listen to africa

an audio adventure through africa


Geotag Icon Choosing sound recording equipment for the expedition – six months on

Blog posted by on Sep 21st, 2009
The equipment in use, in Senegal. © Listen to Africa.

The equipment in use, in Senegal. © Listen to Africa.

We’ve been on the road for around six months now and I thought it was about time I updated the Choosing sound recording equipment for the expedition blog to mention some recent additions to our equipment, and to look at how the kit has performed so far.

In Europe, we made only a few recordings, concentrating instead on getting fit and getting to know the equipment. On arrival in Africa, we started recording in earnest, spurred on and inspired by the multitude of sounds that were less familiar to us.

As we’re both comparatively new to audio recording, it’s been a steep learning curve. Encouraged by the successes and learning lots from analysing the failures, we now feel a lot more confident, and the ratio between good and bad recordings is going in the right direction.

We always knew that crossing the Sahara by bicycle wouldn’t be a breeze, and that our ability to carry equipment would be at its lowest due to the large quantities of water we’d have to carry. Therefore, we kept the equipment to a minimum, and decided that we’d only record in mono until we were sub-Sahara. Now that we’re sub-Sahara, the availability of water and food has improved enormously and we’re now carrying around 15kg less between us. Although we weren’t proposing to replace that with 15kg of equipment, it certainly means that we can carry more.

We’re both very interested in soundscapes, especially natural ones, and also felt that our recordings of individual species lacked context at times. We also have a better idea of our requirements, having spent a lot of time researching equipment and techniques on the internet and mulling over what we’ve learned online and, especially, in the field.

The end result of all this was that we decided to invest in a mid-side rig, so we could record in MS stereo, feeling that this would be the most flexible in our circumstances.

The next dilemma: which microphones? The expedition has no corporate (or other) sponsorship, therefore we aren’t tied to any particular brand. This has its good and bad points – we can choose what we feel is best for us (constrained by budget, not brand), but that does mean making a decision (which I’m not very good at) and paying for it ourselves.

In choosing the microphones, we considered three different brands for the side (Fig-8) microphone: the AKG CK94, the Schoeps CCM8, the Sennheiser MKH30. For the middle microphone, there was a lot more choice and we looked at dozens. Prices and quality vary considerably and we were swinging from one setup to the next. I, being tightfisted but also wanting the best tool for the job, was in a particular dilemma.

To cut a long story short, we eventually decided that we “couldn’t afford to buy cheap” and we splashed out and invested in a Sennheiser MKH30/40 combination mounted in a Rycote Windshield. This combination has stood the test of time, is robust, able to withstand high humidity and gets glowing reviews from almost every sound recordist who has used it.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who spent the time to answer our enquiries, especially Bernie and Kat Krause of Wildsanctury for their encouragement and excellent advice, and John McCombie of Pinknoise Systems – a helpful, knowledgeable supplier that isn’t fazed by unusual requests like shipping a ready-to-go MS rig out to Senegal at very short notice…

In the previous blog, I detailed why we chose the audio equipment we did for this expedition. Below, I’ll revisit each bit of kit and quickly update you on how everything’s performed with the battering it’s taken over the past few months. I’ll also include all the new additions although, as these only arrived a few days ago, we can’t yet say much about their performance in the field.

Audio Recorder and case

Fostex FR2LE

Was the Fostex FR2LE a good choice? So far, I’d have to say yes. We’ve used the recorder in sub-zero temperatures in France, in the mid-fifties centigrade in Mauritania, in the rain and in sand-laden Saharan wind. It’s performed without the slightest hiccup.

Portabrace AR-FR2LE soft case

The Portabrace case has kept out most of the dust and rain and, so far, we have no complaints at all.

Pre-amp

Fel MicBooster MB-1

Very early on we found we could do with more gain in some recording conditions, especially for wildlife recording. So now ,when we require it, we’re using an external pre-amp: the Fel MicBooster MB-1. With a variable gain of 20/30/40 decibels, it takes power from the P48 supplied from the recorder and passes it on so it’s available for powering the mics. This means that there’s no need for additional power supplies, as long as the recorder batteries are good. We’ve only had it for a few weeks but our initial impressions are that it’s robust with very little to break or go wrong, and the drain on the recorder batteries is acceptable.

Microphones

Audio-Technica AT897 (short shotgun line+gradient condenser microphone)

The AT897 is the mic we’ve so far used the most. It’s already stood up to some harsh treatment and is performing well. In recording individual birds, the mic seems to have good isolating properties but not to the exclusion of the sounds of the environment – ie the call is clear, but the bird is still heard in its context. It’s also proving to be a good all round mic; we’ve used it for a number of our mono soundscapes – sometimes recording them on both this and the Beyer Dynamic (below) to compare the result, and usually preferring the shotgun. We’ve always used it with a furry wind cover and shockmount pistol grip, sometimes mounting it on a boom pole or tripod. It’s light and easy to hold steady; we’ve had few problems with handling noise (improving with practice). Outdoor wind noise is always a problem but we’ve had acceptable results in moderate wind conditions. We’ve recently started using it with the external pre-amp with good results. So far, we’re very pleased with the way it is performing.

Audio-Technica ATM 63H (unidirectional hypercardioid dynamic microphone)

Initially the ATM 63H was only intended to be a robust backup but, having experimented with it over the past six months, we’re finding that it performs surprisingly well, especially when wedged into the bike frame with a bit of foam. We now use this mic when we’re doing commentaries whilst cycling (Bike Mic); it picks up surprisingly little vibration (even on potholed roads), the voice of the rider is clear and there is a pleasing level of ambiance.

Beyer Dynamic M58 (omnidirectional dynamic microphone)

We have this microphone for recording interviews, and so far we’ve had little occasion to use it. (The main audience for our website is English-speaking, and we’ve been travelling through countries where English isn’t widely spoken. Although Bex is a good linguist, translating and doing voice overs is very time consuming.) We’ll be carrying out more interviews in English soon, so we’ll be able to give a better informed opinion in the near future.

Sennheiser MKH 30 & MKH 40 (condenser microphone)

As mentioned in the introduction, we now have two new microphones. We’ve only had them for a few days so I’ll let you know how we’re finding them in a few months’ time. In short, we intend to predominantly use these two microphones as a pair for MS stereo (middle and side), especially for soundscapes. The MKH 30 has bi-directional (Fig 8) characteristics and will be used as the side mic, and the MKH40 has cardioid directional characteristics and will be used as the middle mic. There’s been a lot written about the MKH series and I don’t intend to regurgitate it here; a good first port of call for information is the Sennheiser web site.

Wind protection

As all of the microphones are used almost exclusively out of doors, we have wind protection for all of them.

Reinhardt 50-70 fur windsock

This is made of acoustically transparent fur like material and slips on over the standard foam cover. It fits on both the Beyer Dynamic M58 and the Audio-Technica ATM 63H and we swap it around. It performs fine and is showing very little sign of wear.

Reinhardt Wisper W22-200HW

This is used on the Audio-Technica AT897 short shotgun mic. We opted for the high wind model so that we could still get an acceptable recording in a wider range of conditions. We’ve been pleased with its performance and it has the added bonus of providing a high degree of protection to the mic in transport as well as protection from the elements (rain, dust etc) while in use.

Rycote Windshield

We opted for this “Zeppelin style” windshield for our new MKH30/40 rig as it provides a very high level of protection against wind noise. We’ll let you know how we get on with it in the near future, but initial impressions are that it’s a very well manufactured and well thought out product.

Microphone cables

We now have more cable than when we set off, which has given us a lot more options in microphone placement, but we’re finding that you never have enough. All the cables are flexible professional grade, and terminated in either 3 or 5 pin XLR connectors (we also have converters from 5pin XLR’s to 2x3pin XLR’s). So far, we’ve had no problems, apart from the occasional bit of sand ingress, which is easily cleaned.

Headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-ES5

We chose this compact, folding headphone with weight and bulk saving in mind. Although the quality isn’t bad, I would question their durability. With hindsight, we wish we had a better quality, full size pair, with a coiled lead (to avoid the constant disentangling). This is on our wish list.

Pistol grip

We now have two pistol grips, one permanently attached to the Audio-Technica AT897, the other part of the Rycote setup.

Reinhardt PG2 pistol grip

This is permanently attached to our short shotgun mic. It has a 3/8 inch female thread in the bottom of the handle so it can be attached to a boom pole. We’ve found it a lot easier to use when attached to the boom pole, even if the boom pole isn’t extended; it feels better balanced, and there’s a significant reduction in handling noise.

Rycote pistol grip

The Rycote windshield for the new mics has a pistol grip and suspension system included. We’ll include it in our next review.

Boom pole

Konig & Meyer Mini Fishpole

Our Konig & Meyer Mini Fishpole (discontinued) is starting to get a lot more use, and is showing quite a few signs of wear. While it feels reasonably solid and easy to handle, it now doesn’t slide in and out as smoothly as it did and the velvety covering over the bottom section (I presume for comfort and to reduce handling noise) has all but gone.

Microphone clamps

We have a small selection of clamps, mainly those supplied with the mics: some are suspension, others push in. We don’t use them often but they’re useful for cobbling together an attachment on occasions.

Tripod

In the original blog, our tripod was covered in the photographic section but we’re finding we use it more and more as a microphone stand. It’s now become an essential part of our recording equipment.

Velbon Sherpa 600

The Velbon Sherpa is a sturdy mid-priced tripod that has three-section extending legs. The angle of the legs can be altered so its operating height can be set from near ground level to chest height. It also has an adjustable centre column to which is attached a pan and tilt head with a quick release plate. We have a spare quick release plate and have glued a 1/4 – 3/8 inch thread adaptor to it so it’s compatible with all the audio equipment. Apart from the bag (which disintegrated within weeks), the tripod is performing well.

Conclusions

Our audio equipment so far has stood up well to the shake, rattle and roll of spending most of its time in a bike pannier and the rest of its time out in the elements. We haven’t as yet had any breakages or malfunctions (the same can’t be said of Bex’s laptop!) but, of course, some pieces of equipment are standing up better than others. We’ll keep reporting on this as time goes on.

5 comments
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  1. Intrigued by the tech side, which overlaps with my own, but goes a fair bit further. For bumpy bits I used to wrap gear in bike inner tubes which I then inflated, btw. .Ticks all my boxes – soundscapes, cycling through Africa, trees… Best buzz I’ve had since finding common ground with people at London Zoo and Wetlands Link. I’d love to be able to chat more, learn how you did your groundwork and established such an impressive website and all. xx

  2. Hi Peter, Thanks for the comment, like your idea of wrapping the fragile bits in an inner tube and inflating it, will give it a go. Spent lots of time doing the groundwork, reading around the subject and picking everybody’s brain that I came across who knew anything about the subject. But I am finding I’m learning something new every day, experimenting a lot and learning from the faillures. As for establishing the web site, I can take little credit for that other than being supportive and encouraging, the techy side is definitely Bex’s work, most of it goes straight over my head. Would have been great to meet up in The Gambia, sorry we missed you. Keep in touch and hopefully our paths will cross one day. Thanks again for your comments and encouragement. Best wishes Huw.

  3. Shame to miss u -I’m there on 2 Nov- but I’ll be cheering you on anyway, and will plant two more baobabs in your name. Abaraka!

  4. Did I mention Jamie, the sunny Californian with the tandem and trailer who came round West Africa in the other direction, giving lifts to local people as he went? He’s been halfway around the world since, but for a taste of his style start at: http://peacepedalers.blogspot.com/2008_03_01_archive.html and see also peacepedalers.com .

  5. Global Electrical Industries is a leading manufacturer & exporter of electrical products like Suspension Clamp, Vibrator Dampers, Strain Tension Clamps, Pin Insulator, PG Clamps, Tee Clamps, Stay Wire, Disc Insulators and Ground Wire Accessories etc

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