What Gear You Need to Record Sound Effects Worldwide – Part 1

2011/04/05

what-you-need-to-record-worldwide

Update: I’ve added new info to reflect the gear I use now since I published the original post.

Ask a dozen field recordists what gear they use and you’ll hear a dozen answers.

A few readers have asked what gear I use. Like any field recordist my list of equipment isn’t meant to be a checklist of what is best; it is what I find is the most comfortable balance for field recording international sound effects.

Which equipment you choose depends on what you’re recording, the location, recording style and countless other reasons.

This concept directly relates to what kind of field recording you prefer. I wrote about the four types of field recording, their requirements and what kind of sound effects each type can expect to capture here.

My goal is to travel and record evocative sound effects. I record in less-structured environments. This is why I prefer stealth and guerrilla field recording. I don’t prefer studio recording, except when necessary. I’d rather lace up the boots and get out into the world and capture unique, unplanned and characteristic field recordings.

Because of this I need my equipment to be:

  • Mobile – when on the road I sometimes carry my recording gear for 10 hours at a time. I need my gear light, compact and unobtrusive.
  • Durable – I’ve watched my gear tumble through countless security x-ray machines and not worry. Solid construction is essential.
  • Flexible – field recording in foreign countries offers countless opportunites for capturing sound. A flexible set-up allows me to capture dialogue, ambience and specifics.
  • Capable of capturing realistic, evocative sound – I love vivid recordings that transport listeners with sound alone. I choose my gear so that it will colour the sound as little as possible while producing rich recordings.

This week I’ll post thoughts on the microphone and headphones I use. Next time I’ll post the recorder and preamp I feel works best for recording sound effects internationally. I’ll also share my thoughts on the general role equipment plays while field recording.

Microphone

I use the Neumann RSM-191 microphone. I first heard a recording from its predecessor, the RSM-190, and the quality of the sound blew my boots off.

The 191 is a stereo-shotgun condenser microphone. Its two capsules work together with an external matrix box to alter the pick-up pattern of recordings from 60 to 170 degrees at the turn of a dial. It can also capture mid-side recordings.

This allows the microphone a lot of flexibility. Open up the pattern to capture spacious ambiences. Tighten the image to capture dialogue or specific elements while minimizing off-side sounds.

The 191 has a rich low-end, but without bloated saturation. The bass is tight. It has a balanced mid and and clear high-end without sounding brittle. It has an impressive soundstage that places individual elements sharply in array across field of hearing with a range of depth.

I find it is stronger with ambiences than it is with specifics. However I’ve been using this microphone for almost 15 years and it has yet to disappoint me.

The only problem? The price tag. I bought mine for around $5,299. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued, but from time to time older versions appear on eBay. I’ve seen some surface used for $2,000.

The matrix box is known to give out after a few years. A replacement cost me over $1000, and was not easy to find.

Other Options:

Here are a list of other popular multi-pattern microphones that will give a lot of flexibility in a compact package:

Headphones

I use the Sony Pro MDR-7506 headphones ($79.99). These are popular and classic headphones that have been around for years.

I don’t find these headphones particularly rich. Sound isolation isn’t as great as headphones that cover the entire ear. I do like how crisp they sound. The MDR-7506’s are known for their transparency.

Truthfully, though, the main reason I use them is because I am used to them. I began sound editing with these headphones. I am used to the way they interpret the recordings, and I am familiar to their sound.

A nice bonus to using these headphones is that you can enter almost any studio worldwide and find a pair of these headphones. This means you can will be able to hear sound without worrying about a foreign pair of headphones colouring sound in an unexpected way.

When I’m mastering I use Ultrasone Proline 550 headphones ($199.00), which are more comfortable, cause less ear fatigue and represent spaciousness far better.

Ultrasone Pro 550

Ultrasone Pro 550

When I’m on the road I throw the 7506’s into the bag. They pack up well, are durable and as I mentioned, I’m used to the sound.

Other Options:

Sample Sound Effect Recordings

Here’s a few samples of sound effects I’ve recorded with this set-up

  • Vancouver Sun Run marathon crowd sound effect – you can hear the mid-range definition of hundreds of runners passing. There’s good depth with the distant birds and occasional chatting from the runners. Since the downtown core was shut down there’s barely any traffic, which showcases the clarity of the Neumann.

  • Rainforest rain with drips in pools sound effect – I like the crisp definition and the spread of the effects. There’s also a moderate amount of depth; you can hear the medium distant drips distinctly.

  • Custom Victory Vegas motorcycle passing by quickly sound effect – you can get a good sense of how crisply the Neumann captures the low end. The stereo pattern I selected with the matrix box was able to greatly reduce interfering sounds; we actually weren’t that far away from other traffic.

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