R&D – Field Recording

These pages focus in more detail on my field recording practice and the research and development I have undertaken for this project. I discuss some of the field recording equipment I have been working with, techniques I’ve used and reflect on how successful they have been. I’ve also posted some examples of the recordings I’ve been making both on São Miguel island and back here in the UK so you can judge for yourself. If you’re not interested in the tech but would like to hear some recordings then use the links below, otherwise read on…

Field recording examples: São Miguel (coming soon)

Field recording examples: UK (coming soon)

Field Recording Equipment Overview

Field Recorder

Just prior to my trip to the Azores I purchased a Zoom F4 field recorder. At the time this was a relatively new addition to the field recorder market and it was getting good reviews as a versatile professional field recorder at a very reasonable price point, considering its specifications. It’s a multitrack recorder with 4 channels of phantom powered XLR/TRS inputs. There’s also a 3.5mm stereo input and a Zoom mic capsule input, either of which can provide an additional 2 discrete channels, though without phantom power. I bought the EXH-6 Combo Input Capsule but haven’t yet really found myself in a situation where I’ve needed the additional channels.

My previous recording rig consisted of a Sony PCM-D50 and a Sound Devices 302 but this was limited to 2 channels.  As I was interested in researching multichannel recording I needed to upgrade to a device with a minimum of 4 channels. Zoom were advertising improved preamps on the F4 so this, along with it’s compact size, good specs and price point, meant it was pretty much the only option for me given my budget. I’m pleased to say I haven’t been disappointed. The F4 is a great little recorder that I have found perfect for my purposes. It’s packed with useful features such as the dual record to high capacity SD cards, a good backlit LCD display which is visible in sunlight, on board limiters etc. The only downside I discovered when testing the recorder before my trip was that the 8 x AA battery power doesn’t last very long when recording 4 channels at higher bit and sample rates. As I was planning to be out on all day field recording trips I didn’t fancy having to carry lots of AA batteries or worry about how long it would take to charge them all so I looked into alternative power options…

Powering Solution

Fortunately the F4 has a 4 pin Hirose 9-16V power input connector. This gives the option of powering the device with an external power supply or battery pack. This is the standard approach to powering sound recorders and other devices in the field as you can use high capacity Lithium-ion batteries that provide much longer battery life. Hawk-woods seem to be the go to UK manufacturer of battery adapters that connect to your device, providing the correct step up voltage via a short hirose cable. An adapter and cable will set you back around £100-150 however if you add on a couple of Li-ion batteries and a charger you can easily spend a few hundred pounds – even if you opt for the cheaper DV camera style batteries. I simply didn’t have the budget for this but remembered I already had some DV camera batteries and a charger that had previously been used with a now redundant DV camera. However, I quickly discovered (after being missold a Hawkwoods DV 90 adapter) that the industry standard uses Sony style DV batteries and mine were Canon DV batteries.  The Canon have different terminal connections that are incompatible with the majority of the adapters available. After a bit of research and a conversation with a very helpful technical adviser from cvp.com I found the Hawk-woods HB-D1. This adapter works with Canon style DV batteries and provides the correct wattage and regulated voltage to power the Zoom F4 via a hirose cable (of course the hot shoe connections are superfluous). I have a selection of Canon DV batteries and found that the largest capacity will last most of the day field recording 4 channels 24 bit 48 kHz with the smaller capacity batteries as back up.

Microphones

Sennheiser Ambeo VR

Due to the limitations of my previous recorder and microphones I had only been able to record in stereo. My goal with this R&D project was to develop my multichannel field recording practice. Having acquired a multi track recorder the next step was to decide on a microphone array. I already owned a Sennheiser 418s, a mid/side stereo microphone, and had been considering a double mid/side array which would require purchasing an additional mono shotgun mic to match the 418s. The problem with this set up is that it would require the use of my Rycote blimp windshield to provide wind protection for the two shotgun mics. While the Rycote windjammer system provides excellent wind protection it isn’t particularly compact. Portability is a significant factor for me in my recording practice, especially when traveling abroad. I’m always striving for a rig that I can carry and use easily in urban and rural environments, one that is fairly discreet and can be quickly pulled out or stashed away.

I’ve been aware of ambisonics as a system for multichannel recording and playback for many years but the few ambisonic microphones available suffered from a combination of being prohibitively expensive, not robust and portable enough for field recording or poor sound quality. However, in 2016 Sennheiser introduced the Ambeo VR ambisonic microphone in response to the needs of the burgeoning VR market. It’s not a cheap microphone but compared to e.g. the Soundfield mic, the price point, its size and build quality, technical specs and performance made it an attractive option for my purposes. The beauty of ambisonics is that an ambisonic recording captures a 360 degree sound image that can then be decoded to any number of virtual microphone arrays e.g. stereo, mid/side, mono.  I bought the Ambeo VR mic with the help of my ACE grant.

The Sennheiser Ambeo VR ships with a Rycote lyre suspension on a stand mount. This is great if you plan on using the mic on a mic stand or tripod but I like to be able to record on the move with my mic in hand. Fortunately I was able to able to attach the lyre mount to my pistol grip from my Rycote blimp windjammer system. I bought the mic bundled with the Rycote Baby Ball Gag and windjammer. This miniature wind protection system slips over the mic capsules and is compact and portable. As the mic shaft and cable are still exposed to the elements it doesn’t provide the same level of wind protection as if the mic were completely enclosed in a windshield, but it’s still pretty good. I did encounter some problems with wind noise using this setup recording on a beach but in retrospect I wonder if I didn’t have the fur windjammer properly closed around the ball gag. I spoke to a technical adviser at Rycote before buying the ball gag system and he recommended wrapping a scarf around the mic shaft and cable to minimize wind noise. I did tend to do this in windy conditions and it helped. In mild to moderate conditions this set up performs well and its portability balances its limitations but if you’re planning on recording in high winds I’d look at a more robust wind protection system that fully encloses the mic and manages the cable connections. Rycote have just started manufacturing a cylcone blimp specifically for the Ambeo VR.

One other point to note is that the Ambeo VR ships with a 1.5m hirose mic cable. While this is adequate for field recording on the move with a shoulder bag for your recorder and the mic in hand, its not sufficient for durational recording where you want to mount the mic on a stand and retreat with your recorder so as not to intrude on the soundscape. The 1.5m will only just reach the ground when attached to the mic on a stand. I bought a 5m extension cable so together this 6.5 m reach gave me some scope to distance myself from the mic but I would recommend a longer cable if you plan to make wildlife recordings. Suppliers such as Pinknoise and Canford sell suitable hirose 12 pin extension cables but they come at a cost.

Jez Riley French Microphones

In addition to the Ambeo VR I took several other microphones with me to São Miguel. Jez Riley French is a British field recordist, sound artist and microphone builder. I have been using his mics for several years now as they are great value and quality, outperforming many similar high end mics. I have a pair of his C-Series contact mics, 2 x D-Series hydrophones, 2 x Standard hydrophones (the D-Series are easily worth the extra £10) and 2 x electromagnetic coil pick ups. I also have 4 XLR impedance adaptors that allow me to make 4 channel recordings with the hydrophones.

Recording bag

I bought the Zoom F4 bundled with Zoom’s PCF-8 Field Bag. This is a nice field recording sound bag but it has a rigid box like structure with extra storage compartments that are not detachable which means it is a bit bulky and less portable than the softer bag designs. The Zoom PCF-4 looks more compact but I doubt it would take all of my kit. I found that my old Petrol sound bag was much better suited to my needs. It compresses well in my luggage when traveling and I could just squeeze in my rig including Sennheiser HD 25 headphones, spare battery and notebook. It’s compact enough that I can put the whole bag in a rucksack along with a mic stand (I actually use a light stand as recommended by Chris Watson – something like this), other mics, rycote blimp, food, water and clothes when taking to the hills or more remote places.

Whilst I like a prefer sound bag when I’m recording in remote or secluded places I tend to feel conspicuous with it in towns and cities or places with lots of people. I usually opt for a bag that’s more discreet in these circumstances and have just bought this camera bag which seems to be big enough to accommodate everything comfortably, has a padded interior with Velcro dividers and is supposed to be waterproof. However, it’s a bit deep if you want the recorder controls and screen at the surface. The Velcro dividers can be used to form a ledge but I’m planning to sit the F4 on top of a small case that holds spare batteries etc. I’m looking forward to trying it out in the city.