Out in the Fields – Recording Outdoors.
I’ve been doing a lot of research lately, mostly in foley, post production, and one of my favourite areas, Field Recording. If you’re new to this concept, you might ask yourself “Why would anyone want to record a field?”, but it’s not just that. Well, I guess it is exactly that sometimes.
Field Recording is basically capturing the sounds which the world makes, for many different reasons. Sometimes you may just need a Sound Effect, or it may be for a film, TV programme or for an animation or musical composition. So I thought it might be good to start with a look at the basics of Field Recording, and to point out some of the simple guidelines which generally help you get a better recording.
Headphones are very helpful. Yeah, you can check recording levels using meters and you can get a good idea of the general sound quality with your ears, but your ears sometimes ignore things – to get a clear picture of the sound you’re recording, use a set of headphones. Another advantage is that you can use the headphones to decide on the optimum mic position for your sound source. It gives you a better overall picture of your recording – and lets you listen for things you don’t want to record as well as things you do! Near total exclusion headphones seriously reduce ambient sounds, giving you a clear picture of your soundscape. Many years ago I visited some stables to get some Horse sounds, but because I didn’t use headphones, I didn’t notice the nearby motorway (even though I drove there on it!) noise which was so nearby that the recordings needed to be filtered. That rarely ends well.
Get the best recording you can get.
If you’re recording source is good, it will have more chance of sounding good when recorded. Even through a good pair of headphones, you still need to use your ears to judge the sound. If it sounds bad to your ears, it will sound bad to a microphone, so if there’s a problem, then change your source. Traffic noise, (including those people who beep car horns if they see someone recording!!) wind or kids playing in a nearby park can all cause you problems if you need a good, clean sample, so do your best to minimise background sounds. Move as far as you can away from traffic, or find a place that’s shaded from the wind. I always tend to use a windbreaker when recording outdoors, as even a gentle wind blowing across a Mic can produce wind noise. I’ve used light reflectors a couple of times to keep the wind off a microphone, or even get someone to stand next to the mic, to keep the wind off it!
Recording indoors can also cause problems. Air conditioning, PCs, fridges and even fluorescent lighting can cause problems. I recently returned to a shoot for the second time to record the sound for a video, only to discover a terrible hum coming from a faulty fluorescent light which was fine the day before. If I hadn’t noticed it, then the footage from the first and second day would have been difficult to merge together. This is another reason why it’s always a good idea to record some room tone – ask everyone to be silent for a minute or so and record the actual ambience of the room – preferably with the noisy things turned off – this can often help you patch anything together in the edit. Also think about room size: smaller rooms have less chance of being filled with noisy equipment, and they tend to have less natural reverb etc.
A painfully obvious mention also has to go to pointing directly at the sound. Yeah, sorry, this sounds a bit too obvious, but we’ve all seen it; it’s so easy to get distracted by something else that’s happening – and that’s not always a bad thing – that’s why gun mics are so useful, if something interesting happens, point the mic at it and record it, but it’s so easy for the microphone to drift away from your source if you stop paying attention to it.
You can’t have too much of a good thing!
You can’t have too much material, but you can have too little, so always record more than you think you’ll need – it sometimes cones in handy, not necessarily for the same shoot. On location, it’s especially important that you take home as much usable material as you can, as you never know if there’s something on a take that you didn’t hear. Pre-roll is also good to use if you have it (most recorders do) as it’s handy for catching something that you might otherwise have missed. The pre-roll also gives you a couple of seconds for you and anyone else to get themselves composed and quiet!, hopefully making it easier to use the take. Post roll gives you a few valuable seconds after a take too, to give you a nice fade out if you need it.
Record the mistakes too!
If something goes wrong, keep recording and don’t speak or comment – you may get something usable out of it. I was recently recording a hand-bell which fell apart due to some over-zealous ringing – who knows if those sounds will be useful if I need the sound of something metallic hitting the floor.
Check your stuff before you go!
This seems the most obvious of all, but batteries go flat, mics break and you occasionally forget that you removed something from your sound kit. Check your kit before you go, make sure you take spares of anything you can, including cables.
Useful websites and references:
The Sound Effects Bible, Viers, R. Published by Michael Wiese Productions, 2009.