Getting good audio recordings in the field


this is not strictly about Ardour, but I thought I’d ask here because I’m not on any other relevent forums - does anyone have any thoughts on a good recording setup for interviewing people in the field?

The scenario is that I volunteer once a week at my local neigbourhood center in Okinawa, where a lot of the other members speak Okinawan (a language that is currently heading for extinction…)as well as Japanese, so I’m looking to record some of the conversations going on, and the conversations I have where I get them to help me learn to speak Okinawan, and turn all of this into a podcast that will bring some attention to the Okinawan language in order to promote it (ie help it not die out) and help anyone who wants to learn it to do so.

So I’m going to want a nice portable setup that gives me decent audio quality in an environment with several speakers and background noise whilst being as unobtrusive and easy to manage as possible so I can keep the focus on the Okinawan speakers…

I’m thinking a portable recorder (Zoom Podtrak??) with 3 mics connected:

1: be a combined mic and headset for me (it will record my voice when I ask questions, and allow me to monitor all inputs)

2: a handheld mic that I can point to my interviewees - probably a Samsung Q2U so I have both usb and XLR (XLR for these field recordings, tho I have a separate use-case for the usb)

  1. a shotgun mic - this will be for background sound, and may not be necessary for the interviews, but may be useful for picking up speakers that are far from the handheld mic, and at times I am going to want to record people chatting and playing music in a room ( it’s basically just some people getting together to play Okinawan music for fun, there’s nothing professional about this so just a very simple setup to capture the live sound will be adequate) . Hopefully this mic will attach to the recording device, so I can have the recording device in one hand and my interviewing mic in the other.

Basically I’m thinking when I am volunteering (I end up doing yard work and stuff) I’ll have the headphones around my neck, and the recording device and handheld mic clipped to my belt in such a way that I can quickly access them and start recording whenever something interesting is happening!

A third use case is longer sit-down interviews - presumably I’ll be able to use the same setup, perhaps with a mic stand on the desk…

Does anyone have any thoughts on that? I’ve never done anything like this before so I’m at the bottom of the learning curve re equipment setups… (at present I’m making recordings with a small shotgun mic plugged into my smartphone, the resulting audio is good enough to be useable for experimental episodes but everything is on one track so post-production options are a bit limited).

thanks for any thoughts anyone can offer!

A few thoughts, which may or may not be useful depending on your budget:

  1. Recorder: I’m a fan of the Sound Devices MixPre-series recorders; for your purposes you could get by with the smallest one (MixPre 3) although you might consider the MixPre 6. The only complication is power: the best portable solution I’ve found is using the NPL-F mount battery sled and mounting a couple of the larger NPL-F batteries on it, which will power the recorder for hours. These recorders are well built, sturdy, and have excellent quiet preamps. I’ve used mine for recording interviews in the field, music, ambient sounds, etc. However I’m not sure this would be the most practical choice for you; see item 5 below.

  2. Microphones: I suppose a combined mic and headset would work for your voice, but you’ll likely get better sound quality (and more versatility) from a separate mic and headphones or earphones. For example if you want your interviewees to listen back to your recordings right after you’ve made them, it’s easier to pass them a pair of headphones than to pass them a headset with a mic attached (I’d avoid earphones for that reason too…sharing earphones isn’t something most people are comfortable doing). The Sony MDR 7506 headphones are affordable and widely used for field recording because they fold up into a small package (and come with a carrying pouch). They don’t sound great but are fine for interviews.

  3. It’s important to understand that a shotgun mic is not like a telephoto lens: it can’t make distant sound sources sound closer. It is designed to reject sound from the sides, so you should think of it more as a pinpointing device: if there’s a lot of background noise a shotgun mic is useful for isolating the sound of whatever you’re pointing it at. For that reason it’s also not great for recording ambient sounds.

  4. If it were me, I’d have a mic for myself and use a mid-side pair for recording the interviews + ambient sounds. A mid-side pair will use a directional mic to capture the interview while the side mic is capturing ambient sounds. You can adjust the mix of these two sources after the fact, to bring in or leave out as much ambient sound as you like. You could use a shotgun mic with a small figure-of-eight mic mounted on top of it for this; the Ambient Emesser is a good small figure-of-eight mic (the “mid” mic in a mid-side recording rig). It clips directly on top of a shotgun mic, and comes with mounting clips for that purpose.

  5. Given your particular needs, I think you should consider smaller and simpler solutions with fewer mics and no cables to deal with. The smallest and most portable setups are recorders with built-in mics, the so-called “shaver style” recorders because they look like an electric shaver. Some of these, such as the recorders from Zoom, allow you to choose the polar pattern so you can go from highly directional to wide stereo. There are also mics that mount to smartphones that will let you do this, like the Shure MOTIV series. In this case you’d point the mic toward you when you talk and then point to the interviewee. The shaver style recorders never sound as good as a recorder with good-quality external microphones, but they can come close (especially the Sony PCM D100), and they’re a lot smaller and simpler to set up. They can be prone to picking up handling noise, so if you’re hand-holding them that’s a consideration.

  6. Since you’ll be recording outdoors you need to consider wind protection for your mics. Rycote make a large variety of wind-protection devices from furry windscreens to blimps, and you’ll need something like that for all your mics. Those can be expensive, which would be a motivation to limit the number of mics you’re using (and an argument in favor of using a shaver-style recorder).

This is an excellent reply but I am compelled to ridicule your remarks about the Sony MDR-7506 headphones. These are widely used in studios, not just for field recording, and that’s because they sound GREAT :slight_smile: You will consistently see them in videos of recording sessions and on the head of audio engineers. They have one of the lowest low-end frequency responses of any headphones available. They generally sound extremely clean and also comfortable to wear. My one criticism would be that the ear cups do not actually do a very good job of blocking external sound.

That aside, thanks for the very useful review.

An excellent reply to the reply but I am compelled to note (not ridicule :p) that you clearly need these:

Ultimate upgrade territory and perfect for delicate ears!

Have these instead, but haven’t tried them yet:

What can I say? My ears prefer velour…

Thanks, Paul; I think they sound great for some things (spoken and sung voice, for example) and poor for others (critical monitoring of some acoustic instruments). They are reportedly abysmal for monitoring cello, for example (see Gearslutz - View Single Post - Headphones for classical editing/location recording and Gearslutz - View Single Post - Headphones for classical editing/location recording). I have used a pair for years and yes they’re widely used in production audio and are standard equipment in many studios, but I think it has more to do with their price-to-performance ratio, clarity for editing, and general reliability than their accurate sound.

I still use mine for field recording for video, podcasting, etc., but for music I use the similarly affordable (and foldable) AKG Pro Audio K371 and the improvement in sound quality and transparency is significant: I find it’s quite close to what I hear on my room-corrected reference monitors. That said, the singer I work with prefers the MDR-7506 so she uses that, which is fine with me!

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Perhaps all this is mostly subjective given a certain standard of manufacturing? I tried these and they don’t sound half as good as the MDR-7506 to my ears. Perhaps the best I’ve tried are the Audio-Technica ATH-M70x but they are at a slightly higher price point. Cello sounds grrrreat on these :slight_smile:

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It often comes down to personal preference. Generally in that price range you can find usable options from any of the larger manufacturers. I prefer the Sennheiser HD280s for instance, but they don’t fold as compact as the Sonys, but I prefer their sound and find them a bit more accurate. That being said I am likely to pick up a pair of the Sonys unless I can find something that folds more compact to keep in my everyday bag before to long.

I have also used the ATH-M40s which aren’t bad either. And at one point was using the AKG equivalents that I can’t remember what model precisely it was.

Again all are very usable in that price range, and it often comes down to personal preference.


Agreed. I think the 7506 wins in terms of clarity; as mentioned above the singer I work with prefers it, and she says it’s because she can hear her voice more clearly. In my home studio I use a Sennheiser HD 600 when I need to use headphones and like it, but mostly I’m listening to the monitors. For field recording it’s either the 7506 or the AKG K371. A lot of classical recordists go for Beyerdynamics but even those have their detractors.

For what it’s worth, there’s an objective review of the 7506, based on measurements, that does not make it look very good: Sony MDR-7506 Review (Headphone) | Audio Science Review (ASR) Forum

Thanks @bradhurley for that very rundown, I know basically nothing so that’s an incredibly helpful primer.

I was thinking about it a bit later, and starting to suspect I was over-thinking, I actually have a shotgun mike I’m plugging in to my smartphone for my experimental recordings, it occurred to me if I just get more mobile with it, pointing it at whoever is speaking (I’ve been holding it to record us both, but that made editing a bit more difficult). , I should be able to improve the recording quality even with this just-trying-things-out setup

looking ahead tho I like the idea of a separate recorder rather than relying on my smartphone, I just took a look at the Sony PCM D100 but it’s waaay over budget, Zoom H1 looks a bit more realistic…

As it so happens when I bought some headphones for editing I bought the Sony 7506 as I knew portability was going to come in handy…(I can’t comment on the audio, sounds fine to me but like I say I basically know nothing :sweat_smile:…). How important is it for me to be monitoring via headphones as i interview people? I see people doing without on youtube…

Finally, I’m also thinking about longer sit-down interviews (mostly two people, tho 3 or maybe even 4 might be interesting since they’d get to talking to each other rather than to me so I’d get more “native” Okinawan) - would this likely require a different recorder setup or is there any possibility of doing it all with one recording device?

Thanks for your help, this is definitely helping me get started here…

Lots of people use Zoom recorders for these kinds of things and they seem to work well. I have one Zoom recorder (the F1) and am not happy with it but I’ve heard good things about some of the H-series handheld recorders.

You certainly don’t need to monitor while interviewing: the headphones are useful in the initial setup where you experiment with microphone placement to get the best sound. You can set levels by eye using the meter on your recorder or recording app, but tone/timbre of voice can vary dramatically based on where the mic is positioned. So it’s good to use headphones while experimenting with different angles and distances so you can hear what sounds best. After that, you’ll only need the headphones for listening back to what you’ve recorded. Of course, wearing the headphones during the interview can help alert you to problems, like extraneous noise or distortion in the recording, but it can also affect the ambience of the situation, making it seem more formal and it might make some interviewees feel more uncomfortable.

For something like that, where there’s a strong chance that people will talk over each other or several people will be talking at once, some sort of stereo mic would be best. If you’re using a smartphone, check out the Shure MOTIV MV88, which allows you to adjust the pattern and also has a clip-on lavaliere version available; I think this is only available for Apple products, but if you can get a used or refurbished iPod Touch that would be the cheapest workable solution if you use Android and don’t want to buy an iPhone.

I’m quite sure the Zoom H-series recorders have built-in stereo mics and I think some of them allow you to attach different mics (from Zoom or other manufacturers), so that’s an option too.

Lavaliere clip-on mics are an option in any case, of course, and make your job easier as you don’t have to be constantly re-pointing your mic at whoever’s speaking, plus they’re closer to the sound source, although they can have their own problems: if not placed carefully they can pick up the sound of clothing rubbing against them, and if a person talks while moving their head the loudness and clarity can change dramatically.

There are also ambisonics (surround sound) options, allowing you to place one mic in the centre of a circle of people, for example to pick up all of them. Those tend to be expensive, though.

Ok thanks, yes the people I am interviewing are pretty old (they are the only 1st-language native Okinawan speakers left) so mic technique will be a non-starter, so I’m actually thinking of getting headset mics (not with earphones, like they use on TED etc, something like this) one for each speaker, to record all speakers on different tracks with no problems with mic technique… I guess I’ll look for a recorder with 4 inputs, that’ll cover my bases…

UPDATE - I ended up googling to have a look at what’s available:
this has 4 XLR inputs, would XLR be a good thing?
Alternatively this is a bit cheaper (and smaller - more portable) and has just normal mic line in, but 2x stereo tracks = 4 speakers in mono so should work…???

(these tascam recorders seem a bit cheaper than the zoom ones…)

(this is all just at the exploratory stage at the moment, I’m going to do a bunch more test episodes to play with the format of the show before I start buying equipment…)

Monitoring : Yes, I’m hoping to interview without headphones to keep the spontaneity, good to have them as an option, especially for my regulars (one guy is already getting very comfortable with me recording him).

Finally, is there anything I should know about recording people playing music? I’ve joined the shamisen group and I’m thinking of getting them to play a song each week that I will record to play at the end of each podcast episode (traditional music so I think it’s public domain, will have to check tho).

I might also get the teacher (a more accomplished musician) to play some pieces to provide the theme tune, stingers etc. I’m not going to be trying for professional quality recordings, but obviously I want to do the best I can to get good recordings within the constraints (live recording, my (lack of) expertise, equipment budget…) I have to work with

Thanks for all the help, much appreciated this is really helping me think through what I’m trying to accomplish and how I might best go about it!

If you go with headset mics, keep in mind that most are designed to work with wireless transmitters so you’ll have to buy those as well (and batteries for them), which could be pretty expensive. I have one of these wireless headset mics; it plugs into a small transmitter that can clip to your belt or a pocket, and then there’s a receiver with an XLR output so you can plug a cable from that into your recorder. There might be cheaper/simpler solutions for field recording.

The recorders you linked to seem like they’d be okay to me but you should read reviews before making a decision. Having XLR inputs gives you more choices in terms of microphones if you want to upgrade in the future.

This is where recording in stereo will be important to capture the sound realistically. It looks like the Tascam recorders you linked to have built-in stereo mics, so that could be the simplest solution (remember to get wind protection for them). There are free or low-cost smart phone apps available that can help you determine a good distance to place yourself based on the width of the sound stage you’re trying to capture and the pickup angle of your particular stereo mic array (the Neumann Recording Tools app is an example of one of these apps). One thing to watch out for is that if you get too close to a musician who likes to move around a lot when they play, the resulting stereo image in the recording can be disorienting or even nauseating to listen to. So you’ll want to keep a bit of distance, but not too much because the strength of the signal drops by 6 decibels for every doubling of distance between your microphones and the sound source. You can always just experiment to find what sounds best!

Just a heads up this is not necessarily true (Though is true for the specific model linked to above which I believe was terminated TA4F for the BLX transmitters). Most headset microphones, at least the good ones, you can get terminated XLR as well, but it is specific model numbers and you would have to look them up with the manufacturers. That being said a ‘good’ headset microphone might cost more than the field recorder you are using to record it:)

I make no promises that all manufacturers do this, and especially the cheap ones good luck finding it even if they do.

That being said, ducking out of the conversation otherwise. Lack of time to dedicate to a good response and @bradhurley is doing a good job:)

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A-haaa I hadn’t realised that mic was for wireless (tho I did wonder why it didn’t show the connector…) thanks that’s exactly the kind of “gotcha” I have no idea about! Yes I will definitely want the (cheaper) wired connection, I can’t (certainly at this point) see any need for the additional expense and complexity of wireless. Likewise yes I can see how XLR on the recorder will give me more options and flexibility (my Q2U is usb AND XLR so if I get XLR on the recorder I’ll be able to use the Q2U out in the field eg for sit-down interviews), good to build in a bit of future-proofing if I can do it within budget. I’ll go read some reviews of those recorders…

Likewise for recording music, that’s the first I’ve heard of apps for judging distance from the source, that gives me something to google…however about stereo: aren’t most podcasts in mono? Would I be better off doing stereo if I am including music?

Anyway thanks very much! This has given me a great starting point, i now know what to google!

I’m not aware that most podcasts are in mono, but ensuring mono compatibility is still a good goal. I do my podcasts in stereo and nobody has complained so far. :wink: I don’t listen to many podcasts and didn’t notice if they were mono or stereo; I’ve done a few and recorded them all in stereo…by which I mean the host and guests were individually miked mono, but I mixed in stereo to place the host and guest in the stereo field, and the music is in stereo.

The app I mentioned shows you the pickup angles of common stereo configurations (ORTF, Blumlein, various A/B and X/Y setups) and you just hold the phone up to your nose and sight down that pickup angle to make sure everything you want to capture in your recording is within the angle. If not, it could be out of phase or otherwise not be picked up correctly. This is especially important with Blumlein (which you needn’t worry about), which has a narrow pickup angle of about 76 degrees and if you’re too close it can cause problems (this is primarily an issue for people recording drum kits, which are often recorded using Blumlein arrays: if you place the mics too close to the drum kit it will sound really weird due to sounds outside the pickup angle being out of phase). Sorry for too much extraneous detail, I’m just trying to illustrate what you can use that app for.

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ok interesting, somehow somewhere I think I saw that podcasts are usually in mono, but I don’t actually know for sure…more research!

Interesting about the app, that’s a good illustration, I literally know nothing about sound recording so just getting an idea of the kinds of issues people who do know about sound recording think about is very helpful, thanks again!

You’re right, I had no idea! I just assumed they were in stereo but it turns out the standard for podcasts is mono.

ok, good to know I was on the right track…so in that case I don’t strictly speaking need to worry about recording the music in stereo? tho that said, on the basis that I can always mix down, perhaps it might be worth recording in stereo regardless…