What Ruins Stealth Sound Effect Recordings, and How to Fix It

2012/07/25

Paris Steps

If you’ve ever tried stealth recording sound effects you know how tricky it can be.

Have you ever had people shy away from you while recording market crowds? Maybe your wildlife sound effects aren’t as rich and natural as you’d like them. Have you been denied access to a location as soon as your gear is spotted? Perhaps you’ve been dragged away by security.

Stealth field recording has many challenges, but many more rewards.

I was convinced of the power of stealth recording while travelling throughout Europe. Because I was recording for three months, I was able to experiment with different stealth methods.

Here are some tricks I use to capture better stealth sound effects.

What is Stealth Recording?

Stealth recording is a technique used to unobtrusively capture sound effects. Most of the time these are atmospheres. Sometimes they can be specific, isolated sounds that are difficult to reach or access. I’ll refer mostly to ambiences.

Stealth recording is a perfect way to capture strong atmospheres. It’s my favourite of the four field recording techniques.

Field recordists use the stealth recording technique to document an atmosphere as purely as possible. If done correctly, a recordist will be unnoticed and the ambience will be untainted.

I started thinking about field recording differently when auditing a quantum mechanics course in university (I know, I know, bear with me). It introduced something called the observer effect. This idea states that the very act of observing or measuring something disturbs it in some way.

It’s the same with stealth recording. Your presence may taint the authentic nature of the atmosphere. People may react to you.

Because of this the recordist must be as inconspicuous as possible.

Today we’ll look at what interferes with good stealth recordings. Then we’ll see what we can do about it.

Challenges to Stealth Recording

People know recording equipment. They spot it easily. They’ll perform differently when they are aware they’re being recorded. Some people may become self-conscious, even offended.

It’s not all about people, however. What about nature? You also want to minimize your impact when recording animals. Insects silence when you’re near. Birds fly away.

There are two things that interfere with good stealth recordings:

  1. The presence of equipment.
  2. The recordist’s presence.

Equipment

How do you minimize the impact of equipment? Here are some tips:

  • Remove bulk. Get a smaller, more natural-looking bag. Avoid Lowepro and Portabrace bags. While they’re functional, they identify you as a professional at work. Use a purse or a poacher’s satchel. Some use a fanny pack. I’ve seen some clever custom kits using bags, foam, netting and more. Some disguise gear within shopping bags.
  • Choose a smaller recorder. A DEVA is a great tool but isn’t the best choice for recording stealth. Use smaller recorders. Tiny recorders can slip into a coat pocket. Ensure sure they’re easy to operate on the run.
    Smaller recorders can be cheaper (in both ways), so make sure the preamp is clean. Use a separate preamp if that helps shrink your kit and improve sound quality.
    This is another reason why the tactile design of recorder is important. When stealth recording, you often need to operate the recorder by touch alone. Desktop recorders aren’t the best choice for stealth.
  • Smaller microphones. Tiny in-ear microphones or binaural mics work well. The London Sound Survey has a great page listing binaural options. The only concern is that their smaller capsules may affect recording quality.
    It’s possible to use larger microphones with a Rycote windshield. Most people spot these and know they’re being recorded, thus crippling the purity of the recording. A fuzzy windjammer looks bizarre. It attracts attention. Leave it at home if you can. The Rycote itself should be good enough protection, except for the strongest gusts. Use the environment to protect the Rycote in lieu of a windjammer. Or, disguise the Rycote behind mesh bag lining, or make it appear as part of your bag. Test to ensure your disguise doesn’t colour the sound.
  • Don’t use headphones. This isn’t an intuitive choice. To some recordists not using headphones is a radical, unacceptable concept. If you’re recording stealth I’d suggest considering it, though. Why? There are two reasons.
    It’s possible that someone may mistake a recordist with headphones as a music fan listening to their iPod. In my experience, this isn’t likely, especially if you’re using signature Sony MDR-7506’s. You’ll be noticed immediately. Crowds will clam up and ruin your stealth recording.
    Also, if you know your microphone and recorder well enough, you can get away working without headphones. To do this successfully, you must know how your microphone responds to loudness and detail at various distances. You must also know what recorder settings or levels are best in different situations. It’s not something I’d recommend if you’re just starting, or using unfamiliar equipment. Why?
    This technique carries a significant risk: you will miss equipment problems. You may not hear problems that occur after the sound is captured by the microphone: tracks dropping out of record, loose cable connections, RF interference and so on. It’s possible you may record not knowing the whole take is damaged. It’s even worse to return home and realize entire tracks are useless. Beware.
    I always record without headphones when stealth recording. I’ve found that the presence of headphones are the biggest threat to good stealth recordings. How do I get around this and also ensure no errors are going to tape?
    I capture a test, then retreat to a private location to check the take with headphones. If necessary, I return and try again.
    Working without headphones isn’t for everyone. Test and see if fits with your style. You may enjoy the challenge.
  • Avoid using microphone stands. Another obvious sign that you’re at work. People will become conspicuous around stands and structured microphone arrangements. Natural conversation will wither.
    If you must use stands, choose smaller ones. Table-top stands may be a better choice.

Your Presence

How a someone acts while recording also influences stealth sound effects. People and animals will respond to your presence and alter their performance.

The best option is to make yourself invisible. Here are ideas:

  • It sounds a bit cold, but don’t interact with your subject. You’re at work, after all. Don’t nod, smile, or talk (of course) with crowds. Why? Their response will influence their performance and the overall cast of the recording.
  • Be calm and attempt to blend with the crowd. Avoid agitated movements. Pick a spot and stay there. Recede into the background. Soon the crowd will forget you’re there.
    Use the time to make mental notes of how the atmosphere develops. I listed a few tricks to record better ambiences a few weeks ago. Read the fifth tip, “Tail Slate” for more detail.
  • Want a greater challenge: walk away from your recorder. Of course, this runs the same risks as working without headphones. You’ll won’t be able to adapt if the environment changes. It’s something to consider if the atmosphere is relatively consistent, however. The trade-off may be worth it to avoid the reactions invited by a conspicuous field recordist.
    Most people won’t focus on a lonely bag. Leave it in a corner or beside a chair. Make it appear part of the environment you’re recording. Ensure your kit’s positioning doesn’t colour the recordings.
    This is an easy choice when recording in nature. Camouflage works well. Don’t do this in a bus station or airport, though. Unattended bags will be snapped up by staff as a security threat. You don’t want to end up in bracelets for recording a train station ticketing hall.
  • If you must stay near your recorder, be as inconspicuous as possible. Avoid fussing with knobs. Twiddling pots and stabbing buttons draws attention that is best avoided.

Feeling Conspicuous

It’s easy to feel conspicuous while field recording. You’re performing an unnatural act while trying to maintain a natural atmosphere.

It’s common to feel pressure. It may require Herculean patience. You may feel self-conscious. The sensation grows the longer your take continues.

Put it out of your mind. Ignore the stares. The environment will adjust and gradually settle.

By the way, it’s unlikely you’ll be approached. During 15 years of stealth field recording, I’ve been approached less than a dozen times.

The Purpose of Stealth Recordings

The goal of stealth recording is to capture pure atmospheres. Ideally, they should sound as if the recordist wasn’t there at all.

The more noticeable you are or your gear becomes, the more you threaten the authenticity of the recording. Why?

Ambiences influenced by your presence become contaminated. They’re unnatural. This means the ambience will incorporate a response to your presence. It will become a recording that includes you. You’ll capture a recording based on your influence, instead of its pure state.

A stealth recordist needs a sonically neutral environment. Influencing the recording threatens this.

Minimize your presence and equipment to improve your stealth recordings.

The result?

If you cultivate pure ambiences, you just may find yourself recording authentic, evocative recordings. These kinds of sound effects have great potential to immerse listeners in an environment half a world away, and dozens of years in the past.

Good luck!





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