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Street Recording – Some Tips

To get the best street recordings it is necessary to get close to and right in amongst the sound especially when recording in binaural stereo. Remember the quote from the Magnum photographer, Robert Capa, “If your photograph isn’t good enough, you weren’t close enough!”

To make good street recordings it is essential to get close to the sound you want to record but it is also important to be discreet. There are two reasons for this. First, if you turn up to record a street scene, whether it is a busker or a riot, and you are carrying a sound recorder in a shoulder bag together with a furry covered microphone you are going to get noticed. Once you get noticed people will change their behaviour. I have recorded political demonstrations in Paris with the shoulder bag and the furry covered microphone and I found that people were anxious to come across to me to record their point of view, not something they would have done if I hadn’t been there. I once tried to record a busker whilst carrying the shoulder bag and furry microphone whereupon he stopped playing and refused to continue until I left. Second, it is important to leave the street scene as healthy as when you arrived. Let’s face it, some people just don’t like being recorded, discreetly or otherwise. In an atmosphere of high tension actions sometimes speak louder than words!

The Right Tools For The Job

For good street recording the right choice of equipment is important. When considering what equipment to use two things are important, discretion and a good quality sound product. After much experimenting I have distilled my street recording kit to the bare minimum all of which can be carried in my jacket pockets.

I always carry two sets of binaural microphones and two sound recorders which I can mix and match depending on the circumstances. I also carry mini headphones (not ideal but good enough to know whether or not you have a useful recording) and plenty of spare batteries.

The microphones I use for street recording are:

Soundman OKM-II.

These are a matched pair of in-ear omni directional microphones complete with a small power unit and windshields. They can be worn in the ear with complete discretion. When in place they look exactly like earpieces for an mp3 player.

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Core Sound binaural microphones

Again, a matched pair of omni-directional microphones complete with power unit and windshields. These are not in-ear microphones but they come with clips so that the microphones can be attached either side of the head on a pair of glasses or a hat for example. Whilst these microphones are good for binaural recording I find them particularly useful for making unusual non-binaural stereo recordings. By splitting the mic cable it is possible to separate the microphones and, using the clips, to place them either side of a bag or a table or anything else that comes to hand. The results can be quite surprising.

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The sound recorders I use are:

Nagra ARES-M

The same size as a mobile phone this recorder fits easily into a jacket pocket. This is my workhorse recorder. So far, I have recorded close to 10,000 takes on this recorder and it still won’t self-destruct! It records in Linear PCM, MP2 and MP3 and it has an in-built 1Gb memory. Later versions have a bigger memory of 2Gb or 4Gb. When street recording I remove the detachable microphone and use the binauaral microphones instead.


Good as it is, I have discovered to my cost a major flaw with this Nagra. It has a switchable automatic gain control which is turned on or off by means of a slider control on the side of the recorder. I never make street recordings using the AGC but, occassionally, I have turned the recorder to “Record”, only to find when it was too late that the AGC slider switch had moved to the “On” position when I put the recorder into my pocket. I have found a solution to this, a piece of tape over the AGC slider switch to hold it in the “Off” position. Not very elegant I’m afraid but it seems to work. Maybe Nagra will address this problem at some point. Let’s hope that a piece of sticky tape doesn’t become an optional extra!

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H4N Handy Recorder

This is a superb recorder. Bigger than the Nagra it is still possible to fit it into a jacket pocket – just. On the downside, the excellent in-built X-Y stereo array microphones are not detachable. There are two XLR microphone inputs built into the base of the recorder and the internal microphones can be disconnected when the XLR inputs are in use. This recorder was designed principally for musicians so it has lots of features that I never use. Nevertheless, it is an excellent recorder which gives beautiful sound reproduction. The in-built microphones are very good should you choose to use them and they have the added feature of being adjustable between 90° and 120°.

The H4N doesn’t have a built in memory. I use a 16Gb Flash card so that I am never restricted by lack of memory space.

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As always, hardware is simply a means to an end. I find it best to keep the hardware simple commensurate with producing a good sound product. It is your imagination that will produce the best recordings.


It’s always best to make your street recordings in PCM Linear format. Usually I use 44.1kHz/16 bit or occassionally 44.1kHz/24 bit depending on the circumstances.

Sound Levels and Monitoring

Sound levels for street recording can be a tricky area. If you are to remain discreet, you will not be able to monitor the recording levels while you are recording and if you’re wearing in-ear microphones you won’t be able to hear what you are recording via your recorder. You might get away with the odd visual check of the sound levels showing on the recorder but full time monitoring will not be possible. The solution to finding the right sound level is not at all scientific I’m afraid. It’s best to experiment and learn from experience. Get a feel for your microphones and your recorder. How do they react to sudden peaks in the sound level? What is the sound level in your location now and how might it change? Which sounds are important and need to be recorded at the right level?   All this is part of the “kerb-side” drill that you should undertake when you arrive at a location. It sounds complicated but with experience it comes easily. It’s about building a “sound map” of a location in your head before you start recording.

On balance, my experience shows that less is probably more but this has to be treated with caution.

Recording at too high a level will inevitably result in clipping and distortion of the highest signals. I recorded a concert rehersal in the Church of Saint-Sévrine here in Paris recently with my binaural mics in my ears and my Nagra in my inside jacket pocket. The choir and the orchestra played a relatively quiet piece, I set the recording levels accordingly and got a perfect recording. I then found myself with people sitting either side of me. Being discreet, I was unable to re-set the levels on the recorder as the the choir and orchestra burst into the Halleluja Chorus with gusto! That particular track not surprisingly was destined for the trash can and a wonderful opportunity was missed. I had mis-read the sound map.

Recording at too low a level can also mean that opportunites are either missed or not fully exploited. But at least with a low-level recording you might be able to recover something through later processing although that is not always guaranteed.

One Golden Rule. Tempting though it might be, NEVER use automatic gain control for street recording. It simply doesn’t work. 

The best advice I can give about sound levels for street recording is build a sound map in your head, anticipate what might happen and set your levels accordingly. And, if you have a crystal ball, now would be a good time to use it! If the worst come to the worst and you get it hopelessly wrong, then it’s guaranteed that you will do it better next time.

Processing and Editing

Another tricky area but it’s a personal thing. What sort of recordings are you trying to make and what sort of result are you looking for? There is no right or wrong answer about whether to process and edit your recordings or not or to what extent you might want to do so. For me, less is more but that is my personal preference.

The extent of my processing is to sometimes remove bass rumble from traffic noise etc. if that enhances the target sound and to adjust the sound level if that wasn’t quite right in the original recording. I much prefer to get the original recording right rather than relying on processing to enhance the sound later. Other people do things differently of course.

As far as editing is concerned I top and tail my street recordings to give me the length I want. I may remove “uninteresting” passages if they don’t contribute anything to the overall recording and I may remove some of the “unwanted” sounds, those that are out of context with the overall recording. I never actually change the shape of the recording through editing so, for example, I always keep the sounds in the order in which they were recorded. But, again, this is my preference for the sort of street recording that I do. Others may want to do it differently. There is no right or wrong way, it simply depends on what you are trying to achieve.

Top Ten Tips

1. Check your equipment BEFORE you start recording

2. Be discreet

3. Stay safe

4. Keep it simple

5. Build a sound map of the location in your head

6. Anticipate what might happen

7. Set your recording levels based on what is happening now and what might happen

8. Get in close to the sound

9. Use your imagination

10. Enjoy yourself