A while ago I saw a new birdsong library appear on my Twitter feed. I auditioned the preview. The birdsong was masterfully isolated and particularly clear. That’s not easy for any field recordist accomplish.
That was my first introduction to George Vlad’s field recordings. What was even more interesting was when I learned Vlad’s experience followed an arc from sound design to nature field recording. He regularly posts images from his travels into the Scottish wilderness. He generously shares free sounds on the sound effects libraries subreddit. I was eager to learn more about his approach to field recording, and the equipment he chooses for the job.
So, today, George Vlad reveals a provocative idea through a special field recording captured in the Pentland hills near Edinburg: how every sound pro can find value being in quiet places, become inspired, and capture better sound fx by listening more, and recording much less.
Creative Field Recording: How did you first begin working in audio?
George Vlad: I’ve been a gamer ever since I was first given an NES console more than 20 years ago. In 2003 I started writing music using software such as Propellerhead Reason and Steinberg Cubase. The music writing was fun, but what got me hooked was being able to create individual sounds using virtual synths, filters, pitch shifting, reverb/delays etc. For a while I traveled through Europe doing all kinds of jobs and pursuing my passion for audio in the evenings and on weekends. In 2010 I decided I wanted to turn this into a full time job so I put together a small production studio and started working. At first I did a lot of dialogue editing, music writing and sound design for commercials and other linear media. It didn't take long until I was offered a sound design job on a small Web-based flash game, which made me realize this was much more enjoyable than all the other stuff I was doing.
CFR: When did you first begin field recording? What type of sound effects did you capture?
GV: As soon as I started working in games I realized I needed a large sound effects library if I wanted to switch to sound design. This was more than 5 years ago so boutique sound effects libraries were just starting to pop up. In fact I can only remember Tim Prebble and Frank Bry's libraries from that period which were of great help. They weren't enough however, and instead of spending a lot of cash on huge sound effects libraries (which were already becoming a bit dated) I decided to buy a Zoom H4n and an Audio Technica shotgun mic. The first thing I recorded was ambiences using a sock as wind protection. The H4n was definitely not the best handheld recorder but this didn't stop me from recording dawn choruses, storms, thunders, meadow soundscapes etc. I also used the H4n together with the shotgun mic to capture spot effects such as cracking plywood, hitting my sofa, breaking and scraping rocks, even vehicles.
With a bit of processing these sounds were good enough to be used in the games I worked on, but I knew I could do much better. I quickly became aware of the Zoom's limitations and I got interested in higher end recording gear. I sold my H4n and got a Fostex FR2-LE device, sold that and got a Sony PCM-D100 and then a Sound Devices 633 which are my two go-to recorders at the moment.
CFR: Lately you have been mentioning going out into the wilderness to capture sounds. Can you share with readers the effect these environments have had on your field recording craft?
GV: I’ve always enjoyed spending time outdoors, even before I got an interest in field recording. I grew up in the countryside and hiking was a favorite pastime, which proved an invaluable asset when I started recording my own sounds. Whenever I'd find an interesting place while out and about I would add it to my favorite places on Google Maps and make a note of coming back with my recording rig. This way I discovered lots of interesting-sounding places.
I think the simple act of being outside away from traffic, industry and other man-made noise opened my ears to the subtle sounds of nature. This might sound like a cliche, but most of the people I know aren't used to being in a quiet place anymore. (An exception to this might be people living in the country or nature recordists.)
As soon as I started recording birds I wanted to be able to identify them and to know their behaviour, so I got my hands on a number of ornithology books and started studying. I also attended a number of workshops dealing with wildlife sound recording which were of tremendous help.
In all, being outside a lot has influenced the way I record anything, not only nature sounds. I now listen more and record much less, I'm much more patient and I find it easier to focus on one sound and ignore everything else. Apart form that it's also helped me deal with burnout, stress and a few other issues stemming from spending too much time at my desk.
CFR: What role do field recordings play in the games you work on?
GV: Field recordings play a pretty important role in the games I work on. Back when I started to work in game audio I relied heavily on library content since it was easier than hiring equipment and going out to record everything myself. I quickly realised however that I could have more control over the end result (a game's audio in this case) if I recorded the raw material myself. There's a whole lot of parameters that will affect the sound that ends up being recorded, from gear choice and microphone placement to how a specific prop is performed or how well an environment is captured over long periods of time. Being able to fine-tune these puts me in a position where I can record custom perspectives or performances tailored for the games I work on.
To offer an example, there are very few birdsong libraries that also include distant traffic or man-made noise. Yet this is what a couple of games I worked on actually needed. Not clean and unspoiled dawn choruses, but recordings of environments in which birds react to the sounds of traffic, industry, people walking by, distant sirens etc. It was far easier to get my equipment and record suburban areas of Edinburgh than to look for the appropriate recording in libraries.
CFR: What is your favourite field recording gear?
GV: I’ve spent many hours discussing the merits of one piece of gear over another with fellow sound designers or recordists. Most of the time the discussion ends with "the best gear for recording is the one you have on hand.” What use is the Aaton Cantar if you can't travel through Africa with it? In the end a tool is a tool, and it's the final result – i.e., the recordings – that matter.
I find myself lucky to be owning most of the gear I need at this point. I have a Sony PCM-D100 handheld recorder that I always carry in my backpack. I've often stumbled on very interesting sounds that I'd have never recorded otherwise. For example I was able to record this plaintive Raven calling while hiking through a Scottish national park:
I would have never taken my full recording rig with me on such a long hike, but the D100 did an excellent job as you can hear.
Speaking of the full recording rig, this is made up of a Sound Devices 633 recorder and a handful of microphones. I love the 633 for its excellent build, clean preamps, lots of powering options and abundance of inputs. I use the 633 with a pair of Sennheiser MKH 8040 mics which work great in ORTF for nature ambiences. Not wanting to only record ORTF I got a pair of Rycote XBG mini blimps (extended ball gags) which allow me to split the mics and record point sources. This makes it easier to fly with my gear as a pair of smaller blimps are easier to protect than a larger one. I also use a pair of DPA 4060 and a pair of DPA 4061 lavs. These aren't the best mics for stereo recording (although they do a good job as spaced omnidirectionals), but are very easy to hide from wildlife and therefore quite useful as point sources. I use a Sennheiser MKH 416 which does a great job on engines. I recently recorded a WWII training prop plane and the 416 did an excellent job. Apart from these main mics I also use a pair of Line Audio CM3s, a few pairs of JrF contact mics and hydrophones, a few Shure SM57s, an AKG D110, A Crown PCC and a few others I can't remember now. They all have their uses and although I haven't used all of them in a while, they're patiently waiting in the cabinet for their chance to shine.
Here's a recording captured with the SD 633 and the MKH 8040s:
CFR: Why do you prefer that gear, as opposed to other gear you may have tried?
GV: Whenever I needed a specific piece of gear I first rented it to see if it did the job for me. I tried Schoeps mics but I was put off by their propensity to not work in temperature and humidity extremes. Sennheiser, DPA and Shure mics can withstand pretty extreme conditions which make them perfect for my use. For a while I owned a Fostex FR2-LE recorder, but the build quality was poor and navigating the menus was a nightmare. The 633 is very straightforward to use and as I said is quite tough and well built. Rycote wind protection, while not the cheapest (but neither the most expensive), strikes a good balance between durability and reduced weight but offers excellent wind protection as well. I haven't tried the newer Cyclone models but I'm very happy with the old WS blimps.
CFR: Can you share with everyone a favourite experience, or a favourite sounds you've captured with this kit?
GV: I often go out to record at night so I can capture the start of the dawn chorus. This magical moment is quite elusive, and if you're out recording since 1 or 2 am it's easy to miss it. If the conditions are right all you can hear is the self noise of the preamps, and maybe very soft crackles on the forest floor. But gradually birdsong almost "fades in", and if you aren't 100% focused the dawn chorus is in full swing by the time you realise it. This has happened to me many times, but luckily I can listen back to the recordings and zoom in on the exact start. Here's an example I recorded last year in the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh
Many thanks to George Vlad for sharing his field recording excursions and kit with us!
Quick Links: George Vlad’s Kit
- Sennheiser MKH 8040 stereo cardioid condenser microphone.
- DPA 4060 omnidirectional condenser microphone.
- DPA 4061 omnidirectional condenser microphone.
- Sennheiser MKH 416 (P48) U-3 short shotgun microphone.
- Line Audio CM3 cardioid condenser microphone.
- JrF contact and hydrophone microphones.
- Shure SM57 dynamic cardioid microphone.
- AKG D110 omnidirectional microphone.
- Crown PCC.
- Sony PCM-D100 portable recorder with electret condenser microphones.
- Sound Devices 633 6-track audio mixer and recorder.
Other equipment mentioned:
- Rycote XBG mini blimps.
- Zoom H4n.
- Fostex FR2-LE.
- Read George Vlad’s blog
- Visit Web shop, Mindful Audio.
- Follow him on Twitter.
- Listen to his field recordings on Soundcloud.
Read more about the A Month of Field Recordists series.