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Tuesday
Jul242012

Field Recording Gear Tips: Mic stands and Boom Poles

If you want to approach a new recording project from the right angle, you need options. That's why a good recording kit should provide you with many ways to hold microphones steady, locked, and aimed at what is being recorded.  If you're out in the field, your arm will never forgive you if you try to record ten-minute-long ambiences free-hand.  Also, take it from me, it's always smart to put a couple of feet between you and the angry raccoon you are recording.  Furthermore, in keeping with demonstrated scientific principles, what you want to get "on tape” will often simply never happen if you are standing there watching and waiting; you have to secure the mic to something, walk away, and let the magic happen.  Happily, there are lots of options available to help you through these types of situations.  Products range from traditional microphone stands and boom poles to other options from a little further out in left field.  Today I'm going to walk you through the stuff in my rig that gets me through both simple and complex SFX recording sessions.

The most standard way to hold a microphone is the very aptly named microphone stand.  They come in many different geometries and sizes, and through trials and tribulations I have come up with the type of mic stand that works well for me.  Instead of recommending a specific mic stand, I'll tell you some specific things to keep an eye out for if you're shopping for one.  For SFX recording in the field you'd be wise to trade away durability for compactness.  In the studio, a great big weighted boom stand is the safe and secure choice, but dragging such a stand through the forest to capture wild animal growls is not realistic.  Look for something that can be disassembled or folded down into a compact and light-weight package.  Avoid stands with weighted base plates; instead stick to tripod stands.  These stands are much lighter and fold down easily. Portability is the priority.  I use stands with angled boom arms, as they offer more ways to get a mic in close to your sound source.  Make sure to get one that does not have a counter-weight on the end of the boom though - keep it light. The trade-off here is that a light-weight stand tips over pretty easily.  So be careful, and weigh down the foot of your stand before you put your microphone at risk of blunt trauma.

In the studio there's a lot of control over the environment but unpredictable factors always introduce themselves in the field.  If you're recording a really loud object - like a tank, a train, rock drops or tree falls -  vibrations can be a problem.  Impacts will rumble through the ground and up the mic stand to the mic.  In a perfect world the shock absorber in your microphone’s mount will be able to deal with this intrusion, but to help cut down the vibrations before they reach that far there are a few tricks.  For a couple of dollars at any hardware store, you can buy that grey pipe-insulation foam - it fits perfectly around tripod stand legs.  The foam will act as a cheap DIY shock absorber.  It works so well that I used zip ties to semi-permanently attach pipe insulation to the legs of my stand.  I got this idea from Ric Viers in this video: 

I find no need to break the bank buying mic stands intended for use out in the field.  Most traditional mic stands are made for stage or studio - very different environments than where they will end up being used when going out to record effects. These stands are going to be bouncing around in car trunks, getting their feet wet in muddy fields, heating up in the sun, and submitting to countless other less-than-ideal situations. They're going to get banged-up and abused, and there's not much that can be done to avoid this.  Their life-span is predestined to be shorter than the average. Don't waste your money.  Find a cheap one that is light-weight and seems rugged - and go with it.

One crucial little thing you will need with any mic stand is a 3/8″ to 5/8″ thread adaptor.  These little doohickeys allow you to screw a pistol grip onto the the standard threads of a mic stand that is designed to fit mic clips.  A good tip is to always have a bunch of these handy. When they are dropped, and they usually are, they always roll under something too heavy to move.

Generic Microphone stand with boom arm, pipe insulation foam on legs, and thread adaptor.

Besides the mic stand I also pack a Manfrotto 5001B Nano Retractable Compact Light Stand.  I first read about this great product on the Noise Jockey website.  It's a photography accessory, made to hold small lights,  but it transitions well into the world of sound recording.  It was even designed with 3/8″ thread above the lighting mount, so Rycote and Rode windshields will screw on to this stand without any adaptors.  Another huge plus for the 5001B is how light-weight it is.  It's aluminum construction means it only weighs 2 pounds!  You can throw it in any backpack and trudge through rough terrain and not feel it on the hike.  It's pretty tough too; I've had mine 2 years now and it still looks brand new.  It's feather-weight is also a downside: if you set up in windy conditions it will blow over in no time unless you throw some kind of weight over the legs.

On the left, the Manfrotto Nano 5001B is shown standing, top right shows the Nano fully collapsed, while bottom right displays the threading and spigot.

There seems to be an endless variety of makes and models of boom poles available these days.  You could Google directions for how to put together a homemade boom using a painter's pole, or you could step it up a couple hundred notches with a lightweight carbon-fibre job with internal coiled cable.  I found that something in the middle of the spectrum works for me.  I don’t use a boom pole on the majority of the sessions I do, so I never shopped at the upper end of the price spectrum.  It just didn't make sense to shell out for a top of the line pole if I wouldn't be using it much.  So I went with an aluminum pole.  It's reliable, sturdy, and gets the job done.  On the rare occasions when I know I will be holding the pole over my head for endless hours on a shoot, I'll rent a lighter carbon-fibre boom for the day.  I also opted for a pole without internal cabling.  I'm often switching between mono and stereo microphones, many times even within a single session, so I wanted to be able to easily switch from a standard XLR cable to a 5-pin stereo XLR cable.  Going with a boom pole without internal cabling keeps it simple.

A neat little gadget I've picked up is the Fat Gecko suction cup mount made by Delkin.  I haven't had this little guy long so I am still figuring out its strengths and weaknesses.  It sticks to windows and other surfaces really well and holds firm as long as the surface isn't moving;  I mounted it to the windshield of an ATV and within 20 seconds of hitting the gas it lost suction and went flying.  It was holding my portable digital recorder (Sony D-50) which I don’t think is much heavier than the camcorders the Gecko is designed to work with (I caught it as it fell - so no damage was done).  It could be that the ATV was just too rough and bouncy for the suction mounts.  I have not done any testing yet on a standard car, driving on flat ground,  so I can't say yet how it works in less extreme situations.  I am pretty sure the suction could not hold up the weight of a Rycote windshield mounted on it, but it might be great for holding miniature microphones like DPA 4060's to the exterior of a speeding vehicle on flat ground.

The fat Gecko in its smallest form, beside the mesh bag it comes with.

As part of the Rycote Portable Recorder Kit, I have a little pistol grip for my Sony D-50.  It's threaded at the bottom of the grip to attach the recorder to a boom pole.  What makes this accessory really handy though is the lyre mount that sits between the pistol grip and the recorder.  It can be detached from the grip and used with other small stands.  This is especially handy to use with a Joby Gorillapod, which can attach to all sorts of strange shapes and sizes. 

One product I have in my kit that I have not seen anyone else using is Giotto's MM5580 Monopod.  This is a great weapon to have in your arsenal because of its versatility.  It can obviously be used as a monopod under a windshield to steady your hand when recording quick and dirty, saving your arms from getting tired.  In a pinch it can also be a low-rent boom pole.  What makes the MM5580 really handy is that there are 3 metal rods hiding inside the tube of its bottom extension.  These rods are threaded and can be removed and screwed into various threaded holes found on the body of the monopod.  Through various manipulations it turns into a few different kinds of tripod.  The rods are stored snugly inside the body of the monopod, so they don't make any noise or rattle around when they're not being used.  It also comes with a reversible threading on the head to accommodate pistol grips.  It's not the greatest as a tripod or as a boom, but it makes a great emergency substitute for either.  If I think I will need both a boom and a tripod on a remote recording session but I don't want to hike too much gear this guy will do the job of both admirably.

Giotto's MM5580 Monopod full collapsed.The Giotto's rubber bottom unscrews to reveal legs hidden inside.The Giotto's legs installed to create a couple different tripod styles.

I also make sure to take along a special holder for myself - something commonly known as a stool.  I found a great little stool at a garage sale that folds up to the same size as any one of the poles and stands I might bring.  The stool helps me take a load off between takes or during a long ambience record.  In wet or muddy conditions it provides a clean surface to rest gear on.  Also, I find I am about 200% less fidgety when I'm sitting than when I'm standing, so just having a place to sit saves me a lot of time editing my own movements out of the recordings later on. 

Finally, I will share a cool idea I picked up from the Music of Sound Blog for making what he calls “MicroMicStands”.  These are simply large bulldog paperclips with little mounts glued to them  - the ones that come with the DPA 4060 matched pair kit.  This makes a great do-it-yourself stand for miniature microphones and lavalieres. 

If you want to read more about the things that make up my field recording rig, please check out my post on the Wind Protection gear I use.   In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for a post that will go over the various “extras” in my kit - all the things not directly related to microphones and recorders - that make life easier during a field recording session.  Also coming up is a post on the best ways to transport all this gear around.

If you want to read more about the things that make up my field recording rig, please check out my post on the Wind Protection gear I use.   In the coming weeks keep an eye for a post that will go over the various “extras” in my kit, all the things not directly related to microphones and recorders that make life easier at a field recording session.  As well as a future post on the best ways to transport all the gear around.

If you have any helpful tips I missed that you think I should know about please get in touch.

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Reader Comments (3)

I, like yourself and many other recordists, got hold of a Manfrotto 5001B Nano stand after reading about it on Nathan Moody's blog. They really are an awesome accessory, mainly due to being so light and compact. But I'd second the weighing down of the legs when in use. The first time I took mine out it fell over and their was hardly any wind.

But I'm also considering a Silk Sprint Mini after reading about it on Tim Prebble's site. Equally compact but looks a bit more sturdy.

Would be interesting to hear if anyone else has used these.

July 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin Hunter

Hello Colin
I also read that post about the Silk Sprint Mini. I have no personal experience with it to base an opinion on though. Next time I need to get a new stand I will certainly be looking into that one. Thanks for the feedback.

July 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterMuirhead

Hi,
I recently purchased a MeFoto backpacker. It's extremely compact but sturdy. Loving it for my binaural ears. There are a few other versions too.
http://www.mefoto.com

October 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Cunningham

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