Building A Travel Audio Recording Toolkit

Travel Audio Recording Toolkit

When you travel and need to shoot on location, it’s helpful if you’ve assembled a capable yet streamlined travel audio recording toolkit.

For those outside the filmmaking business, video is often regarded as purely a visual medium, for obvious reasons. But those of us who actually create films understand the importance of audio in a project and how it can be as essential as the visual components of a production.

It’s why this Audio Assist column focuses on creating your own audio recording toolkit. And not just any audio toolkit, but one small enough and lightweight enough to take on the road with you.

It’s important to note that building any on-location travel audio recording toolkit will depend on the types of shoots you support. So, for instance, some of you might need to choose additional or different gear. I’ve attempted to make this toolkit compact, lightweight, affordable, capable and, most importantly, flexible, so that it might be used to record sound for a variety of projects, including narrative, documentary, corporate, event or reality television. Additionally, I wanted the kit to be able to work on its own or when it’s combined with other components. 

But Do You Actually Need A Travel Audio Recording Toolkit?

Before we begin, some projects might not need an audio kit at all. In some cases, the audio features of your camera may be good enough. But you need to research which camera you’ll be using, since on-camera audio recording wildly varies when it comes to recording sound. Some are decent and usable, but many record audio with terrible sound quality.

For example, an inexpensive mirrorless hybrid, DSLR or prosumer type of video camcorder won’t generally produce great quality audio. Often, even if the camera has a mic input, it’s going to be a plastic, 3.5mm stereo input.

It’s also typical for these cameras to feature low-cost, low sound quality microphone pre-amps and, in many cases, especially in the sub-$1,000 range, the overall audio chain may be substandard, producing audio with tinny, limited dynamic range and a poor signal-to-noise ratio. The plastic inputs themselves often become loose or break with repeated use. Many low-cost cameras don’t even have a headphone jack to allow you to monitor what the camera is recording.

Interestingly, many higher-end cameras also have substandard audio but for different reasons: In high-end cameras, it’s assumed that every sound shoot will have a sound mixer, recording high-quality sound into an external recorder. Most high-end cameras have audio inputs simply for recording scratch audio, nothing more, so the audio circuitry typically isn’t great, either.

Ironically, I’ve found that mid-level cameras like the Sony PXW-FX7 Mark II, the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, Canon EOS C200 or Panasonic EVA1 often have better sound quality than more expensive, higher-end cameras (models that cost over $50,000).

It’s why even the most inexpensive audio recorders have superior sound to even the best-sounding camera. And the good news is that there are a lot of choices for audio recorders for location sound. Almost all of them have at least good sound, and the majority of them sound great, especially when compared to camera audio.  

Travel Audio Recording Toolkit
For some projects, recording in-camera sound will suffice, provided the camera has high-quality microphone pre-amps and good-quality sound recording capabilities. The Sony PXW-FX9 is an example of such a camera that offers such high-quality in-camera audio recording.

Recorders And Recorder/Mixers

Since we are assembling a travel audio recording toolkit, we’re going to keep the priority on size and weight. No matter how you travel, the smaller the size and lighter the weight, the better.

We are also going to prioritize for just a small amount of microphone inputs; usually, three or four microphone inputs are adequate for a travel recorder, but not always. There are plenty of recorder/mixers on the market with 10 or more channel/inputs, but most of these units are physically larger and heavier than the smallest units on the market.

I’ve tested both of the recorder/mixers featured below. They’re both excellent choices for assembling a small, lightweight location sound recording toolkit, although each has its advantages and disadvantages. Research which features matter most to you: You get more channels and inputs on the Zoom, but the Sound Devices unit has 32-bit floating point audio recording, which allows you to dramatically recover or change audio levels after recording.

Travel Audio Recording Toolkit

Travel Audio Recording Toolkit
The Zoom F4 features four TRS/XLR line/microphone inputs.
  • Zoom F4 ($549): The Zoom F4 is a sound-bag-friendly, multi-track field recorder with look-ahead limiters for distortion-free 24-bit audio and up to 6-input/8-track recording for filmmaking and video content creation. It also has headphone and balanced-line outputs, precision time code and sync features, versatile multi-track modes and Ambisonics support for VR/AR/360 audio.

The Sound Devices MixPre-3 II features 32-bit floating point audio recording and offers two XLR inputs on one side and a single XLR input on the opposite side of the unit.
  • Sound Devices MixPre-3 II ($680): The MixPre-3 II is a three-channel/five-track multi-track field recorder that can record up to three tracks of external sources, plus a stereo mix at up to 32-bit/192 kHz while monitoring your audio headphones. It records at 32-bit floating point audio to an internal SD card and can serve as an audio interface capable of 32-bit floating point streaming over USB to a Mac computer. It also comes with Kashmir analog mic pre-amps, Bluetooth for wireless control via the Wingman mobile app, a built-in time code generator and Bluetooth control.

Boom Microphone

Your primary microphone in your kit will usually be one of two types of boom microphones: A shotgun microphone or a cardioid microphone.

For recording exteriors and outdoors, you’ll obtain the best results with a shotgun microphone, since it rejects more off-axis noise than most other microphone types. For reflective interior environments, a cardioid, hyper-cardioid or super-cardioid microphone will work best, since it will pick up fewer room reflections.

The Røde NTG5 is an excellent value since it not only sounds very good but also includes a full accessory kit.
  • Shotgun Microphone: Røde NTG5 Moisture-Resistant Short Shotgun ($499): Røde’s NTG5 moisture-resistant shotgun microphone lets you capture natural, uncolored sound indoors or outside for your next indie film, TV shoot or documentary project without weighing down your kit. It sounds very good and ships as a kit with a microphone mounting system and wind protection, elevating it from just a great mic to a great mic kit for under $500.
The Audix SCX1-HC has similar sound characteristics to the industry standard, but considerably more expensive Schoeps CMC-641 mic.
  • Cardioid Microphone: Audix SCX1-HC Studio Condenser Microphone—Hypercardioid Polar Pattern ($499): If you will mostly be shooting interiors, the Audix SCX1-HC is an outstanding value. Its hypercardioid polar pattern will record fewer standing room reflections than a shotgun would. It’s also fairly neutral, rendering sounds as your ears hear them for a natural, open sound. The package includes an external foam windscreen for reducing wind, sibilance and pop noise, a nylon molded snap-on clip and a foam-lined wooden case. You can also buy an accessory shock mount for an additional $39.

Boompole

For travel, you’ll have a better experience using a shorter, smaller and lighter travel boompole, unless you specifically need to boom talent in a wider shot, which requires a longer boompole.

The K-Tek KE79CCR Traveler is a small and lightweight travel boompole that fits into most check-in baggage and extends to almost 7 feet long.
  • K-Tek KE79CCR Traveler Aluminum Boompole With Internal Coiled Cable ($266): I purchased the KE79CCR boompole for a documentary shoot in Brazil. I was traveling alone and needed a small and lightweight pole for simple sit-down interviews. The K-Tek has performed very well over the past two years. Fully extended, it reaches nearly 7 feet and is long enough for most sit-down interviews. When collapsed, it’s small enough to fit into my suitcase, so I eliminate the need to bring a separate boompole case.

XLR Cables 

I recommend traveling with four to six 25-foot XLR cables, depending on how many microphones you plug into your recorder. Even if you are only using a boom and a lavalier for interviews, it’s smart to bring a couple of spare cables.

I’ve found buying shorter 10-foot to 15-foot cables can save a bit of weight in your travel kit, but the times I have traveled with only shorter cables, I have regretted not bringing longer cables. I also like to have four different colors so that you can assign one color to a boom and one to lavs, and you can easily tell them apart.

The Kopul Performance 3000 XLR cables come in several colors and are heavy duty and not too heavy.
  • Kopul Premium Performance 3000 Series XLR M to XLR F Microphone Cable ($16)

Lavalier Microphones

It’s always a good idea to have a subject double miked in case one microphone has a technical problem. In such cases, you have a backup. And lavalier mics are great for recording a second channel on talent.

One question you’ll need to ask yourself—do you need to bring wireless lavaliers? One thing to consider for your travel kit is this: If you can avoid wireless lavaliers, you will typically end up with better-quality sound if you can avoid using any wireless microphone systems.

If you are only shooting sit-down interviews or seated stationary talent in other shooting styles, use a hard-wired lavalier, not a wireless system.

But many types of shoots really require a wireless lavalier system. Walk and talks, talent moving through a scene, gimbal work with dialogue, and, of course, there are dozens of other scenarios where wireless lavaliers are necessary.

Wired Lavalier Systems: If you mostly shoot sit-down interviews with your travel kit, skip using a wireless lavalier system. You’ll save money, batteries, weight and bulk, too.

The Sanken COS-11D is an industry-standard lavalier microphone that cuts well with most popular shotgun microphones.
  • Sanken COS-11D Miniature Omnidirectional Lavalier Mic with XLR Output ($469): This omnidirectional lavalier mic is intended for professional speech capturing in sound reinforcement, presentation, theatrical, broadcast and recording applications. Its miniature capsule yields a wide frequency response, omnidirectional polar pattern.

Wireless Lavalier Systems

Here are three wireless options for lavalier microphones:

The Lectrosonics L Series ZS-LRLMb Camera Mount Wireless Omni Lavalier System is a top-of-the-line professional wireless lavalier system.
  • Lectrosonics L Series ZS-LRLMb Camera Mount Wireless Omni Lavalier System Microphone System ($2,399): This model is a camera-mounted wireless microphone system that offers filmmakers, journalists and videographers a set of advanced features designed to deliver flexibility and broadcast-quality sound for professional ENG and video productions. If you speak with professional sound mixers, Lectrosonics is considered the industry-standard wireless lavalier, and for good reason. It offers the longest range (UHF) and greatest consistency. The products are pricey. However, if you have the budget for it, you won’t regret buying a Lectrosonics system.
The Sennheiser EW 512P is a popular UHF wireless lavalier system that offers greater range than other Sennheiser lavalier systems.
  • Sennheiser EW 512P G4 Camera Mount Wireless Omni Lavalier Microphone System ($899): The rugged EW 512P G4 combines a wide 88 MHz bandwidth with 3,520 frequencies and an RF output level up to 50 mW for a clean transmission and broadcast-quality sound. The Sennheisers are regarded as good-quality, mid-range (UHF) lavalier systems. The EW 512P G4 won’t have the same range or features as the Lectrosonics system, but it is much more affordable.
The Deity Connect is a two-channel 2.4GHz diversity wireless lavalier system with a lot of pro features at a very reasonable cost.
  • Deity Microphones Deity Connect Dual-Channel True Diversity Wireless System ($669): Unlike the Lectrosonics or Sennheiser systems, both of which are UHF, the Connect operates in the 2.4GHz frequency. The other big difference is, the Connect offers two channels, with two transmitters and a two-channel receiver for less than $700. The 2.4GHz system has slightly more latency than the UHF systems and not as long range but may offer perfectly acceptable results in many line-of-site situations.

Audio Bag

You’ll generally need an audio bag to use with your travel kit. It’s great to keep your mixer/recorder safe and secure while traveling or shooting. You’ll also keep your options for powering your recorder mixer and possibly powering wireless microphone receivers in the bag as well. Here are two bags to consider:  

The Porta Brace AR-F4 Case is custom-designed to hold not only the Zoom F4 Recorder but also wireless receivers and other accessories.
  • Porta Brace AR-F4 Custom-Fit Cordura Case for the Zoom F4 Recorder ($189): The Porta-Brace AR-F4 is a portable case made specifically for the Zoom F4 recorder, giving you an abrasion-resistant 1000-denier Cordura nylon construction, as well as two rigid frame panels to ensure protection.
The K-Tek Stingray MixPro is designed to hold the smaller MixPre-3 II and MixPre-6 II recorders.
  • The K-Tek Stingray MixPro Audio Bag for MixPre-3 II ($190): The K-Tek Stingray MixPro Audio Bag is designed for Sound Devices’ MixPre-3 and MixPre-6 recorders as well as a couple of wireless systems, NP-1 batteries and various accessories.

Miscellaneous Accessories

There are many audio accessories to fine-tune your travel audio recording toolkit to your specific needs.

One to consider is power options: If you have a location sound audio bag, either solution provided here gives you enough room to include an optional add-on battery or BDS (Battery Distribution System) to power every accessory and recorder in your bag.

Another accessory you might need is a Bluetooth or WiFi solution for wirelessly distributing your time code if you can’t run a BNC cable from the recorder to camera.

The components and options we’ve assembled here will result in a high-quality, pro-level travel audio toolkit that can be modified in countless ways to support larger shoots with more cameras, more microphones and more accessories. For example, you might introduce IFB systems to send your sound to the director wirelessly if the director isn’t you or you need to have clients or other crew monitor the sound as well.

What’s convenient is that the components I suggest for your kit are small and lightweight enough to fit into a camera bag or backpack, too, and offer you audio capabilities that just a few years ago would not have been available in such a small size and economical price.

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