You are here

Field Recording On An African Island

Hidden Treasures By Ian Brennan
Published May 2020

Field Recording On An African Island

Recording music in remote locations can be challenging — and before you can record it, you have to find it!

It took four flights and a dose of food poisoning to reach the small island in the Indian Ocean. Moheli is a nation with no army, only police. Women regularly don thick mud-masks for sunblock, and fishermen go out in hand-made, one-person canoes to return home with hauls of lobster. The few roads are lined with cars that have been stripped of all but the body, and there's a trash-filled beach mere metres from the Presidential palace.

In every 'corner' of this planet, if you can find people, you can find music. No location is without a wealth of creativity. But locating it in a place such as this can be genuinely challenging, and you must put in the work to find the strongest performers. They're very rarely to be found via the Internet. Believe me, I've tried, and wish it was that easy! Usually, you must take a leap of faith — get your feet on the ground, and start talking with local people. Sadly, on this occasion, we were informed that the last living player of the ndzumara (a double-reed pipe, or primitive oboe) had died recently, the sound of the instrument ostensibly lost forever. But we managed to uncover some other leads, and, as is often the case, we found the strongest artists 'hidden' behind other, similar artists who'd achieved more fame.

To reach the artists that were first recommended to us — an elderly trio of mandolin, oud, and violin — we hazarded a 30-mile drive on the main road. That may seem a short distance, but the journey took three hours due to the potholes. We even experienced a head-on collision while we took a break, standing in the rain, as a teenage driver with faulty brakes careered into our lane and then into our vehicle. Not having had a seatbelt on, he was carried away, limp and unconscious, by other drivers, his car clumsily pushed to the side to allow the sole transit artery to be reopened post-haste. We were left to wonder how severe the teenager's fate was — thankfully, we learned later that he had survived.

On arrival, we found the trio, hospitable and regal, accompanied by a drummer who played with the snare upside-down before being corrected by his bandmates. Sadly, their watered-down Tarab music just didn't hold up. But a slick and successful man named Hassain led us to another non-musician named Hassain and he, in turn, connected us with a musician who was quite good. Finally, that musician introduced us to his friend and mentor, Soubi — and he (and his partner, Mmadi) turned out to be the real deal. As I said, finding the best local talent can take some effort!

I'd rather make a feature of the atmosphere than end up with an overly sanitised recording. So if a noise is interfering, I'll be sure to mic it.

Location, Location, Location!

Once you've sourced the talent, there comes the question of where best to record, and that again can take some experimentation — one needs be resourceful. For this occasion, the two artists arranged for us to meet in an abandoned movie palace with 60-foot high ceilings, and flying foxes (large bats) hanging upside-down from the rafters. Since the electricity supply had been cut, the only light was from an open side-door to a lot just off of a main street, which appeared to serve as a garbage dump and a urinal.

When it comes to finding recording locations in the field, you need to be resourceful. Here you can see the artists Soubi and Mmadi playing in an abandoned movie theatre... which turned out to have the wrong acoustic for their instruments and performance style.When it comes to finding recording locations in the field, you need to be resourceful. Here you can see the artists Soubi and Mmadi playing in an abandoned movie theatre... which turned out to have the wrong acoustic for their instruments and performance style.

They took turns playing a handmade, double-sided eight-string zither, simultaneously plucking both sides, masterfully. An eight-string, long-necked lute was also tried. The musicians were good but even after we'd closed the dusty stage curtains, the cavernous room was unsuitable — what may have been a great environment in which to capture a huge trap kit or a vocal chorus was just too boomy for these two acoustic solo performers. So, we agreed to reconvene somewhere else the next day for another attempt.

Soubi wanted to record "anywhere" but his home. It's difficult to project just how bad that locale must be, since the alternative we settled on was a metal shack, measuring just seven feet by eight, with no furniture but a one-inch foam mattress on the dirt floor. There were a number of external challenges, too. First, as Soubi played, we duelled intermittently with the construction workers next door — they repeatedly agreed to stop hammering, but would resume as soon as we turned to walk away. Then came a tropical downpour. Of all of the hazards of on-site recording, the worst after wind is rain on a tin roof. It creates a loud, broadband noise that sounds nothing like rain, since it's so lacking in definition. Another common hazard is being stalked by mosquitoes, and on this session, kneeling on the ground, I killed one that splattered more blood on my neck and collar than a slasher film!

Rain on a tin roof (left) and wind are probably the worst problems to deal with when recording in the field — you can't legislate for the weather, but windshields are inexpensive and will protect your recordings from the wind and your gear from the elements.Rain on a tin roof (left) and wind are probably the worst problems to deal with when recording in the field — you can't legislate for the weather, but windshields are inexpensive and will protect your recordings from the wind and your gear from the elements.

What we managed to record was worthwhile, but naturally the artist reserved his most melodically compelling song until he was on his way out, when feeling at his most free, and I'd defied one of my cardinal rules: never pack up the equipment until you're certain the music is finished. What could I do but stand in the rain with my backup handheld stereo recorder and try to capture this beautiful moment, while we grew drenched? From a sonic point of view, being out in the rain was better than the shelter but sadly, as you might expect, the moisture killed the machine, and what promised to be a resplendent take was lost forever, witnessed only by me and a bemused neighbour, who stood finishing a cigarette in his doorway. (If you're recording outdoors, rain, like wind, is hard to guard against. If you must do it and have the option, I find that placing the gear under a tree almost always works, and has a nice, softer sound.)

Left: the author sets up mics in the abandoned carcass of a car, using compact mic stands for some mics, and the car's body to mount others. Right: Soubi performs in his impromptu live room.Left: the author sets up mics in the abandoned carcass of a car, using compact mic stands for some mics, and the car's body to mount others. Right: Soubi performs in his impromptu live room.

Determined to give it one more go, we hunted for another location. I've mentioned the abundance of old, hollow shells of cars: with no other options available, we decided to use one of those. It would provide partial shelter from the coastal winds, but the car's frame could also act as both a mic stand and a resonator. I wedged a vocal mic between the roof and door frame, while a 'room' mic was laid on the floor. Capturing the intimate sound I aspired to in this setting was obviously not without its challenges, not least the crowd that gathered. You can read more about how I overcome such challenges in the 'Truth & Honour' box. But overcome them we did, and we finally managed to get these wonderful, unique recordings in the bag. The resulting album is scheduled for release next year but, in the meantime, I've provided an exclusive sample below for SOS readers to audition.

About The Author

Over the past decade, Grammy-winning author and producer Ian Brennan has produced 28 records by artists from three continents, among them the first widely released original music albums from nations such as Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan and Vietnam. His fifth book, Silenced By Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth was published in September 2019 by PM Press.

Truth & Honour

One of the most attractive things to me about live recordings without overdubs is that they're imbued with truth — you're hearing something that actually happened, rather than a multitrack, staggered simulation of what never occurred. Somehow you can tell that when you hear them. But the sonics of outdoor, public recordings are often highly dynamic, thanks to the onlookers who congregate as the recording progresses. What may start as a relatively noise-free environment can quickly become a land mine of whispers, distant greetings, throat clearings, footsteps and well-intended but unhelpful hushings. There are often cellphone rings, vibrations and interferences too. So how do you strike the right balance in such situations?

I'm a firm believer in allowing the time and place to bleed into the recording. Isolating sounds not only defeats the object of recording in the open, it's an exercise in futility. I find that it's generally easier to remove unwanted frequencies in post-production than to add in what wasn't captured in the first place, and I'd rather make a feature of the atmosphere than end up with an overly sanitised recording. So if a noise is interfering, I'll be sure to mic it, and also always make sure to have at least a few seconds of 'room tone' on tape that'll be able to drop in in place of silence when editing, or to mask anything undesirable.

Positive thinking: onlookers will inevitably gather, including local children, and getting them involved is invariably better than trying simply to hush them!Positive thinking: onlookers will inevitably gather, including local children, and getting them involved is invariably better than trying simply to hush them!Don't get me wrong. For all I've said about capturing the 'warts-and all truth', the goal is still to honour the artists by aiming for the highest fidelity the situation and equipment allows, and so you have to think about the mics and mic placement just as you would in a studio. For example, vocals drenched in reverb, whether natural or artificial, distance listeners from the source, and that's rarely desirable. For a voice to appear in the foreground, present and intimate, it needs to be as dry as possible. With proximity of the vocalist to the audience (not to be confused with a mic's proximity effect), the low end drops away, and the ratio of direct to reflected sound increases. Also note that it's the high frequencies that we hear when someone leans in close to whisper. Thus, I'll often use one of the standard, robust, radio-presenter mics — usually Shure SM7 or Electro‑Voice RE20 — since their directionality can be indispensable in defining a vocal track that might otherwise sound marred and chaotic.

A last piece of advice is to welcome whatever momentum you're given as a gift. For example, should a toddler ever end up on-site — whether it's a random neighbourhood child or a little lass dragged there by her crazy music-producer father — rather than scold the child, which will ruin the energy of the session, why not give her a microphone to hold and point? It's the surest way to shut 'em up!

What's In The Kit Bag?

Mobile-recording setups should be battery-operated, or at least offer that option. This is not only to allow a studio to be truly mobile, but also so that your system doesn't need to be adapted to, or rely on, the many and varied international electrical systems — some of which can easily claim the life of your equipment in one surge! This, combined with the fact you need to lug everything with you, obviously means options are limited compared with a studio session. But there are ways and means...

The author's Zoom F8 multitrack recorder ticks a lot of boxes for field recording. But even with such compact digital recorders, a field recording pack can be a very big weight to lug around the world!The author's Zoom F8 multitrack recorder ticks a lot of boxes for field recording. But even with such compact digital recorders, a field recording pack can be a very big weight to lug around the world!

My rig is based around a Zoom F8 multitrack recorder, a unit that can be balanced in your palm. In fact, the main complaint I hear about such devices is that they're too small, with dials and buttons that can be hard for adult fingers to manage. Personally, I can't complain. Not only does the F8 capture good-quality sound, but in terms of portability and ruggedness, it's a vast improvement on the massive-but-fragile systems that mid-20th century field-recording pioneers like Colin Turnbull and Henrietta Yurchencho were forced to use! A smaller handheld recorder is also vital. Not only does this function as a backup device, and offer a less conspicuous means of recording where that's required, but in some cases it can capture a good, holistic take of a performance — and work better than eight separate tracks on a larger device.

Despite what such digital technology has done to liberate field recordists, when you add up the recorders, mics, stands, cables and other accessories, I still find myself lugging over a hundred pounds of gear on my travels. For mics, the key is to have options available, so while there will be some fancy mics, there'll be a lot of versatility. I'll take a minimum of 12 mics for an eight-track field-recording trip. Typically, that will include small-diaphragm capacitor mics such as my AKG C451s, large-diaphragm models such as the Brauner Phantom Classic, good 'broadcast' dynamics like the Electro‑Voice RE20, for close-miking, and a selection of other durable dynamics like the Beyerdynamic M88 and the Shure SM57 and SM58 (which sometimes sound better than the fancier options!) that singers can hold — I find many people perform better that way. Always bring at least one lavalier mic, since these can also be attached to instruments.

For monitoring, a pair of closed-back, over-ear headphones like Sony MDR 7506 (or even noise-cancelling headphones, such as the Panasonic RPHC200Ks) can be very useful. But the need to focus on and hear the recorded sound must be weighed against your ability to remain aware of the surrounding environment. Partly, that's a question of safety, but also, keeping an ear on the environment also means you can detect noises such as voices or approaching footsteps before they're picked up by the mics, and they can in some cases be silenced before it becomes a problem. A second, cheap pair of headphones is useful for backup purposes; choose wisely and they can also provide a helpful secondary monitoring reference.

Accessories often prove really important. Telescoping boom stands, for example, of the type you might use for drums or amps, are indispensable — I use the On‑Stage MS7411TB, which is only two feet long when closed but extends to a height suitable for most singers when they're standing up. Furry windscreen muffs can make or break an outdoor session, so for a mere £20$25 or so a pop they're a must. Setting up thousands of pounds'/dollars' worth of mics without this layer of protection is literally throwing caution to the wind! Having a few short, two-foot mic cables is incredibly helpful for setting up fast with solo singers. And a shoulder-strap for the recording unit itself allows you to walk with the equipment and change location or position quickly, which can be hugely important. Oh and you need to think about maintenance and consumables like batteries and recording media. A set of precision screwdrivers is indispensable for repairing mics, but unfortunately these and batteries are the items most commonly confiscated by airport security!

Published May 2020