Adventures in Surround Sound

Guest Author: James Fensom

Hey! My name is James, and I’m a recording engineer at Sound Ideas. For the past year, I’ve been recording ambiences in 5.1. Equipped with the DPA 5100 Mobile Surround Microphone and a Sound Devices 788T, I have travelled throughout urban, rural, indoor, outdoor, and natural environments to capture everyday ambient sounds. These experiences have shown me lots, and I’d like to share my insights with you in this blog post.

5.1 Setup for Field Recording
5.1 Setup for Field Recording

Recording ambiences in surround sound can be difficult, because unlike recording in stereo, you have to consider the rear of your microphone. Location and microphone placement is crucial to record a well-balanced 360° ambient sound. Below are some points about recording certain environments in surround sound.

Recording in Central Park
Recording in Central Park

Cities

The hustle and bustle of downtown cities is a significant ambient sound for film and TV. The key to capture this environment is to stay away from the sidewalk. With large buildings nearby, close traffic, and passing pedestrians, the sidewalk may be an unsafe place for your mic, and it offers a dynamic and generally weak 360° axis.

During my urban expeditions in Toronto and New York City, I found squares, plazas, and small parks to be effective areas to capture city sounds in surround. During a hot summer afternoon, I found myself recording in Times Square for a couple of hours. Near the end I had sweated off a few pounds, but it was worth it. There are few places in the world where the sounds of a city are so heavy, active, and loud.

Recording the Womens March
Recording at the Toronto Womens March

Crowds

So far, 2017 has been a year of protest. I’ve recorded crowds at various rallies from the Women’s March to anti-travel bans. Protest crowds have varied from organized walks to stationary yelling and cheering. Like protesters, sports fans are also very active and energetic. Whether it’s the NHL or NBA playoffs, the ALCS or the MLS cup, sports crowds are loud and rowdy.

Capturing these crowds in surround is a challenge (even in stereo). To get a complete 360° recording of a crowd, you need to join them and jump into the mob. Depending on the type of crowd this can be hazardous to your equipment, because people will walk into or hit your gear. In this case, using a tripod or a mic stand isn’t always the most effective way to hold your microphone. Sometimes you’ll have to use a boom pole. If you’re restricted to a stand, use the urban terrain to your advantage. Posts, poles and curbs can redirect people from walking into your tripod.

A memorable moment was recording at the Women’s March. I positioned my mic at a monument that was in the middle of the street. The crowd walked directly towards me and passed on both sides departing at the rear. The massive crowd took an hour to pass me, offering multiple takes at various angles.

Recording in Prince Edward County
Recording in Prince Edward County

Water

Water makes up a lot of the world’s surface, but only so much of it is worth recording in 5.1. Generally, waves and waterfalls are stereo effects, but I spent some time in nature and recorded rivers and rapids in surround. With a boom pole and the QP Jumbo Boom Pole from Ambient Recording, I was able to hang the microphone over rushing rivers and large rapids, capturing the intricate sounds of front and rear water movement.

Recording Wind in Prince Edward County
Recording Wind in Prince Edward County

Wind

Unless you’re in the eye of the storm, wind is generally directional. What’s good to capture in surround are the elements that wind affects: trees, grass, snow, and sand. Recording wind in a forest or field already has it challenges in stereo, but even moreso with surround. You need to locate a spot that is out of the heavy wind, but with surround, you also have to make sure that spot has activity in its rear channels.

5.1 recording is a challenge, but at Sound Ideas we’re getting it down to a science! The key is to find locations that accommodate for a well-balanced 360° representation of an environment. Luckily it’s a big world, and we look forward to recording it. Stay tuned for the release of our first General Surround Sound Ambience library.

James Fenson, Recording Engineer at Sound Ideas
James Fenson, Recording Engineer at Sound Ideas

Have questions for James? Leave a comment below!

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