Get great sound every time with this field recording checklist

You return from a long day reporting in the field — only to realize you didn’t record ambience. You’re in the middle of a reporting trip and you’ve forgotten extra batteries for your recorder. You’re not happy with the scene sounds you’re capturing.

For audio producers, these frustrating problems are all too common. We want to help! This recording checklist is full of ideas and reminders to help you stay on your toes when you work in the field. Even if you already know these things, having a checklist will jog your memory when you need it most.

Here are some of the ideas on the card to help you get great sound:

Always wear your headphones. If you can’t hear problems, you can’t prevent them. Headphones are essential.

Anticipate the sounds you’ll hear in the field. Before you leave, make a list of these sounds and keep them with you for inspiration. Once you are out in the field, deconstruct the scene into its individual elements and record them up close. For instance, a coffee shop scene might be made of cups clinking, patrons ordering and the sounds of steaming milk. Remember, actions make sound.

Print your own and keep it in your kit!

The field recording checklist includes two cards per page. Print it two-sided on nice, heavy paper. On many systems, you can scale the print to about 70 percent for a smaller, more compact card.

Look for and record movement. Read more about these ideas in “Active sound: how to find it, record it and use it.”

A great rule of thumb is, “get close, stay close.” You want to capture sounds that are specific, clear, and that will pop out of the radio. To do that, you need to get close to the sound.

Omnidirectional mics and shotgun mics have very different properties — but it’s more than the mic’s pattern. For instance, omnidirectional mics handle wind noise better than directional mics. Learn more in “Which mic should I use?

A high-pass filter can often prevent problems, and many mics and recorders have them. When you are in the field doing news and documentary reporting, there’s no harm in using a high-pass filter all of the time. Read more about high-pass filters from the Association of Independents in Radio.

Don’t forget your ambience. Ambience (also called “ambi” or room tone) is probably the most commonly forgotten audio element, but it’s absolutely necessary. It can be used to repair edits (no matter how quiet the space) and having enough ambi can help you build a scene. We suggest you record 90 seconds of ambience for every scene and interview you record. To ensure the sound of the ambience matches the interview perfectly, keep your microphone in the same place it was in during the interview and don’t adjust levels on the recorder.

Thanks to Jim Briggs (Reveal), Michael Raphael (WNYC), Corey Schreppel (MPR), and Johnny Vince Evans  (MPR) for help putting the checklist together.

Rob Byers was a Production Specialist with the NPR Training team, where he focused on audio engineering.