Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan discusses his approach to working with unique artists in outdoor locations around the world.
What’s the one element missing from almost every recording studio? Oxygen! After decades of making records in more conventional settings, I was driven outside into the fresh air. Producing a weekly free show for five years at a San Francisco laundromat in the late ’90s had taught me that I could record almost anywhere, and that accidents and mistakes often prove serendipitous. Fast-forward to today and, after almost a decade of hitting the road and searching for music, I’ve had the pleasure and honour of recording outdoors with artists in many different countries and continents — many of whom I would never have had the chance of working with had I limited myself to the studio. In fact, I now so genuinely prefer recording au naturel that, where possible, I even open doors and windows to the outside world in conventional recording studios — much to the chagrin of the studio owners!
While any number of my ‘field’ recording projects might make fascinating articles in their own right, I’m going to discuss my experiences in field recording more broadly; I’ll use some of my remote forays in Africa and Asia as case studies, while dispensing some general field-recording tips for recordists wishing to embrace working in the great outdoors.
Of all the ambient sounds one captures when recording outside, enemy number one — which needs the most careful attention because it’s almost impossible to get rid of in post-production — is wind. It literally swells and surrounds everything. Many sounds, like dogs barking, hammering in the distance, cars passing, and kids whispering will often masked by the music. In fact, in the best-case scenarios, they become an almost subliminal part of the soundscape. But transients like gusts, coughs, and chair squeaks spell ruin almost every time.
Wind is such an invisible force that I’ve been stymied while mixing on more than one occasion by this ghost element. While recording, you’re often blissfully unaware that it’s even there — but if you fail to tackle it, even when recording on a seemingly still, fair-weather day, you can bet you’ll run into problems when mixing. In short, when working outside, windscreens are a must, even when there’s no apparent breeze.
Fortunately, a performer who has momentum and who is truly in a positive zone will often begin to anticipate the other sounds around them, and start to play with and to the environment, slowing down to sync with a background noise, for instance, or accenting a certain note as a cover. In this way, I find that a lot of the strongest takes are inherently self-salvaged.
The outdoors provides almost as dead a sound as is possible, with no reflection except from the ground (or possibly a very distant delay from far away trees or buildings). But with wind, one must often put one’s back to a wall as a barricade — and this brings me on to the first example...
Case Study: Khmer Rouge Survivors (Cambodia)
In the case of blind Cambodian master musician Kong Nai, a Khmer Rouge survivor who sings while playing the chapei dong veng (a guitar-like long-necked, two-string instrument), the breezes around his delta farm were so fierce and gusty that the only refuge, after attempting to set up in three different locations, was to position him in the rear of a mini-van with the hatch open. Luckily for us, he is a solo artist rather than having a band — and even more fortunate was that we had a large vehicle, not a Mini!
A Rode NT3 (cardioid small-diaphragm capacitor mic) was used for the vocals, since the lisp from Kong Nai’s gold teeth was creating too much sibilance with the AKG C414 that had been my first choice. My Sennheiser MKH 416 (a tried-and-tested film-world shotgun mic) could not be positioned far enough away from him without the signal distorting, due to the shallow depth of the van’s luggage compartment, so instead a Shure SM57 (cardioid moving-coil dynamic mic) was placed up-close, right beneath his picking hand, to catch as much body as possible from his instrument. The recording (see box) sounds quite dark and ‘flat’, but this works with the tenor of the music itself, and Kong Nai’s vintage persona.
When recording on location, you obviously need to come up with a compact and portable main recording system, but it’s best always to travel with an alternative ‘Plan B’ system too. Even better than simply having a redundant duplicate system is to have something that offers quite different colours and angles, and ideally to record on both systems simultaneously. Capturing different options in this way can help you deal with problems: for example, I almost always set-up a secondary vocal mic, pointed down towards the sternum rather than the mouth. This provides me with a default option to deal with any random plosives or dropouts found during the mix that might render an otherwise strong main vocal take unusable.
Case Study: The Good Ones (Rwanda)
My wife, Marilena Delli (who does all of the photography and video for our projects) and I had travelled to Rwanda for two weeks, and after meeting and listening to over a hundred artists we only found ones that resonated with us days before our scheduled departure. A more pressing issue, though, arose when we discovered that the eight-track recorder (Zoom R16) that I had brought was suddenly on the blink; the LED screen had gone dark. Fortunately, we’d brought a Sony Mini-DV digital video camera, specifically because it featured two XLR inputs. That then left me with the crapshoot decisions of which two mics to choose and, given that the group were a trio, how to provide coverage for all three of them. Of less concern, but still troublesome, was that the airline had managed to lose the checked-in bag containing our mic stands. Annoying as this was, you have to be ready to work around such issues. So, instead, I fastened the mics to the arms of two chairs.
Through an interpreter, the group indicated that their preference was to be seated while playing. We assembled on a covered porch, with the musicians facing outwards. Never having been sold on stereo or room mics (unless, on rare occasion, when used as a moody mono mic for a solo performer), I set up a Shure 849 cardioid condenser mic (that I’ve had since 1988) and an AKG C1000 (that I obtained the same year) in the small gaps between the man in the middle. These are far from great mics, but they’re trustworthy and familiar. An additional issue was that the lead vocals were sung by different members of the group on different songs, and also that they played the two acoustic guitars very similarly.
I held my breath the entire two-day plane ride home, waiting to hear the recording played back on speakers that could provide greater detail and fidelity. Somehow — miraculously, and to my delight and relief — the results were cohesive and managed to do the group’s dovetailing, melancholy harmonies justice.
As with any other type of music recording, when you’re out in the field, you have to make decisions about the kind of sound you’re trying to capture and want to hear on the finished record. Too often, people use layers of sound as emotional insulation — a sort of sonic shield to protect against personal exposure — but the price you often pay for this is a loss of intimacy and atmosphere. I much prefer to bring the listener closer to the artist, and to this end I find that two things matter far more than the price of a microphone: its proximity and its size. A large-diaphragm mic positioned as close as it can be to the singer’s mouth often seems to capture almost all of the voice: the low-end from the chest, resonance from the face, the breaths and lisps — all are things that are often lost, suppressed, or erased after the fact with more ‘pristine’ captures.
Case Study: Zomba Prison Project
Singer-guitarist Thomas Binamo wrote a song especially for the second album to be recorded by inmates of the Zomba maximum security prison in Malawi, Africa. He had adamantly resisted my repeated requests for an additional tune, and claimed that it was impossible to write a new song in a matter of days... but at the last minute, not long before we were due to leave, he stepped forward with a ballad that is chilling from the very first note — it was the first time that he’d really addressed the sudden death of his wife and the mother of his three daughters.
We had set up in the lumber yard inside the prison, just steps from the band room. The room has a tin roof, but it’s open on three sides with a dirt floor. Thomas orchestrated the hand claps from afar, with a trio of prisoners standing at the ready on the opposite side of the idle table-saw. At 2:12 (see the ‘Video & Audio’ box) you hear him almost involuntarily comment on his own vocal, as he performs the song for the first time ever, unrehearsed. Such is my ideal — to capture the exact moment of a sound being born. Not a copy of a copy, but a nucleus so strong that it can withstand the redundant reproduction of recorded medium.
Producer Kevin Army (the man largely responsible for the East Bay punk sound that birthed Green Day) boasted that an entire album could be made with just SM57s and SM58s. That detail of that claim may be debatable, but there’s definitely a grain of truth there: I’ve witnessed how infrequently even erudite listeners can tell which of my projects or tracks were recorded in a conventional studio and which were captured outdoors, or on which I used a cheap handheld mic and which a Neumann U47.
It’s more important that you choose and use the tools at your disposal to make the best of the instruments and the performances you’re trying to capture.
Case Study: Malawi Mouse Boys
The Malawi Mouse Boys live in a rural village located off of the two-lane main road. There’s no established route, dirt-track or otherwise, providing access for cars, since the need is so rare. We set up with our backs to the primary instrument builder Mulligo’s mud hut. The thatched roof acted as an undesirable resonator for wind, but overall the structure provided shelter from the sudden gusts that are much more problematic (as I mentioned earlier, they’re usually pretty much unremovable from recordings).
The band’s primary instrument is a handmade four-string guitar fashioned from sheet-metal, tree-limbs, and bailing wire. Rather than trying to beef up a sound that wasn’t there to start with, I tried to make more of the sound that was — to render it the most striking and extreme version of itself. A lavalier microphone (Audio-Technica Pro 70) was taped to the instrument’s soundboard, and this both provided some protection from the wind and captured what little lows the guitar had to offer. A second mic, an AKG C451 small-diaphragm condenser, was pointed down, one-third of the way between the picking-hand and the frets, so that this mic’s delicacy could capture the texture of the player’s fingerings and the mismatched strings themselves.
The vocals were also a case in point. The primary lead singer, Zondiwe Kachingwe, is a belter, but somehow his performances with our high-quality condenser mic (Brauner Phantom Classic) were falling flat. So I opted to hand him an SM58 hand-held mic instead, and that did the trick: his ability to dance and move liberated not only him, but the sound as well. And the others soon followed — as did many onlookers-cum-participants from the village.
It can seem counter-intuitive choosing an inexpensive and relatively unsophisticated mic when you have a $2000 option, but if it improves the performance and thus the recording, then it’s the right decision. When the choice is made to use a handheld mic like this one, key considerations are making sure that the XLR cable itself is as long as possible and that it is well duct-taped at the point where the cable connector attaches to the mic, so as to prevent any tragic shorting out as the singer moves.
The recording process is never neutral: the results will always be weaker or stronger than the actual performance. Sometimes, you just have to admit that you can’t quite get what you were aiming for — and either make the best of it, or change the aims of the project.
Case Study: General Paolino (South Sudan)
On this project, we visited blind singer General Paolino and his band, which comprised nine people spanning four generations, all of whom were crammed into an 8x10-foot concrete room. Every amp was cranked up to its maximum volume and the music was driven by a stunning bass player, who picklessly played everything but the downbeat.
As raw and compelling as they were, the collective din and swirl in that space seemed impossible to render; the prospect of finding any definition in the sound was daunting. Still, as a test, I made my best guesses and hastily threw up a few microphones. I put an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the singer’s mouth. I frequently use this radio-broadcasting stalwart for vocals since it’s immune to the proximity effect bass boost. This means you can get it in very close, meaning that the level of peripheral sounds can be kept well down relative to the source; you can achieve a greater sense of focus. An AKG D112 was placed on the kick, in the hope of delivering some low-end attack. And an AKG C1000 went up overhead — although a sensitive mic, its diaphragm seems not to be too fragile!
Despite my best efforts, and just as I’d feared, the sheer power of the live performance only sounded like a wash in recorded form; even the RE20 ended up capturing mere mush. Perhaps a more skilled engineer, with more time in which to make plans and access to more equipment on the day, would have been equal to the task — but in this case I had to admit defeat, and opted instead for a more subdued, acoustic solo recording the following day.
When it comes to the technical side of things it’s possible to overcomplicate, and often, it’s better to exercise restraint — to be willing to do as little as is needed, to use whatever you are given and to consciously go with rather than resist momentum. This isn’t a desire for inferior sound, of course — far from it. Rather, it’s a belief that a producer should place emotion, energy, atmosphere and performance ahead of technical concerns. Hell, if Robert Fine can render some of the most elegant symphony recordings of all-time with only three mics, why should capturing a measly singer-songwriter be so darn hard?
As a teenager, I cut my teeth as the home-recording revolution kicked off with the affordable Tascam Portastudio 414. That multitrack cassette machine allowed a level of experimentation and, more importantly, intimacy that a professional studio could almost never offer. Years later, I began to notice that my preferred track on albums was often the one that had been tossed down as a demo but kept amidst the big-money polished sessions — Paul Westerberg’s ‘Black Eyed Susan’ on his post-Replacements solo debut, or Springsteen’s entire Nebraska album (to my ears his last great recorded work, ending an amazing nine-year streak that commenced with Side B of his second album, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle).
Ultimately, I operate from the principle that the less equipment you use, the fewer ways there are to mess something up! Similarly, the chances that something goes wrong technically, or an entire session is waylaid due to gear problems, are reduced. This is particularly important whenever recording on the fly, when you’re often working to very real, immovable deadlines, such as a setting sun and/or a storm brewing on the horizon!
Case Study: Tanzania Albinism Collective
This record was made up of individuals who had never before played instruments, nor been allowed to sing publicly. Almost all of the percussion was ‘found’ — a sledgehammer, a frying pan, a beer bottle and rusty nail, an aluminium stepladder, school-desk tabletops, a straw broom, and a cracked rain barrel that stood heads taller than me. These, of course, were joined by the time immemorial ‘kick drum’ of stamped feet and tried-and-true ‘snare’ of clapped hands.
The question on such sessions is whether to attempt to record these sources faithfully — so that they’re identifiable as what they actually are — or to simply utilise them as triggers and enrich them with whatever textures may work. Having worked for decades with DIY projects, I’d learned to make the best of what you’re given and to practice acceptance, more than manipulation; that good microphones and unique voices make for strong records, and that as little as possible should come between the source and the listener.
I rarely touch EQ, instead embracing whatever is the colour of the sound. The only element that I sometimes introduce into the signal path is a Sound Devices MP-1 — one of the few genuinely high-quality battery-powered mic preamps on the market. On the occasions that I do add colour, I find that combining a preamp with a low- or mid-level microphone like an AKG Perception 220 often produces more striking results than potentially ‘tainting’ the innate characteristics of a better microphone like an Shure SM7.
One would be hard pressed to find a track as visceral and disturbing as ‘Stigma, Everywhere’. It highlights the sound of Hamidu Didas, a 28-year-old man venting his rage for the first time. Hamidu was the individual whose peers were most shocked had shown interest in performing at all, due to his extreme shyness. When he opened his mouth to sing for the first time, a wave of disbelief and awe at the power of Hamidu’s voice was registered by one of his dearest longtime friends.
During this song Hamidu is yelling a stream of consciousness protest, mostly the line, “Leave me alone!”. At 59 seconds, it grows so disturbing and harrowing that it would probably make NWA in their heyday blush! This onslaught had come so spontaneously that I simply had to grab the nearest mic that was already plugged-in — an SM57, as it transpired — and toss it to him. I then quickly turned a Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun mic to point his way and provide some additional coverage.
We later learned that it had always been Hamidu’s secret dream to sing. Since he was so often abandoned at home when his mother and siblings ventured out, he would sing to himself to curb the loneliness — a classic case of music being medicinal. His desire to be heard burned so keenly that he had even once saved up his meagre income in order to approach the one and only recording studio on Ukerewe Island. But such is the social stigma of albinism in his society that despite Hamidu’s effort and sacrifice, the studio owner turned him away: hostilely refusing Hamidu’s hard-earned Shilling, the engineer shouted in his face that he was just “trash,” that no one would ever want to listen to him, and he warned him to never return — that no matter what, he would never work with him. It really was a privilege to be able to capture the full force and emotion of Hamidu’s performance.
When it comes to recording in the field, portability and speed in setup/breakdown must come before anything else. No truly mobile studio should be so large or heavy that you’re unable to carry it in your two hands and on your back. Microphone stands tend to be the heaviest items. On Stage make a telescoping boom-stand (the MS7411TB ) that collapses to just 23 inches when fully closed, making it possible to fit four or more of them diagonally in a single standard-size suitcase.
One item that you should never leave home without is duct tape — and you should take miles of the stuff! As well as being a quick fix for many electrical shorts and equipment or instrument malfunctions, duct tape can easily be used to fashion a makeshift mic stand out of almost any vertical surface — be it a tree limb, a shovel, or a piece of furniture as mentioned earlier in the case of the Good Ones.
The entire itinerant operation must also be capable of being run on battery power — and you’ll need batteries. You’ll obviously be operating at times where there is no electricity supply, but also you’ll find when working overseas in remote locations like I have that you need independence from different regions’ electrical systems and any incompatibility problems that might arise.
While quick ins and outs are vital for capturing the moment, they’re also important for your personal safety and that of your equipment. If an environment suddenly turns hostile weather- and/or people-wise, you need to be able to pack and go. On that note, no piece of gear should ever be brought outdoors that you’re not fully prepared and willing to sacrifice for the cause. As they say, “to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs.” I guarantee you that every guerrilla recording venture will claim at least one piece of equipment!
Case Study: Wayo (Zande Tribe)
A 10-foot xylophone that requires five people to play it is hardly stock pop-music instrumentation! The dance party was in full swing before we arrived, when we were greeted with the sight of a mob gathered and busting moves around this instrument, which is the “heart of the village.” Many of them were already tipsy, though it wasn’t yet midday, so we had to jump in immediately: we literally had to throw many mics on the ground beneath the main instrument, rather than use mic stands, which would block the collaborators’ line of sight, interfere with the path of the circling procession and risk being knocked over. An Audio-Technica AT4040 cardioid capacitor mic lay on its back, sans shockmount, and looking a tad vulnerable as it lay in the dust facing skyward! Fortuitously, actual contact with the ground often provides a useful source of resonance and low-end.
After having crouched at foot level as the circling dancers kicked up clouds of clay, by the end of the uproarious, almost two-hour, tag-team orchestration, I had turned orange from particles. So too had the microphones, the cables, and the recording deck (a Tascam DR680). We certainly took risks with the equipment — but the hypnotising and dizzying sonic results were well worth the filth. After all, a little dirt never hurt anyone. It can be washed off. But this one-off recording will remain forever.
When push comes to shove, there is no wrong or right way to make music. It is all just a means to an end, and any particular process you’ve used becomes irrelevant compared with the result (though, somewhat paradoxically, concern for ends should never dictate that process!). Hopefully, through these cases studies, I’ve been able to demonstrate one approach to field recording — and just why I find recording on my travels so inspiring.
The great thing about those wayward children and animals that may appear is that they have an uncanny knack of always singing in tune and in time. Time and again, I’ve been reminded that the apparently random and coinciding sounds that arise when recording outside prove later not to have been so random after all!
My wife Marilena Delli documented the field recording projects discussed in the main article, doing all the photography and creating a number of videos. The videos are free to view on YouTube:
- Malawi Mouse: www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0MEjbHE5G4
- Zomba Prison: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP6y7k2eyeo
- The Good Ones: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iKTMKLejCA
- Tanzania: www.youtube.com/watch?v=isAdUSI7J4E&t=12s
- Wayo: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jB0155DKeI
- Khmer Rouge: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xqsgx855Uhc&t=21s
You can also find music from the different projects on the SOS web site: https://sosm.ag/feb18-fieldrecording
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning producer (with Malian band Tinariwen) who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums, published four books, and has been teaching violence prevention around the world since 1993 at places like UC Berkeley, the Betty Ford Center, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His latest book is How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording & The Battle For Democracy In The Arts.