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From the Archive: Recording in difficult weather

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Robin White, the founder of Radio College, championed entrepreneurship before it was a popular term in public media, and wrote several pieces about how independent journalists could make a living wage (or better).

His story, published as “How to Make $60K a Year Freelancing in Public Radio,” is one of the most-read pieces of advice we’ve ever published. Today we bring to you his tips on how to record in difficult weather – something every radio producer will find themselves facing at one point or another.

by Robin White

One day I was taking a walk with friends along the Merced river in California’s Sierra Nevada. It was a quiet winter’s day with a low cloudbase not many hundreds of feet above us. I noticed as we were talking back and forth that there was a muted quality to the sounds of our voices and the sounds of the birds around us and the river rushing by. It was as if we were all surrounded by cotton wool.

Perhaps it was the humidity in the air or the moisture on the trees and leaves around us that was dampening the sounds. I wondered if there were other reasons so subtle as to be uncatalogued – perhaps the landscape makes less sound in winter because with a lack of sunshine and warmth it’s not bristling with growth and activity. Whatever the myriad subtle causes it made me reflect on how differently the landscape sounds in winter as opposed to in summer.

Subtleties such as this can change from day to day, or even from moment to moment. They’re probably not worth worrying about in terms of recording for radio purposes, although a series of recordings made on consecutive days might sound a little different. Much more of an issue for recording purposes are the gross changes which come with storms. Obviously major weather changes are going to affect what you record as well as how you make the recording. Here are some thoughts about recording in difficult weather conditions.

THUNDER

Thunder can be a great dramatic element in a radio feature, although you’ll find that thunderclaps come in a great variety and many are long and rumbling, rather than short and sharp.

Thunder is hard to record because it doesn’t happen predictably. I once spent days in the high Sierra trying to record the storms which would build up every day. There would be a couple of thunderclaps and then nothing more. Just about enough time to get your equipment out –ƒ and then silence. Obviously you have to run your tape recorder for a long time to get thunder.

Thunder is very loud and you will have to record carefully to prevent overloading the signal. You might have difficulty recording raindrops at the same time. Monitor for extreme changes in signal level.

RAIN

To record rain, you need to be sheltered yourself because your equipment needs to stay dry, but still you have to be close enough to the actual raindrops to be able to record them. You could try standing on the porch of a house or under a tree. Or you could try recording rain out of a car or house window (although, in a car, you will pick up the sound of the rain on the roof which could sound more like an interior sound).

You might want to try recording other sounds such as the sound of running water in a drain or a gutter, or the sound of cars splashing through puddles, which will also signify a rainy day.

If you are outside, try laying your equipment on the ground in a dry bag such as those used for kayaking. If you are careful and lay your microphone pointing towards the open end of the dry bag, you will pick up the sound of the rain hitting the ground (although you’ll also likely pick up the sound of the rain hitting the dry bag, which is a distinctive sound in itself.

To protect a microphone recording out in the rain, you might try using a condom. They are very effective, and often make an interview subject smile, which puts them at ease, but you will lose a lot of the clarity of the recording you are trying to make. You will record the sound of the rain hitting the condom itself. Again this is a distinctive sound, but for an authentic recording of a reporter working in a wet environment, this should work well. If you plan to use a condom, I suggest taking along several (non-lubricated, of course) because they tend to shred when you take them on and off of the microphone.

WIND

Recording wind is difficult, although it can make a dramatic element in a story. To get a howling wind you actually need to be close to a small hole or a crack in a building which acts like a kind of flute or woodwind instrument. The best recording I made of wind was in a motel in Bishop, California. The motel was a bit shabby and the sliding glass window didn’t close properly which allowed a dramatic whining sound. Another recording made in California’s Sierra Nevada, was of the wind whistling through the holes of a metal walking stick.

In a storm, you might get a good sound of wind whistling through the wires and masts of boats in the local harbor. Again, this is an effect like a musical instrument, although more like a violin than a flute. In this situation you can also record the clacking sounds of wires rattling against masts and the sound of materials, like flags and sails flapping in the breeze.

Wind in trees seems like it should be a distinctive sound but in actual fact it tends to sound mushy and undifferentiated when you are out in the field trying to record it. Again, look around for places where the wind acts on a particular tree or the spaces around a tree in a musical way. It may be easier to record the results of the wind, such as leaves scattering on concrete, than it is to effectively record the wind in the trees.

Wind can be particularly difficult to record because it causes the microphone itself to make noise as the moving air comes into contact with the materials the microphone is built from. Some small amount of roaring in the microphone may give a good ambience. It let’s the listener know that this is real wind – strong enough to affect the production values of the recording. This kind of roaring makes the wind sound much bigger than it actually is. A quite gentle wind can sound quite loud.

As noted in the section on How to Mic A Field Interview, it’s hard when you are recording to differentiate between the roaring sound you might be hearing in your headphones and recording on the tape, and the roaring sound of the wind rushing past your ears and the headphones. It’s quite difficult to monitor what is actually being recorded. One way to know what is going on is to bare your arms. If there is a light occasional breeze blowing the hairs on your arms, the recording will probably be useful and there will be some light occasional wind sounds which will add to the atmosphere of your recording. If there is a constant blowing on your arms, it means that the recording will be very distorted and may not be usable.

Try to find a place out of the wind to do your recording. Get behind a sand dune or the brow of a hill or a building. Behind a tree might provide enough shelter. You may be able to shield the microphone with your body enough to get a usable recording for radio purposes.

See also the Radio College pages for Recording in the Cold.

Robin White is an independent radio producer and a co-founder of Radio College.