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FIG. 2: Field recordings can be a valuable source of authentic material. For a pirate-adventure game, Nick Peck recorded numerous watery locations.

When traveling, I always take my field recorder (a portable DAT with a stereo mic preamp and twin mics) so I’m ready to capture whatever interesting sounds I come across. I’ve recorded airport ambience in Beijing, hippopotamus calls in Kenya, traffic on a rainy night in Amsterdam, and the rhythmic chugging of a train cutting through the Italian countryside. For my work on Lucasarts Entertainment’s pirate-adventure game Escape from Monkey Island, I recorded as many watery locations as I could (see Fig. 2). Field recordings can fill a game with original ambiences that you won’t get from a commercial sound-effects library.

Field recording does have one distinctive drawback: the frequent intrusion of unwanted noise, such as wind and human sounds. Putting a microphone in a windy spot doesn’t just give the whistling, rustling sound you hear as wind in the movies. When the air blows directly on the diaphragm of the mic, it creates unbelievably loud low-frequency rumbles that ruin your recording. Try blowing directly on a mic and you’ll hear what it sounds like.

FIG. 3: Wind socks, such as the Rycote Windjammer, are used in outdoor field recordings to tame wind rumble.

I recommend three approaches to dealing with wind on field recordings. First, try to avoid it by recording on nonwindy days or during times that the wind is not kicking up. Second, use wind socks on your microphones. These are large furry coverings, such as the Rycote Windjammer (see Fig. 3), that block and distribute the wind air pressure before it hits the mic. Third, be careful with mic placement. If you can place the mic out of direct contact with the wind, perhaps behind a rock or tree, you can record the whoosh of the wind interacting with everything else around it. If you get the occasional buffets of wind across the mic, you can edit them out later and still have a nice, windy recording.

The bigger problem is human noise pollution. Walk out the front door of your home, close your eyes, and listen. Unless you live on a windswept plain in Wyoming, chances are that you can hear traffic, low-flying airplanes, or other human noises. Unfortunately, the microphone is impartial to noise and picks up all the unwanted stuff in addition to what you are looking for.

That problem has two primary solutions. The first is to be where (and when) people aren’t. Try to do your exterior field recording after midnight, when there’s much less traffic and fewer people around to hassle you (unless you want the effect of an urban background). Bioacoustician and sound pioneer Bernie Krause travels the world trying to record natural habitats without the intrusion of human noise, and he ends up with an extremely low ratio of usable sounds to recorded raw material.

If you are trying to get specific sounds that emanate from one small source, you can fight the problem of excessive noise by using shotgun microphones. Those mics have a hypercardioid polar pattern that rejects any sound not directly in front of the diaphragm. They are also commonly used in production-dialog recording to pick up the actors’ voices on the set while minimizing the sound of cameras and other noise. If recording in a busy environment, have patience. Eventually, there will be a lull in the action, and you will get what you want.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.