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Field Recording Gear Tips: Mic stands and Boom Poles

If you want to approach a new recording project from the right angle, you need options. That's why a good recording kit should provide you with many ways to hold microphones steady, locked, and aimed at what is being recorded.  If you're out in the field, your arm will never forgive you if you try to record ten-minute-long ambiences free-hand.  Also, take it from me, it's always smart to put a couple of feet between you and the angry raccoon you are recording.  Furthermore, in keeping with demonstrated scientific principles, what you want to get "on tape” will often simply never happen if you are standing there watching and waiting; you have to secure the mic to something, walk away, and let the magic happen.  Happily, there are lots of options available to help you through these types of situations.  Products range from traditional microphone stands and boom poles to other options from a little further out in left field.  Today I'm going to walk you through the stuff in my rig that gets me through both simple and complex SFX recording sessions.

The most standard way to hold a microphone is the very aptly named microphone stand.  They come in many different geometries and sizes, and through trials and tribulations I have come up with the type of mic stand that works well for me.  Instead of recommending a specific mic stand, I'll tell you some specific things to keep an eye out for if you're shopping for one.  For SFX recording in the field you'd be wise to trade away durability for compactness.  In the studio, a great big weighted boom stand is the safe and secure choice, but dragging such a stand through the forest to capture wild animal growls is not realistic.  Look for something that can be disassembled or folded down into a compact and light-weight package.  Avoid stands with weighted base plates; instead stick to tripod stands.  These stands are much lighter and fold down easily. Portability is the priority.  I use stands with angled boom arms, as they offer more ways to get a mic in close to your sound source.  Make sure to get one that does not have a counter-weight on the end of the boom though - keep it light. The trade-off here is that a light-weight stand tips over pretty easily.  So be careful, and weigh down the foot of your stand before you put your microphone at risk of blunt trauma.

In the studio there's a lot of control over the environment but unpredictable factors always introduce themselves in the field.  If you're recording a really loud object - like a tank, a train, rock drops or tree falls -  vibrations can be a problem.  Impacts will rumble through the ground and up the mic stand to the mic.  In a perfect world the shock absorber in your microphone’s mount will be able to deal with this intrusion, but to help cut down the vibrations before they reach that far there are a few tricks.  For a couple of dollars at any hardware store, you can buy that grey pipe-insulation foam - it fits perfectly around tripod stand legs.  The foam will act as a cheap DIY shock absorber.  It works so well that I used zip ties to semi-permanently attach pipe insulation to the legs of my stand.  I got this idea from Ric Viers in this video: 

I find no need to break the bank buying mic stands intended for use out in the field.  Most traditional mic stands are made for stage or studio - very different environments than where they will end up being used when going out to record effects. These stands are going to be bouncing around in car trunks, getting their feet wet in muddy fields, heating up in the sun, and submitting to countless other less-than-ideal situations. They're going to get banged-up and abused, and there's not much that can be done to avoid this.  Their life-span is predestined to be shorter than the average. Don't waste your money.  Find a cheap one that is light-weight and seems rugged - and go with it.

One crucial little thing you will need with any mic stand is a 3/8″ to 5/8″ thread adaptor.  These little doohickeys allow you to screw a pistol grip onto the the standard threads of a mic stand that is designed to fit mic clips.  A good tip is to always have a bunch of these handy. When they are dropped, and they usually are, they always roll under something too heavy to move.

Generic Microphone stand with boom arm, pipe insulation foam on legs, and thread adaptor.

Besides the mic stand I also pack a Manfrotto 5001B Nano Retractable Compact Light Stand.  I first read about this great product on the Noise Jockey website.  It's a photography accessory, made to hold small lights,  but it transitions well into the world of sound recording.  It was even designed with 3/8″ thread above the lighting mount, so Rycote and Rode windshields will screw on to this stand without any adaptors.  Another huge plus for the 5001B is how light-weight it is.  It's aluminum construction means it only weighs 2 pounds!  You can throw it in any backpack and trudge through rough terrain and not feel it on the hike.  It's pretty tough too; I've had mine 2 years now and it still looks brand new.  It's feather-weight is also a downside: if you set up in windy conditions it will blow over in no time unless you throw some kind of weight over the legs.

On the left, the Manfrotto Nano 5001B is shown standing, top right shows the Nano fully collapsed, while bottom right displays the threading and spigot.

There seems to be an endless variety of makes and models of boom poles available these days.  You could Google directions for how to put together a homemade boom using a painter's pole, or you could step it up a couple hundred notches with a lightweight carbon-fibre job with internal coiled cable.  I found that something in the middle of the spectrum works for me.  I don’t use a boom pole on the majority of the sessions I do, so I never shopped at the upper end of the price spectrum.  It just didn't make sense to shell out for a top of the line pole if I wouldn't be using it much.  So I went with an aluminum pole.  It's reliable, sturdy, and gets the job done.  On the rare occasions when I know I will be holding the pole over my head for endless hours on a shoot, I'll rent a lighter carbon-fibre boom for the day.  I also opted for a pole without internal cabling.  I'm often switching between mono and stereo microphones, many times even within a single session, so I wanted to be able to easily switch from a standard XLR cable to a 5-pin stereo XLR cable.  Going with a boom pole without internal cabling keeps it simple.

A neat little gadget I've picked up is the Fat Gecko suction cup mount made by Delkin.  I haven't had this little guy long so I am still figuring out its strengths and weaknesses.  It sticks to windows and other surfaces really well and holds firm as long as the surface isn't moving;  I mounted it to the windshield of an ATV and within 20 seconds of hitting the gas it lost suction and went flying.  It was holding my portable digital recorder (Sony D-50) which I don’t think is much heavier than the camcorders the Gecko is designed to work with (I caught it as it fell - so no damage was done).  It could be that the ATV was just too rough and bouncy for the suction mounts.  I have not done any testing yet on a standard car, driving on flat ground,  so I can't say yet how it works in less extreme situations.  I am pretty sure the suction could not hold up the weight of a Rycote windshield mounted on it, but it might be great for holding miniature microphones like DPA 4060's to the exterior of a speeding vehicle on flat ground.

The fat Gecko in its smallest form, beside the mesh bag it comes with.

As part of the Rycote Portable Recorder Kit, I have a little pistol grip for my Sony D-50.  It's threaded at the bottom of the grip to attach the recorder to a boom pole.  What makes this accessory really handy though is the lyre mount that sits between the pistol grip and the recorder.  It can be detached from the grip and used with other small stands.  This is especially handy to use with a Joby Gorillapod, which can attach to all sorts of strange shapes and sizes. 

One product I have in my kit that I have not seen anyone else using is Giotto's MM5580 Monopod.  This is a great weapon to have in your arsenal because of its versatility.  It can obviously be used as a monopod under a windshield to steady your hand when recording quick and dirty, saving your arms from getting tired.  In a pinch it can also be a low-rent boom pole.  What makes the MM5580 really handy is that there are 3 metal rods hiding inside the tube of its bottom extension.  These rods are threaded and can be removed and screwed into various threaded holes found on the body of the monopod.  Through various manipulations it turns into a few different kinds of tripod.  The rods are stored snugly inside the body of the monopod, so they don't make any noise or rattle around when they're not being used.  It also comes with a reversible threading on the head to accommodate pistol grips.  It's not the greatest as a tripod or as a boom, but it makes a great emergency substitute for either.  If I think I will need both a boom and a tripod on a remote recording session but I don't want to hike too much gear this guy will do the job of both admirably.

Giotto's MM5580 Monopod full collapsed.The Giotto's rubber bottom unscrews to reveal legs hidden inside.The Giotto's legs installed to create a couple different tripod styles.

I also make sure to take along a special holder for myself - something commonly known as a stool.  I found a great little stool at a garage sale that folds up to the same size as any one of the poles and stands I might bring.  The stool helps me take a load off between takes or during a long ambience record.  In wet or muddy conditions it provides a clean surface to rest gear on.  Also, I find I am about 200% less fidgety when I'm sitting than when I'm standing, so just having a place to sit saves me a lot of time editing my own movements out of the recordings later on. 

Finally, I will share a cool idea I picked up from the Music of Sound Blog for making what he calls “MicroMicStands”.  These are simply large bulldog paperclips with little mounts glued to them  - the ones that come with the DPA 4060 matched pair kit.  This makes a great do-it-yourself stand for miniature microphones and lavalieres. 

If you want to read more about the things that make up my field recording rig, please check out my post on the Wind Protection gear I use.   In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for a post that will go over the various “extras” in my kit - all the things not directly related to microphones and recorders - that make life easier during a field recording session.  Also coming up is a post on the best ways to transport all this gear around.

If you want to read more about the things that make up my field recording rig, please check out my post on the Wind Protection gear I use.   In the coming weeks keep an eye for a post that will go over the various “extras” in my kit, all the things not directly related to microphones and recorders that make life easier at a field recording session.  As well as a future post on the best ways to transport all the gear around.

If you have any helpful tips I missed that you think I should know about please get in touch.


Field Recording Gear Tips: Wind Protection

One of the great things about blogs, forums, Twitter and the digital age in general is the ease with which information gets passed around.  There are so many makes and models of studio and field recording gear, and more innovations being marketed all the time,  that without all these new ways to access information, we'd have a much tougher time narrowing down what gear is right for every individual's needs.  I have come across a few great articles and discussion forums about what items other professional field recordists have in their kits and I have stolen more than a few ideas.  So I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and describe my recording kit and how it has evolved over the years.  This post is not meant to be a gear fetish article so I am going to skip over the actual microphones and recorders in my kit (for a great mic fetish article read this though!)  and talk about the accessories and handy items that fill out my equipment locker.

This will be a four-part series, with each post covering a different portion of my current kit.  In coming weeks I'll cover Stands/Booms/Mounts, Useful Odds & Sods/Tools, and Storage/Transport Solutions, but today I will write about what items I use to protect recordings from wind and other unwanted environmental noise. 

Wind Protection is possibly the most important microphone accessory category, as not everything that one wishes to record can be put in a sound-isolated recording booth.  Out in the field, wind can be a really tough enemy to overcome and I find I can never be too prepared to battle the unpredictable elements.  Wind can ruin a great recording, and Murphy's Law of Location Recording dictates that if it's nice and calm while you're setting up your mics, then the wind is going to pick up as soon as you start recording.  Ways to minimize how wind affects a microphone sometimes are as simple as creative placement of objects (or a willing body) at the side of the mic to act as a baffle, but eventually you are going to need more than makeshift solutions to save your recordings.  As wind speeds increase you have to up the ante and get a proper covering for the mic.  Over the years I have used a bunch of different techniques that vary from standard professional gear to more DIY/McGyver-inspired solutions.


In terms of the professional gear, I have both a Rode Blimp and a Rycote Windshield and they both have their pros and cons.  One big positive for the Rode is its price, as it's much cheaper than a Rycote.  But with that discount comes some trade-offs.  The Rode Blimp is bigger and a little bit heavier than the Rycote and if I am using a boom pole or using the hand grip for extended periods then this extra weight becomes a problem.  It also has an annoying little rubber piece that holds the mic cable in place where it exits the blimp and this little rubber bit is always falling and bouncing/rolling away when you change out the mic in the blimp.  I have spent lots of time on my knees scavenging through the grass looking for it, time that could have been better spent recording whatever I was trying to capture in the first place.  The Rode Blimp is also more susceptible to wear and tear. The structure of the cage is made up of hundreds of plastic hexagons and over time some of these thin hexagon sides have snapped.  This hasn't caused any problems for me yet but I imagine that if enough of these bits break, I'll start hearing wind-noise creeping into my recordings.

In this photo you can see cracks in the Blimp's body design.Here you can see the Rode Blimp's rubber insert described above.

As befits a somewhat higher-end product, the Rycote windshield seems to be much more adaptable for different length mics as it has extensions that can be added or removed as needed.  The Lyre system used in a Rycote also makes it much easier to change out microphones with different body circumferences  - as opposed to the Rode's rubber-band suspension.  The Lyre lets you simply pop out one mic and pop in another, while with the Blimp’s suspension, swapping out two different-sized mics takes time and fiddling. The Blimp comes with a variety of different mic clips that can be put in the suspension system to accommodate various mic diameters, so if you want to swap out the mic, you have to completely dis-assemble the rubberband suspension, attach a new clip and then rebuild the suspension again.  It is not difficult to do, but it is a 'stop-everything' kind of process. In terms of comfort of handling, if you tend to spend a lot of time holding the mic with the pistol grip, the contour on the Rycote’s grip is much less comfortable then the Rode’s, but I feel like this is off-set by the fact that the Rycote is lighter.

On the left is the Lyre Suspension found on a Rycote, while on the right you can see Rode's rubber band suspension.The more comfotable Rode pistol grip is on the right, while the lighter Rycote is shown here on the left.

Both of these mic surrounds are quite effective in protecting the microphone from the wind.  They both come with furries that are very similar; Rycote calls theirs a Windjammer and Rode refers to theirs as a Dead Wombat.  I used the Rode Blimp dressed in it's wombat fur during my trip along the coastal roads of Iceland where I encountered some pretty heavy winds. The Blimp allowed me to capture good sound without much difficulty in those wild conditions.  

Before I invested in the Rycote and Rode systems I was using a foam wind cover with a furry fabric sheath pulled over it made by Rode, it continues their dead animal themed naming convention and goes by the name "Dead Cat".  This is not good enough in extreme circumstances but it will get you through light wind in a pinch. One advantage of the Dead Cat is that it is much less imposing and doesn't draw attention as much a full windshield and furry does.  I am not saying it is stealth by any means but it is a bit less conspicuous.

Rode's Dead Cat is a furry cover that goes over top of traditional Microphone foam wind guard.In addition to the windscreens, I carry some extra supplies I purchased at a local fabric store.  I have a roll of foam about an inch thick, and a few yards of long-haired fun fur (I use black but you can get some far-out neon colours if that's your thing).  I have found these supplies to come in handy when I have to get creative in a situation that is not going according to plan.  For instance I've found myself in this predicament: I'm recording a sound that turns out to be too loud for my planned microphone and I have to try another mic, but am missing the right clips to mount in the Blimp. I've cut a few chunks of foam and fur, wrapped them around the mic and secured it all with a rubber band, and voilà -  a homemade solution that saved the recording session.  It's not ideal for getting the sound perfectly but it helped me get something when otherwise I would have got nothing.

Up front is a roll of foam and behind it is a few yards of the fun fur. On the right is a mic with the foam and fur wrapped around it.

I also have some wind protection for other-sized mics.  I have the Rycote Portable Recorder Kit to help cut down wind noise when I am out with my hand-held recorder.  It works quite well but is not terribly effective in really high wind conditions.  To help, I have cut up a piece of the foam mentioned above and shaped it so it can fit over the mics inside the Rycote furry.  This helps with the wind but does colour the sound a bit.

My portable recorder below the foam I cut out to fit over its mics, with the Rycote cover at the top.

For smaller mics, I have a few tiny foams in a couple of sizes to help with lavs and tiny mics.  Again, if needed, in a pinch I can cut off a small square of the fun fur and secure it with a rubber band if more wind protection is needed. 

If I think they will be needed I have 6 sound re-enforcement blankets that I can bring along to try to help isolate a sound from its surroundings.  These can substantially cut down room reverberation or help in deadening down noise leaks from outside.  They can also be used in extreme wind as barriers held on the windy side of the mic, as they are quite heavy and won’t audibly flap around, unless we are talking hurricane-speed winds.  Finally these can be used to place under things that move, so you can cut down on the ground friction sounds they may make.  They are also good for putting under your knees if your recording session requires a lot of kneeling and crawling.


Since the blankets are quite bulky I find a good technique to keep them manageable is to store them in vacuum sealed bags.  This process makes them quite a bit smaller during storage and they are easy to get out of the bags when needed and are back to full size in a few minutes.

The final thing I like to bring along for microphone protection is another human being.  A second set of eyes can watch for problems that might go unseen by a recordist concentrating on the task at hand... specifically protecting your gear from theft.  I have had a few occasions where a friend or colleague has noticed something/someone I had not, and I've been very glad for their presence as a result.  Plus, a second set of hands (attached to a quiet and patient body) is helpful in countless ways throughout the whole recording process in the field.  I try to always go out with at least one other person, my wife usually drawing the short straw for this job. 

So that's what I like to have handy in terms of microphone protection on a field recording adventure.  Please feel free to contribute what items you find invaluable in your kit via the comments section below or through Twitter.  You can find me on Twitter @azimuthaudio .


March 4th Memories

March 4th is a date of special note for me.  It's special for two reasons.  The first is that it is the birthday of my first boss in this business and one of my favorite people, Patrick Spence-Thomas, who passed away a few years ago.  The second reason is because it marks the anniversary of when my previous studio space was broken into and cleaned out. I wrote a piece about both Patrick and the robbery last March 4th as one of my first posts when this site launched. Please feel free to read them to get the whole back story.

Patrick Spence-Thomas was a pioneer and giant in the audio post industry in Canada, and once again this year a bunch of Patrick’s colleagues, friends and family gathered at his favorite watering hole to celebrate his birthday and tell all our best Patrick stories.  The hard part about telling stories involving Patrick is that he was one of the best story-tellers I have ever met.  Every tale seems a little lacking simply because Patrick is not there to tell it.

Patrick was so devoted to telling stories that he left some behind for us.  Knowing he was not going to be with us forever he was gracious enough to record, with his son Richard, his renditions of a few of his favorite stories.  By far my favorite of these recordings is his reading of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child's Christmas in Wales”.  Since Patrick grew up in Wales, the poem was naturally particularly special to him, and his reading is both comedic and sentimental - everything the story merits.  You can hear his reading for yourself here.  It's now a tradition for me and my family to listen to it every Christmas Eve.  So Patrick is still very much with us. 

This year at Patrick's birthday party, I made sure to wear a t-shirt that he gave me many years ago. It has on it the penny-farthing logo from the late 60’s British television show “The Prisoner”.  If you have not seen this series you should go out of your way to check it out. It is a very bizarre spy/escape/sci-fi show. It is set in an island town/prison called “The Village” where the crazy architecture gives the island the look of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It turns out that the show was not filmed in a London studio but in a real town in North Wales designed in the 20's and 30's for holidaying tourists. You can get an idea of what the town is like from this clip from the show:

I found out that Patrick had spent time in this town when he was a child, his family having fled there during WWII. In the 90's he made a pilgrimage back to his Welsh homeland, and brought back for me this souvenir of his visit. The shirt is pretty old and beat-up now, but I still keep it around to wear to the bar every year when we toast (and roast) Patrick's memory.

A great thing about gathering with Patrick's old friends is that, even in his ethereal state, he manages to teach me new things.  After we had all had some dinner and drinks, the owner of the bar brought out a round of Patrick's favorite dessert for us, on the house.  It was something I had never had before - crème brûlée... but - with with a shot of whiskey poured on top.  It was delicious.  I mean really, really good.  Please make an effort to try this concoction as soon as you can.  To me, this was another perfect example of how Patrick always found a way to bring an unexpected smile to people. Cheers, Patrick.


On a different note, March 4th, 2012 marks the third anniversary of the robbery of my studio space.  Happily, I don’t think about this event very often anymore.  It was stressful at the time, but things worked out pretty well in the long run.  I still hate being the first person to unlock the office door in the morning; it gives me a weird stress attack until I am through the door and see that everything is fine.  

Insurance covered all the gear that was stolen that day, but of course the data that was on my hard drives was gone for good.  I had my SFX library backed up in multiple places, so I didn't suffer there. That was a major life-saver.  If I had lost my library, it might have been a career-ending type of situation.  All my current and on-going projects were also backed up so they were fine too.  What did vanish along with the hard drives was my archives.  I had been operating with the knowledge that all my work for various animated series was getting backed up with the master sessions at the theaters where they had been mixed.  So when a series was put to bed, I retired the hard drive and shelved it in my edit suite.  With no other back-up.  Yes, this was stupid.  Bad planning and a lack of foresight for sure.  It's rare, but I do find every now and then that I need to get access to these sessions - only to remember that they're all gone.  Completely enraging. 

The upshot of this oversight is that I now have a much more reliable back-up routine.  But there are still times when I am not up-to-date with my back-ups, so apparently the lesson has not fully sunk in.  I've done a lot of research on various archiving schemes but I still don't feel like I've come up with a great solution for both local and off -site back-ups. If you're in the same boat as me, I recommend checking out Chase Jarvis, as they seem to have the whole process worked out really well, but my operation is not quite the well-oiled machine that they are.  I don’t have the infrastructure to go that far down the rabbit hole. I've been trying to follow the path laid out by Noise Jockey in this series of posts.  Another option is a Drobo, covered in a useful review on the Airborne Sound Blog.

Is anybody out there using an archive system that they find especially workable?  I find that my brain is the weak link in any approach I try. I need something with a lot of automation, so when my head is in the clouds I can trust that things are backing up anyway.


Need Rest for the Wicked

I have been on a pretty steady pace of putting up a new post every Monday on this blog for a while now.  The feedback I have gotten both in person and through twitter has been fantastic, and I am so thankful to everyone who has taken time out of their day to read my posts.  Although I have lots of recordings in the can to share, this past week has been so busy with work that I was not able to pull all the elements together for a recording adventure story.  Instead here is a little meditation on one of my big short comings in this audio business - Knowing when to take a break and relax before my brain melts.  Let me know if you have figured a way around these problems:

I have always said that it is better to have too much work rather then no work at all.  But the last couple months have put that theory to the test.  I am dead on my feet.  I have been pulling long, long days and have not had a day off for awhile during this stretch.  

Just in the last two weeks I have cut the dialog and conformed the SFX for two episodes of a japanese animated series that is being re-launched for North America, cut the ambiences, footsteps and hard FX for two episodes of an animated series for adults (think Family Guy-esque), and cut hard SFX for one episode of a children's animated series.   On top of all that I have been covering for a friend on vacation at his one room audio post studio.  Luckily his schedule was not too packed, but just dealing with all the scheduling issues and client back and forth took a big chunk of my focus each day.

Somehow though I got it all done.  Now I need some sleep.  Lots of sleep and maybe a back massage.

It got to a point where I was working 10 hours to complete what would normally be 6 hours worth of work.  I was so burnt out I could not hold a mental focus.  So one day I said screw it and resigned myself to not make it to the point in the edit I was aiming for and took the rest of the afternoon off.  I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, stopped by the grocery store and picked up all the ingredients to make some chilli. I spent the rest of the day chopping and stewing while listening to some of my favourite music.  Then I ate the dinner while watching an unbelievably mindless comedy and laughed my evening away and then hit the hay early.  

The half day I spent taking it easy ended up being a life saver.  When I got back to working the next day, I got way more done than I had expected and I was back involved in the edits instead of simply trudging through them.  

This is a business that seems to love to push you to long hours of last minute work and sometimes that can bring out the best in your work.  A deadline can kick in the adrenaline and inspire ideas and workflows that otherwise might not have been found.  Yet at the same time there is a limit to how long a person can be productive while running on that adrenaline rush.  Even though it seems counter productive at a certain point you have to force yourself away from the computers and microphones in order to recharge your system.  

I always find this out the hard way when my body and mind simply can not function efficiently any longer and I am forced into taking the break.  I am still striving to be smart enough to recognize the symptoms in advance and get proactive before I breakdown.  I have to find a way to schedule those breaks or pauses into the chaos of tight deadlines and work overflows.  As my example above showed even a half day of mental rest and relaxation can make a world of difference.
Courtesy: programwitch under creative commons