There are potential pitfalls: A “real” studio has likely been treated to reduce various acoustic nightmares, and even if you have acoustical problems in your bedroom studio, you’ve probably learned to work around them. But with field recording, you’ll have to make on-the-fly judgment calls regarding acoustics, and you probably won’t have the greatest monitoring environment. So how do you ensure the best possible results?
CHOOSING YOUR SPACE
Larger, less reflective rooms (or outdoor spaces) will generally have fewer problems than smaller, or highly reflective, ones. Also, louder sound sources present more problems. It probably isn’t a good idea to record a drum kit in a 6 x 6 foot tiled bathroom, but the same space might be fine for recording vocals, which aren’t as loud.
If you’re determined to get that John Bonham drum sound and record in a large reverberant space, look for a room with high ceilings and at least some kind of sound diffusion. A full warehouse stocked with boxes trumps an empty one. Churches, office buildings, and bookstores can also be good candidates, having the right combination of reflective and absorptive surfaces.
Recording outdoors presents few acoustical problems (just make sure you have windscreens for your mics), as there are no reflections or standing waves. But if you find that outdoor spaces are too problem-free and lack sonic character, consider finding an outdoor amphitheatre, alleyway, or other semi-enclosed space where there will still be some reflections. Natural echo from a canyon (or strip mall parking lot) can also be interesting. Choose a day where there’s little wind, and be prepared to deal with ambient noise (e.g., traffic, birds, etc. — which I find add to the recording’s character, but tastes differ).
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Once you’ve chosen your space, how will the actual session differ from recording in a traditional studio? Apart from acoustics, you likely won’t have a separate control room for playback, nor will you be hauling your best monitor speakers around. Sound isolating headphones work well for monitoring; I use Ultraphones from GK Music (www.gk-music.com), which are basically Sony 7506 headphone drivers mounted in heavy duty, sound isolating earmuffs. I find them detailed enough to get a decent sense of what’s happening in the field, but be aware that the closed cans will attenuate the highs considerably. If you have a small pair of powered nearfields that you trust, and the field conditions are conducive to setting them up, you might want to use them.
If you’re doing multitrack recording intended to substitute for studio tracks, consider bringing some portable baffles or bass traps. These can reduce the room sound and early reflections immediately in front of the sound source, as well as provide a bit of isolation between sources. Sometimes you can improvise by putting an amp in a different room or a stairwell, or using a shelf full of books as a baffle.
If you’re doing live to 2-track stereo recording with two mics, walk around the space while the musicians are playing to determine the room’s “sweet spot.” Miking with an XY configuration works well if you have a pair of cardioid mics and want maximum phase coherency, but oftentimes using a spaced mono pair is rewarding too — just listen carefully for phase issues, which can often be corrected by moving one or both mics by a few inches.
With a multitracking session, you can both close mic each of the instruments and throw several ambient mics in different parts of the room. This provides maximum insurance against acoustical problems — if one placement has too much of the room (or not enough), you’ll have another to try. Again, just listen carefully with your phones as you walk around the room with each mic, and check the phase coherency between each set of mics. I’ve used as many as eight different ambient mics at a time, then whittled it down to the best-sounding two or three during mixdown.
It’s especially important to avoid any peaks that overload your preamp or DAW. Err on the side of caution with your levels; you can always boost the signal and limit the peaks later if necessary. With ambient mics, make sure that background noise doesn’t overwhelm the instruments if your music isn’t loud.
IS IT WORTH IT?
You may be thinking, “Isn’t it easier to just record in my bedroom and use plug-ins?” Yes, it is. But is it more inspiring? Does it sound better or have a unique sonic character? You won’t know until you expand your horizons!