I get asked a lot about field recording equipment. Whether it comes up in conversation with other sound designers or I’m getting a request for advice on industry forums. There’s a lot of choice out there if you have enough money. A quick search on Google will tell you most top level field recordists use a Sound Device unit alongside a small range of microphones specialised enough to work in such conditions.
This is all well and good if you have the third world deficit just hanging around in your back pocket. But for most sound designers, myself included, the opportunity to use this kit only arises on larger projects. Day to day I have to get by using more humble means. I still want good results and I don’t want to lose clients as a result of not having the ‘right’ equipment.
The answer took me a while to figure out and that’s why this article might be useful. Obviously you have the option of up scaling by hiring out equipment on a case by case basis. This will make you think a lot more about what you really need to get the job done and ultimately lead to a more cost effective service for your clients. When it comes to your own equipment, something you can use just to grab interesting sounds or source effects when needed, I tend to follow Randy Thom’s advice.
MS recording offers versatility in a compact package. I don’t use the Schoeps mics like Randy does, but I follow all the same principles when it comes to how the content is used and what flexibility this approach offers. Lets talk about my set up.
The first recorder I bought was a Zoom H4. I was able to capture some ok ambiences and effects using this device. Overall the pre amps were too noisy to power external microphones and the onboard XY configuration was not high enough in quality. I upgraded a couple of years ago to the Tascam DR-100 MK2. This unit has Omni and Uni directional onboard mics alongside +48v XLR inputs. The quality of pre amps is much better than the Zoom and the onboard recordings I have captured are also higher in quality. Handling noise is always poor from this type of unit, so I would recommend investing in a portabrace case and camera stand. I only use the onboards when I am recording some types of ambience, so the unit will always be supported or mounted when recording.
MS (mid/side) recording is achieved when you pair a cardioid microphone with a figure 8. Although the linked article and many professionals I have met state that MS recording can be done with completely different unmatched microphones, I would disagree slightly on that point. In my experience you get the best stereo image from using microphones that are closely matched in performance and build. I use the AKG CK range. The CK91 and CK94 capsules are designed to be used in an MS configuration amongst other useful applications. I did try and use a Rode NTG2 with the CK94 but found the results didn’t compare that well. I also used a Neumann KMR 82i on almost every Need For Speed shoot I did. It’s a great mic but it suffers from phasing at distance with noisy sounds like jet wash or road swirl. That’s no different to any other mic I have used, regardless of price. My AKG CK91 max SPL rating is also higher than the Neumann KMR. Smug grin currently on my face! I mount the AKG mics inside a Rycote stereo windshield kit. I also have a Red Head wind shield for my Tascam onboards.
Comparing the cost of this set up against high end alternatives discussed earlier in this article, one thing is clear. The gap in the price bands is significant. What I do as a sound designer is decide if that price difference really offers me the same jump in quality. Sometimes it does, other times not. On certain shoots you just cant avoid using high end equipment. No other device offers the recording power and flexibility you can get from the Sound Devices range. Pairing these units in the past myself I have recorded 12 mics simultaneously on a vehicle, done complicated surround sound set ups, all in HD powered by battery packs out in the field! Recording has come a long way since Lucas Arts captured sound on huge tape units for Star Wars and THX.