A Month of Field Recordists: Michael F. Bates

2015/10/22

Michael F Bates_On set_OD_BW

I first noticed Michael F. Bates’ work when I heard his field recordings of New York City. He shares them as well as other sound fx libraries on his website, Tone Manufacture.

New York is huge location packed with people. It’s a challenging subject to capture unobtrusively and well. So, I was curious how Bates had accomplished the NYC recordings. I reached out to him to ask how he records sound effects for his libraries and the projects he works on.

Bates generously shared his thoughts. Today’s post explains how his gear choices are crafted to capture ambiences by emphasizing a portable kit and the stealth field recording technique. What’s interesting is that he observed an added bonus to his kit selection: it reduces the barriers to capturing sound more often. Bates also shares how these choices led him towards a special sonic study: a deep examination of a specific, meaningful place with endless voices and texture.

Creative Field Recording: What is your favourite field recording kit?

My current favourite field recording gear is a pair of DPA 4060 omni mics going into a Sound Devices 302 mixer and then into a recorder, usually an Edirol R–09 but more recently I’ve started using the recorder from my bigger setup, a Tascam HD-P2. The only advantage of using the Tascam over the Edirol is that the Tascam goes up to 192 kHz whereas the R–09 is limited to 48 kHz. It’s also easier to see the Tascam’s screen and operate its controls when it’s sitting in a bag.

I don’t think the Edirol’s 48 kHz limit is really a disadvantage for the sort of things I record with it, mostly ambiences, but when people are buying sound effects they seem to expect recordings at at least 96 kHz and with disk space so cheap it doesn’t hurt to record at a higher sample rate.

The Sound Devices and Tascam are powered by a Hawk-Woods NP65 battery and the Edirol is powered by rechargeable AA batteries. I use Rycote Lavalier Windjammers on the 4060s and my headphones are a pair of Sennheiser HD–25s.

CFR: Why is this your favourite gear choice?

The good thing about this setup is that it fits neatly into a normal shoulder bag and is very low key in use. As I mostly use this field recording setup to stealthily record ambiences and crowds, it works very well for me and gets me out recording when lugging two bags of gear and setting up very obvious mics would stop me.

I was given the Edirol R–09 nearly ten years ago, then bought the Tascam HD-P2, the Sound Devices 302 and the DPA 4060s over the past few years. I mention this order because it may help explain why I prioritised certain things when I bought certain gear or it may help you to realise that I’m fumbling in the dark with this stuff as well!

I got interested in the 4060s after hearing them on Tim Prebble’s Beaches library and on Michael Raphael’s excellent blog and his numerous posts about using the 4060s in a stealth setup. I’ve always loved stealth recording and used to use my R–09 all the time for that sort of thing, but I felt like most of the recordings I made with it were not really good enough to actually be used in projects. Hearing what Michael got with his setup and seeing that it was stealthy enough to use anywhere really inspired me to get my hands on a pair.

I was especially inspired by Michael Raphael as he was making recordings in an urban environment and I thought the 4060s really suited that type of recording and I knew those were the sorts of recordings I’d be making.

What I really love about the 4060s is they way they pick up the acoustic and detail of a space, and how they seem to have a sound that is quite bright and present but also has a big low frequency response. I find mic characters quite difficult to describe but there’s something about the 4060s which just seems right and suits my taste very well. Obviously, the downside to them is that as omnidirectional mics they pick up everything and there is no way of using directionality to minimise unwanted sounds.

The 302 came to my attention when I worked with sound recordist Andrew Rowe on a short documentary. His set up included a 302 and over lunch on location one day we had a long chat about gear and he had good things to say about it. I’d also seen online other field recordists recommending the smaller Sound Devices mixers like the MP–2 and MixPre-D but was unable to find any for sale second hand, whereas there was a glut of 302s on eBay at the time.

What attracted me to the 302 was that it had really good metering and it allowed me to monitor decoded M/S whilst recording un-decoded as at the time the mics I used mainly for field recording were a Sennheiser MKH 30/40 pair.

Features that I came to appreciate only after some use were the limiters and the fact that the headphone amp was clean (the Tascam has one of the noisiest headphone amps I’ve ever heard).

Obviously not being able to judge your recordings properly as you’re making them makes it hard to be really confident in what you’re getting and the metering, headphone amp, M/S decoding and limiters of the 302 make it easy to be confident in what I’m getting. After using it for a while, I realised that all these seemingly small improvements made recording a more pleasurable experience.

All these features that make it a good piece of kit for me are things that make recording easier and the outcomes more predictable and controllable rather than the fact that it has great preamps, a plethora of connectivity or a nice paint finish (although it does have all of those).

In terms of the recorders, I’m happy that both the R–09 and the HD-P2 are reliable and don’t seem to add any noise to recordings, but they both have too many settings buried in menus and too many settings which default to unhelpful values. However, once I have them setup for a session that becomes less of an issue and they just work.

The Sennheisers have been my favourite headphones for something like 13 years now and I only just had to get a new pair in the last 18 months, so I suppose that tells you something about their build quality. I like their sound, how comfortable they are and how much background noise they cut out.

Michael F. Bates working on  set

CFR: What is your favourite field recording using this gear?

As for my favourite recording made with this gear, it’s less a single recording and more a favourite location. It might sound a little unadventurous, a little boring even, but I really enjoy recording out of the windows of my flat.

I live on a garden square in South West London, it’s essentially a large garden surrounded by four storey townhouses. I live on the first floor of one of these and if I setup my 4060s on the window ledge I pick up a constantly shifting ambience.

The buildings are tall enough and create a solid enclosure so that there is a distinct slap echo added to any loud enough sound and there’s enough traffic to create that distinctive big city roar but not enough that it drowns out the details. The immediate neighbourhood contains a continuously changing mix of children playing, dogs fighting, parties starting, arguments flaring up, drunks singing, whining scooters, growling motorcycles and often a car equipped with huge subwoofers, the music futzed through the sound system bouncing off buildings and dopplering as it drives past.

Surrounding the square there is a complex nest of small side streets, back gardens, council estate tower blocks and communal spaces, and beyond that train lines, major roads into London and the river which always has helicopters flying along it. So the sound is constantly shifting and changing, all of it filtered through this distinctive space in front of my windows.

The 4060s just seem to be made for this sort of thing; they do a great job of picking up the space of the square and their bass response means you don’t miss all of the low end that the environment has.

Even if I’ve only actually used a tiny percentage of what I’ve recorded in projects, I’ve still found it immensely useful to just lie back and listen to the city. I think it’s really helped me during projects where I’ve had to build up a world, I know I’ve applied lots of the things that I’ve heard in the environment outside my windows to the worlds I’ve had to create in my studio.

I feel about these raw recordings as I guess painters do about sketches, they help clarify ideas and spark inspiration, even if I’m not about to put them up in a gallery and charge entry to see them.

My contribution to the Sound Collectors Club City Skylines theme was a carefully edited selection of one of these recordings that I made at night, so club members can hear what it sounds like in its calmer moments. I still use that recording all the time in city exterior tracklays as a background element.

For everyone else, I’ve edited together a little selection of moments from the hours of recordings I’ve made and added it to Soundcloud.

Listen to field recordings of Michael’s garden square.

Michael F. Bates working on set

Many thanks to Michael F. Bates for sharing his kit and his field recording experiences.

Quick Links: Michael F. Bates’ Kit

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