Planning a Recording Trip

Even the shortest of field recording sessions must be planned, and the planning is really part of your fieldcraft, as to succeed you have to take the nature of the environment and conditions into account.

From ensuring all your equipment is present and working to knowing the best route to your destination, the optimum time to get there and the nature of the terrain, hazards and safety precautions, quite a lot of work must be put in before you ever set up a microphone. The longer the trip and the less familiar the proposed recording site, the more effort has to be expended in planning. If you have the luxury of taking several days for a trip, the first day or two should be set aside for obtaining local knowledge and reconnoitring, but this supplements prior planning - it must not be expected to replace it.


Travel is an important consideration, particularly for short trips. If you have the luxury of taking a week or more, you can rest after you arrive and before you return, but on a short trip this may not be possible. So the distance, the route and the availability of places to take short breaks are all important. I've done many short trips, travelling out to arrive by mid-afternoon, reconnoitring until dark, sleeping in the car until around 3 am, setting up, waiting until just before dawn, recording for a couple of hours and then setting off for home around 7 am. Such trips are efficient, but extremely tiring, so it's important to minimise the strain. The ideal route is the least busy one that offers opportunities to take a short break every 45 minutes or so, particularly on the return journey.

Minimising travel time usually means sticking to motorways, but this can be a bad choice when you're tired. The need to negotiate junctions and roundabouts on ordinary roads can actually keep you alert. And it's probably not a brilliant idea to leave all your equipment in your car while you use a motorway service station, whereas in a lay-by you can often get a cup of coffee at a stall while keeping an eye on your car. From experience of numerous short trips of around 300 miles, the return journey is the toughest challenge, as the job is done, the excitement has worn off, one has had little sleep for 24 hours and no breakfast.

So it's also critical to provide for food. I usually have dinner in a local pub the evening I arrive as part of my local knowledge gathering - little beats getting the landlord interested in your recording activities. But you'll need lunch on the road, and the night wait's pretty cold whatever the time of year, so a thermos of tea or coffee is essential - tea being better than coffee, as you'll want to sleep as well as you can. It's better to take two half-size thermos flasks, as a big one cools quite fast once it's half full. Sugary chocolate bars are also a good idea, provided you can keep them cool. If the weather is very hot, it's better to substitute something sugary that doesn't melt, such as sweet grain bars or, at a pinch, boiled sweets, but something of this kind is essential.

Finally, plot and document your route on relatively small sized paper in bold black ink so you can clip it to the dashboard and refer to it while you drive. Take the relevant maps with you - long distance and local scale - but while driving refer to your plot rather than trying to struggle with a printed map. Your plot should include all important landmarks that will guide you to your destination, but leave out all extraneous detail.

Vehicle satnav can be enticing and even quite useful, particularly if you happen to get lost. But relying on it to guide you throughout your journey can be a mistake, as it's still extremely unintelligent and can lead you seriously astray, particularly in more remote areas. Tales abound of lorries stuck in narrow lanes and cars bogged down on farm tracks - it's better to stay in control and use your own brain. So always carry maps that cover your whole journey from start to finish, and the less you know the area the larger the scale of the map should be. A truckers' road atlas will get you to the nearest town or village, but no further. Once you're at your destination you need to be able to identify every footpath and track - and most importantly for safety's sake, to see the detailed lie of the land. So take the largest scale map you can find of the immediate locality where you'll be recording.

A handheld GPS receiver is a boon, as it can pinpoint your position very accurately. Used in conjunction with your maps it's a great help to navigation, and it can also document the recording location for later reference. But again, don't rely on it entirely. Batteries can go flat, and in some terrain a GPS receiver will not work properly, so take a magnetic compass as well - and make sure you know how to use it.


Most areas of the British Isles and western Europe are extremely noisy. Unless you go to very unpopulated areas (which are getting smaller and less easy to find) the most significant spoiler of wild soundscape recordings is transport noise - overflying aircraft and proximity to busy roads. Aircraft are the worst offenders, as their noise includes a wide range of audible frequencies so it's almost impossible to remove from recordings at post-production without seriously distorting the wanted sound. Consequently, it's important to establish how often planes fly over the chosen area, and whether there's any time of day when they are more or less frequent. Aircraft noise is almost always a bar to recording - particularly if you want a track longer than around 5 minutes, bearing in mind that, as your "performers" are completely out of your control, you'll need to record at least twice as much as you finish up using - sometimes much more. Indeed I return from most short trips with between one and three hours of recordings, which sometimes yield no more than a couple of five-minute tracks. But then I suppose I am rather particular.

Modern high speed passenger trains are as bad as aircraft. They can interfere with recording at distances of well over five miles (8 km) and produce wide-frequency noise that's effectively impossible to filter out in post-production. Goods trains are just as loud, but tend to be easier to filter out as lower frequencies dominate their noise. However, they sometimes create a pulsating sound that's really difficult to eliminate from recordings.

The continuous rumble of a distant busy road is a problem, although not so serious as planes unless you're trying to record wild sounds that are very low pitched. It's largely restricted to the lower audio frequencies and can be filtered out with care in post-production. But close to a road the sound of vehicles is very different - particularly infrequent individual vehicles. This is more akin to aircraft noise but much louder, and it's effectively impossible to filter out. So having selected your location to be as far as possible from major roads, it's also important to take account of the amount of local traffic and any major variations such as rush hours. It's quite surprising how much traffic uses tiny single track roads at these times, as they often form convenient short cuts past traffic jams elsewhere. This is where reconnoitring comes in.

Given the window of opportunity offered by minimal transport noise, the next important question is whether what you seek is there to be recorded at that time. If not, there are two possibilities - find another site, or, if you're lucky, the wanted sounds may be loud enough to swamp the background noise. This is where prior planning, local knowledge, reconnoitring and an understanding of the intended subjects all come together. I remember a trip to Sizewell on the Suffolk coast to record sounds of the sea shore. The planning was thorough and the site was perfect in every respect, except for a wind sock attached to a flag pole by a metal clip that clicked in the breeze. A conversation at the beach cafe directed me to an alternative site at Shingle Street where there were no extraneous noises. But that delayed me an hour or so, affecting the state of the tide. Eventually I had to hang around for several hours until a suitable point on the next tide. Such knock-on effects can make or break a trip. In this case the recording got made, but if you were on a one-day trip to record a dawn chorus, delays like this could abort the whole exercise.


Every environment has its own typical and extreme conditions, whether it be fog descending unexpectedly on high ground, rapid tidal flows, impassable marshland or whatever. Some of these special conditions can pose problems and some of them can be seriously dangerous if you're not properly prepared. So it's important to research local conditions properly in advance and also to seek guidance on the spot. For example, never record on the sea shore without obtaining knowledge of the times of high and low water, the speed with which the tide comes in, the minimum extent of exposed shore at high tide and, if there are cliffs, the possible escape routes off the beach. Caves - particularly sea caves - are particularly dangerous as there's usually only one way in and out, and unless you pay constant attention to your whereabouts you may not be able to reach it in emergency.

You can easily get trapped on mountains and moorland by descending fog or cut off by a stream in flood, so ask about the signs that predict these conditions and pay attention if they occur. If there's any risk at all, be prepared to abandon the recording session and get to safety. Sometimes conditions can change very fast. I was fishing off a concrete pier in the Outer Hebrides on a brilliant sunny evening some years back when dark clouds started to appear on the horizon. By the time we had packed our tackle - no more than ten minutes or so - wind-driven swell was breaking over the top of the pier. We got away just in time with boots full of sea water.

But in any case all this information will vary with time of year, weather and - in the case of tides - moon phase. So it's critical to ask on arrival from someone who really knows the locality. Clearly, there's much more to planning a recording trip than just working out your route. If you get it right, most of your trips will be successful. If not, it's hit and miss and you might even have an accident, so proper planning is well worth the effort.