I first learned about field recordist Stéphane Fufa Dufour through his Sound Explorer blog. Stéphane has been a relentless traveller. In the last two years alone he has recorded sound effects in 25 countries, carrying an impressive selection of gear.
I was curious how using a comprehensive kit on such a long journey affected what clips he recorded, his method of travelling, and the ability to remain inspired while capturing sound. I asked him if he’d like to share his thoughts with us.
He graciously agreed. Over the course of the interview, he revealed valuable insights: the relationship between productivity and gear, the unpredictability of travel sound, and how changing a sense of space affects what we perceive, all with the goal of entering a sensation of “deep listening.”
Let’s learn more.
Creative Field Recording: Can you tell readers why you began field recording? How did Articulated Sounds get started?
Stéphane Fufa Dufour: Sure!
Recording and manipulating sounds has been a fascination of mine since my childhood in France, where I started using a small tape recorder and got a grip on computers around 1988. I developed my career around music and the capturing of sounds for musicians working days and nights in recording studios. When I moved to Montreal in 2010, I delved into the world of digital media in a broader sense. I did everything from web marketing to interactive art installations — even animation and audio for games. But I was still working indoors in dark places, sitting all day long. So, naturally, around 2015, when I finally started listening to my deteriorating body and depressed mind, I decided I had to make changes in my life and work habits.
Bringing together my passion for travelling, and my experience in studio recording, it was very natural for me to start recording outdoors! I was inspired by amazing artists like Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton, but also by yourself Paul. Reading your books gave me some incredibly helpful insights and critical tools.
Field recording reached the sweet spot between my past experiences and my aspiration of getting out of the studio. At first, I was solely interested in nature sounds, but I rapidly became obsessed with every possible sound. I consequently started to foster a customer base for my work, and founded the Articulated Sounds company. I got some funding and other help by presenting the projects to the juries of entrepreneurial schools and business mentoring programs. Meanwhile, it has been a blessing for Articulated to have worked with talented collaborators around the world. Now, after more than 3 years, the brand has expanded, and we regularly serve hundreds of sound editors and sound designers, delivering useful signature sound libraries in which we put a lot of love.
CFR: You’ve recorded in many countries worldwide. Why did you decide to record travel effects?
SFD: Travelling allows you to hear the world differently, through various angles, while encountering unique sounding cultures and objects. During any trip, the sonic field expands and unheard-before sounds can be recorded throughout the journey. It’s a lifestyle adventure with many challenges, but it triggers a lot of opportunities that would have not been met otherwise. For example, the library Rare Winds has been a great achievement for Articulated, in which we collected and designed original content spanning four continents. I am glad that we continuously gather new sounds and curate them for the best possible usefulness.
Now, with the advent of technologies and the worldwide deployment of the Internet, I took it a step further in my travels and decided to be 100% location-independent. Thus, exploring the world, capturing sound gems, while still being able to deploy my workstation, releasing sound libraries online.
CFR: I seem to recall you told me you have a wide selection of gear you take with you. I was looking at your libraries and you seem to have a lot of microphones you use. What equipment do you use when you’re traveling and recording?
SFD: Well, the last big trip took me through 25 countries in 13 months. This is the list of gear I had with me:
- 2x Sennheiser MKH 8090
- 2x DPA 4060
- Sennheiser MKH 418-S
- Sanken CO-100k
- LOM mikroUši
- Sound Devices MixPre-6 (with Hirose adapter and bag)
- Zoom H5, which I replaced with a Sony PCM-D100 in the midst
- 2x Aquarian Hydrophone H2A
- Core Sound Tetramic (Ambisonic microphone)
- Rycote Softie
- 2x Cinela Leo
- Bubblebee windshield
- Selfie sticks (used as mic arm extensions)
- 1 tripod
- 4x XLR Snake cables
- RavPower Battery pack
- Beyer Dynamics DT 770 Pro headphones
- Microsoft Surface Pro 4
- 2x 4TB hard drives
- Many cables, USB keys, hubs, and more
However, I have considerably reduced the amount of gear I have with me since then. I've tried many handhelds and possible configurations, and I finally decided to go with the really small Sony PCM-A10 along the LOM mikroUši. I still have my beloved Sennheiser MKH 8090 working through a Kortwich preamp. So far I am happy with this new configuration.
CFR: Can you tell me a bit about the Kortwich preamp? Why do you like to record with that?
SFD: I was looking for ultra-small recorders that would deliver high quality sound without the usual bulk. I was disappointed by the performance of handheld recorders — which, in my opinion, was not good enough in quiet conditions (even using the highly praised Sony PCM-D100). Other “non-handheld” recorders felt too cumbersome, mostly due to XLR connectors and options for powering them. XLR is, in my opinion, a kind of connector not well adapted to field recording. Regardless of however wide-spread and robust it is for use in concert performance, it is too bulky for carrying around by field recordists. I can see better alternatives like mini-XLR.
I researched various solutions and discovered the Kortwich brand, and their small preamps, which are made for high-end camera audio inputs. It’s one of the smallest preamps that can provide 48V phantom power with no XLR, only mini-XLR, so it was perfect for my quest. Of course, I had to do some modification and to provide battery power for the device. All in all, I assembled this preamp, with the Sony A10, and the Sennheiser MKH 8090, and connected with a modified Rycote Connbox. In the end, I have my own custom version of a handheld recorder. Everything fit in a pencil case bag and I can hold it in one hand. I can even add my Cinela Leo to have protection in windy conditions. It is practical and very high quality; I can record ultra-quiet sounds with low self-noise — a big improvement from any existing handheld recorder.
CFR: How is this gear different from equipment you would use at home?
SFD: The gear is not much different, especially because I now call every place I visit home. But if I were to stay longer at any one place, I would probably have room for bigger recorders with more inputs, more microphones, more cables, tripods, and thus able to orchestrate more intricate and complicated sessions — which would require more editing and mastering time.
However, right now, I’m in a war against “over-gearing.” I embrace minimalism and I am really happy with my latest selection of gear. It's really small, lightweight and high-performance. I feel it’s the essence of what I really need, without the cumbersomeness of “over-gearing.” Keeping it simple minimizes issues. In order to achieve productivity, minimalism is one mindset that works the best for me.
CFR: When you were recording on the road, how did the wide selection of equipment you have affect the sounds you could capture?
SFD: I like to try new devices and ways to record. There are infinite possibilities in this world; there is no one “right way” to do it. I usually prepare my setup before recording depending on the sound I am chasing, but I like to have some leeway in the process.
In my opinion, having too many gear options is a drag against efficiency. Carrying lots of equipment is difficult to manage. It requires a high level of attention, and regular maintenance of each individual piece of gear. You have to take care that all the batteries are properly charged, all the memory is ready, and all cables are working correctly. Likewise, you can more easily introduce issues with handling and wind noise. Having a lot of gear is also not very inconspicuous, meaning that you will draw attention and possibly disturb someone, or be disturbed yourself. If visible, you’ll need more authorization, permits, and you will be more susceptible to having people intrigued by your devices.
I am really keen on multiple microphone setups. I did many surround recordings mainly with double stereo or IRT-cross. Surround immersion is amazing, but it needs to be handled carefully with being cautious about phase issues. Moreover, not all environments or scenarios are suitable for multichannel recording.
I don’t think I influence much of the sound itself, as much as the environment does. The capture however will greatly depict a variant of my own perspective. Thus, depending on the directivity of the microphone, I can play around and focus on some traits, or get a bigger picture by using wider directivities. For me, the most important factor that will affect the authenticity of the sound is the loudness factor; quieter sounds need special care as much as louder sounds do. The gear there will play a large role in being able to capture the entire spectrum without saturation, or without too much self-noise. It’s important to have gear that can handle high-pressure sounds, as well as gear that has a high signal-to-noise ratio. In these scenarios, my gear will affect the sound I could capture.
CFR: Earlier you mentioned you had quite a few microphones with you. Did you find travelling with a lot of gear affects what you record, or how often? It can be cumbersome travelling with a lot of gear. Or, do you find a large amount of gear opens up new possibilities? You are a minimalist now, was that influenced by the impact of a lot of gear on the road?
SFD: It is always good to have the choice of gear and adaptability depending on the sound. Sometimes you don’t have time to think too much, and even less time to plug in a complicated setup — especially with “on the spot” kind of sounds. Some microphones are good to record only one kind of sound while some others are more versatile. For example, no other microphones come close to the Sanken CO-100k. It’s a really unique microphone, practical for recording sounds that will be manipulated by sound designers, but it wouldn’t make sense to use it while spontaneously recording ambience in a sketchy situation. Lately, I chose to be freer in my movements and actions so I can access more interesting places and record rare sounds more frequently. Having fewer gear choices forces me to be more creative in how I record, where I place microphones, and what to record. And, yes, it is a consequence of carrying too much for too long. There is a good balance to gauge between practicality and performance. Though I don’t believe our work should be dictated by gear, but more by ideas and stories.
CFR: Is there anything you learned when recording on the road?
SFD: Yes, I learn every day. I might have a book full of experiences. There are so many components that come into play when recording on the road, mostly unpredictable. Dealing with them is inherent to our self-appreciation; hence I probably learned more about myself than anything else. With time, I tend to interpret failures more and more as lessons. It helps me to keep my sanity and stay inspired for the next move.
I've always had a weird relationship with time, and I understand this component better now when I enter the “recording zone” — this dimension where your ears enter the “deep listening” stage; time stretches or contracts. It’s the moment where the body and its environment unite and all your surroundings become an extension of yourself in an exhilarating way. Unfortunately, this is something our society does not teach us to appreciate. Yes, listening and recording is a fragile communion of the senses, and I believe one needs to have a highly self-aware nature to get the “full experience”.
On another note, being on the road made me better with handling gear in uncomfortable situations, managing the environment, and all its variables. I also learned so much about culture, civilization, humanity, language, tradition, geography, ecology, history and much more. I really don’t regret my choices. The world is an open book full of sounds and experiences to discover!
Can you share with readers your favorite experience while traveling and field recording?
SFD: I have many favourite experiences. One that was extremely memorable was when I stood up in front of one of the biggest percussion instruments in the world. It has around 150 large size bells, each from a different country, and was built in the '70s. I had access to the bells and was able to make them ring one after the other. It was a thrilling time as it mirrored my life story of travelling the world chasing sounds. Since then, I started to record bells in many countries around the world; I have this big project of creating the largest bell library ever. I have already collected thousands, but still need more sounds of bells.
Where are you traveling to next, and why?
SFD: After a 5-week road trip across Northeast America, Acadia and the Atlantic coast, I am heading to Mexico for few weeks. Then, I will embark on an ambitious journey through Asia, from the Southeast, up to China, and probably the Mongolian steppes.
Thank you to Stephane for his thoughts of field recording and travel.
- Visit Stéphane’s Articulated Sounds website.
- Read about his travels on his blog.
- Check out an interview about his experiences recording Jungles and Savannahs.
- Learn about his year-long experience travelling and recording.
- Follow him on Twitter.
- Listen to his field recordings on SoundCloud.