George Vlad is no stranger to blending field recording and travel. He has returned home with some of the first sound effects captured in such remote wilderness locations as the Congo, Ethiopia, and Senegal.
Vlad blogs regularly about traveling and field recording. He has posted articles about technique, tricks, gear recommendations and more on his own Mindful Audio website and other community blogs, as well as on the Facebook nature recording group.
I was curious to learn more about his experiences with a specific focus: how equipment selection affects not just the technical aspects of field recording, but craftsmanship itself as well.
Creative Field Recording: The last time readers heard from you here on the blog, we were chatting about noise and nature field recordings. Can you share with readers what you’ve been up to since then?
George Vlad: Hi Paul, great to hear from you again. Things haven't changed much in terms of what I've been recording. My quest for pristine untouched nature took me to places like the Congo and Amazon rainforest, but also the hottest place on Earth (Dallol) and an active volcano in Ethiopia among others. While on the surface these might seem like very opposite places (ranging from full of life to completely devoid of it), they are all similar in that man has barely managed to wreak havoc there just yet. On top of visting these amazing places, I've managed to lose several pairs of lav mics to rodents which is always exciting!
CFR: In the last couple years especially, you’ve been travelling to some very exotic locations: Senegal, Ethiopia, the Amazon and the Congo rainforests. Why did you decide to travel and record there?
GV: I'm mainly attracted to remote and exotic locations because of how difficult they are to reach. This means that in many cases I'm the first person to go there with microphones (or even decent cameras sometimes). As a result I manage to get truly unique sound recordings and other media. For example a drone shot I took at Langoue Bai in Gabon appeared in National Geographic's printed edition earlier this year. On top of the unique nature of the soundscapes, I always welcome a challenge. Hiking in the rainforest in extreme heat and 99% humidity while being attacked by bees and wasps might not sound like fun but it's an activity I thoroughly enjoyed.
CFR: When recording on an expedition, you’ve captured a huge variety of sounds: specifics (e.g., birds), ambiences, vehicles, and much more. What equipment do you use to do this when you’re traveling?
GV: That's very true. I don't think I was very selective enough in terms of what I recorded and sometimes that meant I wasted opportunities or spent too much time moving between locations/subjects. The natural response when I'm in a new location is to try and record as much as I can regardless of subject or category. One solution I learned from a friend who works as a wildlife photographer is to go back to a good location several times. It may seem redundant but I've seen the benefits a few months ago when I went back to Ethiopia. Not only I knew exactly what to expect, but I also skipped the locations that didn't yield good results last year and focused on the ones that worked best.
To answer your question, I will always bring my Sennheiser double mid-side rig in a Cinela Pianissimo blimp since a big part my work is gathering ambiences. I normally plug this into the Sound Devices 633 since it's rock solid and has never caused me issues regardless of what it was subjected to. For specific sounds I will use a Sennheiser MKH 8060 in a Rycote blimp with the SD 633 or a MixPre-10T. The 10T comes in handy when I need to record vehicles since it has 8 preamps that I can plug DPA 4061 HD mics into.
On top of these bigger rigs I have recently started to use what I call mini drop rigs. These are made of a small dry bag, electrical tape, a small handheld like the Sony PCM-D100, M10, A10 or D10 and a pair of LOM mikroUši mics. I will leave these out in the field for one to several days at a time in places where a larger setup would attract too much attention, or simply as a way to find out what a location sounds like while my main ambience rig is out somewhere else. One thing to keep in mind is that even with such a small rig, wildlife will still detect it.
CFR: How is this gear different than what you would use at home in the UK?
GV: Sadly recording ambience in the UK is out of the question unless I want to record distant traffic, aircraft or industry. I will occasionally record vehicles around here and the setup will be the same as when I travel, i.e. DPA 4061 lavs, Sennheiser MKH 8040s/8060, Sound Devices 633 and MixPre-10T.
CFR: In those distant places, there s little technological support. If gear breaks, finding replacements is usually impossible. Harsh conditions may be rough on your gear. Does where you travel affect what gear you pack?
GV: That is a very good point and the answer is always yes, although solid reliable gear seems to work well wherever I end up traveling. It's not necessarily a case of certain gear working better in high humidity or low temperatures, but rather certain gear just being better at dealing with rough, sometimes extreme conditions.
I usually try to have redundancy but that's not always possible. While I can bring several recorders (an SD 633, a MixPre-10T, a Zoom F6, several Sony handhelds) and many pairs of mics (DPA 4060/4061, LOM mikroUši/mikroUši Pro), bringing more than one DMS rig is not feasible because of price and luggage space. One way to mitigate risk is to bring equipment that has stood the test of time. To give you an example, Sennheiser MKH series and DPA 4060 are much more reliable than other mics. Another example is the 633 recorder I've had for the past 6 years – never caused any problems.
I often see recordists struggle with their kit on expeditions and it is a frustrating experience. I've seen the problems that cheap kit like the Zoom H4n can cause (eating through batteries, randomly turning off while recording, not saving a recording when batteries run out, high noise levels etc) but even more expensive equipment doesn't always work as expected. To give you some examples, Sound Devices' new Mixpre line has often been a culprit because of problems brought about by firmware updates (although SD seem to have it under control and they've listened to user feedback which is always a plus). Having said that, even expensive gear like the Sonosax SX-R4+ has proved unreliable at least on one occasion which was quite the surprise.
On the other hand I find Sennheiser RF mics incredibly sturdy, especially when coupled with waterproof blimps like the Cinela Pianissimo. Handhelds like the Sony PCM-D100 have proven reliable time and time again, even when left out in freezing conditions. Lom MikroUsi and MikroUsi Pro mics have also proven pretty reliable (paired with Bubblebee Windbubbles) but I lost at least one pair to torrential rain, which doesn't happen with DPA HD lavs.
CFR: You record in very remote places. Getting to and accommodating for these wilderness locations themselves can be challenging even before you begin recording. It can be exhausting! Recording, of course, is a lot of work as well. You have to move around a lot, especially in the places you visit. Do you find gear form factor makes it easier to go out and grab new sounds in these challenging places? Do you ever find that that gear holds you back from recording? For instance, you may hear an unusual sound but you ll need to get out of the tent, prepare your gear, then find it in the wilderness before even beginning recording. Or does what you pack make it easier to get out there? What are your thoughts on that?
GV: There's definitely a link between equipment size and how easy it is to set it up. Fortunately I don't often "chase" sounds. My workflow when out in a remote location is to recce the place for hours, sometimes even days before I start recording. Once I set up rigs and press record I will leave these out for days so I can capture accurate representations of the location over several daily cycles and in various weather conditions. A few times I did hear unusual sounds and wanted to record them (like this Western Tree Hyrax I recorded from the porch of a local's house in a Gabonese village). In cases like this one I take out my trusty handheld (usually the Sony D100) and press record. Having said that, I find it easier to record with a mini drop rig than with my main DMS rig and that is definitely down to size, weight and soundscape considerations (it is easier to tape two lavs to a tree than to find a location where I can record good audio with a surround rig).
I also have to mention that when traveling in a vehicle I keep all my rigs in separate dry bags ready to be deployed. This greatly expedites things as I don't waste time rummaging through suitcases looking for tape, batteries, mics etc.
I recently purchased a Zoom F6 and I find its size and form factor very useful. Audio quality and reliability are still the most important aspects so I'll have to test it thoroughly before I can add it to my permanent kit list.
CFR: You take some amazing photos when you re field recording. How do you work photography into your workflow?
GV: Thank you, photography is a more recent addition to my work along with videography. My interest in both photo and video appeared gradually over time as my mindset shifted from just focusing on sound like a purist to being more humble and trying to tell stories using whatever medium or media work best. Sound is still my main focus and takes precedence over everything else but I find that it is seldom enough to accurately portray a species, a location, an event, a community etc. In these cases additional elements like photos, video or written words will work together with audio to create a complete story.
Adding these extra aspects to my work hasn't been easy though. Recording audio is already overwhelming at times and many times I find I'm all over the place if I don't make an effort to focus. In order to mitigate this I will make a list of targets on an expedition and I will do my best to ignore everything else and leave it for a different time if required. I will then proceed to doing my scouting, setting up recording rigs and only afterwards I start considering photo and video. It certainly helps when I'm joined by a photographer like on my trip to Dallol and Erta Ale in Ethiopia.
CFR: Is there anything you learned when recording on the road?
GV: Yes, a lot of my work happens on the road and I don't know of many places where you can read about this particular type of field recording so most of my learning has happened the hard way.
- dry bags are incredibly useful for keeping humidity out (or in, as needed); sometimes you have to worry about more than just water (gasoline, disinfectants, blood, sunscreen have occasionally spilled while traveling)
- on the same topic, spraying your bags and suitcases with Nikwax renders them somewhat waterproof; using waterproof duffels is an even better idea
- it's much safer and easier to work with local fixers than to waste precious time recording in unsuitable locations
- don't drive at night in places like the African bush; the dangers are way too many to list here
- sometimes the best locations are very close to roads; we recorded forest elephants at a mango grove just on the side of the road in Gabon; they were much more predictable here than deep in the primary rainforest
- there's always a temptation to get as much as possible done; this is a sure way to burn out on a long expedition though; sometimes it pays to take one or more days off and to just enjoy being in a beautifully sounding place; you will return to the sound recording work with fresh ears and much more enthusiasm
- also, never throw rocks at hyenas to chase them away!
CFR: Can you share with readers your favorite experience while traveling and field recording?
GV: My favorite recording experience by far is Langoue Bai in Gabon last year. It took us about two days of driving after a rather long flight, a midnight train ride and then a day of jungle hiking just to get there. We were constantly attacked by bees, wasps, mosquitoes, ticks and even charged at by a gorilla. All very fun ways to pass the time but the soundscape was unbelievable! Elephants screaming in the middle of a huge clearing in the Congo basin rainforest, all while a huge thunderstorm rolls in. I don't think there's any way for me to top this anytime soon.
CFR: Where are you traveling to next?
GV: Unusually for me I don't have any concrete travel plans for the very near future. I have several projects in the works which require me to visit places like East Africa, Southern Africa, Borneo, Northern Australia and even Antarctica but I'm still working out which one to do first. It all depends on how soon I can get some very specialized equipment built, something I'm still keeping under wraps for the time being.
Thank you to George Vlad for sharing his thoughts with us.
- Meet George Vlad in the “Month of Field Recordists” series.
- Learn about his “drop rig” style of field recording.
- Visit the Mindful Audio blog.
- Check out George Vlad’s YouTube channel.
- Listen to his recordings on SoundCloud.
- Read about Vlad’s tips for preparing a successful field recording trip.
- Listen to George Vlad chat about recording in South Africa.