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NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE FORUM
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Field Recording
by Tim Crawford
Recording artist and author of:
Flute Magic: An Introduction to the Native American Flute
 
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     Introduction
     The Psycho-Biology of Tone
     The Physiology of Hearing
     Summary
     Conclusion
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     Hello to all of our friends in the world of the Native American Flute!
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     For those who are reading the Flute Forum for the first time, this is the educational area of the web page, where we share ideas that will improve your experience with the flute. As always, the Flute Forum is here to serve your needs. If you have questions related to flutes, or about this column, please write. If you have suggestions about how we might better address your specific needs, or the needs of flute players in general, please contact us atwebmaster@loomisflute.com.
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     In this issue of the Flute Forum, Tim Crawford responds to an inquiry posted on the Flute Circle about recording your flute music in natural environments--canyons, rivers, mountains, etc. One of the wonderful qualities of the Native American flute is its marvelous improvisation ability. Tim discusses his experiments with bringing nature sounds into his music and offers some advice for others.
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     Question: "I'd be interested in advice from any of you who have had some experience making flute recordings "in the field" with portable equipment. There are some nice canyons around here with pretty fair echos that I'd like to use for making my first tape, but I'm not sure what kind of a setup I need (especially on a limited budget)."

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Field Recording


     It would help if you were to be specific about the intended use of your field recording efforts. In other words are you intending to have some CDs made for distribution or are you wanting only to record for your own use and maybe a few copies for family and friends?
     In any event, I started my field recordings with a friend's boombox and a twenty-dollar mike. Not bad, actually, it worked and tapes were made for friends. Next I graduated to a Marantz tape recorder and a thirty-nine dollar mike. Much better quality; Marantz is an excellent field recorder for tape; in fact, several years ago, when at Disneyworld in Florida, I was surprised to see a professional field crew making a commercial using several Marantz recorders in various locations of their shot. In fact that thirty nine-dollar mike and my Marantz were used to create my first album of music of the Native American flute.
     The major drawback to the sound quality, aside from the hiss inherent in quarter-inch tape, was the thirty-nine dollar mike. The inexpensive mike was responsible for a lot of hiss, to put it simply. When describing my troubles to my son in-law who is a TV camera newsman, he suggested that I try one of the studio's nine hundred dollar field mikes. WOW! What a difference that mike made! Incredible quality (there again, qualified to the quarter-inch tape medium)-- I hated to have to return it after only a couple of days of use. My next mike, still for use with the Marantz, was a three hundred dollar mike and I created two albums of music that were distributed in CD form.
     Microphones also come with different sensing patterns or areas around the mike where they will accept sound at a reasonable level or not accept the sound very well. I do not want to get into this discussion, at this time, but you should be aware of this fact. You can discuss mike options with your local music store and they will explain what your best options are (in terms of patterns) for the specific need that you have and for what money you have to spend.
     An additional item that you will need for your mike, out of doors, is a windscreen. Generally these are simply foam devises that slip over the end of the mike. Their function is to diminish the sound of the BREEZE (and I really think they should be called breeze screens instead) because if the wind is blowing you will pick that noise up, windscreen or not.
     By the way, tape hiss can be significantly reduced in recordings by use of signal processors designed for that purpose or computer software created for that purpose. Some of these techniques work pretty good and can come close to rivaling those recordings made in the digital domain.
     While I have successfully recorded the flute playing in culverts and various similar venues with reflections, I am not certain of the success you may have, in terms of sound level, with a single recorder capturing both the flute and the reflections in a large out-of-doors setting. In other words to have your recorder level set high enough to capture the low level, sound pressure speaking, i.e. db, of reflections of sound from distant surfaces you would then most likely discover that your flute over-saturated the tape and thusly distorted because of the higher db levels being closer to the source.
     I suspect that you will have to use, at a minimum, two recorders so that the recording levels can be correctly set for each basic level of sound that your are recording, that is, the flute you are playing and the reflected sounds from distant objects. Basically, I would suggest that you record where you choose, but use a signal processor to add the reflections, i.e. echo, that you desire. You can do this as you record, the least desirable option, or do it as a post-recording function, which is preferable.
     Currently, as much as possible, I much prefer to do all of my flute recording indoors, in a space that does not allow for sound reflections, in a digital format; then process the sound, post recording to my taste. This is how I recorded my last album, VOICES.
     While I currently do not own a portable digital recorder, if I find it necessary to do any more field recording it will be with such an instrument. Use of digital equipment does not, in and of itself, necessarily provide you with clean recordings. As the amount of gain that is applied to the microphone or input signal rises, so will the noise floor. This is just as true with Digital equipment as it is with tape. The advantage with most digital setups is that you generally start with a much lower noise floor (the sound heard from the system itself when recording with no apparent sound) than with tape and if a quality mike is used with modest gain (increase in volume) then you will get a more pristine recording.
     About six years ago I was very anxious to record the loons on the lakes near our cabin for use in a Native American flute album (I think it was my 2nd). Loons, especially in the fall, tend to have periods of the day when they are vocally more active. My best two options appeared to be around 10:30 PM or about 2:30AM. To make the long story short, I never was able to get a pristine recording, in spite of the fact I was within 15' of loons with my directional mike one evening and they were very active vocally. I spent a lot of nights trying. My Marantz performed just fine. The problems with a pristine recording in the field encompass airplanes, cars, dogs, generators, airplanes, four wheelers, motorcycles, airplanes, etc.--well you get the idea. Until you try to do a recording in the field, you are generally just not conscious how noisy the night can be if you are anywhere near roads, trails or air corridors. It is also astounding how far noise will carry at night.
     I ended up having to pay someone else to use their loon recording and then had to fight the dang noise floor (hiss) from their own efforts, but at least they were clean of other noise.
     About three years ago a friend of mine tried to record wolves in the wild with the same equipment and had the same problem; every time he got a great howl going, an airplane would fly over. Had to give up on that and pay someone else for their recording. I have nothing but the greatest respect for those folks who can successfully record nature sounds in a clean manner.
     Recording your flute out of doors will often present similar problems and you must be patient. At least with your own playing you can redo the material as many times as needed to get a clean recording as opposed to the frustration of nature sounds that you can not control.
     Oh, by the way, the loons are active this year and I am thinking about trying it again-um-we shall see.
     Now to get the pro perspective on field recording: the November, 1997, issue of Electronic Musician contains an excellent article on this subject. If you are not familiar with Electronic Musician you can find it at most larger book stores and then order the back issue.
     In Peace & Light,
     Tim WindWalker Crawford
     "THE WIND IS THE MUSIC-CATCH IT IF YOU CAN"
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     Do you have questions about caring for or playing your Native American flute? We"d love to hear from you. Email: webmaster@loomisflute.com
 
 
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