about how best to record it.

6. Set record levels with care. This is a crucial variable, like exposure in photography. You want the levels peaking at around -12dB. The peak is the highest point the levels ever get to. You’ll need to watch the levels for 30 seconds or so to work this out, maybe longer, and make sure you’re getting the loudest sounds you’re likely to have in the context, e.g. if you’re at a busy road junction you’ll need to set the level when traffic is flowing, not when the lights are on red.

In urban environments I prefer to err on the side of setting levels peaking a bit lower than -12dB. In cities there can be unexpected loud sounds that send your levels shooting up, like a bus rattling by or a load of kids who walk up and shout at your mic. Setting the levels slightly lower gives a bigger margin for error. However, it’s best not to set them too low or you’ll start to get audible noise. For more about levels, see here.

7. Record in a high quality format. This makes big files, but they can always be compressed later. When using digital recording, I use 24 bit WAV or AIF, 44.1 kHz (48 kHz is better to use if the audio is for a video project, as that’s the standard for video). I’m not convinced that higher sample rates, like 96kHz, make a noticeable difference. If your recorder will only do 16 bit, that’s OK, but 24 bit is better. If you want to know what all those numbers mean, go here.

Avoid recording in compressed formats like MP3 or WMA unless you need to record for several hours or the audio is for the web or quality isn’t crucial (e.g. recording a long conference session). The advantage with compressed formats is that the file size is smaller, but they are lower quality. If you have to use a compressed format, try to use a high bit rate like 256kbps. Avoid bit rates below 128kpbs unless you want your audio to sound trashed.

8. Always, always, always turn off auto level controls (labelled ‘ALC’ or ‘AGC’). They can really f**k up your recording. They automatically adjust the recording level so you don’t have to worry about setting, making the quiet bits of the recording louder and the louder bits quieter. That might sound useful, but those changes in level – dynamics – are a crucial part of what makes things sound the way they do. Auto gain controls try to iron out such level differences, and they usually do it in a clumsy and obviously audible way. If you need to alter the dynamic range of your recordings, it’s much better to do it afterwards, with audio software, so you can adjust while listening to the results.

9. Monitor whilst recording. Monitoring is listening to the signal coming through the device. It can be tempting to take the headphones off once you’ve set levels, but keep them on and you’re much more likely to notice if anything goes wrong, e.g. levels start to clip, battery runs out, mic picks up wind noise. Some problems are only audible through the device, such as wind noise and buzzy interference from someone’s mobile phone. I also think it’s basic good practice to pay attention to what you’re recording. The exception to this rule is with binaural recordings, where it’s often difficult or confusing to monitor at the same time as recording.

10. Leave the levels alone whilst recording. However, if the level hits 0dB at any point, this means it is too high and the recording will be distorted. If this happens repeatedly, it’s probably wise to turn the record level down – but try to do this just once and then leave it. Otherwise the recordings end up with the level noticeably going up and down, which, as with auto gain control, sounds rubbish.

11. Record in stereo. It gives a much better sense of space than mono, while being less cumbersome and technically demanding to deal with than multi-channel surround sound formats. Stereo is essential for soundscape recording and ambiences. But if there is a specific point source you want – for sound effects work, wildlife recording, voice recording, etc. – then mono may be more suitable.

12. Try to record for at least three minutes, and five if possible. If something is worth recording, it’s usually worth recording for a little while. Often sound environments change and interesting things happen – if you turn off after a minute and move on, you may miss the action. And when editing afterwards, it’s better to have a bit too much than a bit too little.

13. Invest in a decent set of headphones. Those little earbuds that came free with your iPod won’t be accurate enough to hear what’s going into your recorder. Junk them, and look for a set of proper cans. Forget all that Beats Dr. Dre stuff, it’s consumer gear. For field recording you need something with a relatively flat response.

At the low end of the price range, the Sennheiser HD201s are OK, or even better Beyerdynamic DT231s, which I used for years as my main headphones. If you have more money to spend, I recommend Beyerdynamic DT150 headphones. The sound quality and isolation are good, and – crucially – they’re built like tanks. German-made, they have a faintly military/communist/cyberman vibe going on, deeply unfashionable but very sturdy. Less robust models tend to get damaged when chucked into a bag, but not these bad boys. A lot of people like the Sennheiser HD25-1 ii – they’re also very rugged with excellent sound quality, but personally I’ve found them uncomfortable to wear. They press on my ears, which then start to sting after a while, but I do have slightly odd-shaped ears so maybe it’s just me. If you get them, make sure you get the pro model, not the overpriced stupid blue Adidas branded version.

Beyer headphones
German engineering from Beyerdynamic. Left: DT231s, great sound quality at a reasonable price. Right: DT150s, more expensive but very rugged, so you can chuck them in a bag full of gear and they won’t get squished to pieces. Plus all parts are replaceable.

14. Think about wind protection. This is something to get into once you’ve got a grasp of the basics, and how important it is depends on where you’re working. I’ve done a lot of my field recording in and around Edinburgh, where it rarely drops below about a force 9 gale, so windproofing is essential. Wind on mics makes a rumbly farty distorting sound. I hate it – though some people are more tolerant, and argue it gives a sense of weather and atmosphere. Directional mics are especially prone to it. Here is an example:

If wind is causing you trouble, look at my advice on how to avoid it here.

15. Turn off your mobile phone when recording. Not to silent but properly off. And ask anyone with you to do the same. The microwaves from mobile phone signals can pass through wires, producing a glitchy buzzing sound that can ruin your recording, even if the phone is acoustically inaudible. So, unless someone’s partner is about to go into labour or something, turn them off.

I hope some of this is useful. If it is, or if it isn’t, please post a comment.

To conclude, a few links:

  • The Quiet American was a website that I found really useful when starting out with field recording. It has some excellent ‘how to’ advice, with a very personal take on the craft.
  • A field recordings group on SoundCloud. Not something I’m part of myself, but if you’re looking to share and get feedback on your recordings it might be useful.
  • Radio Aporee. The largest online audio map, to which anyone who wants can upload their field recordings.
  • And the websites of Felicity Ford and Peter Cusack, whose voices you can hear in some of the clips above.

This ‘how to’ guide was produced as part of a research fellowship entitled ‘Researching sonic environments: exploring audio methodologies’. Thanks to the AHRC for funding this project.

14 Replies to “Starting out with field recording”

  1. Honestly, the best, most straight-to-the-point, easiest-to-comprehend article that I’ve come across with respect to the ABC of field recording. Would you be able to write something dedicated to budget microphones alone, or perhaps share any bit of information on here? Tight on a budget, I wouldn’t mind going with Tascam DR-05, but then, I’d like to experiment with a variety of recorders, from Walkman to iPhone, so.

  2. Many thanks, glad this is of use. Apologies for the slow reply, been busy with other stuff lately. In terms of budget mics I would say – and these are just my opinions, others would think differently:

    – Wind protection can be more important, depending on where you are recording. Good mic with no wind protection = useless, whereas cheap mic with good wind protection can be good enough.

    – For field recs, a stereo mic or pair is essential – or at least, better than mono.

    – I don’t like shotguns for field recs. I know some people do, but I find the sound nasal and constricted. So I would avoid stereo shotguns.

    – I started out with a Sony ECM MS907 and it was fine. A bit noisy, and only has a minijack out, but otherwise OK. For low budget, a second hand one of these off eBay would be a starting point.

    – I’ve used the Rycote NT4 and that is also good, for not too much money.

    Hope this helps.

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