If you have ever done any field recording, you’ll have learned that no amount of planning and research will guarantee the exact outcome you planned for. Stuff always happens: a tractor suddenly rolls by, ruining your idyllic country-side ambience; bystanders wanting to converse with you when you’re recording, etc.
Concealing your equipment doesn’t necessarily solve those problems either, as is evident from
a quick clip I recently posted to SoundCloud – an excerpt from a field recording I did at the fish auction in Hanstholm – one of the most important fishing ports in Denmark. I wanted to capture the atmosphere, the buyers bidding and the auctioneer doing his thing. Put the listener in my shoes, you know?
I think I succeeded in doing that – but not without certain challenges specific to stealth field recording. More about that in a bit, but first the recording in question:
A Little Background
Hanstholm is a small town of a few thousand inhabitants – which also happens to be home to the largest fish auction in Denmark, grossing the equivalent of just under 100M USD per year. Perched right on the shoulder of Jutland, it’s a cold and windy place, where trees don’t always enjoy perfectly vertical growth, so to say.
The people there are usually either involved in the fishing industry or tourism – and known for their toughness. There’s certainly no shortage of stories about the salty dogs that fish the North Sea from Hanstholm – some more believable than others, I suppose.
Even though most danish dialects are slowly fading into more widely understandable vocalizations, the people of Hanstholm still sound very “North Jutland”. Especially noticeable (to those in the know) are the soft d’s – which I’ll admit to having a certain fondness of.
People up there also don’t talk too much (not even the auctioneer), and they certainly don’t throw around hyperbole (or multi-syllable words)in every other sentence. They do, however, display a dry, deadpan sense of humor – which can be heard in my recording if you listen carefully…and understand what they’re saying, of course.
My Stealth Recording Approach – And Its Challenges
My idea of stealth recording is that the recorder and any external microphones must be completely concealed – or there’s no point. Sneaking around, holding something that looks kind of like an over-sized iPhone with a frizzy wig, hoping no one will suspect you are recording – is not my style.
Until now, I have been using a Sony PCM M10 with concealed external Primo EM172 electrets. The mics are placed in the mesh pockets of my backpack, with the recorder and all wiring placed inside. The result is a sort of hybrid A-B/Jecklin setup, which has worked nicely.
But there are a couple of problems though. One is specific to my setup, the other is more general.
1 – Having to turn your back on people to record them
That’s right; since the mics are placed in side-pockets on a backpack, I literally have to look away from what I am recording.
You could argue that it seems even less obvious what I am doing if I am looking away – but it also makes it somewhat harder to observe my “target” or perform “smartphone slating” while I record. As a result, I often place the bag in a usable listening position and try to put a little distance to it.
The problem with that, of course, is that nowadays, a bag seemingly left behind spells explosive device to some people.
Wear the backpack on your chest like a paranoid tourist. Yeah, it looks dumb. Yeah, it’s what I did at the auction. It worked well enough.
2 – Controlling the recording and its subject
This is the more general problem I mentioned earlier. How to record enough of what you want – and a minimum of what you don’t – becomes a challenge in some situations.
In Hanstholm, what I wanted was a lively and balanced stereo recording of an auction, of the buyers and the auctioneer doing their thing. I wanted the ambience of the warehouse, with forklifts and other machinery in the background.
An auction like this is someone’s workplace – you don’t want to get in the way, but you still want to be close to where the action is. Now, in this warehouse, there were stacks of fish crates in long rows, from one end of the room to the other. The auctioneer would move around between rows and stacks, and buyers would move with him.
I had no way of predicting where and when he would move, so at any given time, I might be standing next to him on one side of a row of crates, or I might be ten feet away in a huddle of buyers trying to get a look at what to bid on next.
I had to walk a fine line between positioning myself optimally to get the action I wanted – and not getting in the way of people working a job. Actually, I discovered I didn’t want to be too close to the auctioneer – every time he closed a bid, he would whack the nearest fish crate with a piece of acrylic rod he was carrying – which had a tendency to put my recording in the red.
Next time, instead of trying to stay as close as possible to the subjects, I think I’m going to try circling around it, trying to keep a constant, equal distance to the sources. Wouldn’t necessarily result in a better recording, but perhaps closer to what I initially wanted.
Or, I could go for an M/S setup with a shotgun – but short of getting a very large and silly looking fur hat, I just don’t know where I could hide a rig like that.
Record What You Love – Or Love What You Record
Recording with concealed equipment is challenging, often limiting. We can try to build ever more elaborate stealth rigs (surround setup in a bear-skin hat anyone?) or we can accept; even welcome the type of result we get when we are limited in our use of equipment, our choice of mic placement, etc.
I’ve come to appreciate the recordings I made in Hanstholm that day. Without a doubt, they transport me to that place, at that point in time. In some parts, the auctioneer comes through loud and clear, then he slips away from me, leaving me wedged in between fish crates and buyers mumbling to each other. But that was what I experienced that day. That was the reality.
Had I called ahead for permission, brought a shotgun mic on a pole and stuck it in peoples faces all day, I would have gotten something else entirely. What a difference an approach makes.
What I did, was record a bunch of professionals in their working environment. These recordings reflect exactly that – no more, no less. If I wanted specific sound effects of the auctioneer, the buyers, forklifts, etc – I should have brought them all into a studio and recorded them individually. That would have been something else entirely though – certainly not field recording.