Shotgun Microphones for Field Recording
Recently I’ve found myself packing my shotgun microphone more and more often on field recording trips. I bought it to record dialog on location, and to capture sound effects. However I’ve discovered that shotguns also have a variety of uses for field recording. Here are a few examples:
- A shotgun’s reach, directional pick-up pattern and off-axis sound rejection makes it ideal for isolated recording. This could be a specific animal, birdsong or sound effect, for example.
- The simple, mono setup lends itself to scouting out potential locations, especially the lighter shotguns.
- Tandem shotguns can be used in stereo with the XY or ORTF techniques with some nice results.
- Shotguns can also be used in a M/S (Mid/Side) stereo setup with a figure-8 mic. This technique can be very versatile.
- RF shotguns are tough and can handle very humid conditions. Just what a field recordist needs!
The problem with blimps..
There are essentially two types of windshield that fit a shotgun; The classic blimp and the slip-on ‘softie’.
I bought the Rycote WS1 Blimp with my Sennheiser MKH 8060 shotgun. As blimps go, the WS1 is light and compact. The wind attenuation and acoustic transparency that it offers are both first-class. It has a pistol grip handle, allowing comfortable handheld operation. It came with the classic fur ‘windjammer’, but I normally use the Hi-wind cover.
However for me there are a few problems.
- Blimps are inherently fragile.
- They are expensive for such delicate kit.
- Larger mics require big, bulky, heavy blimps.
- My DPA 4060 lavs currently live inside my blimp!
For these reasons i’ve often neglected taking my shotgun on trips that require tight packing. Since cycle touring, hiking and city breaks make up so many of my recording opportunities, I felt like my shotgun was missing out! So i’m considering a “softie” windshield as a compact alternative to blimps for field recordists.
There are several companies that design these. I’ve been testing independent manufacturer Bubblebee’s offering: The Spacer Bubble – A modular wind protector solution for shotguns.
Who are Bubblebee
Bubblebee industries are a Danish manufacturer that I’ve used since I first started purchasing recording equipment 7 years ago. On my first field trip, Bubblebee windbubbles were a recommendation that I eagerly jotted down on my recordist’s wishlist. Along with my first recorder and a pair of lavaliers, a pair of Windbubbles were one of my first purchases.
At that point, I believe this was all that Bubblebee were known for. Bubblebee now have a small arsenal of products aimed at location and field recordists. This includes wind covers for shotguns and handhelds, a ‘cable saver’ and even an in-ear monitor. Having had success with the Windbubbles, I was eager to test Bubblebee’s shotgun softie.
The Spacer Bubble
Bubblebee have a few variations of their softie.
- For €80 the Windkiller comes as a single unit, with a choice of either long or short-haired cover.
- For €135 the Space Bubble has a removable short-haired cover, leaving you with a more acoustically transparent base shell for low-wind operation. You can purchase the long-haired cover seperately.
- For €180 The Spacer Kit includes both the short and long haired removable covers so to deal with every situation.
I’ll be testing The Spacer Kit. As both a field and sound effect recordist, I need to be able to remove unnecessary covers wherever possible to get the clearest sound for the conditions.
My first impression of the kit was that it is very nicely manufactured. The mesh bubble fits snugly and easily onto the mic, as did the windcovers to the bubble. Everything rests securely in place. The kit also comes with a mesh bag to keep the spare windcovers in.
One thing to think about before buying is suspension mounts. Whilst a blimp has built-in suspension to avoid handling noise, a softie requires separate suspension. There are so many options out there. The only limitation with my shotgun is that being so small, the interference tube (and therefore the windshield) only leave a few centimetres gap for mounting. I enquired with Bubblebee and they suggested the Rycote INV-Lite 19. However I already had a Rycote portable recorder suspension, which, when used with a mic clip, did the job just fine.
Test 1 : Birdsong
I first wanted to look at the acoustic transparency of the spacer, comparing the different windcovers for clarity. On the chimney opposite my 4th floor apartment I’d noticed a blackbird would perch to sing. At dusk I trained the shotgun on the chimney and sure enough, the blackbird arrived. I was able to test the Bubble Base against the long-haired wind cover before he flew off again. The results can be heard below: I’ve also included Spectograms as a visual aid to the sound.
The recordings are quite different. Recording 1 sounds much more direct and detailed. We can see in the spectrogram that there is very little coming through above 12kHz on recording 2, Whereas recording 1 has plenty of activity. I feel that recording 2, whilst not noticeably coloured, misses out on some of those sharp details that are intrinsic to bird recordings.
The Bubble Base alone retained a crisp and natural sound, even in the higher frequencies. I felt like the next test should be recording something more consistent. If the blackbird had turned its head away, for example, that could have added to the perceived loss in clarity in recording 2. I also wanted to see how the Bubblebee would fair with more broad-banded sound sources, as well as in direct comparison to my Rycote blimp.
Test 2 : Train Passes
I recently discovered a spot where inner-city trains pass through a series of reservoirs in North London. This would be a great opportunity trial windshields in wind, whilst recording a soundscape that should be fairly consistent with each train pass.
I set up my shotgun on the reservoir bank. Unfortunately, I was interrupted before I could switch to the blimp. After just two train passes, representatives of the reservoir owners trundled over to inform me of the need of a permit to make recordings on the site…sigh.
The two recordings comparing the long and short haired wind covers can be heard below. In recording 1. two trains passed in close succession. Recording 2. was just one train pass.
To me the recordings actually sound quite similar. I felt like the short-haired recording had a bit more texture in the mid-range, but this could have just been due to the specific train. There was no discernible frequency loss between the two. The one thing I noticed was that there was significantly more wind noise on the short haired recording. But more about that in the final trial…
Test 3: The Beach
For the last trial, I wanted to be somewhere with strong winds and a consistent, uninterruptible sound source. An ideal day came with a June heatwave. There were steady winds of 15mph and gusts of up to 30mph. I headed to Brighton beach, where I found a quiet spot right under the pier. Setting the microphone down about 5 meters from the water, I tested all possible windshield options. I recorded my blimp in the same circumstances.
Testing for wind attenuation
1.MKH 8060 shotgun without any windshield: Just to give an idea of what no wind protection would sound like. Obviously unusable, the recorder’s limiters are working hard to prevent the recording distorting.
2.Bubble base no windcover: Although it handles the moments of low wind, the bubble on its own is clearly designed for still or indoor conditions.
3.Bubblebee short-haired windcover: Wind is present but not to the point of distortion. Strong gusts noticeably impact the recording.
4.Bubblebee long-hair windcover: Even the strong gusts are well handled. Whilst still audible, they are well attenuated to a point that they aren’t detrimental to the sound.
5.Rycote blimp no windcover: With no cover, the wind noise is significant. To me, the blimp fairs better than the Bubble Base but worse than the short-haired windcover.
6.Rycote blimp hi-wind cover: For me, Rycote’s Hi-Wind cover represents the perfect balance between wind reduction and clarity. Although wind can be heard, it is not intrusive when field recording – much like the long-haired Bubblebee.
7.Rycote blimp fur windjammer: No wind noise! Although there is clearly a loss in clarity to the hi-wind cover, the windjammer is the only cover on test that completely removes the sound of the wind.
** It should be noted that I found one weak spot with the Bubblebee Spacer. When the wind was coming from directly behind the mic, wind noise was significant, regardless of which windcover I used. I wonder if this might be due to the 8060’s long interference tube, which extends almost to the end of the microphone. Or it could simply be the wind hitting the exposed rear of the mic.
Testing for transparency of sound
Finally I compared the Bubblebee Long-Haired Spacer to my Rycote blimp for clarity and neutrality of sound. I took the shotgun close to the breaking waves, and aimed it downwards at the water. Three recordings and their spectograms can be seen below.
The long-haired windcover did very well to attenuate even big gusts of winds. Whilst I wouldn’t rely it in a gale, it would be sufficient in 95% of my recording environments.
In terms of clarity, the Bubblebee captured the body of waves clearly, including some of the more delicate high frequency sounds. It measures up surprisingly well against the blimp with windjammer.
However when compared to the hi-wind cover, the mid section sounds muddy. The hi-wind cover just stands out as being the most neutral and pleasant to listen to, remaining rich in high frequency detail across the spectrum.
Bubblebee Spacer Uses
- Compact recording setups: Size, weight and toughness mean that the spacer can be tightly packed without any real risk of damage. And whilst a shotgun microphone is never going to be ‘stealthy’, it is at least less obtrusive than a blimp!
- Low to moderate wind situations: I was really impressed with the Bubble Base (Spacer without the windcover.) It sounds clear and natural and is able to fend off light breezes. If I knew there was no wind forecast for a session, I can’t imagine bothering with the blimp. If the wind did pick up a little, the short haired windcover is so quick to fit.
- Recording on a budget: Like many technologies, the cost of recording gear grows exponentially when compared to quality. Its important to make the compromises in the right places in your recording chain in order to maximise your setup’s value for money. For the same money as a blimp you could have two softies for a stereo shotgun setup!
- Recording for broadcast:In a run-and-gun situation, the fact that the bubble is so easy to fit and adapt makes it a real time-saver.
- Indie film makers: The fact that the spacer is compact and light can really make a difference when swinging a boom around. This, coupled with the simplicity of changing wind cover makes it very appealing. The spacer base alone is ideal for indoor locations. Even with the long-haired windcover, the results are good enough to recording high-quality dialog.
I find the BubbleBee spacer to be a well designed, good value piece of kit. Blimps are often seen as a step-up to softies, moving from the semi-pro to pro market. However there are plenty of uses where a softie is simply more practical than a blimp. Its a personal judgment as to whether that compromise in wind attenuation and clarity is worth it. I’d be interested to see a comparison with the other softie designs on the market.
I will still use my blimp whenever I have the space and time; a dedicated field recording or sound-design trip with a car for example. That said, so often for me field recording is about reappropriating time on trips meant for other purposes. The ability to be able to fit my gear into a small suitcase allows me to capture so much more than I’d otherwise be able to. For that, I think the Spacer really comes into its own and fills a gap in my setup.