John Ballentine (Hungry Hollow)
“To me the most interesting thing about field recording is not capturing the ambient sound along with the actors voices, in fact more often than not it’s a nuisance, but capturing how voices sound and bounce around within a specific space when recorded in stereo. There is a “live” sound to it that’s difficult to replicate.”
In a recent interview on the Audio Drama Production Podcast, John Ballentine of Campfire Radio Theater revealed that he originally wanted to field record every single show he did, but felt that he wasn’t capable of doing it, as, at the time, he didn’t have a field recording rig, or enough local acting talent to pull it off. Instead, John worked in the home studio environment, using remote actors as backup.
“When it came time to do Hungry Hollow, I thought well ‘this is absolutely the best way to do this show, let’s do it as a field recording, let’s go out on location and do this because most of it takes place outdoors and I thought it was just an ideal story for that approach.
We used a Zoom recorder, it’s a Zoom H2N, and we actually used the built in microphones, we didn’t use an external microphone to record with. The Zoom is a handy little recorder; it does a lot of things really well, it fits in the palm of your hand, you can take it anywhere.
One of the things I thought my main use for it would be was recording sound effects and ambient environments for use in the show. The more I played with it I thought “well this thing sounds pretty good”, I think it sounds more or less as good as my studio mic setup.
So I felt pretty confident about taking it in the field, taking it on location, and trying to record a show with it. We put it on a tripod, took it out in the woods, and that’s how we recorded Hungry Hollow.
We sort of blocked some movement around the Zoom, and sat it on a tripod. We didn’t actually do any movement with the recorder itself, we just kind of kept it stationary and have actors move around it. And we didn’t do a lot of movement, not nearly as much as I really probably would’ve liked to.
We did some very basic blocking, and had an actor positioned off to one side, or another actor positioned more centrally, and then we might have somebody that enters the scene, and they might enter from the far left or far right, then somebody exits the scene and you have that movement.
There are all kinds of problems doing something on location. Whether it’s a film shoot or you’re recording audio drama, there’s always complications, there’s things that arise that sometimes you expect, and then there’s things that you don’t expect.
We recorded the main body of the stuff that we did in September, in the South Eastern United States, here in South Carolina, which is where I live. And it’s still very hot here, sometimes in September. I think it was about 90 degrees, and we were pretty deep in the woods, down a long dirt road, and we were dealing with stuff like mosquitoes and insects and stuff like that… and when it got dark you could start to hear the coyotes howling in the background. And so there was a lot of different things that we had to deal with in trying to get it recorded.
So there’s constantly things happening in the real world, even if you go out deep in the woods like we did. We still had things like aeroplanes flying overhead, and suddenly it sounded like we were near an airport or something, because every time we would turn around we would have to stop. So just be prepared to take a little bit longer than you normally would.
Ideally, when everything comes together and you sit down to mix, that process usually isn’t as long, unless you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to take out some of the sounds in the recording that weren’t supposed to be in there. But the mix portion of it is more straightforward I think, when you do a field recorded show, and it’s easier and less time consuming.
Find out what works the best for you. Find out what works the best for the show you’re trying to produce. There is no one way to do things. You do what works best for you, whatever capabilities and resources that you have available to you, that’s what’ll dictate what you can do, and what you can’t do. Field recording is a great approach, if you’ve got the resources and people locally to pull it off, and I highly recommend it… at least try it!”
Matthew Boudreau (Intensive Care)
“One of the things I really enjoy about field recording, is you can put two actors right next to each other, and they can completely act out the scene. It really incorporates that sense of two actors interacting.” says Matthew Boudreau of Aural Stage Studios in an interview on the Audio Drama Production Podcast.
“While we were recording Intensive Care, we got permission to use the space at Biddeford Mills, and just as we’re recording this major scene that’s taking place in this like, really intense, quiet operating room, people started moving in across the hall from us.
They’re carrying couches, and leather chairs, and it’s like a psychology office that they’re setting up so there’s all kinds of equipment and shelves and books and materials and stuff that they’re lugging through. And I’m just trying to get Nat Angstrom (the lead actor) to give us a really quiet line.
And that’s actually my biggest complaint. There’s no way to isolate the external noise, and if you’re in a quiet place like Fred (Greenhalgh of FinalRune Productions) then that’s okay cos he’s kinda in the woods, and pretty secluded. There’s going to be some background noise, there’s always some background noise, but it’s a little bit easier.
But I went to gather sound effects, I live in down town Buffalo, and The Cleansed takes place in this post-apocalyptic future in which there’s no machinery, there’s no gasoline. And you open up a mic outside my door anywhere and all you’re going to hear is like turbines and motor engines and it’s really hard to capture that post-apocalyptic flavour when you’re surrounded in sounds.
And for me a studio is a great way to isolate that, but… you lose some of the intimacy. So what happens is I get great sound, I get great people with great voices and great characters behind the mic, but I lose a little bit of that interaction that’s going on.
You’ve kinda got two kinds of scenes. You’ve got scenes where dialogue prevails, and you’ve got scenes where action prevails. And in scene’s where dialogue prevails you really want that voice to come through, and you really want those words to be rich.
Maybe you record that in the studio where everyone’s sitting around the mic and you can hear their articulations very clearly and everything’s coming through very cleanly and very importantly.
And then when you’re talking about scenes where there’s action, where they’re more active, and there’s two people fighting and yelling back and forth and maybe you’d do that in a field recorded kind of situation.”
Neverwhere, Infidel, studio & field
Two of the finest audio dramas I’ve ever heard (initially both courtesy of Radio Drama Revival last year) were Neverwhere by Dirk Maggs (an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman tale which appeared in both TV and book form) and Infidel by Roger Gregg of Crazy Dog Audio Theatre.
The first, Neverwhere, features a cast that wouldn’t look out of place on a big budget film set (including James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Christopher Lee, and Benedict Cumberbatch) and seems to employ quite a bit of actor improvisation to give a really authentic and genuine feel to the dialogue and interactions between the characters. This was a studio recorded project, and the soundscapes that were built around each scene were beautify cinematic and immersive. It’s a shame that this drama wasn’t allowed to have the impact in mainstream culture that it deserved. The BBC didn’t do a lot to promote it, didn’t give it much time on the air (or iPlayer), and now it has to be purchased through Audible where people are only going to find it if they are actively looking for it.
The second is a very different type of production. Roger Gregg’s Infidel was field recorded in a castle in Ireland back in 2005/06. A historical drama set during the crusades, the soundscapes were atmospheric and authentic sounding, and this shows that – when done well enough – you can still field record a historical (or futuristic) drama with the right location, equipment, and production knowledge.
I’m hopeful of interviewing both Dirk Maggs and Roger Gregg in the future, it would be excellent to find out more about the production and creation of these two fantastic projects.
Jonathan Mitchell (The Truth)
During my interview with Jonathan Mitchell of The Truth, I asked him about his recording set up. Almost all of their shows are field recorded.
I asked Jonathan if he ever used the studio to record, he replied that he had “but I don’t like to as I don’t think it sounds as good.”
He concedes that “It depends on the story, some stories need that because they are highly stylised. There was a story we did that took place on the moon, we recorded that in a studio because it doesn’t make any sense to do it on location.” and then went on to explain his reasons for opting to field record whenever the story allows for it, saying, “I feel like you get a lot out of doing location recordings, beyond just the sound of the place, in fact, it’s not even the sound of the place that I’m looking for. It’s how that affects the performances, how actors move around in a space, and how they will move in relation to a microphone. Like if an actor turns their head when they are talking, that can communicate something very subtle. If they’re bending down, and have to contort their body for some reason because they are crouching, that gives you aural information that helps you understand better what’s going on. I like these little subtle things that force actors into performances, I think it’s those little details that all add up to this really realistic embodiment of the story.
“I like it for example when we’re recording a car scene, I’ll always record it in a car. I don’t always have the actors drive but when I do, I always like it better. Even though it’s harder to edit because you have all these car and motor sounds that don’t match, so you have to be really careful and get lots of ambience that you can kind of mask these things, but it’s definitely possible to make that work. The thing it gives you is these little sounds like the creaking of the seatbelts, the turn signals… and he’s turning to see if a car is coming because he’s making a turn, and the steering wheel on his hands… all these little details that I wouldn’t think to add, or if I did they wouldn’t have the gritty reality, the sort of visceral impact of realness that I feel I get from a location recording.”
Listening to the sheer immersive and authentic quality of The Truth, it’s hard to find fault with any of Jonathan’s comments. Field recording isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every story, but here we see an example of someone doing it extremely well to great effect, and I have nothing but admiration for them.
He told me that his main microphone is a Shure VP88 MS stereo, and if it’s an interior scene that will often be supplemented with AKG 414s on the actors because “you can mix between the two to get the right balance, a much fuller sound, and more control”.
If they are out in the field, and can’t use 414s, they will use Sony lav mics. These will be recorded through the Zoom R16 multitrack, which has 8 XLR inputs. If only having 2 channels on phantom power is a problem, there’s the option of using the Marantz. Jonathan says it’s important to multitrack if you’re using a stereo mic and two lav mics because otherwise they won’t stay in sync, which is crucial to making it work.
“The way something is recorded in a space is a very useful storytelling tool that gives the listener important information about how to interpret what they are hearing. Mic placement in the field can be used to create a specific sense of perspective on the actions taking place in the story (much like camera placement in film). Field recording also affects the performances — actors are forced to use their full bodies in the performance, and they are more instinctual about the physical aspects of their performance, which you can hear in all sorts of ways in the recording.
Actors use their voices differently when they’re actually outside, for example, or trying to push their way through dense forest or tall grass. Also, location recording adds a physicality to the sound that is difficult or impossible to duplicate in other ways. You can move through spaces to capture different tonal characteristics over the course of a scene. The way something is recorded is a powerful creative tool, akin to casting or scoring.”
Fred Greenhalgh (FinalRune Productions)
“I can say from experience that field recording has not held me back. In our upcoming production a character metamorphoses into a bird and others travel through time. That said, not a lot of us have space-ships around so field recording rarely makes sense for sci-fi…” Fred Greenhalgh
FinalRune Productions’ Fred Greenhalgh, creator of the fantastic field recorded series The Cleansed, talked about his love for the Rode NT4 & Blimp combo in this article back in 2011.
Fred wrote “While the Blimp is clearly intended for shotgun-style microphones, we find it works just fine with NT-4 after deciphering their directions (this video helped). I had to do a little hack to get the cable routed through the handle, but within a matter of minutes everything was hooked up. Then, to go out and record stuff.
Our first recording with the Rode NT-4/Blimp combo was in September, 2010, for the pilot of our new serial, The Cleansed. We were at a regional airport with steady breezes all day, necessitating the wombat to come out and play on some occasions.”
Fred’s work with this equipment received praise from some big names in the world of audio production too.
“The quality of your location production is breathtakingly stunning” – Roger Gregg of Crazy Dog Audio Theatre
“Having done a few location recordings, I know how much time & effort goes into it, and all the quirks one has to deal with including unwanted extraneous sounds etc. Super job. I am impressed.” – Tom Lopez of ZBS
“In so much drama it’s just about the voices. Here you connect with the sheer physical effort. You can sense the actors sweating.” – John Dryden at BBC Radio 4
Kc Wayland (We’re Alive)
There’s a great post on the We’re Alive website about vocal recording, detailing microphone choice and recording space.
“The Audio Technica 4073 is a mid-size shotgun mic. Some audio recordists say that more “broadcast/radio mics” are better for their vocal range, but I prefer shotgun mics because the frequency response and sound quality is similar to that of any feature film. In the broad range of costs and manufactures of shotgun mics this is one of the more economical choices.”
“The fidelity of the recording space is a huge aspect to not only the overall quality of the voices but also the time spent in post production. A lot of productions spend a great deal of time fixing the audio quality because of the space and reverb (echo) of a room instead of being able to focus their energy on the content and additional sound. Because of the microphones and room we use, our voice tracks are usually so clear we don’t even have to fade after the end of a clip, meaning the room tone is near silence.”
Kc also reveals that he uses Pro Tools HD, and each character acts into their own mic, and own separate channel in the DAW, giving them scope for much more creative freedom in post-production.