I recently discussed some changes I’ve made to my recording setup to help make things a little more compact and to improve the usability of my kit bag. I’ve been looking at ways to make my kit more accessible, more portable and generally improving my experience as a recordist when out in the field.
In my experience, one of the most important elements to being a successful recordist is knowing your kit. Sometimes, situations arise where you need to quickly hit record without necessarily having had the time to set levels and test different mic positions. When a now or never moment arises, knowing your kit inside out can help you successfully capture these moments.
This happened to me last year when I was in Corsica. I had wanted to record the Tramway de la Balagne, a single-track train service that runs along the coastline. The train timetable isn’t very reliable and I had tried many times to record the train without success. On one of our last days, we had just parked the car and were heading to the beach when I heard the train horn in the distance. I grabbed my recorder and ran as quick as I could down to the side of the track. I arrived just as the train approached and hit record.
Having recorded with my handheld recorder for about a year prior to this trip, I was very familiar with the gain settings I need for different types of soundscapes. Knowing this allowed me to get a successful recording when I wasn’t at all prepared to record. This was a binaural recording using my in-ear Soundman mics, so I couldn’t monitor using headphones – a real case of recording blind.
Setting Input Gain Levels
Although I am able to quickly set levels on my handheld recorder, this isn’t the case when I record with my Sound Devices 722 – I’ve simply not used it enough to be able to blindly set levels. There are a couple of things I now do to ensure I am recording at a healthy level. The first is to calibrate my headphones.
It’s an easy mistake to make – a beginners mistake we could say – but setting your headphone level too high will result in a recording level that is too low. This happened to me recently when out recording at night. I thought what I was hearing was a healthy level, when in fact I had set the headphone level way too high and my mic level too low, making the recordings unusable.
Having made this mistake, I learned from it. I now have a file stored in my recorder that I use to calibrate my headphones. This could be done with a sine test tone (a feature on Sound Devices recorders), but I actually found it easier on the ears to use a different reference file.
I have chosen a twenty second introduction of a radio program – David Attenborough: My Life In Sound. I chose this because it features three different levels in a short clip. First we here the radio announcer introduce the program (a heavily EQd and compressed voiceover). Secondly, the program starts with a field recording of birdsong, mixed at a level we would typically aim to capture at. Third we here the beginning of an interview between Chris Watson and David Attenborough (much less compression than the initial intro).
Listening to this allows me to set a comfortable headphone level, which then allows me to appropriately set my mic levels for the subject I am going to record. As I use my Sound Devices more and more, I expect I will learn to understand my levels, without having to use this reference file. But in the meantime, I will continue using it to set levels.
Another tip I recently read is to physically mark the headphones volume knob with the level you would typically record at and also try to ensure that the knob doesn’t easily move. The headphones knob on the Sound Devices 722 is positioned on the left-side panel and is easily moved when the recorder is in a sound bag.
I added a white marker pointing to 12 o’clock at my optimal headphone level, meaning I can now quickly set my headphone volume before adjusting mic gain. I’ve also added a couple of layers of electricians tape around the knob which helps to ensure it doesn’t move as easily.
This small modification is something fairly simple to do, but easy to overlook, and can go towards ensuring your recordings sound exactly as you want them to.