Audio Field Recording Guide

How to Capture Everyday Sound Effects and Ambience Outdoors

Learn how audio location recording in typical outdoor locations can enhance home-made podcasts and video recordings.

Recording audio on location is a great way to document the essence of many urban spaces, add life to podcasts, and improve the quality of video recordings. Modern audio field recording gear is much cheaper, smaller and less obtrusive than before. This is an introduction on how to get good sound outdoors.

Recorder and Microphone Types

For urban field recording, a good choice is a small field recorder using memory cards of the same type as used in digital cameras. Something like a Zoom H2 is a good combination of stereo microphone and recorder all in one that fits in the palm of your hand. This gives you more than 2 hours of recording time on a 2GB SD card. Similar field recorders use Compact Flash cards.

Get closer to the Sound Source!

The first rule of audio field recording is to get close to the subject, particularly if it is dialogue. To record speech, the microphone should really be within a couple of meters of the speaker. Any further and the speech will become muddied by ambient noise; and particularly indoors, reflections off hard surfaces can make the speech indistinct if the microphone is much further away from the subject than the nearest wall.

Don’t hold the microphone

Do not let anyone hold your microphone. It turns vibrations into signals on your recording, and that includes the sound of the muscle tension in the hand. Use a tripod or stand to hold the microphone close to the subject; this will result in a better recording than if someone holds it.

Move away from unwanted noise

In an indoor setting, you can usually turn off unwanted noise sources like a radio or the air-conditioning. Outdoors you can’t usually do that, so you have to move away from noise sources and closer to your subject. The ear is very good at discriminating against extraneous noise, so you have to listen critically, not just for what you want to hear, but also to check there is not too much of what you don’t want to hear. Or record a section and listen to the playback – it is always better to get the cleanest original recording.

Wind noise is often a problem. Most field recorders come with a basic foam windshield – these are typically good for wind speeds up to about 5 mph. Any more and you will have problems with a rumbling sound in your recording – try and move to a less windy location or wait till it dies down. Alternatively, shield the mic with a ‘tent’ made of cloth like a T-shirt held on a wire frame.

Use the manual record level, not automatic

Automatic record level sounds a great idea, but it saps the life from a recording. In a typical city location, as soon as the talent stops talking, automatic record level winds up the levels, boosting things like traffic noise to the same level as the speaker’s voice. When the speaker starts again, the traffic noise is dropped, weakening the continuity of the recording. With digital recording, simply allow plenty of headroom and lift levels in editing.

Record uncompressed audio

Recording in a compressed format like mp3 or Windows Media reduces the quality of your recording, making it harder to filter and recompress without distortion.

Work within the limitations of your equipment

If you want to record wildlife sounds like birdsong or very quiet or very loud sounds you will need different techniques. The simple techniques described here will let you record audio for podcasts, photography, and videography under typical field conditions. If the audio will be synchronized to a video recording, a clapper board and spoken take number help match the recordings up.

Conclusion

These simple techniques will help you capture good audio from outdoor locations, for podcasting, video and documentary purposes.