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July 4, 2012 / Randy Coppinger

The Right Tools for Location Recording

Part of the Right Tools for the Job series, comparing various platforms to work efficiently.

RECORDING ON LOCATION

I’ve dragged a tower, keyboard, mouse and monitor(s) to more location recording sessions than I’d like. Reconstructing a fixed setup on the road may not seem like too much of a chore on occasion. But a desktop machine may cost you significant time (money) if you’re regularly setting it up and tearing it down. All of those connections and options we love on desktop machines are subject to more wear and tear than manufacturers may have intended with all of that setup and take down. I’ve rented racked recording workstations built around desktop machines that were sturdy and powerful, but they were also costly and bulky. A desktop machine can be used for location recording, but it’s rarely elegant.

LOCK UP

It has been years since I’ve needed to synchronize a DAW with a video deck in studio. But on a film set there is no Quicktime video because they’re shooting it! Desktop machines allow the greatest flexibility in choosing synchronization interfaces because most have card slots. This is when a giant, rack mounted rig based on a desktop makes a lot of sense.

TAKE OUT

I am a huge fan of laptop computers for location recording, especially the newer ones that avoid noisy fans. You can find the right combination of connectivity and bandwidth for significant track counts on a laptop. If your interface is well suited for travel a laptop can be the crown jewel of a powerful, time saving recording rig.

I think tablets offer an ideal opportunity for location recording because a touchscreen UI can be as simple and direct as hardware based, dedicated recorders with physical buttons on them. I’m encouraged to see audio apps support 24bit and a 48kHz sample rate. The overlap with iOS audio and Apple Core Audio devices helps expand interface options. Google’s commitment to audio with Android 4.1 looks promising. Some of the new Windows 8 tablets are threatening to have HDMI, Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 connectors on them. I have hope for the future of pro audio on tablets.

Update July 5: Apple will be using a smaller 19-pin connector on the next iPhone.

There’s a USB micro port on my Droid X handheld, but there don’t currently seem to be any USB drivers to support audio recording or playback. That means the best I could record is a high output dynamic mic in mono using the built-in AD converter. The iPhone (and iPad) fair better, but the same limitations discussed for studio recording make handhelds unattractive for high quality location recording. I’m not sure if I hold as much hope for handheld devices as I do tablets due to the smaller form factor. Although it would be great to record in high quality stereo on my phone with a modest interface. That would be incredibly useful for interviews, podcasting, recitals and much more. When portability is the name of the game, handheld is certainly attractive. But I wonder if a bulky audio interface kind of negates that convenience factor.

As with studio recording, tablets and handhelds make great companions for audio folks on the road. I’ve got an RTA app on my phone that’s great for identifying frequencies when ringing out a reinforcement setup. Is the spectrum accurate? Not terribly, though it’s better when calibrated against pink noise. But when you’re chasing feedback it’s more than enough to quickly identify where the system oscillates. I don’t have much experience with level meter apps, but I suspect they’d be sufficient to find the critical distance in a reverberant space — useful both for live sound and location recording.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT

Sound Devices field recorder

Sound Devices, Nagra, JoCoe and many other companies — too many to mention — make dedicated field recorders. I’m not usually a fan of one-trick ponies unless it’s a really, really good trick. For film sound a field recorder that can sync to picture is wicked tricked out. They are known for their stability (not crashing), durability and extreme portability. If you do a lot of location recording you’ve got to seriously consider one of these things. If you occasionally record in the field, you may want to consider renting a dedicated recorder. If you have an attitude of: Record Everything and Sort it Out Later, then a field recorder might be your best bet.

On the other hand, if you can record into the same workstation you’ll be using for other tasks (editing, mixing) you may gain a time advantage using a computer based platform rather than a dedicated field recorder. I’ve had gigs where we recorded straight into ProTools (locked to the house timecode generator), edited and named recordings in between takes, and delivered audio on a USB thumb drive at the end of the day right before take down. The client loved us! I’ve recorded into my DAW on location, opened the same session back at the studio and went right to work — no transfers, no conversions, no extra steps. I’ve also had my DAW crash on me during location sessions and wished I had a dedicated recorder.

When failure is not an option and timing is critical, I’ve recorded to two independent systems at the same time. Typically the primary recorder is a computer based DAW and the safety is a dedicated recorder. A tablet or handheld might serve well as a recording safety for these situations.

Field recorders are less likely to become obsolete due to software upgrades. The other four platforms will get codependent upgrades to the OS, the application and hardware configurations, forcing you to upgrade the others. A dedicated recording unit will just keep recording. So you may get more life out of a field recorder for a better return on your investment.

CONCLUSIONS

A touchscreen seems perfect for location recording. I have high hopes that tablets will offer increasingly better choices for audio recording. Until then I’ll prefer the power, flexibility and portability of a laptop. I’ll probably continue to drag desktops on the road when I need all of the bells and whistles, and rent field recorders for projects where they make a critical difference, but laptops seem ideal for location recording. I’m less optimistic about handhelds because most hardware needed for professional recording is larger than the phone, minimizing the handheld portability advantage.

Which do you prefer for location recording? Why?

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8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Joe / Jul 4 2012 3:45 pm

    Great breakdown! For me, the breaking point on location is mobility. Laptop or desktop are king for being in a fixed position while recording music but for gigs where you are on the move with location changes or even “run and gun” I think the field recorders like the 702 are tough to beat. High quality pres on battery power, crash proof (as you noted), and customized bags for easy tote…. tough to beat.

    I like the possibilities of tablets but would be affraid to take one into battle as they are bit fragile. For interviews, inconspicous environments, and a quickie… I think a tablet might trump mobile field recorders, laptops, and desktops. But… when challenged with a complex multi-mic moving target…. I’m sticking with my field bag.

    • Randy Coppinger / Jul 4 2012 11:13 pm

      There can be more to it than setup and takedown time. An excellent point Joe. Thanks.

  2. David Das / Jul 4 2012 10:59 pm

    The only additional thing I’d mention is that the new iPad DAW (Auria) says they work with any class-compliant USB device. I was skeptical about how much i/o an iPad could really take, but I asked them at NAMM and they said they had tested up to about 18 simultaneous inputs with no problem — impressive for an iPad!! Could be great for doing location recordings, if it’s stable/reliable.

  3. hedley / Jul 5 2012 2:23 am

    While at uni all my location work I did on a Sound Devices which was very good or an edrol r4 which I LOVED. Now however they are out of my price range and have been using PT on my laptop, which LOVES to crash on location 😦 often randomly cutting power to the mbox. VERY embarrassing. I have sent feeds off to the camera before, mainly for sync purposes, which can act as a back up but not ideal. debating getting a cheap(ish) zoom recorder as a back up.

    is it a good idea to use a mixer on location or just record levels as direct?

    • Randy Coppinger / Jul 5 2012 4:31 pm

      I think it depends on the project Hedley. When feeding to a camera I’d prefer pre-DAW rather than post-DAW so that the camera has good audio regardless the status of the DAW. And I think having even an inexpensive safety (Zoom, etc.) costs less than missing a take. Best wishes.

  4. David Das / Jul 5 2012 10:48 pm

    Somewhat related: I found this ultra-cheap lapel mic (http://www.meritline.com/showproduct.aspx?ProductID=40110&SEName=clip-stereo-microphone). For $2.49, who can complain? It works with an iPhone (probably Droid too), and I figured, one day I’ll be in the field, need to record an interview or something, and this will save my butt. (Just plug it into anyone’s iPhone, launch any audio recording program, conceal the mic and cable, and hit record.)

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