How do you make a decent sound recording on the fly? The challenges are legion.

I’ve had a pretty good set-up going for about two years now, and for those interested in the technical details I’ll describe it today. This is what I use for every recording presented on this site, unless otherwise noted.

The Sony PCM D50 is undoubtedly one of the best low-priced digital field recorders on the market. By low-priced I mean under $500; the D50 hits right at or slightly below that mark, depending on where you buy it. (Mine is on long-term loan.) There are cheaper options, but the D50 has a lot going for it, including that it is a) mostly steel, and thus durable, b) not too quick to drain its AA batteries (you get something like 30 hours of active recording/4 batteries), c) equipped with a really solid pair of internal microphones that … d) can be adjusted depending on whether you want ambient room sounds or a more direct pattern, e) small and light enough to keep in a pocket or hold for a long time without it getting cumbersome, f) able to record for a suitably long time (the exact length depends on whether you use the internal memory or a removable stick – I use the first, and it’s OK even at the highest recording resolution), g) designed with a very clear and usable graphic interface, h) controlled by actual buttons rather than on-screen menu options, which I strongly prefer, and i) sold with an adorably fuzzy windscreen that works great and makes everyone – everyone – ask whether you’re carrying some kind of gerbil/rodent/kitten. This can also be distracting at times, since you end up with plenty of “is that a pet?” on your recordings, but it’s usually just a good conversation piece.

The Recording Gerbil

The Recording Gerbil

Having decent internal mics, meanwhile, is huge for a couple reasons. It streamlines the recording process, since you’re dealing with one handheld object and no wires, meaning that you can be as mobile as a given situation requires. It also gives you an extra hand free to adjust recording settings etc. And in terms of price, it saves you significant expense for not having to buy a separate microphone. (Probably between $200 and $700, for a recorder in this price range.)

And having a good windscreen is, I’ve come to realize, life or death for active field recording. Unless you’re in a room without much activity or air circulation, a sensitive mic will pick up at least an occasional gust of wind. And it sounds terrible, at least to my ears – more than one second or so of wind noise is a dealbreaker for a recording. The windscreen not only minimizes or alleviates this problem under normal conditions, but allows you to record in rough weather, in crowds, and while you yourself move around a space.

There are a number of other perks to the D50, as well as a few annoying problems, described well in the video below. (Not made by me.)

The D50 only records to WAV, although I generally convert my recordings to MP3 immediately once I upload them to my MacBook. (Uploading is very easy, btw, with the D50.) I realize that the compression this entails is not optimal, but for recordings that I expect to share, it’s just unreasonable to expect people to download hundreds of megabytes for a short amount of content. I use a piece of Freeware called Switch for Mac for conversions, and I’m pretty happy with it.

One of the gaps in my current setup is that I do not have a good audio editor at all, at least on my own machine. I used to run SoundForge, which actually worked quite well, but now I rely on Garageband for the most basic operation – cutting sound files into segments – and just sort of don’t worry about effects or processing. This will have to change soon.

For the time being, the issue of sound quality is mostly academic anyway, since I’m presenting my recordings on a website, which means that most people are hearing them through computer speakers about as crappy as my own. There’s an astonishing difference between listening to these recordings directly as uncompressed WAVs, and through the site, compressed and coming through tiny, tinny speakers. It is a stunning experience to listen to the world through the D50, with the entire local sonic-spatial field very loud and clear in your ears. You have a sensation of the audio equivalent of x-ray vision — conversations down the hall are just as clear and present as the ones right next to you. Your footsteps produce echoes that render the shape of a room with the precision of a magazine photograph. It’s an experience everyone should have.

By contrast, my Mac speakers flatten any semblance of stereo, and kill all bass and most mids. You can still hear resonance, but it doesn’t hit you viscerally as a better system would. I don’t mean this in an audiophilic, elite ears kind of way. There really is a huge difference in sensation, and you get much closer to “feeling” a space by listening with headphones or bigger external speakers. To test out the difference, try listening to the recording in the previous post, first through computer speakers and then with headphones.

At the same time, to play devil’s advocate, I think that people who record sounds, both environmental and musical ones, have some obligation to attend to the technologies that most people will use to hear their stuff. Music producers test their work on multiple platforms, from high-end studio monitors to dirty, blown-out car stereo speakers to shoddy headphones. The idea is to make a recording flexible enough that listeners can enjoy it on the equipment that’s ready at hand. I’m interested in hearing how others who’ve done field recorders handle this issue.

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