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Paul Virostek Talks Field Recording

Profiling field recordist Paul Virostek

Good sound has a tremendous impact on a film. But how do we get great sounds into our projects? This is my fourth blog on the subject and there are more to come.

A short time ago I posted a blog about the Creative Fielding Recording website, and mentioned the blog profile series A Month of Field Recordists. Each weekday a different field recording pro shared their thoughts and experiences to help answer the perennially challenging question: “What gear should I use?”

Those profiles are still up and accessible, and they’re a great read if you’re intrigued by the art of field recording. If you're searching for just the right kit or want to augment the mic or recorder you're already using, read the blogs then check out Paul's analysis and overview of the gear presented in the series.

Now that we’ve met the 26 or so folks who were profiled, I thought it would be interesting to hear from the author of the blog himself, Paul Virostek.

I want to know what kind of kit he uses and what sound subjects intrigue him the most. 

And it would be great to hear a few round up comments on the wide array of gear people are using, and some tips for those starting out.

I contacted Paul by email.

Ambling Around: The gear profiles in A Month of Field Recordists  are fascinating and I’ve been wondering, as I read your introduction to each one, what gear you use.

Paul Virostek: My main kit is a Neuman RSM 191 microphone and a Sound Devices 722 recorder. The Neumann is a stereo shotgun mic. It is very flexible, since an external matrix box allows you to turn a dial and change the pick-up pattern. It also sounds terrific, with nice, tight bass and a deep sound field.

The 722 is rock-solid. I chose it because it is relatively small, can take a beating, and has an internal hard drive (as opposed to a CF Card). I'm often on the road for long periods of time, and that allows me to capture a lot of sound without needing to return to a studio. I also have a pair of DPA 4060 microphones, as well as a Sony PCM 100.

I try to limit the amount of microphones I have because I want the equipment to be light and portable. I prefer not to record subjects that are static. I also like the challenge of evolving soundscapes or events. To capture these things, you cannot use microphone stands or stay in one place for long. My kit allows me to adapt quickly.

Ambling around: You write extensively about field recording as an art form. Much like in the visual arts or dance, each field recordist has a particular theme they return to, or a style that’s very evident in their work. What are your favourite subjects?

Paul Virostek: Some of my favourite subjects are high-performance engines. I enjoy trying to find sonic character and emotion in something so structured as a machine. So I've recorded race cars, fighter jets, and obscure heavy-construction machines.

I also enjoy recording urban ambiences. There are a lot of challenges recording sounds in an urban space, but a lot of texture as well.

Finally, I try to record stealth sounds whenever I can. I feel that stealth field recordings contain the most life out of any sound effect. People and animals perform more naturally when a microphone is hidden and a field recordist fades into the background.

So microphones like the DPA's or the Sony PCM D100 help in this regard. I also have a stealth bag that allows me to use the (Neumann) 191 this way.

Ambling around: Tell me about the stories that you’re wanting to tell through your recordings.

Paul Virostek: I particularly like telling stories through sound as I travel. As an outsider in distant, strange locations, I find I listen differently than I do at home. I enjoy finding interesting and unique details about new places, and depicting them through sound.

Many times this is shown through the culture of the people and the place. It may be something mundane to them, such as Parisian café ambience with daily commuters briskly shuffling through and throwing back a quick espresso at the beginning of their day.

There are small elements that add distinction, life, and personality that we may overlook here like brief conversations or acknowledgements from the regulars, friendly banter from the staff, and the shape of the space.

I like focusing on these details to bring a distant place to new listeners’ ears. If I can depict that story and place well enough that even a native will appreciate them, then I feel I am telling that story well.

Ambling Around: Do you remember the first time you picked up a mic and recorded something? And then played it back? What was that like for you?

Paul Virostek: The first time I tried any serious field recording was when I was a sound assistant. At that time, field recording wasn't common due to short schedules and so on. 

I worked with a two sound effects editors, Clive Turner, and later Rob Bertola, who took great pride in their sound effects. They introduced me to the concept of field recording. Rob in particular was always eager to use field recordings in the projects we worked on. 

So it was with these two pros that I first began field recording. After spending a few years editing in a static environment in a edit suite with computers, I really responded not only to hunting down sound effects beyond the studio, but also the effect that fresh clips had on the projects. 

I think the first clips we recorded were fairly basic - a car peeling out in gravel. But hearing them fit into the edit, and then in the theatre, was energizing. It interested me because I could see the impact of sound effects directly on a larger project. I also liked the freedom of field recording to create beyond the walls of the studio.

Ambling Around: When did you decide to become a full time sound recordist? Did you train for it? 

Paul Virostek: I didn't actually train for it. While Rob and I had recorded a handful of times, the majority of my learning was through trial and error in my spare time, just for the fun of it. That's a common way to learn since there isn't a formal way (such as a full-time school program) to learn field recording. That's one reason I created the blog, to help share this knowledge.

Since about 1998 or so, I had been gradually field recording over the years and building up my own sound library, which I was sharing on other websites before Airborne Sound was even created. I had also worked on a number of films throughout the years, since about 2001, but it wasn't until around 2006 that I decided to take the plunge and focus entirely on field recording.

(Airborne Sound has terrific, reasonably priced libraries. )

Ambling Around: Stealth recording sounds like something out of a spy thriller. 

Paul Virostek: The stealth field recording technique is a method of capturing sound where the recordist and their equipment are completely unnoticed in the environment. Often this means disguising the microphone in some way, or the recordist acting inconspicuously.

Stealth field recordists capture sound the way they do because they believe that being unnoticed will help them capture a pure, authentic depiction of a place or a subject. After all, people may act differently when they see a microphone a recordist working. Stealth recording is done to minimize the recordist's impact on a place, subject, or scene, so the true life and personality of a sound emerges.

Ambling Around: Have you ever been confronted by the public or the authorities while stealth recording? 

Paul Virostek: No one has ever directly approached me while stealth field recording. I think this is because I don't use headphones so it isn't as obvious. I'm also very discrete and will often abandon a location if there is any risk. I think it's natural for a field recordist to be self conscious and imagine there is a greater risk than there actually is. 

In my experience, most people, security included, wouldn't even dream sound was being recorded - it's such an immaterial thing that they don't make the connection. In addition, most of the passers-by are busy with their own lives, and don't really notice a nondescript person off to one side.

However, it's important to be respectful of the location, and the people and authorities there. Not even rare sounds are worth disrespecting the people or place one is trying to document. I try to be mindful of that. 

(For those of you who want to know more about stealth recording, Paul covers the subject in more depth in his book on field recording)

Ambling Around: What's the most exciting adventure you've had while field recording?

Paul Virostek: That's a good question. Field recording in itself seems to invite many unusual experiences, since the recordist often finds themselves in new places working under strange conditions.

One exciting experience was travelling across Europe for four months recording sound fx. I was hired by sound publisher Sound Ideas to capture the sounds of 19 cities. I planned each trip, the targets, and the technique, and tackled every city myself as a lone recordist. Finding the best places to depict each culture in such sonically rich places was challenging, and eye-opening. It gave me a deep appreciation for the way of life in each of those countries and cities.

Ambling Around: In The 30 Day Quick Start Guide you highlight the Rode NT4 as a very good stereo mic to build a starter kit around. And the NT4 shows up in the kits of many of the pros you've profiled.

What kinds of sounds are best recorded with stereo mics, in contrast to say a mono condenser or a shotgun?

Paul Virostek: Generally speaking, a stereo mic is used to record a sound effect while depicting a sense of space as well. That may include atmospheres, or some specific sound fx that work well with some of the environment added in. Mono microphones and shotguns are more commonly used for isolating a specific sound effect from its environment to capture it cleanly. 

There are exceptions, of course, but that would be a good guideline. For example, I always record even specific sound effects in stereo, so it also depends on taste and the final use of the sound clip. Most specific stereo sound fx are recorded quite closely with a narrow pattern in "dead" environments specifically to minimize any spaciousness.

(Note that Paul's principal microphone is a Neuman RSM 191. While no longer in production, this is a highly directive stereo mic so it would pick up a minimum of environment or off-axis sound while producing rich and dynamic spot sound fx.

I asked Neumann what they recommend as a current replacement for this mic and the response was: "combining a shotgun microphone with a figure-of eight capsule in MS configuration or the MKH 418 S from our mother company Sennheiser might be a candidate.")

Ambling Around: Can you suggest a mono cardiod and shotgun equivalent of the Rode NT4 for those putting together their first good kits?

Paul Virostek: For the cardiod, I would recommend the Line Audio CM3s. While I have only heard samples and haven't used one myself, they are highly regarded by peers I respect and very cheap. They're often contrasted with the legendary Sennheiser 8040s, but for a fraction of the cost. The Sennehsier MKH 40 would be another option, but more expensive.

For the shotgun, I'd turn to the Røde again. The NTG3 gets very good press, and is compared to the classic Sennheiser MKH 416, and often more favourably. If I had an unlimited budget for a shotgun, I would choose a Schoeps CMIT 5u. I like the axis rejection of that mic, and also its sound.

Ambling Around: Most home speakers accentuate the bass to make the music feel really present. While people starting out in field recording probably don’t have a budget for near-field studio monitors, they might want to get a good set of headphones to monitor their recordings. Which headphones do you use? And what would you suggest for someone starting out?

Paul Virostek: I have two sets of headphones. In the field I use the Sony MDR-7506. I began working with them, and I am used to the sound.

When I need to monitor with headphones when mastering, I use Ultrasone 550s. They have a unique design of offset drivers that represents sound incredibly well for headphones, and also reduce ear fatigue. 

I'd suggest the Sony MDR-7506s for anyone starting out. They sound good, and are an industry standard that any new sound pro can expect to find in most studios worldwide.

Ambling Around: Your series A Month of Field Recordists  was engrossing - in fact I found myself looking forward to a new post every morning.

Your concluding round up comments on the wide array of gear is a fabulous resource for those starting out and I’m sure even for pros looking to augment their kit. 

I was also fascinated by how many unique styles of field recording were presented and I read with great interest your round up overview of the styles presented

Did anything come up that really surprised you? A unique style that you weren’t aware of for example, and you yourself are thinking of trying out? Or a kit combination that led you to think of capturing a sound that’s so far evaded your efforts?

Paul Virostek: I was surprised at the prevalence of certain kit combinations, particularly the Sennheiser combinations. Of course those microphones are well known to be quite good, but it was illuminating to know how many pros used them.

I also found it interesting how many pros use smaller form factor, inexpensive microphones to augment their portable units (such as the Lom, Luhd, Sound Professionals, OKM, and so on), with satisfying results.

Some of the rare microphones I found interesting too, such as the Nuemann binaural head microphone, the hydrophones, and so on.

As for a kit combination that has eluded me: a Sennheiser 8040 stereo pair is officially on my radar.

If you want to know more about field recording, check out Paul Virostek’s informative website. And bookmark the blogs - you'll find yourself returning to them often.

And if you're looking for great sounds effects for your films, check out his sound libraries at Airborne Sound.