Asbjoern Andersen


How do you prepare for a field recording trip? Recordist and sound designer George Vlad has been on more than a few – from smaller hikes, to flying halfway around the world.

In this in-depth guide, he shares his tips, insights and ideas for planning a successful field recording trip – covering everything from transportation, bags, recorders and microphones, to power, cables, storage and more:


Written by George Vlad

 

Hi, I’m George Vlad and I like to point mics at things. I record all sorts of sounds, from ambiences and wildlife to machinery and aircraft and everything in between. I’ve released a few libraries through Mindful Audio and I often share free recordings on the MA blog.

I’m currently planning a month-long field recording trip to the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube Delta in Romania. As is always the case, I have to go through extensive preparations so that once I get there I can forget everything else and focus on getting the best recordings. Having done this many times in the past, I’m going to go into some detail about how I prepare for a recording trip, from a short hike to flying halfway around the world.

Before I can start preparing for the trip I will first decide what sort of trip it is. I will ask myself questions like “how do I get to where I’m supposed to be recording?”, “what’s my subject?”, “is there a chance I can record something else as well?”, “is there any hiking involved?” etc. The answers to these questions will make my decisions much easier.
 

Transportation

Headlights shine on a Scottish road and into a pitch black night

Night driving in Scotland is awesome

One of the most important points to establish concerns my means of transportation to the place I need to get to. If I have to walk for miles then my gear variety will drastically be reduced. I’m not afraid of a bit of hiking, but lugging gear over long distances is rarely feasible. I don’t want to get to the place I need to be and fall to the ground exhausted. On this type of excursion I will usually stick to my Sony PCM-D100 handheld as my main recorder.

I’m the happiest when I can drive to the place I need to record in, even if there’s a bit of off-roading involved or a little hiking at the end. In this case I’ll take my main rig along, which these days almost always consists of the Sound Devices 633 and my Sennheiser Double Mid-Side rig. This gives me a lot of options (from recording mono to Mid-Side and Double Mid-Side, which then can be decoded to a multitude of formats) and is not that difficult to carry around. On top of the DMS rig I will also bring my Sennheiser MKH-416 just in case I need a bit of reach, plus my DPA 4060s and 4061s for micing up individual sources.

I’m the happiest when I can drive to the place I need to record in, even if there’s a bit of off-roading involved or a little hiking at the end

I will also include a couple of contact mics and hydrophones plus the Sony PCM D100 which is always in my backpack. Of course, recorders and mics have to be powered, connected, supported and protected so I will bring along batteries, cables, stands, blimps and many other extras which I will go into more details about.

An assortment of mics, cords, muffs, and a digital recorder in a bag sit together

Preparing for the Wildeye workshop in Northumberland, May 2016

If flying is involved then my gear will look a bit different. First of all, I have to decide exactly what I need to bring along and drop everything that isn’t necessary. Secondly, I must decide what comes in my backpack and what needs to be checked in. I will normally bring my laptop, recorders and mics on board in my backpack. I will check with each airline so that my bags do not exceed weight and size limits, since rules vary between companies. It’s also useful to check how many batteries I can bring along in my checked baggage, although I’ve never seen these rules enforced.

Occasionally different means of transportation will be involved. Open top cars or boats will not protect from rain, so I will bring rain covers for my backpack, recorder bag and blimp. A Peli case would come in very handy in these situations, but flying with it is problematic since it will attract unwanted attention (from both security and possible thieves). I’ve heard of Peli cases being confiscated by Customs agents in South Africa for example, which resulted in days spent trying to get them back.
 

Bags

A backpack and a bag with a digital recorder sit next to each other

North Face backpack and Kata recorder bag

99% of the times I leave home I will have my backpack with me. This is a showerproof (not waterproof, those are a different form factor and less easy to use) North Face backpack with about 35L of storage volume. It holds my Sony PCM D100 with the Rycote fluffy, a small Manfrotto stand, a Gopro camera, a Nikon DSLR, a portable HDD with a backup of my most important data, a pair of binoculars, headphones, cable/zip ties, tape, cereal or fruit bars and other small bits. I will also grab a bottle of water, thermos flask full of tea or both depending on how long I’ll be out.
 


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I carry my recorder in a Kata bag along with a few cables, cable ties, a knife, a pair of DPA 4060s or 4061s, contact mics, electrical tape, head torch and a few other knick-knacks. I will occasionally bring an extra mixer as well (a Sound Devices 302 or Mixpre-D) if needed since there’s enough room for it in there. I tried using smaller bags such as the ones made by Petrol or Orca, but these did not suit me since I don’t do a lot of run-and-gun high-speed action. Having extra space for cables and mics proved much more useful on the type of recording trips I do so I opted for the larger Kata bag in the end.

When I fly, I use softshell wheeled suitcases made by Eastpak or Timberland. These will not attract as much attention to themselves as a Peli or similar case will do, are relatively spacious and are less prone to cracking than hard-shell luggage. This means they can be compressed to some degree though, so I take extra care when packing so that delicate items have an extra layer of protection. I will occasionally wrap the suitcases in cling foil so that they are held together tightly.

Mics and recorders covered with wet weather gear sit in a damp forest

Taking a break until the rain subsides

I mentioned dry bags for covering gear and bags in a pinch. Before leaving on the South Africa trip last year I purchased an assortment of Karrimor Dry Bags which proved very useful when a sudden downpour caught me in the bush away from shelter. I was able to cover my Cinela blimp and my recorder bag so that they did not get wet even though it was raining heavily. The dry bags came in very handy on my trip to the Danube Delta where we had to travel by boat for long distances every day.

There are good Samaritans, even if one might be inclined to think otherwise, so I try to make it easy for them to help me if they accidentally find any of my stuff

One minor aspect that can make a huge difference is tagging all my bags and gear in case anything gets lost or misplaced. There are good Samaritans, even if one might be inclined to think otherwise, so I try to make it easy for them to help me if they accidentally find any of my stuff.
 

Recorders and microphones

A wind screen, cords, headphones, and a box with a condenser mic sit together

Cinela blimp with Sennheiser MKH30 and 7 pin XLR breakout lead

Probably the most important bits of my kit, recorders and microphones require special consideration before going on a field recording trip. I take my Sony PCM D100 with me all the time since it’s light and handy and it sounds excellent. Whether I use it as backup, extra or main recorder, I’m sure I’ll get great results that I can use in my work or share as sound effects libraries. If I need to use external microphones I can combine it with a field mixer, but this option limits me to 2-channel recording.

Fruits of the labor: Sound libraries by George Vlad:

George Vlad has released several sound libraries on his own, and in collaboration with fellow recordist Daan Hendriks – a few examples (more here):

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3 is the magical number when it comes to preamps as it allows me to record Double Mid-Side without needing an extra mixer

If I want a more compact solution than the D100 plus mixer, or if I need more than 2 channels, I will take my Sound Devices 633 mixer/recorder. I’ve had it for about three years and I think it’s simply an amazing piece of kit. I’ve used it without any problem in temperatures ranging from -25 to 40 degrees Celsius (that’s -15 to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit). Its preamps and limiters are excellent, it allows for a variety of powering options and it’s quite intuitive to use. Also, 3 is the magical number when it comes to preamps as it allows me to record Double Mid-Side without needing an extra mixer.

A mic sits in a bushy plain on a cloudless day

Recording the sounds of the African savanna

Once I’ve decided on what recorder to bring, it’s time to think about microphones. If I need to record ambiences, I’ll take my Sennheiser Double Mid-Side rig made up of two MKH-8040 mics and one MKH-30. These are housed in a custom-made Cinela blimp that outputs to 7-pin XLR, which comes with a hard plastic shell that’s very convenient to use when flying. One thing to keep in mind here is that I will not travel with the mics mounted in the blimp, as they MKH30 is quite heavy and the whole unit might break under the weight. I prefer to take the mics in my backpack and only mount them once I’m on location.

Alternately I can use the 8040s with Rycote Extended Ballgags (also called WS 9) mounted on an ORTF stereo bar. This will yield great results for ambience, although I prefer the versatility of the DMS rig.

I will not travel with the mics mounted in the blimp, as they MKH30 is quite heavy and the whole unit might break under the weight

If I need to record point sources I will generally choose my Sennheiser MKH-416 which sounds excellent on vehicles, firearms, engines, mechanical sources, fireworks, you name it. I can also use my MKH-8040s for mono recording, and for this purpose I can separate the two Rycote XBGs and point them at sources individually. One other option is using lav mics, of which I have 4. I use DPA 4060 lavs for micing up bird songposts or nests, since they’re so tiny and difficult to spot. In a pinch I have also used them for recording vehicles, but I prefer to use the DPA 4061s for this purpose since they’re a bit less “hot” and can therefore withstand louder sound sources.

I will occasionally use other mics such as the Crown PCC, JrF contact mics and hydrophones, Line Audio CM3s, AKG D112, Shure SM58s etc. I’ll probably not use these as my main mic, but they’re excellent as additional mics that provide a different tone or perspective.
 

Power

A bunch of batteries and battery charges sit in a pile

I got the power!

I always keep my batteries charged in case I need to go out and record something on a short notice. I use a whole bunch of Sanyo Eneloop AAs (both 1900 and 2500 mAh) since they’re high capacity, rechargeable (easy on the environment), hold their charge for a long time and aren’t too expensive. I will take about 20 of these if luggage permits it and I’ll use them with the D100, torches, walkie talkies etc. It’s also worth investing in a smart charger for AA and AAA batteries.

The sound Devices 633 takes 3 types of powering. One is 6xAA batteries which works as a backup option, but isn’t sustainable since a set only lasts for about an hour or so. Another option is 7.4V Sony L-type batteries, which I use. I have two IDX batteries that allow for more than 10 hours of continuous recording, phantom power included. A third option is an external battery pack connected via a 4-pin Hirose connection. I haven’t needed this so far but I think I’ll consider it if I want to incorporate another mixer into my rig in the near future.

Airlines have regulations in place regarding the total capacity of carried batteries so I normally check this before flying with a whole bunch of rechargeables

I also tend to carry along a powerbank that I use to recharge phones, tablets and even my laptop. This comes in handy on extended trips or in places where access to electricity is scarce or unavailable. It will pair with solar charging panels very well.

As mentioned already, airlines have regulations in place regarding the total capacity of carried batteries so I normally check this before flying with a whole bunch of rechargeables. It’s also worth noting that batteries should be insulated from contact with one another, otherwise they can start fires. There are plastic cases for AA or AAA batteries available for very cheap, so there’s no excuse for storing batteries willy-nilly.
 

Cables

Roughly a dozen cables sit in a pile

It’s not always possible to coil cables properly, but I try.

I used to get the cheapest cables I could find. I don’t work in environments where interference is an issue and my gear is almost never plugged in while recording, so I figured I’d be fine. It turns out interference is not the only problem that cables can cause. They can also peel off or break if used outside, but the worst is when they simply stop working without any apparent cause.

I had my first cheap cable die on me when I was out recording a WW2 training prop plane with a couple of friends. The cable just stopped working when I was setting up my equipment, exactly as the pilot /owner was taking the plane out of the hangar. It had been working the night before when I tested everything. It wasn’t broken or torn, but somehow it was not connecting my mic to the recorder.

Fortunately, I was carrying plenty of spares so I quickly ran to the car and got another cable. This one worked and so we were able to record the plane in all its glory. After I got home I checked the cable once again and it still didn’t work, so I got rid of it and a few other cheap cables I had lying around. I decided I’d only purchase higher quality cables from then on, and never had a similar problem since.

The cable just stopped working when I was setting up my equipment, exactly as the pilot / owner was taking the plane out of the hangar

3-pin XLR cables are quite easy to find. I either get Van Damme cables off Amazon or Pro Sound cables from Maplin. These are very useful for single source recordings at any length. I have used 100m cables with no apparent quality issue.
Chris Watson mentioned using 250m long XLR cables on one of the Wildeye trips, so length is not a problem.

When recording ambiences in stereo or DMS, I will use 5 or 7-pin XLR audio cables coupled with breakout leads. These are difficult to find and generally more expensive, but are much easier to use when having to lay long cables in forests, wetlands, savanna etc. I normally have mine custom made by Wendy’s Broadcast or Canford here in the UK, and I shop around before buying as prices vary wildly.
 

Storage

Towers and hard drives sit on the floor

For a long time I’ve only been using Sandisk SD and CF cards in all my devices. Sandisk Extreme Pro memory is excellent for recording more than 2 tracks at 192 kHz or for fully taking advantage of the buffer on DSLRs. I have about 10 of these at any time so if any fails I can always replace it easily, although none has failed as of yet (knock on wood).

One useful feature of the Sound Devices 633 is that it records simultaneously to CF and SD card so if any of them fails the recordings aren’t lost. I also try to transfer everything from the recorder to my laptop and portable HDDs as soon as I’m back from a recording trip. Once this is done I format all cards so that they’re ready to be used again.

I will take a couple of 4TB portable hard drives with me when I’m on a lengthy trip. I store my sound effects library and work files on these in case I need to get any work done while away from the studio (which happens more often than expected). I will also back up my recordings onto one of these drives and on the internal SSD of my laptop.

One useful feature of the Sound Devices 633 is that it records simultaneously to CF and SD card so if any of them fails the recordings aren’t lost

Since I mentioned backups, as part of preparing for leaving my studio for more than a few days, I will also take precautions with regards to backing up all my data. I normally set up my Synology DiskStation so that it backs up everything on my workstation once a week. When preparing for a longer trip I will also copy most of the sensitive data to one of my 4TB drives and I will take my Synology DiskStation to a friend’s house. This way I will have my data in at least 3 different places. (I’m looking into backing everything up to the cloud as well, but haven’t decided on a solution yet).
 

Other stuff

It’s easy to forget about smaller, less important bits when preparing for a field recording trip. I have to admit that a few short recording trips have been ruined because I forgot to bring things like headphone adapter or mic stand thread adapter.

It’s also useful to have spare bits of kit for backup, in case something breaks or is lost. I always take two pairs of headphones (Sennheiser HD 25 and HD 26), one in my backpack and the other in my recorder bag. I will carry as many spare cables and breakout leads as I can take.

I have several different Manfrotto stands, normally used for photography or lighting. I take several thread adapters with me so I can use the stands with whatever device or blimp I need. I also got an Ambient boompole that folds down to half a metre so I can fit it in a regular travel suitcase. This doesn’t get a lot of use but it’s very light so it’s easy to include with the rest of the luggage.

A dark figure sites on top of the highest tree branch

African Fish Eagle or Plastic Bag? Shot with Samsung Galaxy S7

I mentioned binoculars and cameras. As sound recordists we are less concerned with the visual side of things, but I find that that’s a very limiting approach. When recording wildlife it’s very useful to know what species I’m recording, and visually identifying them is often easier than by using sound alone. I also like to document my field recording trips, and for this purpose I will use my smartphone camera and my GoPro.

Being able to photograph my subjects is even better since then I can share images and ask for opinions, but this opens another can of worms: photography. I recently got a Nikon D7200 and a telephoto lens for exactly this purpose. The learning curve is steep but it’s very rewarding to be able to pair up my recordings with photos or even footage of what I’m recording.

A plane flies in the sky

Clearly some kind of means of transportation. Shot with Nikon D7200 and 70-300 lens

If I need to record any kind of wildlife I will try to bring camo or at least neutral colored clothing. This means most of my clothes are khaki, dark green or brown. This doesn’t fool wildlife, but it will let me get closer than if I’d be wearing weird colors. I will also use camouflage scrim to hide my mics. As soon as I started using this I noticed that birds would get much closer to my rig than before, so it definitely makes a difference.

If I need to record any kind of wildlife I will try to bring camo or at least neutral colored clothing

If I need to coordinate with others I will bring a couple of Motorola T92 walkie talkies. These come in very handy when traveling in a convoy or on vehicle recording sessions. This model is easy to set up and use and also floats when dropped in water.

There are always a few different kinds of tape in my bag. Electrician’s tape is excellent for taping regular and contact mics to things. Gaffer or duct tape is good for taping mics to vehicles, although it’s not all equal. Some will leave a sticky residue while others won’t, so I normally test it before using it. I will also use zip ties and rope for the same purpose.

Water bottles, thermos flasks and fruit/cereal bars are always useful to have on a trip. If I’ll be out for more than a few hours I’ll generally plan ahead and get lunch or dinner as well.

Besides backing up my data before leaving on a field recording trip, I will research what I’ll be recording. If it’s a vehicle or an object I’ll look it up on the internet and try to learn about it, so I won’t be completely in the dark. If it’s a location I’ve never been before, I’ll educate myself about it. Book series like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are excellent for getting a general overview of the location.

Books about birds from South America, Europe and Australia

I will also try to find detailed wildlife guides and I’ll look up places on the Xeno Canto website. I stopped making lists of target species a while ago since it’s awfully difficult to control this aspect, but it’s always useful to know what can be encountered in a specific environment.

If I travel to remote places where certain illnesses might be an issue, I will visit a Travel Clinic a month or two in advance so I can get inoculated. These vaccines take several shots before they’re activated so I’d rather do this well in advance so I can avoid any last minute stress.

Like backup, insurance is always good to have, but when going on a field recording trip it’s essential. Flying with gear is problematic as luggage is lost or misplaced all the time. Taking microphones and recorders out into the field introduces variables that can’t always be controlled. For these and many other reasons I ensure my gear with a company that specializes in photography and film equipment insurance. I haven’t needed to make a claim yet but I feel the peace of mind that it gives me is worth the price.

For me, peace of mind is of the utmost importance when I’m out on a field recording trip

On top of insuring my gear, I also take travel insurance and car hire excess insurance. These two aren’t as expensive as gear insurance but they’re easy to forget when preparing for a trip.
 

Weather

One last thing I want to touch on is weather. It’s difficult to predict what the weather will be like months in advance when preparing for long trips. For example, I spent the entire month of April this year traveling and recording in Romania. While there were a few calm and sunny days, I also encountered blizzards and knee deep snow (towards the end of April!), storms that lasted for days and very annoying high winds. It was a mixed bag overall, but it made those few still days even more enjoyable.
At any rate, I stopped being concerned about weather a long time ago. I do my research before planning a trip and then I don’t think about it anymore. Most of the times it works, other times I spend half of my time on a trip recording wind and rain or watching Netflix in a guesthouse. Apps like BBC weather or AccuWeather help but are only reliable short term. Their wind speed estimates are usually spot on, which I find very useful when going out to record ambience.
 

Conclusion

I hope I didn’t manage to turn the idea of field recording preparations from a joyous event to a tedious process. I know people who skip many of these steps and hope for the best. Sometimes it works, most of the times it doesn’t. For me, peace of mind is of the utmost importance when I’m out on a field recording trip. I want to be sure I can rely on my gear and I want to be in control as much as possible. There’s plenty of factors that I’ll never be able to control, and that’s fine as long as everything else has been taken care of. Happy recording!

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A big thanks to George Vlad for sharing his experiences!

 

About George Vlad:
George Vlad has been fascinated with sound and the great outdoors ever since early childhood. He is based in the UK and works as a freelance games sound designer. When he’s not in the studio George does a lot of traveling, hiking and field recording. You can read more about his trips on his blog
 

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3 thoughts on “Recording Adventures: Preparing for a succesful field recording trip

  1. Excellent article George, thanks for writing this out!
    One question: Which microphone would you choose for stereo ambience recording if you could only pick one?

  2. Thanks Chip, glad to hear you liked it.

    My first choice for stereo ambience would be a pair of MKH-8020 mics in a SASS enclosure. It sounds incredibly rich and open while preserving a lot of detail. I prefer it over a pair of MKH-8040s in ORTF. It can also be upmixed to decent surround.

    I know that’s technically two mics and not one, but I never liked the sound of stereo or MS mics for ambience. Hope this helps.

    George

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