Remote Recording Survival Guide
by Tom Lopez
If your purpose is to do a simple interview, with a minidisc recorder and a single mike, then this article may seem like overkill. But if you also plan to gather some additonal sounds, some ambiances, out in the field or in the street, then there may be some useful tips here. I’ve traveled to a lot of different countries gathering sound, and I have made a lot of mistakes. Hopefully, you can avoid some of them.
What to Bring:
It depends upon what type of climate you’ll be encountering. Ziploc baggies are easy to pack loose (various sizes) and come in handy for all kinds of things, like protecting a dat machine or minidisc, to keep the dust off, or with silica gel (dried in an oven for several hours before you leave and then sealed in a ziploc), will suck up the humidity. Bring along various adapters for your plugs, you can get a little bag of all sorts that cover about any country. Check out in advance the type of electricity, 110 or 220, sometimes it can even vary within a country. You may need a converter. I also recommend gaffers tape, do not use ductape, that stuff will melt in the tropics and you’ll never get it off your equipment.
What type of microphone are you using? If it has capsules (changeable heads) then you’ll have problems with humidity getting inside in the tropics, it’ll short out, there’s no way of keeping the moisture out of those capsules when it’s really humid and hot. If you do have capsules, and it does short out with humidity, unscrew the capsule, wipe it off, and use a match or lighter to dry it (don’t put the flame directly on it, obviously). That may give you another ten minutes of recording before the humidity gets in again. Also, if you step out of an air conditioned room into a hot/humid climate, a dat machine will likely freeze up with the sudden condensation.
Always carry a small flashlight with your equipment, mini Mag-Lites are good, reliable, they’ll last for years. I was recording the Iguacu Falls in Brazil, I hadn’t brought along my mini Mag-Light, after all it was daytime so who needs a flashlight? While driving back to the hotel, I saw a path leading into the jungle and since the sun was just setting, I knew the night bugs would start intensifying and thought, why don’t I grab my stuff, scurry up the path and record the changes from late afternoon into evening?
I parked the car, hurried into the jungle (it was already pretty dark in there) set things up, slipped on my headphones, stood back and listened. Now, this was one dense jungle. The vegetation was so thick, you couldn’t step 12″ into there without a machete, that’s why I felt so lucky finding a path. As the sun set and the jungle grew dark, more and more creatures joined in. Were they just insects, weird bugs? Were those some kind of eerie frogs? Were some of these sounds birds? Now what the hell is that thing? It sounds a coughing jaguar! The jungle was screaming, and every minute, new creatures were joining in, layers and layers of screaming, shrieking sounds. I don’t know how those bugs can pitch themselves up so high, I thought they’d pierce my eardrums. It was one solid wall of screaming and shrieking … getting louder every minute. And, to top it off, it’s now pitch black, I can’t even see myself. But I don’t want to leave because it’s become a test of courage, how much can I stand before I can’t stand it anymore?
It’s mainly high pitched shrieking, but there’s also lower pitched growlings and snappings, there’s things moving about, god knows, they sound like they have claws or pinchers and they’re what? A few feet away? Twigs are snapping as things prowl about, leaves are being pushed aside, if it weren’t pitch black, I’d probably see little pairs of beady eyes watching me. And by the sounds of it, there’s creatures being eaten 360 degrees around me, things are crunching on each other, munchy, slurpy, sticky saliva sounds, and all that high pitched shrieking is really beginning to freak me. But every minute there’s a new creature joining in the din and I don’t want to miss it.
So there I am in total blackness, scared almost senseless, and suddenly something drops out of the jungle canopy above me and Whomp! lands right on my back. Now I’ve seen those tarantulas they have in Brazil, they’re as big as your face, and that’s what I’m certain just fell on my back, something big and soft and filled with blood and looking for more … and I think it’s crawling up my back. I go, “Woo!” and hop and whack at my back, and luckily my hand doesn’t hit anything. But that’s it for me! I can’t see the mikes or stands, but I find them by yanking on the cords … I scoop up everything in my arms, my feet feeling their way along the path, as I stumble out of there. I’m laughing hysterically all the way.
So, kids, remember, even if it’s bright daylight, always carry a trusty light. Be prepared. You may not live to regret it.
Samba Frogs of Brazil:
Real Audio or MP3
What type of mike stands? They should be as light as possible, obviously. We’ve created excellent telescoping mike stands, that extend from 6 to 15 or up to 25 feet in the air, by using collapsible aluminum tripod lighting stands. On the end where the light reflector would fit, we secured a threaded element for the mike shockmount. Why extend so high in the air? Once while recording rush hour traffic in New Delhi, a crowd (all men who had nothing better to do), gathered around in droves to comment on what was happening. And since they were all chattering away in Hindi, (nice, but I didn’t need it), I just telescoped those stands from the 6 feet I had been using before the crowd gathered, extending the mikes up to about 18 feet, way above their voices, but still capturing that crazy, horn throbbing, hot New Delhi morning rush hour traffic.
Get a sheet of windscreen foam, cut off a square, have a few rubber bands, and put an extra layer over your regular windscreen for intense wind situations. Never use regular foam rubber, it will eat your sound. You can buy acoustically transparent windscreen foam through Markertec Video Supply, 800-522-2025. They sell it by the square foot, about $6.00 a square foot. It comes in sheets, it’s thin, 1/4″ thick, and easy to cut with scissors or a razor blade. If the wind is especially intense, just wrap a layer or two around your mike, it’s great stuff. You can also get gaffers tape from Markertec, it’s about $12 a roll, it may seem costly, but a roll lasts a long time (you can use the tape over and over), it’s really worth the price.
A small backup machine is important, whether it’s a minidisc or a dat. Check it out before you go. Nothing like hauling around a backup that is missing a vital connector. That has happened.
Always carry a pen. Faithfully write down what’s on the dat or disc, it’s amazing how quickly we forget.
Have a small non-equipment looking bag you can carry things in. The less conspicuous the better. Never set your equipment bag down without it being attached to you (arm through a strap) or leaning up against you. Train yourself, if someone suddenly distracts you, you instinctively reach for your bag first, without thinking, then you respond. The movement can be subtle. There are people that run scams on tourists all the time. And they’ll come up with some amazingly inventive ways of conning you. They usually want to be helpful, be your friend. Yeah, right. Being taken for small amounts of money is okay, it makes for an amusing story to tell friends later. But losing one’s equipment, that’s not so funny.
I’ve found that if you record on the streets of New York City, you’ll be prepared to record just about anywhere in the world. You’ll have learned how to watch out for your equipment and yourself. So even if you’re recording in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, or some back alley in Bombay, or a dead end street in Tangier, you’ll suddenly realize, “Hey, I’m prepared for this, because I’ve recorded on the streets of New York City!”
When you take the flight back, carry your precious tapes/discs with you.
Don’t put them in luggage that may never be seen again. This happened to me
back in the 60′s when I was recording in Venice, it was the sound track for
a film. In the Rome airport, someone walked off with my suitcase. It
contained all my microphones, all the tapes, and my clothes. Oddly, none of
the film equipment, in aluminum cases, were touched, only my plaid, cheap
suitcase was swiped. The film was never released.
Check It Out:
Whenever you can, check out what you’ve recorded that day, is everything okay? It’s one thing to go on vacation and do some recording, it’s another to make the trip specifically to record and find you’ve goofed. It’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.
We hauled god knows how many pounds of recording equipment into the Amazon. We were carrying what was the first of the portable digital recorders, the Sony PCM F1 along with a betamax that Sony used to store the digits on. With batteries, they weighed in around 25 lbs. The external backup batteries, big, heavy things, added to that. Plus the tapes, they were betas, you know, hefty, thick things. Of course I checked everything out in great detail, everything but one thing. The main mikes all were condensers and needed phantom power. Each ran off two 9 volt batteries. So what happened? Someone would forget to turn off the mikes, they wore the 9 volt batteries down sooner than I had calculated. I stupidly hadn’t brought extra 9 volts, and the last two days of recording (when we were way the heck up the Rio Negro) the 9 volts flickered out. Six different condenser microphones and I couldn’t use a one. There were some amazing frogs that night (I can still hear them in my mind. And to this day, I grit my teeth knowing I could have had a really great recording of those exquisite warbling frogs … IF I HADN’T FORGOTTEN THOSE @#^%^$%#!! EXTRA 9 VOLT BATTERIES!!
Have you recorded while walking around with a mike? Can you do it without rustles & bumps? Do you need a pistol grip for your mike? Does your skin rubbing on the grip carry the sound right into the mike?
Always check out every piece of equipment, including mike cables, batteries, every item. Before you leave on your trip, record something, play it back, make sure it’s okay and that you haven’t forgotten something, especially a vital connector.
Make a list of everything, so next time you’ll have a “What to take equipment check list.”
If your equipment looks brand new, you may want to carry a bill of sale to bring it back thru customs into this country.
Don’t check your essential equipment in at the airport, carry it with you, along with everything you’ll need in case your luggage doesn’t arrive, meaning, a few dats/or discs, a coupla short cables, headphones, mikes, a few batteries, and charger.
Just as you look after your equipment, look after your health. One of the most important things you can do to prepare yourself for recording in a foreign country is … Build up your immune system before you travel. The way things are right now, just breathing in that recycled airplane air can be hazardous to your health. Here’s what I suggest … two weeks before flying start taking NutriBiotic, it’s organic grapefruit seed extract, you can get it at most health food stores. Get the pills, either just the straight NutriBiotic (tiny little pills) or the capsules with echinacea. Don’t confuse it with “grape seed” extract. Again, start two weeks before you fly and continue for at least a week or two after you return.
Be regular. I highly recommend Carotec Colon Support, it contains cascara sagrada, an herbal laxative. When you travel, especially as you get older, it takes longer to adjust to the changes, and you need to keep functioning. You won’t find Carotec in a health store, but you can order by calling 1-800-522-4279. It’s very gentle.
Also recommended are digestive enzymes, or try chewable papaya tablets to aid digestion.
The more obvious things like “Don’t drink the water” also mean, “Don’t brush your teeth with the water. Don’t shower with your mouth open.” In polluted countries like India, don’t eat salads. Peel the fruit, or wash it with bottled water.
In India, you can get ill just by breathing in the air. I picked up something while recording out in the countryside when they were having a drought, it was terribly dusty. I breathed in some spiky little microbes that laid me up for two days. If you get sick, see a doctor immediately. Your hotel will have someone there or on call. They’ll quickly recognize your problem, which is usually quite simple. Our immune systems have never encountered some of their more exotic but incredibly hardy little microbes.
Having Guns Pointed at You:
You don’t have to be in a combat zone to have a gun, usually an automatic weapon, pointed at your chest. It’s happened to me in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Morocco, even in Greece. In Morocco, it was the police, their equivalent of the State Police, except that were notoriously dangerous because they were responsible only to the King. So they’d pull up alongside you in a car and question you, all the while smiling as they pointed an automatic weapon at your face through the open car window. You could see they were enjoying themselves.
It can happen anywhere. When we were shooting a film in Greece, back in the 60′s, it was a month after a coup d’Žtat’. We were on the tiny island of Chios, off the Turkish coast. Early one morning, I went off to gather some wild sound. I went wandering up a road in pursuit of roosters and goats, and I wandered into a villa that had been taken over by the military. There were jeeps and armored vehicles and I thought, right, I’m out of here. And suddenly a guard appears, with his rifle pointed at me, and he’s shouting in Greek. I assumed he wanted to know what the hell I was doing there with a microphone and tape recorder. I froze until he gestured for me to approach. He pointed to my microphone and tape record. “Tourist,” I said and pointed over at a chicken, “Cock-a-doodle doo!” He didn’t smile. He pointed to my longish hair and said, “Beatles?” I pointed to myself and said, “London,” where I was living at the time. And then he started singing in English, “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been workin’ like a dog.” We both broke up laughing. We parted waving to each other.
Another time, the day before I flew into New Delhi, an angry mob had set fire to the American Embassy in Pakistan. In New Delhi, Indian soldiers were stationed at American corporations, like IBM, and also in front of the houses of American diplomats and corporate executives. I was in a pleasant tree lined suburb recording a flock of parakeets, they were flying from tree to tree, chattering away. I had two shotgun mikes, with black windscreen foam wrapped around them, they were slim, with long barrels, maybe 2 feet in length. As I came around a corner pursuing the parakeets, I suddenly realized I was pointing my mikes across the street where two soldiers were guarding someone’s residence. Their rifles were propped up against the wrought-iron fence, they looked terribly bored … but then I arrived. One look at me and they leaped for their rifles. I froze. They gestured for me to cross the street and approach them, all the time their rifles pointed at my chest. As I carefully crossed the street (you don’t want to trip in situations like this), I chanted aloud my protective mantra, “Tourist! Tourist!” When they discovered it was a tape machine I had, and my lethal-looking weapons were only microphones, they started chattering away in Hindi, and then falling over each other laughing. I obviously had made their day.
Me in Bali
If you are doing strange things, there’s a pretty good chance that a policeman or a soldier will point a gun at you, then ask questions. Remote recording out in the street isn’t normal behavior. So take it in stride. Don’t make any sudden moves. And always keep the tape rolling.
And then … enjoy yourself, they may even have a sense of humor.
is a radio dramatist and runs ZBS