one-minute vacation
microphones and the traveling field recordist

Microphones determine the quality and character of your recordings more than any other single factor.

A microphone [pair] can easily cost two or three times as much as the recorder you use with it. In fact, they should; that ratio is a good rule of thumb if you're planning a budget.

It is therefore reasonable that people would like an easy answer to the conundrum: which microphone to buy?

I do not know a great amount about microphones. I have neither inclination nor expertise to offer a primer on them, but those are commonly available on the web.

All I can offer is a bit of common sense.

The most important thing to do before buying a microphone is to think through how you are going to use it.

Where will you use it, at what distance, around whom, in what environments?

Some of these questions can be interpreted more than one way. Good — the more you think through your needs, the better.

The requirements of the recordist in the field are quite different from that in the studio. The requirements of the backpacker on a budget differ from those of a professional on assignment. People interested in my opinion usually fit in the budget backpacker category.

The following metrics may provide you with a starting point.

Know that many microphone manufacturers provide advice (application or field notes) on how to get the best performance from their products.

Buy windscreens.


things to consider when buying microphones   

0. price and 'quality'


efore thinking about money, consider first your application. If you are a 'noise' musician, or will be manipulating your recordings, you may not need a 'high-quality' microphone as that is normally understood.

Great recordings (and perhaps more importantly, great phonographs and great art) have been made with very inexpensive gear.

Consider if you might prefer the pronounced character or quality a cheap or even damaged microphone provides (this is certainly a time-honored tradition in the studio).

Consider if you intend to so process your recordings that their subtleties or original characterstics will be irrelevant.

Consider if you might want to work 'out of the box,' making recordings from unusual perspectives — from within small resonant objects which acoustically filter the sound of their environment, say, or with piezoelectric or boundary microphones which are placed in contact with surfaces.

You may not need to spend your money on 'good mics.'

If you are interested in conventional metrics of sound quality (frequency range, transient response, lack of unpleasant coloration or distortion, clarity of stereo imaging), however, read on.

My experience is that below a certain price point, you mostly get what you pay for. There is a big leap in quality between a $50 microphone and a $150 microphone, and perhaps again between the latter and a $500 microphone. For me, the sweet spot was originally $350. Expect a little inflation by now.

The sad corollary is that you can spend hundreds of dollars more than you need to. There's no point in having an exquisite microphone if you insist on recording with an old tape recorder with dirty heads.

If you are really on a budget, there is a secret: you can build your own microphones. There's a community of mic builders there to help you, too.

1. ease of use  

ome microphones are more sensitive to positioning, proximity, and orientation than others.

This is a function of their pattern of sensitivity which is described in terms of the space in front of the capsule within which they will pick up sound. Omnidirectional mics are sensitive to sound arriving from all direction; cardoid variations are 'directional' — they reject sound that is not in front of them to some degree; etc. Such variation in sensitivity is a defining feature of microphones.

I use omnidirectional microphones, set up for quasi-binaural recording by wearing them on my head. My setup is very non-directional; I always get ambiance and it is difficult to focus in on particular sounds in noisy environments. However, as long as they're plugged in, my mics will provide acceptable results; I don't have to point them.

I prefer mics that are all but idiot-proof. I am willing to accept crowd noise or ambiance in exchange for not having to point a microphone.

Microphones require 'monitoring' (listening to the recording as it is made, by wearing headphones) in direct proportion to their degree of directionality. The more directional a mic is, the more critical it is that you can hear exactly (and only) what that microphone is actually picking up. It is no accident that the people you see on the sidelines of sporting events with parabolic microphones of the highest directionality wear isolating headphones.

One reason I love binarural-style recording is that I do not have to monitor while recording at all; as long as my 'levels' are set correctly, what I hear with my ears is what I will be recording, within the limitations of my gear's ability.

Recordists used to working with directional microphones are usually shocked to learn that I never monitor when recording with my DSM mics. (This is another reason I consider my mics so stealthy.) And I even have very small earphones.

2. flexibility  

Some microphones are specialized to specific kinds of recording: they are designed to capture very loud or very soft sounds; they are intended to work in close proximity or at a distance; they capture ambiance well, or filter out peripheral sounds.

I use general-purpose microphones with medium to high sensitivity almost exclusively. As a result I have difficulty capturing very quiet environments, and very loud ones. On the other hand, my mics work in most environments, so I do not have to carry more than one set with me.

Special-purpose microphones like contact microphones and hydrophones extend your options and can be applied creatively for unusual results. But if you can only carry (or afford) one set of mics, go with the most flexible ones.

If you are willing to adapt to their other requirements, microphones with variable patterns of sensitivity, or 'systems' with interchangeable capsules, are attractive ways to build a flexible but portable kit.

A comparatively affordable (but quite unweidly and heavy!) multi-pattern option is the RØDE NT2-A, and its more expensive but intruigely 'variable' pattern sibilng the RØDE NT2000. Waaay more expensive but renowned for steadfast performance in punishing conditions and exceptional signal-to-noise ratio are Sennheiser's MKH-80 and its successor, the extended-frequency MKH-800 multipattern RF condensors.

An affordable modular option with the advantage of also allowing battery power (through the K6 powering module) is Sennheiser's K/ME series; a less affordable but almost universally praised option is Schoeps' modular Colette (CMC) system (which cannot AFAIK be directly battery powered). Somewhere between the two are modular systems popular with concert tapers such those from mbho and Oktava.

None of these options can be worn on your head. (Though someday I might try to make ridiculously expensive binaural microphones from compact DPA or Schoeps microphones, I always come back to the thought that the gains in quality would be limited by my inability to be quiet enough, myself, to witness those gains!)


3. portability and accoutrements


professional (studio) microphones require phantom power. They almost always use monophonic XLR connectors. Depending on the application, they work best when mounted to a pistol-grip, stand, boom, or tripod, isolated from vibration with a shock-mount, and sheltered from the wind with a zeppelin ('blimp') and a fur coat ('softie').

If you use these kinds of microphones, you will require additional equipment to work with your recorder.

Small portable recorders (like minidisc and most small CF/HD recorders) do not have XLR connectors; they usually have 1/8" (aka 3.5mm) stereo connectors. Most do not provide phantom power. (The M-Audio Microtrack 2496 is an exception, but one with the critical caveat that it does provide standard 48V phantom; it provides just over 30V, which may produce unreliable or poor results with some microphones.)

If your recorder does not provide phantom power but your mics require it, you will have to carry an additional box for portable phantom powering, such as the Rolls PB224 or Art Phantom II or new Core-Sound 2Phant.

Professional booms, shockmounts, and windscreening all add weight and volume to your recording kit, often to the point you will need custom cases to carry everything. Such accoutrements can also can be expensive — think hundreds of dollars. (If you're crafty you can make your own versions of most professional equipment, of course; the Naturerecordists newsgroup in particular is blessed with a large number of clever and cost-sensitive engineers.)

Traveling, I usually sacrifice some quality for convenience: I use very small, very light microphones I can wear on my head in a simple headband/windscreen. They connect directly to my portable minidisc and are powered by it using a common technique for powering electret microphones called Plug-In Power.

Self-powering microphones designed for field use (which typically take internal batteries) such as the RØDE NT4 or Audio Technica AT822 are an alternative, but these will require some form of windscreening and most likely a shockmount and boom or pistol mount.

Bear in mind that portability is an issue of size as much as weight. Since I carry my mics on me at all times, the fact that I can tuck them in a small bag and keep my hands free is significant.

If you are going to use a small single-point stereo microphone, consider investing in a small tripod or speciality device to attach your microphone to tables, tree trunks, and the like.

4. stealth

second reason size matters is stealth. If you wish to record unobtrusively, you need small microphones. Lavalier (clip-on), head-worn, or in-ear binaural mics are the most stealthy options.

My own goal is usually unobtrusive recording. I wear microphones in a headband that appears, to the casual observer, to be a pair of headphones, and I don't monitor with headphones. Additionally, the headband is black, and my hair is dark, so at a distance, or at night, or when dressed against the weather, my microphones tend to disappear.

It has been very handy that my microphones look more like headphones than microphones in their windscreen. This has let me record in environments where I might offend, be forbidden, or simply provoke awkward questions if I were more obvious.

I've read many accounts by others getting similar results by attaching small microphones to their eyeglasses.

In sensitive situations I've worn my microphones backwards and backed up onto subjects, worn them on my knee, and slung them over objects like hat-covered water bottles and stuffed animals. I've left my rig running while my microphones were in a backpack.

Andersen's Golden Rule: it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

Even when secrecy is not required, it's useful to have microphones that does not have to be pointed — a microphone, even when neutral or welcome, changes situations; it alters people's behavior and puts them 'on stage.'

I get the best results with effectively invisible gear.

(Incidentally I'm working on collecting my thoughts on the ethics of stealth recording; keep an eye on the commentary section.)

5. durability  

Many studio microphones would not travel well. Some are extremely fragile — those with tubes and large diaphrams in particular — and I would find them nerve-wracking to take on the road.

One issue I have no encountered with my electret-capsule mics but which is much discussed in field recording circles is the sensitivity of different microphones to humidity (and perhaps, the aggrevation of that sensitivity when used in dirty, dusty or smokey environments). Schoeps microphones, praised for their sound, are widely described as being sensitive to such factors (particularly humidity), though whether this is a result of their design or something that can be alleviated by rigorous cleaning is less clear (and I might add irrelevant if your mics fail you in the field).

My microphones are not particularly fragile, but they are not indestructable, so I carry a case that is: no endorsement deal yet, sadly, but I'll plug them anyway — I love Pelican cases. These and similar alternatives are worth more than their weight in titanium. And that stuff's pricey.

6. mono, stereo and beyond  

he casual field recordist is probably best served by either a head-worn or single-point stereo microphone.

A poor stereo recording usually at least captures an ambiance; a poor monophonic recording may simply sound like noise.

Caveat: the recordist interested in documenting the sounds of specific things (e.g., a specific object) is probably also well served by a high quality, reasonably colorless monophonic microphone. Such are well suited to recording narration or interviews, though omnidirectional lavaliers can be used for this purpose as well.

Generally speaking, monophonic recording is of use primarily to people interested in isolating and exploring specific sounds; or planning on making recordings not to listen to for themselves but to use in other work. Sound designers, foley artists, documentarians, and musicans no doubt appreciate the freedom to construct a soundscape from scratch with individually recorded elements.

The rest of the time, stereo is the better choice.

Professional field recordists (and sound engineers in general) often record in stereo using matched pairs (or specific pairings) of microphones, using a variety of techniques, some quite involved and exacting: most of these require booms or tripods, shockmounts, and stereo bars to properly position the microphones.

Single-point stereo microphones simplify the logistics of recording by placing two microphone elements in a single body. Head-worn stereo microphones (binaurals and similar) are slightly spaced, positioned as they are on either temple or near (even in) the ears. In both cases two microphones come as a pair intended to be used together all the time.

I like wearing my mics rather than holding them. It is impossible for the amateur — or the veteran in a hurry or on the move(!) — to misplace (or rather, misposition) a microphone attached to them. That's why I tend to think of such solutions as (and I mean this as a compliment) idiot-proof.

Miniature 'T-mics' are the ultimate in stealth, but I haven't used them for several reasons: for one thing, positioning the microphone at the recorder means you're likely to pick up any mechanical noise from it (this is more of a problem with MD and HD than CF recorders obviously); this problem can be alleviated by using an intermediate cable, but that defeats the purpose of course. The microphone elements aren't seperated enough (by space, or by a baffle, as with binaural-style recording) to give a good stereo image. And finally, they tend to be made with only mediocre elements to begin with.

NB: some single-point stereo microphones (e.g., the Shure VP88) may output MS (Mid-Side) encoded stereo, not right and left channels as the beginner would expect. A decoder is necessary to decode this output into right and left channels, which makes field monitoring slightly more involved (though some contemporary recorders, notably the Sound Devices 7 series, include MS decoding as an option).

Incidentally it is not unheard of to use two-track recording to capture both a specific sound (e.g. with a monophonic parabolic microphone, for example) and an ambiance or voice-over.

There are multitrack recording techniques beyond stereo, such as surround sound recording with four or more microphones, but these are beyond the scope of most avocational travel recordists. For the adventurous though surround recording in particular is a field with a lot of unexplored potential.

Contemporary portable multitrack recorders are available for such recording techniques, but most are prohibitively expensive (thousands of dollars at minimum) and the amount of ancillary gear required makes long-term field use a serious logistical challenge.

7. binaural recording  

The recordings (of mine) you hear on this website were made using a head-worn stereo technique called binaural recording (well, actually, they were made with quasi-binaural DSM 'dimensional stereo' microphones... but close enough).

If you are interested in getting similar results — particularly the sense of 'being there' when listening with headphones — you will need microphones of this type.

True binaural microphones provide exceptional results in terms of the sense of truly being in the place recorded, but for headphone listening only. Binaural recordings typically do not translate well to conventional speakers, where they tend to sound dull.

I find the microphones I use, made by Leonard Lombardo of Sonic Studios, exceptional. His 'dimensional stereo' approach compromises between conventional stereo and full binaural recording. I find that my recordings sound excellent over conventional speakers while retaining binaural-like three-dimensionality with headphones.

Additionally, they are meticulously hand made and very easy to use. For more information, see Leonard's site.

I should mention that I receive no benefit from endorsing Leonard except the pleasure of sending him occasional business. It is no exaggeration to say that Leonard's mics changed my life.

Final thoughts: if you can afford both a small directional microphone and a stereo (ideally, binaural) set, these together makes a very flexible traveling kit.

If you don't want to wear your microphones, you can use an artificial head, or (in a pinch) some other dense, head-diameter object between the mics (the more head-shaped, the better the results).

For what it's worth it usually works quite well to mix monophonic close-miked foreground recordings into the stereo ambiance of quasi-binaural recordings, should you be interested as I am in combining recordings in the studio after you've recorded them. I find it works well to place monophonic narration in the somewhat 'soft center' of my binaural recordings; the result is a balanced soundfield with almost no work required to keep the various elements from 'fighting.'

If you can afford an even grander kit, consider adding contact microphones or a hydrophone. As with everything, you can go overboard and you don't want too much to carry; but it's nice to have options.

I wish I had taken a hydrophone on my honeymoon, it would have widened the scope of projects such as this one.



Sonic Studios DSM in WHB