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In the field, on the street

In the field, on the street

change is as good as rest

It is something of a sad admission that these days of the UCU strike1 have been some of the more interesting and stimulating of late. Not counting the Dialogues Festival which took place last week2, a regular working week often involves a lot of time servicing demands from the past, present and future and from all corners of the institution and beyond with almost no time to develop ideas and go deeply into the solving of complex, domain-specific problems. Fair enough I hear non-academics scream, it’s work right?! You should be working, that means servicing demands, adding value and generally getting things done!”. Absolutely, but that shouldn’t be the whole week in ANY JOB!!!, and definitely not in jobs where the main USP is that its staff are world-leading teachers and researchers bringing kick-ass new ideas to their field in the form of extraordinary courses and research…

So, participating in the strike has been invigorating in its way. It’s opened up time to hang with colleagues, chat about some useful stuff, make a bit of noise and generally bond in ways that unpaid leave gives full permission for. Being unpaid for two weeks has also given me time to be with students in some new contexts.

Preparing Drinking and Hooting Machine by John White

Teaching out

This week, I have run two teach-outs. The first involved 3 hours in the Royal Dick cafe at Summerhall talking about the morals and politics of computer game production and consumption.

The second involved a field recording session where we attempted to capture the sound of the same time period around Potter Row from multiple perspectives.

Potter Row

Sonically, this part of Edinburgh is interesting, it’s partly pedestrianised and a thoroughfare that’s usually busy with human traffic. There is road traffic, but it’s not in-your-face, and there are almost always skateboarders and bikers setting the whole place in rhythm.

Field recording notes

what to wear

  • When out in the field in the UK, you’re always going to need something warm. Up until May, you may need gloves, hats, scarves, something in case it’s wet…
  • It may not be cold in the sun, but the sun is never a given for long, and it moves behind buildings. Standing still, which you have to do when recording, because your body makes noises, means you get cold very quickly.
  • Most hiking gear, especially waterproof stuff makes a very loud noise when you move, as does leather… so it’s important to be still, or avoid the fancy waterproof jacket and wear something made of natural fibre that’s been worn in if you can.

Hardware

I’m an admitted snob when it comes to microphones and field recorders. I like good quality, reliable, great-sounding gear and this is usually quite3 expensive. However, what I like more than high-priced toys are sound recordings themselves and I’d much rather have a recording than not. I’ve therefore embraced using Zoom H6s and F8s as a fast-start alternative to Zaxcom and Sound Devices.

Here’s a list of the basic things you need to go out into the field:

  • Stand, boom, tripod or grip of some kind to keep handling noise of microphones and recording devices to a minimum.
  • Camera phone with GPS enabled so that you can take a picture of what you’re recording and have it geolocated. This is useful for embedding metadata later on.
  • Wind Jammer, home made or commercial
  • Cables to enable you to have some distance between you and the microphone; it’s amazing how much noise you make, breathing and moving around the mic. Keep away if you can.
  • Closed-back headphones for monitoring your recording
  • Tape (electrical style for taping cables to poles, headphones etc.)
  • Battery power
  • Spare battery power
  • Several items of recording media (SD cards, pre-formatted ON your recording device)
  • Set the day and time precisely on your recording device (sync with your phone)

I like to use rechargeable phone/car charging batteries for my gear. The ones I’ve found to work well for the F8 are the ones that also have 12v as well as 5v output.

Almost any powerbank with 2.1+amp out will keep an H6 going for ages. You can balance out a decision between the weight of the battery and its milliAmp hours (mAh). Anything 10,000mAh and up will be perfectly useful for long recording sessions.

Making recordings

It’s crucial to get used to the difference between listening at a loud level on your headphones and reducing headroom by turning up the microphone preamp. Often, it’s hard to hear what you’re actually picking up because the environment that you’re in bleeds through. If you turn up the headphones to maximum, you risk damaging your hearing and having a false impression of what the mics are picking up. Turn up the pre-amp and you risk clipping the recording.

Put the recorder down and keep away while recording

It’s also hard to hear your own breathing handling noise and body movements so it’s a good idea to put the recorder on a stand, or down on a non-too-resonant surface and walk away when the record light is on.

slating

Don’t forget to slate your recordings. This is really helpful when back in the studio editing. You can quickly hear what it was that you were intending to record as it’s part of the file itself. Simply say where you are, what you’re recording and what you’re recording with, once you’ve started recording.

Backup

As soon as your session is over, copy the SD card immediately. Then make a copy of that to an external drive.

Results

Here’s the recording I made of the 6 minute stretch that we were trying to capture from different perspectives:

3:05-3:11pm, Potter Row, Edinburgh, 5 March 2020

Bus episode

Bus stop recording

I enjoyed this one. Strategically leaving the zoom underneath the bus stop bench to shield it from wind and starting recording once a number of people were at the stop waiting meant a bus was due to appear.

Bus stops, doors open and people stumble on and off

Nice free improv

A musical handrail and recorder

This was fun. I discovered that on the metal of this hand rail, the foam shield of the Zoom made a great set of squeaks and rumbles. I decided to play along with the sound environment at the same time.

Playing along with the birds and traffic

  1. It’s a long slog this one, 24 Feb to 13 March 2020.↩︎

  2. … and where I had opportunity to hang out with superb music people (like Heather Roche, Eva Zöllner, PA Tremblay, Alex Fiennes, Mark Knoop, Vicky Wright, Eleni-Ira Panourgia, Peter Nelson, Roderick Buchanan-Dunlop, Will Davies etc.)↩︎

  3. Extremely! expensive; Sound Devices and Zaxcom are on average 10x the price of prosumer stuff. If field recording is your full-time profession, then you’ve little choice but to invest in one of these tools, plus the incumbent cables, wind jammers, booms, carry bags, headphones and microphones…↩︎

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