The world of audio production is a big place.
Podcasting is a small niche of audio production and it contains multiple positions including directors, producers, hosts, writers, researchers, editors, fact checkers, engineers, composers, and foley artists. Way more roles than the standard host, guest, and editor like most people assume!
A recent project has caused me to look more seriously at the world of field recording.
Field recording is a phrase used for recording audio outside of a studio (i.e. recording out in the field). It includes recording everything from natural to urban environments.
I have discovered a ton of wonderful information during my research. Here are my most important takeaways if you want to get into field recording:
Top takeaways when starting field recording.
What do you want to record?
You have a lot of options here.
- Nature sounds – wind blowing, rivers flowing, waves crashing, wildlife, walking through the woods, etc.
- Urban sounds – cityscapes, traffic, construction, street vendors, etc.
- Personal spaces – homes, apartments, coffee shops, shopping malls, etc.
- Location specific sounds – airports, train stations, subways, amusement parks, etc.
- Specific sound effects – gun shots, chains rattling, closing doors, cars starting, etc.
You have endless opportunities. However, it’s much easier to choose the right equipment when you know what you want to record.
What equipment do you need?
Again, you have endless options but don’t be fooled. Focus on getting started as simple as possible. The more you record in the field, the easier it will be to see what equipment you need next.
If you are starting from nothing, this is the first piece of equipment I would buy. You could begin field recording today if you had a decent digital recorder with onboard microphones.
You basically have two options:
- Digital records with onboard microphones
- Digital recorders without onboard microphones.
If you’re on a budget, start with a recorder with onboard mics. I like anything from the Zoom H series. If you have a larger budget, consider getting a dedicated recorder with a separate dedicated microphone.
Here are a few suggestions:
Zoom H1 – I don’t have any experience with this device but it is how Free to Use Sounds got started. Main features include decent onboard mics and a 3.5mm input jack.
Zoom H5 – I have this device and will be using it. Main features include swappable onboard mics and 2 XLR/1/4 inch inputs.
Zoom H6 – I also have this device but don’t plan on using it in the field at this point. The main difference between the H6 and the H5 is the H6 has 4 mic inputs instead of 2.
Sound Devices MixPre 6 ii – This is my main digital recorder for all situations and I plan on it being my primary field recorder. This device has a bunch of great features like a variety of recording settings, 4 XLR inputs, and great preamps.
Other popular recorders exist like the Zoom H8, Zoom F8N, Sound Devices MixPre10, and Sound Devices 888.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed or go crazy with the options here too. Generally speaking in podcasting you deal with dynamic or condenser microphones.
Field recording opens up use cases for:
- Shotgun mics – the long tube-looking mics
- Binaural mics – mimics how a human actually hears things
- Contact mics – for sensing vibrations
- Hydrophones – for recording underwater sounds
- Ambisonic mics – for capturing “360 degree” sound
Again, keep it simple! You can start with the onboard mic on your recorder. If you do want to buy a microphone, research what would be best for the kinds of sounds you want to record.
Personally, I like Sennheiser and Shure mics and own several. Other companies worth considering are Schoeps, DPA, AKG, Neumann, and Lom.
Here are a few suggestions based on what I’ll be starting with:
- Sennheiser MKH 416 Shotgun mic – This is a great directional condenser microphone that I’ve used on some very important productions. I’m starting with this because I already own it. If you are going high-end from nothing, I would consider getting a pair of the smaller condenser mics from Sennheiser (MKH 8040) or Neumann (KM 184).
- Shure SM57 dynamic mic – I’m not sure how this will perform in the field yet. Shure is typically associated with recording live music (I plan on recording nature). We’ll see.
*Otherwise I’m interested in trying a dual condenser mic setup or a binaural setup but I’m trying to follow my own advice and not go crazy!
There are a variety of additional items that will help make field recording easier.
Wind protection – Wind can ruin otherwise great audio. Windscreens and jammers help fix this problem. I like Rycote and recently purchased their Mini Windjammer for the Zoom H5 and the Softie Wind-Screen for my Sennheiser mic.
Grips, poles, and stands – You often need a way to hold your mics to reduce handling noise and to get them positioned properly. Again, think of what you want to record and the length of time you’ll be recording. I ordered the Rycote Lyre Mount Pistol Grip and already have the AirTurn goSTAND to get started. I’ll probably opt for a boom pole or new stands from Manfrotto, K-Tek, or Auray next.
Power – You’ll probably want an alternative way to power your digital record rather than regular batteries. Lots of options exist; you’ll want to consult your device’s manufacturer. For the MixPre 6, I ordered an Anker 474 Power Bank to try out.
Weather & Travel Protection – I’m primarily thinking about rain. A solution could be as simple as an umbrella or you could get a fancy field recording bag depending on the make/model of your digital recorder.
It’s worth noting, I found little information on the different bags available. The top companies seem to be K-Tek, Orca, and PortaBrace. I settled on the K-Tek Stingray MixPro Audio Bag for the MixPre 6 and I already own a ThinkTank bag for general transportation. I also like the backpack company Nomadic for general equipment transportation too.
Headphones – You’ll want a way to monitor what you are recording. The big thing with field recording headphones is their ability to depict true sound. Research headphones that give you a true flat response.
I’m going to start with my Audio-Technica ATH-M50xs (these aren’t a true flat response but they are comfy and I already own them). I would also consider the Sony MDR-7506 or something from the Beyerdynamic DT line.
SD cards – This one seems simple but don’t forget to get extra storage methods like SD cards and external hard drives. Consult your digital recorder manufacturer on what brands and capacities work best.
Additional Resources and Information
There are a few other resources and general information you should be thinking about.
Microphone Polar Patterns – This isn’t necessary to get started but my knowledge of microphones from working in the podcast space has been helpful for knowing what kind of mic will work best in which situations.
Polar patterns refers to a microphone’s directionality or the direction it records sound. For example, cardioid records mostly what is in front of the microphone while an omnidirectional pattern picks up all the sounds around a microphone.
Again, don’t let this prevent you from getting started but understanding how polar patterns work will help you make better choices in the field.
Privacy Laws and Copyrights – Many states and establishments have laws/rules in place to protect a person’s privacy. This means you often can’t record a conversation without permission from the people involved.
You may also run into issues where you pick up music playing in the background. You likely can’t use that recording if you don’t have permission from the “owner” of the music.
When you’re out recording, take notes and timestamps of where conversations and music happens so it’s easier to address it later in the editing process and post-production.
Universal Category System (UCS) – I stumbled upon this by accident but it’s a way for all sound files to be organized in a similar way. It’s especially helpful for naming files and writing metadata when you plan on selling your audio files. You can learn more on the UCS website.
Free to Use Sounds – Marcel and Libby have put together a ridiculously great resource for anyone starting in field recording. I watched many of the videos on the Free to Use Sounds YouTube channel.
Alex Knickerbocker – Alex is another one of my go-to YouTubers when it comes to sound. He speaks about it more generally but his videos are still easy to understand and very helpful.
Nomadic Ambience – This is just one small (yet very popular) example of what can be done with field recording. At best, it’s inspirational. At worst, it’s fantastic background noise for working.
Field recording is one small discipline in the beautiful world of audio production. I’m just starting my journey into field recording.
Everything covered are the things I’ve found most helpful, but obviously more information exists. Do your own research and find other voices you can trust.
Most importantly, get started! Getting out in the field and recording firsthand is the best way to learn for yourself.