a more inconspicuous kit for stereo field recording

I wanted an inconspicuous kit for recording in environments with lots of people, or where the presence of a recording device might affect their behavior. I don’t need to spy on them or what they’re saying; I just need the ability to capture an environment absent an obvious recorder. My basic recording kit has worked great so far; I just needed a way to house it so that it would be portable, convenient, lacking in self-noise, and highly inconspicuous.

For better or worse, artists and art are subject to the laws of the places we inhabit. In the United States, the laws that govern audio and video recording in public and semi-public spaces vary by state; there are also federal statutes. The laws for audio often differ from those for video. So, its definitely on the onerous of an audio recordist to abide by the soup of applicable laws while out recording; ignorance is not a defense. I’m fortunate in that I live in a state which only requires the consent of 1 party to the recording (which is me), and that at least 1 party is present during the recording (me again). Lucky me. Some states require the consent of all parties; sometimes this consent must be written. The laws also vary in how a “public space” is defined or interpreted. Typically, I try to avoid recording in environments where a “reasonable expectation of privacy” can be assumed by a majority of humans. This is also a considerate approach. But if you’re discussing the nuances of a friend’s lewd behavior on a sidewalk, you’re fair game for my recorder.

Small, specialized bags are pretty common in the world; lots of people carry them in lots of public places. These include backpacks, purses, camera bags, diaper bags, messenger bags, laptop bags, briefcases, hard cases, tool cases, reusable shopping bags, bags with pet stuff, etc. I found an old camera bag in a closet upstairs, stuffed full of old cameras and lenses. After relaxing those to a newer, larger bag, I set about my modifications. This particular camera bag was especially well-suited for conversion to house a field recording kit. Its inside is lined with a soft, fuzzy fabric that is very quiet. Its old without being “vintage”, and looks like it may not hold anything too interesting or valuable. Its a boring color and an unremarkable design; it doesn’t stand out except as “old, boring, and unremarkable”. It has different sized compartments with plastic zippers, and is relatively absent of metal, buckles, and loose jangly hardware. The bag is pretty small as bags go, roughly 11″ x 9″ x 9″(h).

The first thing I did was cut the metal zipper pulls off of the plastic zippers. I then cut holes for the microphones (about 1″ or so in diameter) in the end panels of the bag, which lead to its center compartment (the largest of the three). A generous hole keeps the sides of the bag from rubbing directly on the microphone. I chopped a yoga block widthwise in halves, and drilled holes with a spade bit to hold the EM172 mics in their Neutrik XLR connectors. The mics fit snuggly in these, but are also easy to remove. The yoga block chunks hold the microphones firmly in the bag while providing a stereo buffer and adding some dimensional support.

I put the Scarlett 2i2 into its own compartment. The USB battery pack and the iPhone reside in the smallest zippered section of the bag. The Y cable and mic cables run internally through the bag via some additional holes I cut between the different compartments.

Because I’m planning on using this in field recording, the mics need wind protection. After some preliminary work, I concluded that windscreens work better with a buffer space between the screen and the mic. I found some 2.5″ mesh sink strainers at the hardware store and epoxied them over the microphone holes. These provide the buffer space. According to my internet research, its important not to recess the EM172 capsules.

I found an old-ish, brown, cloth napkin and cut some panels to cover the ends of the bag; its close to the weight and weave of the dishcloth windscreens I’ve tested. Double-sided tape secures them, which seems fairly durable in the field but is also removable (unlike hot glue). The panels provide a windscreen for the mics and obscure the wire mesh and other modifications. I tried some faux fur on the ends as well. While perhaps providing slightly better wind protection, the fur also imparted a funk-o-punk-rock look to the bag, and seemed slightly more conspicuous than with the brown fabric panels. So once again, less is more.

I’ve made a few test recordings while walking around the neighborhood, to get a better sense of handling noise, weight, stereo separation, and issues. The bag lacks handles (side attachment), which would be nice to have. However, its shoulder strap (end attachment) is adjustable (important). I can hold it, carry it, gently twist it back and forth, raise/lower it, and gently swing it without any appreciable handling noise; these motions are often necessary while navigating a crowded or urban environment.

And, it seems like it should be inconspicuous enough to get the job done. I’ll have to see how people react to it though before drawing additional conclusions.


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