Field Recording Lecture and Q & A


Sheridan SCAET building Dan Zen

A few days ago, I spent an evening discussing field recording with film and sound students at Sheridan College, in Oakville, Canada. It was a pleasure to visit Sheridan College. I had a fantastic time speaking about field recording, and sharing some stories about projects I’ve worked on.

Many thanks to Professor Stephen Barden, Sheridan Sound, and the students for their warm welcome.

Afterwards, we had a Q and A. The students were experienced with production, post, and field recording. They asked superb, informed questions about field recording and sharing audio.

Some of you may have similar questions. So, I’ll include those questions today, with additional thoughts I’ve added since the lecture.

Questions About Equipment

Q. What equipment do you use, and why?

Neumann 191

Neumann 191

My main kit is a Neumann RSM 191-i microphone, and a Sound Devices 722 recorder.

I chose the Neumann because, while expensive, it captures incredible sound. It has rich soundstage. It places clear, detailed sounds in a wide, and also deep, spread of sound. Notably, the bass is tight. It’s not loose and muddy.

Also, it is a “stereo-shotgun”. It uses two capsules in a single body. This can capture mid-side recordings. However, the cool thing I like is that the microphone’s pick-up pattern can be modified. The “beam” or spread of audio received can be switched by turning a dial. So, by using just one microphone, I can capture narrow recordings, wide ones, and also M/S if I like.

Sound Devices 722

Sound Devices 722

I chose Sound Devices recorders because they’re tough. I’m pretty rough on my gear. Also, I decided on the 722 because of its internal hard drive. I’m often far from a studio for weeks or months. A smaller Compact Flash card like the one used in the 702 won’t have the capacity.

I also have a Sony PCM-D50 and Zoom H4n for portable recording. I sometimes use a Sonic Studios binaural DSM 6S/EH microphone for stealth.

If I need other microphones I rent them from Trew Audio. I just don’t use them enough to justify buying them outright.

Technical Questions

Q. How do you decide which channels to chose when field recording? When should I use mono, stereo, or 5.1?

It varies. It depends on the subject you’re recording, and the project you’re working on.

However, the general understanding is that you’ll use stereo when you want to capture the benefit of increased width and breadth that two channels provides. Given that, people suggest using mono for recording specific, focused field recordings. Stereo captures “wider” recordings, and includes the atmosphere with the subject. 5.1 recordings aim for an even broader effect that immerses the listener in a place. 5.1 recordings also are captured for technical reasons: they’re needed in projects that demand those channels in the destination format (gaming, movie theatres).

Personally, I never record mono. Partially that’s because I prefer to record atmospheres. If I need a narrow recording, I trim the Neumann’s pattern to avoid capturing the atmosphere of the location.

I never record in 5.1, either. However, I sometimes record in “fake” quad. I use a stereo pair to capture a close recording of a subject, and pair that with a separate, distant microphone to capture the same take with more perspective.

Q. When is it better to use a single microphone, and when is it better to use a multi-microphone set-up?

Recording Kit in Greenery

Some subjects demand multi-microphone set ups. Examples are guns, and cars. Those extra microphones are needed to capture every aspect of the subject’s voice. When your subject is complex, and you have ample time, use multiple microphones. This will capture many, precise recordings. Mutli-microphone set-ups are used in what I call controlled and investigative field recording.

Stealth and guerrilla recording only use a single microphone kit. That’s because there isn’t time to set up many microphones. You need to adapt to sonic changes in your environment, say, a crowd moving, or reacting. So, this allows mobility and responsiveness.

Also, single microphones are less noticeable. That means that people won’t be distracted by them, and perform unnaturally. Because of this, single microphone set-ups produce authentic recordings.

Single microphones are a good choice when starting out. That kit is far simpler to use, and produces better results more quickly. You won’t be bogged down with hauling cases of gear and nests of cables when you’re first discovering the wonders of field recording.

If you have the time, space, and the subject demands it, sure, try a multi-microphone set up!

Q. When you’re recording stealth, how do you decide between choosing a larger, richer kit, or a smaller, discreet one?

Sonic Studios DSM 6S/EH microphone

6S/EH Stealth Microphone

It’s a tricky balance. When stealth recording, the goal is to become invisible. That brings out the performances of the environment. So, that would suggest using a smaller, compact kit. However, those kits don’t sound as good as larger, richer microphones. So, which do you choose?

If the recording is unique and irreplaceable (e.g., a protest), I’ll use my large kit, and risk being noticed. That will ensure you capture the best sound possible during an event that may never happen again.

If you can access a location or a sound again (say, a stadium), use the smaller kit. It’s easier, less noticeable, and you’ll still receive decent results. You can listen to your results in the studio, then return with informed technique to any other stadium game later for similar recordings. It’s also easier to record with a smaller kit. Stealth recording is intense. There’s a lot of pressure. Any benefit helps.

(Note you can disguise a large kit well, though, and I’ll have an article about this soon.)

Q. You mentioned you often encounter “problem sounds” on location: planes, traffic, and so on. How do you know how to avoid these beforehand?

I always take a day to scout my location before I shoot. That explores the environment, how sound acts there, and uncovers problem sounds. When you know that, you’ll be able to adapt on the actual day you shoot.

I wrote more about scouting here.

Q. How do I avoid those “problem sounds?”

It’s important to record any sound effect clean. That means that your theme or subject is recorded in isolation. No sound should overlap others (atmospheres are an exception).

Let’s say you’re recording a dog. However, there’s a fridge humming in the next room. You don’t want the hum recorded with the dog barks. That makes the recording less usable. After all, how often will you be using a dog bark in a scene that also has fridge hum?

Some tips:

  • Isolate the sound as much as you can. Turn off the fridge, add sound baffling, or move the dog to a quieter location.

  • I also use what I call the 4 P’s:

    1. Pick-up pattern.
    2. Patience.
    3. Position.
    4. Perspective.

    That will help you accommodate problem sounds during recording, and add flair, too. I wrote more about the 4 P’s here.

Q. What happens after you finish recording a sound effect? What’s the next step?

I take a sound effect through these steps:

  1. Mastering. Trimming, EQ’ing, enhancing. More about mastering here.
  2. Naming. Adding a unique, meaningful, and inspiring name. More details on naming sound effects.
  3. Metadata. I embed around 15 fields of Soundminer metadata.
  4. Packaging. Assembling and organizing the sound effects for delivery. Sometimes this is as simple as collecting them properly on a hard drive. Sometimes clients need clips packaged a certain way. This makes it easy to find and use the clips.

Q. What’s the best way to capture a crowd ambience?

Rob Ford Protest 1 - Positioning 1

Crowd Positioning 1

Look at this in terms of the two types of sound effects: specific sound effects, and atmospheres.

You can capture specific voices in the crowd by being near them, and focusing on them, but not the broader crowd. You may wish to do this when capturing a specific crowd shout, conversation, or reaction.

Generally, though, a wider atmosphere is preferable: a more general, ambient sense of the people there. Give yourself some distance from the crowd. Record from above.

This article describes how I recorded crowd at a protest. It has a map that shows positioning.

Creative Field Recording Questions

Q. You talked about adding your “imprint” to field recordings to add character to your sound effects. What’s a practical way of doing this?

Some tips:

  • The most important way to do this by developing your substance (what you record) and style (how you record). I mention this a bit here, and in much more depth in my book, Selling Creative Sound.

  • Record what you know. Do you have a hobby or interest? A place you know better than anyone? Draw on your past. Maybe you learned or experienced something that is unique to you.

    The unique knowledge you hold will inform and improve your field recordings in a way no one else can match. I wrote more about your imprint and investing yourself in your field recordings here. This is the substance I mentioned, above.

  • Perform “emotional takes.” Don’t limit yourself to just the clean, technical clips. Those are needed, of course. Also perform or capture takes with emotion. Is that door shut angrily, or dismissively? Focus on that emotion, perform with intent, and it will shine through in the recording.

  • A general tip: improve your recordings with the “Sound Effects Star.” That uses difficulty, rarity, quality, diversity, popularity, and creativity to enhance recordings. Read more about the Sound Effects Star.

Business & Client Questions

Q. How do I begin field recording?

The best way to start is by recording foundation sound effects. Those are the sounds that surround us. For now, avoid complex shoots (guns, cars). Work up to that later.

Instead, recording foundation sound effects builds your skills. Because these sounds are common, you’ll find them easily. You’ll use them in every project you work on. It’s a great way to educate yourself, develop your ear, and practice.

I wrote about recording foundation sound effects here.

Here’s an article on budget field recording that’s helpful, too.

Q. How do I build my brand, and get clients?

This is a tough one. Because field recording is not common, and grows out of other crafts (sound editing, production sound), you won’t find dozens of field recording clients immediately. Instead, build toward that.

  1. Record foundation sound effects. We saw that in the previous question.
  2. Join the community. The field recording community is packed with helpful, welcoming people. Read their blogs, and comment. Here’s a list of community websites.
  3. Create your own blog. Write about sound, the progress of your career, and what you’ve learned. It’s free, and it helps assemble your thoughts and perspectives on field recording. It also begins a history for an “online resume” for future clients.
  4. Share your audio. Do this on your own blog. Also post on SoundCloud. Join the field recording groups there (here’s a list of those).
  5. Share your sound library online. is a portal for new, independent sound libraries. That will present your work to the community, and to clients. This will help you earn a bit of cash to improve your gear while you grow your skills, and build your sound library. It may also catch the eye of a future client.

Other ideas I’ve written about:

Other Questions? Contact Me

Many thanks to the students at Sheridan who asked these questions.

Do you have other questions about field recording or sharing sound? Contact me. I’d be happy to help.

Thanks to Sheridan Sound, all the students who attended, and Prof. Stephen Barden!

Main photo courtesy of Dan Zen.

To stay in touch, receive free updates by email newsletter or RSS feed.  |  Follow on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or SoundCloud.