Imagine: you are hiking at dusk and something makes you pause. In the distance, a haunting warble begins. It swells and spreads across the still lake. The bird cry grows, filling the wilderness with a mournful wail. Eventually the loon’s song diminishes into a fragile silence. You remained rooted in place, afraid that the slightest movement will disturb it. Then, as the silence becomes unbearable, a second loon begins, returning the call across lake.
Many become inspired by moments like these. They purchase a handheld audio recorder and begin gathering sounds around them. The first months are intoxicating: simple experiments of capturing their footsteps, a pet, or car driving bring new revelations of their sense of sound. At last they return to the wilderness to capture trees stirring in wind, a still forest, and the loon calls that inspired them before.
This time something’s different. Back home, the recordings don’t sound the same. The sounds are bland. They seem flat and hissy. They’re disappointed, but not sure why, and bewildered how to fix it.
Does this sound familiar? Have you felt your inspiration snuffed by gear limitations? Frustrated by discovering that some sound fx seem impossible to capture well? Have you found that recording clean, crisp wilderness sound effects are beyond your reach? Confused by tech specs and labyrinthine equipment choices? Unsure how to upgrade your first kit?
If so, it’s possible you have fallen into the gear gap.
Today’s post begins a two-part series that shares ideas for crossing the gear gap. We’ll get to actual gear recommendations in the next article. Today’s post looks a bit more deeply into the impact of the gear gap. It’s designed to give you the foundation to make wise choices you’ll consider next week.
The Gear Gap
What is the “gear gap?”
It’s a term I invented to describe the pricing and quality wasteland between a beginner’s digital audio recorder and the next level of audio equipment. An article earlier this year explored why there appears be both a $1500 chasm and feature deficit between novice equipment and semi-pro field recording gear.
The term may be new, but one thing became clear after I published that post: many people had fallen into the gear gap and were looking for a way out. Are you one of them?
Falling into the Gear Gap
After that last article was posted, many people wrote passionate emails describing how they had fallen into the gear gap themselves. There was a common theme: all of them wanted to capture richer sound with better kit. However, reaching the next tier of equipment quality was beyond their grasp.
Imagine wanting to visit a place across town but not having a map. Sure, you can find your way eventually. However, it will be time-consuming. It will be frustrating. You’ll make many errors finding your way. This is what almost everyone new to field recording faces. Understanding field recording equipment is baffling for newcomers. The best options are not apparent.
The Cash Gap
With the $1500 difference described in the related article, I’m not surprised. It’s a significant jump from spending $300 on a Zoom H6 portable recorder to shelling out $1800 for a Zoom F4 and Røde NT-4 and windshield.
It would be easy to think of this as a money problem. Despite the fact that I’ve described the difference with prices, I don’t think that’s the most significant issue. The people who wrote me didn’t talk about cash that much. Instead, they described frustration at being prevented from growing. They wanted to improve their technique and continue to explore. However, the ability to learn was beyond their threshold. Part of this indeed was affordability. However, overall they didn’t know what gear was needed to improve their kit just a little.
So, just throwing more cash at the issue won’t make it disappear. Yes, anyone can purchase the next tier of gear – and beyond! That doesn’t solve the wider issue, though. What is that?
The Skill Gap
Well, there is a significant divide between the sound quality, feature set, and experience of using an all-in-one portable recorder and a microphone-preamp-recorder combo. Someone can master a Zoom H6 but then be completely unprepared to use a Røde NT-4 and Zoom F4 for the first time. The result? Beside requiring a financial leap, the gear gap stifles the opportunity to gradually grow field recording skills. It’s like pulling a kid from a tricycle and sitting him in a Ferrari to race the F1.
These are both major problems for the craft of field recording. Yes, a massive price difference creates a financial barrier to entry. I would argue that lack of opportunity to learn more field recording skills is equally significant.
How can we solve this?
Five Tips for Bridging the Gear Gap
The good news is that solutions do exist. Well, what then is required to bridge the gear gap?
There are five things to consider. We need better:
- Sound quality. Cleaner preamps or improved microphones.
- Feature set. Introduce new features such as quality limiters, new microphone patterns, filters, and so on. Also make existing features more user-friendly.
- Build quality. More durable.
It should also be:
- Expandable. Ideally, the equipment itself should grow with the field recordist’s skills. Once they master the onboard microphones, they can explore external microphones without the need for a completely new recorder, for instance.
- Price-conscious. When upgrading, beginners are still cautious about how much they should invest. They tend to not have much disposable cash for what to them is still a “hobby.” So, it would be best if the upgrade matched whatever a novice first invested. Why? Well, if someone has invested $300 in gear for their first field recording experiments, it wouldn’t seem risky to pay the same amount for an upgrade. Incidentally, this is why most people have trouble with the financial gear gap: switching from spending $300 on a beginning recorder to finding $1500 or more for their next kit is a jolt. So, upgrades should range from from $300 to $600 or so.
So, ideally, a complete solution would provide incremental gear improvements that introduce gradual field recording skills along the way for just a little more cost each time.
Finding Solutions to the Gear Gap
Needing gear improvements is obvious. Better components will be more reliable and sound better, too. And adding just a little more cost mitigates risk. It allows a curious fan to explore the craft with minimal investment. It also makes mistaken purchases less painful, for instance if you discover you prefer the luscious Neumann sound over the crisp cleanliness of Sennheiser microphones.
Why “incremental” changes, though? Well, it’s better to build upon what someone already has instead of casting it aside for something else. As it stands, upgrading from one’s first beloved Zoom H4n requires switching to a dedicated recorder and microphone. Since the new gear and the old aren’t compatible, the H4n sits at home in a drawer, obsolete and unused.
This is especially important for new people. Naturally, it’s expensive and frustrating to spend $300 on gear then have to sell it (at a loss) to start over and buy what’s required to improve more. Growing with existing gear keeps cash in your wallet. Also, that helps explore existing gear in new ways instead of discarding your past purchase and learning something new from scratch. That’s why it’s important the gear should be expandable. The best solutions do not trap field recordists in a piece of gear where an entirely new kit must be purchased to evolve.
The idea is that these five tips will develop a field recordist’s ear, teach them new features, and ensure the kit becomes reliable for increasingly challenging environments. The next option should do each of these better than the last.
Put simply, we’re looking for gradual improvements that help grow field recording craft hand in hand with a greater investment. The plan is to explore ideas for just a little more cash, and leave options open to expand later.
Searching for Knowledge
I mentioned many people wrote to me about falling into the gear gap. A number of people also emailed me kit suggestions to bridge the gear gap (thank you!). Yes, there is indeed gear that can cross the gap, and we will explore options next week. However, the fact that people offered suggestions is evidence that the gear gap exists and is problem. Solutions aren’t apparent. Few manufacturers offer upgradable gear, at least not in the same way as photographers enjoy, for instance. These people can quickly swap lenses and benefit from advanced focal lengths and apertures, new angles, or features. It’s easy to upgrade a lens and keep an old DLSR body, and then swap the body out later, too! Field recordists aren’t as lucky. They can’t do this as easily, and it definitely isn’t as intuitive.
Yes, advanced recordists can simply plug a new microphone into a recorder. In that way gear is indeed modular. However, for beginners, learning if a microphone is a good fit for one’s recording style isn’t a simple as testing lenses in a photography store. Part of this is because capturing sounds requires prolonged duration, and photographic results are instant. What’s more, the luxury of swapping pro microphones isn’t available to new people experimenting with handheld recorders on a sub-$1000 budget.
Part of this has to do with cash. Some of it is knowing how to navigate microphone spec sheets and gear choices. That knowledge isn’t possible for many beginners, and it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have it.
The Value of an Experience
Think back to our recordist hearing loon cries by the lake. Recall them buying their first recorder. For many that do this, they may not even know the term “field recording.” They’re not concerned about sound libraries or game audio assets. Yes, using sound effects this way is a powerful way to add emotion to the projects people enjoy. In this case, though, people begin field recording to preserve not sound files, but to ensnare an experience.
Why is this important? There’s a good reason: none of that has anything to do with equipment. Gear is actually an afterthought when people are inspired to capture sound effects this way. The upshot? A substantial portion of field recordists begin exploring the craft overflowing with motivation but with little technical knowledge.
It isn’t a crime to explore field recording from a non-technical background. (I began this way myself.) However, the craft of field recording cannot survive very long on inspiration alone. Sooner or later, a lack of technical knowledge will plunge even the most enthusiastic beginner into the the gear gap. The result is that a nascent creative arc is crushed just as it begins to blossom.
The craft of field recording would suffer if it was left to the academics and the technicians. We need the artists, too. After all, field recording is a delicate balance of technical aptitude and creativity. The most remarkable sound effects weave emotion into the waveforms we hear.
The gear gap severs that. That’s why it’s so important to find a way to bridge it. An incremental growth in both gear and skill crosses the gap and offers the ability to create the most moving sounds we hear: field recordings that entwine the measurement of sound with an inspired experience.
More next week.