[Written by Ric Viers for Designing Sound]
Recording in the field is like camping: you only have the supplies you take with you! When you go camping, you are separating yourself from your daily amenities. For me, I think camping is a little funny. Most people want to ‘get away from it all’, but when they go camping, they bring it all with them. Why? They need their creature comforts!
Nothing can spoil a camping trip like forgetting the right supplies. For example, you can spend all day searching for the perfect campsite, but that trip can quickly turn into a nightmare if you forgot your tent! So, it’s important to plan ahead and pack accordingly.
Smart campers will air-out their camping gear. When they get ready to pack, they’ll line everything up outside of their storage bins and work a checklist to make sure that everything is accounted for. Experienced campers will even return from a camping trip and make a list of things they forgot to bring or didn’t even think about bringing until they went into the woods.
Here’s a list of ten things that I recommend you take into the field when you head out to record.
1. Mic Stand
A microphone stand is a very useful tool when recording in the field. If you are recording alone, you can use the stand to hold your microphone for you while you perform with the item you want to record. It can also be helpful when recording long ambience tracks. During long takes, your arm will get tired, especially if the bulk of your day is dedicated to ambience recording. A mic stand will give your arm a break and will also make sure the mic doesn’t move or pick up any handling noise. Don’t forget mic thread adaptors if you plan on mounting a pistol grip or blimp on your mic stand. These items have special threads for a boom pole that will not fit standard mic threads.
2. Boom Pole
A boom pole is basically a handheld mic stand that can put your mic closer to the sound. This can be useful for miking birds up in a tree, extending your mic towards a basketball net or following someone on ice skates as they pass by. There are two types of boom poles to choose from: cabled and uncabled. A cabled boom pole provides the convenience of having a coiled mic cable mounted through the inside of the pole. This allows the pole to be extended and retracted with the cable. The catch is, if the pole moves too abruptly, the mic cable bounces against the sides of the pole introducing handling noise into the mic. An uncabled pole reduces this problem because you wrap the cable on the outside of the pole. You loose the convenience of simply extending the pole at will because you have to wrap the cable each time. Wearing gloves can help reduce handling noise when working with a boom pole. Newer boom poles eliminate this problem by providing foam handles on the end of the pole.
3. Gaffer’s Tape
This heavy duty, non-stick adhesive is the Porsche version of duct tape. It’s found on every film set, theatrical stage and television studio the world over. Gaffer’s tape (a.k.a. movie tape or g-tape) can help quiet objects, mark out action areas (e.g. drop that television set right… here), and of course, hold things together. I always carry a roll with me and I even leave little strips on gear so that if I forget the roll, I still have something to work with. It comes in many colors, but trust me black is the best!
4. Leatherman / Multipurpose Tool
These little lifesavers are great for repairing gear, loosening stubborn mic stand adaptors and tightening or loosing objects to get that perfect squeak to record. The Leatherman brand claims to be indestructible, but I’m already on my third pair (the first one broke and the second one is… well, I can’t remember). Keep in mind, they have a knife inside, so don’t try to bring one on a plane or in a courtroom.
5. Extra Batteries
Back in 2000, I was working with MSNBC traveling around with Al Gore while he was campaigning to be president. I had packed everything I would ever need for the trip, including cases of batteries. At one event, literally minutes before Al Gore took the stage, the batteries in my field mixer died. I was shocked. These were brand new batteries that I just checked five minutes before hand. So, I grabbed a new set of batteries from a brand new case. The new ones were dead too! Two more sets later, I realized that I had been sold a case of dead batteries, despite a valid expiration date. A fellow sound mixer noticed my plight and gave me a fresh set.
I always tell that story to new interns who come to work at the Chop Shop. Just last week, we were packing for a location that was an hour drive to the middle of nowhere. I asked if he had extra batteries. He didn’t. I grumbled a little bit and grabbed an extra case of batteries for him. He politely protested, telling me that he had enough batteries. Sure enough, we got on location and his ‘fresh’ batteries died within twenty minutes! Had I not packed enough, we would have been screwed. The point is, bring extra batteries!
6. Extra Media
Media, like compact flash cards, is less likely to randomly die on you. You should bring extra media for two reasons. One, it’s cheap but priceless if you need another hour’s worth of record time. You never know when you’ll hit pay dirt with a location and need to extend your session. Two, if something happens to your media the show can still go on. For example, you accidentally drop your media in water, the card craps out for some strange reason, or gets confiscated by border patrol (which happened to a Chop Shop crew once).
7. Extra Mic Cables
Okay, so I’m going a little heavy on the “extra” factor, but unfortunately, this is because I’ve learned the hard way! I’ve had brand new cables that shorted out on me. I’ve had cables get cut by falling objects, sharp corners and even by a mindless stage hand once at a Limp Bizkit concert that resulted in Fred Durst calling me nasty things from the stage (long story…). The point is, without a cable, your microphone is useless. And of all the gear you have, the mic cable is the most likely candidate for failure. Think of an extra cable as a $20 insurance policy.
8. Cell Phone
Insert random “Ric’s an old fart” joke here. Okay, you youngsters! I’m fully aware that everyone has a cell phone nowadays. I didn’t see my first cell phone until years after college when the bass player of my band bought one. And yes, he was rich.
Ok, so everyone’s got one, including your Grandma who insists on texting you every Saturday to ask why you won’t come over to visit. Why would I suggest one? Well, because cell phones are basically really tiny laptops that carry very useful apps that you can use during your recording sessions. You can use map and GPS apps to find places to record or places to avoid. There are notepads to help log interesting things that take place during your sessions. And, of course, the camera!
Taking pictures of everything I record was a pipedream when I first got started. Today, I take pictures of just about everything, including useful information like model numbers of electric tools and motors that I’m unfamiliar with. This gives me a reference to Google later so I can give the sound file the proper description. Plus, you can take pics of your gear in action and post them on the Sound Effects Bible Facebook page!
9. Quiet Clothes
A few weeks back, I was recording some ambiences out in the snow. The snow turned into sleet and suddenly, my mic started to short out. My perfect forest ambiences were littered with this high pitched crackle noise. I headed back to my truck to see what was wrong with the mic. Surprisingly, the crackle went away once I got into the truck. What? I stepped back outside. There it was again! A few seconds later, I realized that the leather coat I had on was giving the sleet a hard surface to land on, thus creating the crackle noise.
Wearing soft and quiet clothes is important when recording. Most of the time, you want to avoid moving and creating the sound yourself. In the case of the sleet, my clothes became a surface that was creating the extraneous noise. When choosing clothes to wear remember that you might have to move your arms during a take. This is especially true if you are performing the sounds in front of the mic. So, pick something that gives you a little flexibility to move without making noise.
Gear is useless if you don’t know what you’re doing. But, knowing what you’re doing is useless if you’re not creative. Bring your thinking cap! Choose a quiet one, though.
(Play inspirational military music while reading this next paragraph.)
In the field, you will face challenges. You will be forced to think outside the headphones. Things will go wrong and gear will break. But, you can still bring home useful recordings if you use your creativity.
(End musical cue.)
More times than not, I’ll leave a location with a ton of material that I didn’t plan on recording. A few weeks back, we went to a YMCA to record fitness sounds and came back with an hour’s worth of mechanical motors from a large maintenance room that we were given access to. Survey the location with your ears, not your eyes. Your eyes can quickly discourage you from choosing a good location. Your imagination and creativity is the most important thing you can take with you in the field.