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This question is mainly aimed at generic ambiences. So for instance, the type you'd find in a library rather than recorded specifically for a scene.

I'm curious as to what microphones and stereo setup you use to record ambiences? And maybe how you go about recording the space, in other words do you set up two stereo mics one set in front and one at the rear and mix them down? Or just stick to one angle?

I usually use a Mid-Side stereo setup, and the microphone is the Sennheiser MKH 418s. I like that once I'm editing the sounds I am able to control how much of the mid or the sides I use.

I've been recommended to look into the Røde NT4 to record ambiences as it is supposed to be very good. Any experiences with this?

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I used to use a Rode NT4, which is a great mic, especially for the price. Like Nathan said, it is heavy. I really haven't used it much in years, but I seem to remember the stereo field is not as wide as some, and of course, it is not adjustable (the capsules are fixed in place).

Now I have a few different setups. I often use my Neumann 191 stereo shotgun. It is one of those great "what you hear, is what you get" mics. Also, very convienient to use a single mic setup. The only issues with the Neumann are that it is a little noisey for the quiet stuff, and being a shotgun, it can really pull things in close, which you don't always want for ambience recording. I generally run the Neumann in XY (you can select on the matrix box XY or MS). I've also heard there can be issues in high-humidity (like with Schoeps). I've stuck the Neumann out in the middle of rain with no issues, so, I don't know.

I also have a couple of Sennheiser MKH setups. I have 2 MKH800s that are multipattern. Depending on how I need to set up, I can run XY, MS, dual omni, or anything else. If I need to hand-hold, I'll use on of the 800's as a side and run an MKH40 as a mid. The 800's are side address, so they can be a pain when hand-held. When I'm doing MS, I tend to decode in post versus during the recording. MKH mics are amazingly quiet. Probably the lowest self noise out there. They also pick up an insane amount of low end, so you'll want to watch that when recording and maybe use low cuts when doing ambient stuff. I think the MKH series are the "dream team" of ambience mics.

Now since I've gone and wrote a book about mics, I'll try an address the rest of you question :)

When I'm recording ambiences, I generally try to setup and record for at least five mintues without moving the mics. I will often try a few different perspectives in the same area (facing different directions, moving 10 feet away, etc) to give me options, it really depends on how much time I have. I'll move the mics around listening, until I find the spots that sound the best. The real key is to record as long as you can without touching the mics, moving the mics, moving yourself, breathing near the mics, etc. I use the stopwatch on my iPhone and read through Twitter/Facebook while I'm recording :) And never adjust levels once you hit record, or the take is trash.

  • Great response. Thank you. A big reason why I chose the MKH 418s, is because it withstands high humidity, and "extreme" temperatures. Very important for my uses. I can also double up as a mono shotgun, and as you say it is very quiet! I am totally in love with this mic. The 90º angle of the Rode NT4 is mainly what worries me for recording ambiences. If you say the stereo field is a bit tight, then my suspicion is probably right. What is the name of the book you wrote? Do you have a link? – Andrew Spitz Mar 6 '10 at 21:42
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I mostly use a Sanken CSS5 as thats what I have but I plan to buy an MKH 80X0 rig (so i can do MS and discrete stereo) sometime in the not too distant future..... but I do also sometimes take my MKH70 which is a long shotgun mic and is very directional so can be good for extracting a specific element from a locations ambience....

Back in the day I used to use two MKH416s and although I don't like that mic now I did like the idea of having two discrete mics which I could listen and manually choose the stereo field I wanted to record. If you stand still & slowly move each mic you defintiely find sweet spots for each mic so the stereo image is 'interesting'

Its often the thing with recording ambiences - you aren't there to document what a location sounds like; you are there to record an interesting version of it to later layer with other elements... The number of times I've been to the location a scene was shot and despite the location looking great, the natural ambience was not so interesting...

Having a mic stand or two can be very useful for long takes, as can having spare cables - I recorded some great swamp ambiences down south but on take one I got eaten alive by sandflies (local version of mosquito) - take two I ran cable & sat in the car with the windows up!

I consider it the ultimate form of meditation - there's nothing like setting up your mics in a forest, lieing down & slowing your breathing while you listen! A number of times I've flinched when recording because I heard a bird launch & swoop me, only to open my eyes & realise its 100m away!

Also worth noting - as any nature photographer will tell you, it can take up to 20 minutes of quiet before normal bird life returns.. so don't go stomping into a location, slamming car doors etc and expect to immediately hear pristine nature!

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I'm still using a Røde NT-4 for stereo ambiences. It's single-unit construction makes set up really easy, it's pretty low-noise, and the sounds are, I don't know...articulate, well-defined. It's also quite heavy and since it's coincident X-Y, you naturally can't alter the stereo spread during recording or post (without "stereo spread" trickery in post, anyway). It's been dropped a few times and seems to have survived OK, and I've not had any humidity problems yet.

I'm slowly working towards what seems to be the standard in outdoor ambience recording: An MKH pair (40 or 50 center, 30 for side). Lowest-noise small condenser M-S system out there, to hear the nature recording pro's tell it, and what samples I've heard are very, very impressive.

I've heard an M-S Oktava rig and it was pretty noisy. The Schoeps M-S rigs I've heard are very nice, but I've usually not heard 'em for outdoors stuff.

Definitely want to hear from others, too, on their M-S adventures!

  • I keep hearing great things about the Schoeps, I would absolutely love to delve into their double MS. It's out of my budget for now though. – Andrew Spitz Mar 6 '10 at 21:45
  • Andrew, definitely check out Michael's blog at sepulchra.com/blog. Almost all his posts are single MS with the Schoeps. Pretty impressive results (though not double MS). – NoiseJockey Mar 7 '10 at 1:54
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I often use both the Rode NT4 and a Sanken CSS-5. The Rode gets the job done, but it has a slight bit of noise to it. As Chuck and Nathan mentioned, it is heavy and you can't change the pattern, but it's a nice mic for the price.

I love the Sanken. Changeable pattern, and it'll go mono if you need it. Sounds nice and smooth. Again, though, it's rather large, and can be a bit bulky once you add the cable and pistol grip. Difficult to use on a pole, although the grip comes with the mount, since it uses a 5pin XLR

If I'm going to do an M/S recording, I'll often use one or both of my AKG C414s. Sometimes I'll use one as mid and one as side, sometimes I'll just use one of them as the side and use an MKH50 as my mid. Depends on the sound I'm looking for. I generally will bring both so I can play with them in the field.

As Chuck mentioned, it can be tricky getting long, clean ambiences. I find it hard to stay still without making any noises (I always get an itch or something...) for more than a minute or two, so I try to get as far away from my mic setup as possible. This is especially difficult when I'm trying to capture a particularly quiet ambience.

Another thing I'm conscious of when I'm prepping to go out is which preamps I'll be using. I find the 744T's built in preamps to be quite quiet. I also like the Wendt X5 for quiet recordings. Nice quiet preamps. If I'm going to be doing loud recordings, I like the Sound Devices 302 better - I like the saturation on it a bit better for whatever reason, but I think the 302's preamps have a bit more self noise than the X5.

My 2 cents...

  • Nice info, especially on the preamps. I haven't heard of the Wendt X5 before, it seems like a descent mixer. Any idea how the 3 channel compares? It's funny, in "real" life I can't sit still but the second I'm recording I manage to not move for as long as 20 minutes at a time. It must be from yoga, haha. – Andrew Spitz Mar 6 '10 at 21:58
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I've have a set Schoeps CMC5's with a variety of different capsules. I am most often running them in an MS configuration with an MK4 (card) as the mid, but sometimes I like to mix things up with the MK41 (super-card). I love my schoeps rigs and I've had them in all sort of weather conditions without issue. I love em. I just wish they had the hot output the MKHs do.

  • I've heard some of your recordings and your setup sounds very good. – Andrew Spitz Mar 13 '10 at 21:43

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