Last year we were given a rare treat: 26 field recordists came together to share their wisdom in a series I called “A Month of Field Recordists.” This year I revived the series. Twenty-three new people shared their insight in a second series of posts about field recording origins, equipment selections, and reflections on the craft.
My heartfelt thanks for everyone who spent their considerable time sharing their knowledge with the rest of us.
What choices were common? What portable recorders were mentioned again and again? Were there patterns in the microphones pros brought into the field?
Today we will find out.
Looking to learn which is the best field recording gear for you? Check out the Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide for an update-to-date list of current equipment options.
Three Takes on Field Recording
There was so much valuable info shared by everyone, it has become admittedly a lot to consume. Together, the sound pros shared almost 80,000 words of wisdom. Last year I rounded up their gear selections and wrote an overview of their favourite field recording equipment. This year I’d like to do the same, with a twist.
Today’s post will examine the choices of this year’s field recordists. Afterwards, we’ll look at those choices not only within this year’s series, but also compared with the field recordists of the previous year. I’ll share some thoughts on the equipment selections and what they mean.
Let’s not forget that the 49 pros aren’t the only ones with valuable opinions about field recording equipment and capturing sound effects. I’m sure you have insight of your own. So, I recently set up an anonymous field recording survey so everyone can participate. Thank you to everyone who has participated so far, and shared the survey. The next post will be a roundup and analysis of those community field recording suggestions.
As series progressed, a fundamental concept that we all suspected was confirmed: gear itself doesn’t tell the whole story of field recording. So, the final post in this series will look at the motivations for field recording, its effects, and what this means for all of us.
Let’s get started.
A List of Field Recording Microphones
To begin, let’s first look at the microphones field recordists chose.
Many field recordists throughout the series mentioned an evolution of equipment choices. That’s natural. It’s difficult to know which gear is best without trying it first. That’s the reason we began this series, after all. So, many pros evolved through multiple kits to reach their final, preferred version. For the sake of simplicity, this list will include just the gear they used in their main, current kit.
Here’s a chart of every microphone each field recordist listed, combined from both series. There are links to each manufacturer’s site. I’ve also included links to every respective field recordist’s interview so you can listen to sound samples captured with that microphone. The “Mentions” stat reflects how many times field recordists included that brand or model in their kits. (Learn more about the “Mentions” column in last year’s post.)
Note: prices are sourced from the manufacturers and from B&H Photo Video, May 2020. Prices prefixed with a tilde are approximations based on currency conversion.
A List of Field Recording Microphone Manufacturers
Let’s look at things a bit more broadly. What microphone manufacturers were favoured by field recordists?
Here is a colourful pie chart that lists the percentage of times a microphone company has been mentioned in both series. Click the image to see a full-sized version.
And here’s the list in a chart:
A List of Field Recorders
Let’s give the same treatment to field recorders. What audio recorders did everyone prefer?
Now, field recorders are slightly more complicated. There are two types. Some are “portables” that include onboard microphones at a lower price point. Others I refer to as “dedicated” field recorders. Generally speaking, these have better preamps, build quality, and professional connectivity options. I’ve marked the portables in the chart along with the microphone channels they support. Track support is different. After all, a recorder may capture two tracks with onboard microphones, but support two more via inputs. That’s detailed in the “Tracks” column.
|Marantz||PMD 661 MkII||2||Y||2||1||$379.00|
A List of Field Recorder Manufacturers
What manufacturer recorder kits are most commonly seen in the field? Here’s a pie chart that lists the percentage of times a manufacturer was mentioned in the series:
And here’s that info in a list:
Field Recording Gear: Decoded
So, what can we learn from this?
Well, we all know that field recording is governed by common principles: acoustics, physics, signal flow, sound pressure levels, dynamic range, and more. Outside of those objective facts, though, it’s impossible to say there is a single proper way to perform field recording.
Yes, levels must be set correctly. We must avoid RF interference. It’s important to protect microphones from wind and humidity. No one would argue that. Beyond this, we begin to find that field recording varies considerably. How?
A quick glance at the microphone list gives us clues. In a way, a field recordist’s microphone choice is one of their most personal forms of expression. Seventy-six microphone types were mentioned throughout the series. Yes, common trends appeared. I’ll explore those below. However, the widest diversity throughout the entire series appeared in this list. Why?
Field Recording Subject
A pro commonly chooses a microphone for the subject they wish to capture. Do you want to gather ambiences? A Sennheiser MKH 8040 ST, Neumann 191, or TSL ST450 ambisonic microphone may do the trick. Prefer to capture rock drops with a laser-like focus? A supercardiod microphone will perform better. In a way, this choice is exclusive. Most microphones can be used very well for one purpose, but perform poorly at another. A fan of contact microphone recordings for sound design won’t use the same kit for an archery sound fx session.
What’s more, these selections tell us a lot about each field recordist and what they do. How?
Field Recording Craft
Some pros have dozens of microphones in their kit. They find themselves recording different subjects often, or one subject thoroughly with multiple perspectives. Michal Fojcik used his wide arsenal to capture a variety of effects for his film The Red Spider. Max Lachmann used a broad selection of microphones to record vehicles. We saw that Watson Wu and Frédéric Devanlay & Cedric Denooz explored a similar approach of using elaborate microphone arrangements to record intricate subjects in the 2015 series.
Others found a single microphone they loved and remained loyal to that alone. Gordon Hempton described exploring many microphones before settling on his favourite, the Neumann KU 81i binaural dummy head. Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen and Peter Comley speak similarly about that legendary microphone as well. Paul Col is exploring the TSL Soundfield ST420 MKii microphone, which is also John Leonard’s mic of choice. In the previous series, we saw Michael Raphael, Ollie Hall, Colin Hunter, and Stuart Fowkes prefered fixed kits, as did Miguel Isaza from this year’s edition.
This grew from something I perviously labelled as each field recordist’s profession. Not everyone who steps outside of the studio to capture sound effects needs to be paid to do it, though. So, let’s say that these choices grow out of a sound pro’s needs or their craft.
Field Recording Methodology
That’s also closely tied with the way field recordists capture their sound effects. Some prefer a single kit in shoulder bag. Others roll multiple Pelican cases of microphones onto the battlefield. People like Michael F. Bates prefer stealth recording. Others are drawn to the twitchy technique required for guerrilla recording. Others still prefer the structure in arranged set ups, or precisely planned sound effects gathering. Every pro has their own methodology for gathering sound clips that affects their choices. (I explored these techniques in an earlier post.)
Field Recording Technique
There’s another approach to gear selection that I missed during the first series: technique. Certain field recordists gravitated towards gear choices for reasons that had nothing to do with the subjects they capture.
One inspiring approach was to choose equipment as a means of expression itself. For instance, Mattia Cellotto described his method of recording artistic sound effects with a contact microphone. Ian Rawes has gathered sound effects from every corner of London using a binaural kit.
I also found it interesting when field recordists chose gear based the type of equipment. Gordon McGladdery sought flexible, multi-pattern microphones. Trevor Cox’s kit was grounded in a scientific exploration of audio. Melissa Pons experimented with mid-side recordings. In the past, we saw Tamas Dragon’s choice grew out a desire for extreme portability. Michael Maroussas shared with us an evolution of an eclectic kit.
Given all this, what do we see? Is there a pattern to the microphones, recorders, and manufactures people mentioned?
Thoughts on Field Recording Microphones
Once again Sennheiser microphones reigned supreme. The MKH series was a popular choice. Like the year before, the MKH 8040s were commonly used for stereo ambience recording, while the MKH 30 and MKH 40 and other versions appeared in M/S arrangements. The classic MKH 416 shotgun also popped up a few times. We also saw a few rare Sennheiser versions, such as the MKH 8050 and MKH 8060 (supercardiods). Sound quality and low noise floor was a common compliment given to these microphones.
And, while Sennheiser models were common, they were by no means as popular as the previous year. Schoeps microphones showed up more frequently. People enjoyed flexible capsule system and its sound quality, making a common appearance in M/S set ups (MK 41 + MK 8).
The miniature 4060 and 4061 DPA microphones appeared again, cited as giving good value for sound, flexibility, and stealth potential. Other, more uncommon DPA models were praised, too. Ian Rawes used a pair of 2006C omnidirectionals in a clever binaural set up. Axel Rohrbach prized his DPA 4007 for is “clean, smooth character” and tight low end. DPA seems to a bit of an unsuspecting field recording choice, yet is consistently rated as top quality, low noise, and having excellent sound.
Neumann microphones earn a lot of respect but don’t seem to find their way into many kits outside of the studio. Exceptions include Gordon Hempton’s rare KU 81i dummy head. The Neumann KM 120 figure-of-eight and KMR 81 shotgun made rare appearances, as did the return of the pricey and discontinued Neumann 191 stereo shotgun.
Notably, Sanken also drifted through the articles. Charles Maynes admired the CSS-5 as an “all around favorite.” This model was also preferred by Max Lachmann, who took advantage of its multi-pattern settings to use it as a shotgun to compliment a holophone setup. A rare Sanken also made it onto the list: Mattia Cellotto used a CO-100K to capture frequencies up to 100 kHz for use in sound design.
While not mentioned as commonly as the previous year, Røde was again cited as an inexpensive, reliable choice. Des Coulam used a Reporter and Lavalier. Røde shotguns are well respected. Matthew Marteinsson paired an NTG2 shotgun with a Sony PCM-D50. And the NT4 returned in Diane Hope’s hands as an inexpensive X/Y recording option.
The diversity of this year’s field recordists contributed to some cool, new entries. Russian manufacturer Oktava was enjoyed by Charles Maynes and Stosh Tuszynski. Their choice of the MK-012s were cited as having great sound, being flexible, and surprisingly economical for the quality.
I’m surprised that Audio Technica mics didn’t make an appearance last year. They exploded this year, though, with no less than six separate models: AT897, AT2022 (X/Y stereo), AT2035 (cardioid), AT3032 (omni), AT8022 (X/Y stereo). They were similarly known as providing good value for the money.
The rest were quite varied. Here are some notable mentions you may wish to read more about:
- The Barcus Berry Planar Wave remained a high-end choice for contact microphone recording.
- Economically-priced binaural microphones were popular, including the Soundman OKM II Classic Studio and Microphone Madness MM-BSM-9. They, along with the Sound Professionals omnidirectionals mentioned last year were seen as a great way to begin low-risk recording at a reasonable price.
- Charles Maynes had the first mentioned of a pressure zone microphone (PZM). His choice was the Crown SASS-P MKII, a well-respected PZM.
- Christine Hass mentioned the Dodotronic ULTRAMIC200K, a laptop-powered ultrasonic microphone reaching up to 200 kHz!
Thoughts on Field Recorders
Sound Devices remained as popular as they were last year. Their dedicated recorders were the main choice for sound pros, who sometimes supplemented them with complimentary mixers. Integrated units such as the 633 grew in popularity but the 7-series recorders remained overwhelmingly prized. Field recordists raved about the preamp quality, as well as the sturdy build of these units.
Sony portable recorders remained popular as well. The Sony PCM-D100 appeared to have become the go-to pocket recorder. Its older sibling, the D50, and its cousin, the M10, also found their way into the field often.
Let’s not forget the Zoom series, however. The H4n is probably the portable recorder most beginning field recordists first buy. Its fans noted issues with preamp noise in legacy units, however its value appeared to be in its TRS/XLR connectivity. This allowed new recordists to buy an inexpensive kit, then gradually supplement it with pro microphones without breaking the bank all at once. Note that Zoom has released the H4n Pro that apparently improves upon preamp and build quality.
A lot of curiosity has swirled around Zoom’s F8, a professional unit with time-code. This year Paul Col added the 8-channel recorder to his kit for less than $1000. Zoom recently released the F4 with four channels for just $650.
While Sound Devices remained the dominant dedicated recorder option, some welcome alternative choices rounded things out a bit with the Zaxcom Maxx and Tascam DR–70D. In one interesting departure, Axel Rohrbach performed an extensive audio recorder comparison for his demanding shoots, and decided upon the elite Sonosax SX-R4+.
A New Look at Equipment
I found this series an interesting departure from the previous year. In the first year, I took the easy road and reached out to friends and colleagues I had already known. That meant they mostly shared my own background in post production and field recording for sound libraries. The gear choices reflected that.
This year I broadened the scope. There were more nature recordists and game audio pros in this series, for example. As a result, we saw a wider range of gear from diverse manufacturers. I enjoyed being introduced to new equipment, such as Trevor Cox’s Bruel and Kjaer kit, and the Sonosax offerings Axel Rohrbach chose. While Sony and Zoom portables were predominant, it was refreshing to learn about handheld options from Tascam, Olympus, and Marantz.
Generally speaking, though, microphones selections were situational: a choice depended on the subject a pro tracked and how they preferred to work. Interestingly, recorder choices seemed more strongly tied to brand loyalty. That makes sense. A digital audio recorder is the headquarters of field recording: microphones can be swapped and upgraded, headphones can be retired and exchanged, but the base recorder usually stays the same. Naturally, the pros enjoyed the features and workflow that a recorder provided. In addition, though, the digital recorder buying choices appeared to be more carefully considered, and had more staying power as well.
Yes, microphones were chosen for how cleanly they captured audio, and how well they were suited to gathering sound from a particular perspective. Recorders were chosen for cost or portability, interface options, channel flexibility, and the preamp’s all-important clarity. Each kit does this with varying degree of success, depending on the aim of the creator and the subject they pursue.
After compiling 49 interviews and tabulating over one hundred models of equipment, a broader perspective emerged. Equipment was chosen to solve problems. In a sense, that phrase doesn’t give selections much credit. Certainly pick-up pattern, noise floor, and sonic richness have more impact than that, don’t they? They do, when the idea is considered from another angle: equipment may seem like a lifeless contribution to the craft of field recording until you realize that their ease of use purifies the expression of a field recordist’s vision.
In this way, after reviewing the choices from these fans of field recording, the exact models, their pick up patterns, and price points began to fade away. Instead, they emerged to become something more unifying than disparate brands and features: the medium for translating the audio they love into sounds to be preserved and shared.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the series, and shared the articles with others.
Read More About Field Recording Equipment
- Discover pro field recordist equipment choices in the “A Month of Field Recordist” series (2015, 2016).
- Read an analysis of those pro equipment choices (2015).
- Browse community field recording gear picks (audio recorders, microphones and recommended kits).
- Find the best field recording equipment for you in the Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide.
- Wallet a bit thin right now? Learn How to Record Sound Effects on a Budget.
- Learn how to decide upon an audio recorder in the Digital Sound Recorder Buyer’s Guide.
- Interested in capturing sound effects on the road? Check out What Gear You Need To Record Sound Effects Worldwide (part 1, part 2)
- Learn more about specialized microphones in The Unconventional Microphone Buyer’s Guide.