Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend more than a month recording natural soundscapes around Europe. I visited Romania, Sweden and several locations in the UK, and gathered hundreds of gigabytes of natural soundscapes that I'm now slowly going through. Some of these sounds can be heard in the recent update to Woodland Atmosphere, others will be available as new libraries in the near future.
Sometime around June however I stopped flying to interesting places and focused on studio work. Since I work freelance from my home studio I can afford to take a few hours off (or more on occasion) to go record stuff around England. Sadly England is no Scotland, so nature recordings are out of the question. Gone are the days when I would drive for half an hour and be in the middle of nowhere, ready to record pristine ambiences with little air traffic only.
Living around London means being subjected to an almost endless barrage of aircraft noise every day. A wise man once told me that if something is ruining my recordings, I should try and record it instead. As a consequence a few months ago I started scouting airfields for recording opportunities.
A few of these were a bit too close to motorways, while at others air traffic was scarce. Eventually I found Duxford Imperial War Museum, which features an impressive collection of aircraft and is only an hour's drive from where I live. I signed up for a membership and started visiting it regularly with my gear.
Since the airfield is only an hour's drive away, I could go crazy and bring all my gear. I could record aircraft in surround with the Double MS rig for example. I could use an ORTF setup for flybys. I could tape contact mics and PZMs to the metal structures and record their vibrations as aircraft flew by. There were a lot of possibilities, but in the end I opted for only bringing my MKH416 and the Sound Devices 633.
The reasons for this approach are multiple. First of all the airfield is huge, and interesting stuff doesn't always happen in the same spot. I have to be mobile, and I'm already carrying a full backpack so the less rigs I need to worry about the better. Also, aircraft are not cars so they will not always pass along the same route. This made static rigs rather useless unless I was prepared to run around the airfield with them.
One other reason for only bringing a shotgun mic is that my main purpose for aircraft sounds would be video games. In video games I will generally need mono sounds that will be panned in-game as needed. Stereo or surround recordings could theoretically be used in cutscenes or cinematics, but even there it's probably easier to work with mono audio.
Consequently I used the MKH416 to track all the aircraft that I could record. The good thing about it is that this Sennheiser shotgun is excellent for this purpose. It focuses well on loud sources such as aircraft engines, and believe me these things were loud. So loud in fact that the tiny screw that keeps the XLR casing in place attached to the mic came right off.
I house the 416 in a Rycote WS4 blimp with either the Hi Wind Cover (in low wind, counter-intuitively, up to 10 mph) or the clasic Windjammer in wind speeds over 10 mph. I find this setup works well up to around 15 mph winds. Anything over this results in the capsule overloading and ruining the recording.
In terms of recorders, I decided to use the Sound Devices 633. I had used it to record aircraft previously and I've been more than happy with the results, especially with how the limiters behaved. And when recording aircraft there will be little chance that the limiters will not kick in, regardless of how conservatively your levels are set.
For monitoring I used a pair of Sennheiser HD 26 headphones. These did a decent enough job, but I feel like I would have been better off with a Remote Audio headset. I might get one in the near future just for aircraft and firearm recording sessions.
As mentioned already, I had previously recorded aircraft and was aware that it wouldn't be a walk in the park. One common mistake is using your eyes too much and not relying on your ears. Since some of these aircraft have a top speed of over 350 mph, the sound of their engines will appear to be coming from a point in their wake. Therefore it is useful to monitor with only one ear while checking the real world with the other one.
When looking for a good spot to stand with my shotgun mic, I would first and foremost try to get away from direct noise sources such as people, other aircraft, birds, PA systems etc. On top of this, I also made sure that I wasn't too close to buildings or other structures that would create a slapback delay that would color the sound. Even if this might be desirable in certain situations, it can always be added in post so it's better to record clean takes.
When there were too many people at the airfield, I would go to a spot outside, in a field of wheat around a mile away. This allowed me to capture excellent recordings of flybys, but no more takeoffs, passbys or landings since I was too far away.
A disadvantage of recording in the literal "field" was that there were trees close by, populated by a few noisy birds. There were also grasshoppers in the grass, but luckily none of their calls overlapped with the sound of the engines so they were not impossibly difficult to RX out.
A very important aspect when recording aircraft is IDing them. I know what a Spitfire or a Tiger Moth look like, but other makes and models were not that easy to identify. In order to know exactly what I was recording I had to use binoculars and either write down or slate the registration number for each aircraft that I would record. I would also include details such as color, number of wings, shape etc. so as to make my job easier when I'd have to look them up later.
You can imagine how difficult it was to track all the planes with the MKH416 while using the binoculars to try to ID them. Failing that I had to try and remember the tail number, what it looked and sounded like and to associate that with the current track on the recorder. Every once in a while I also took photos and videos with my smartphone and DSLR. This is where I realized I probably needed an assistant.
Of great help with IDing were all the people I asked at the airfield. Literally everyone there, from employees to visitors, seemed to know every make and model that I'd ask about. Some of them even knew the history of each individual aircraft. They were all very helpful and approachable, which made my trips to Duxford even more enjoyable.
I was also lucky to have a chat with a couple of pilots, both of them very happy to help and extremely passionate about the planes they flew. This echoed my first aircraft recording session from last year, when I joined Rob Brown and Joe Cavers at a private airfield in Dunbar to record a Bucker Bu131 Jungmann.
After a couple of months of recording trips I managed to gather enough recordings for a library. I spent a few weeks editing, mastering and meta-tagging everything and recently released the WW2 Aircraft library (downloadable demo below). This doesn't mean that I stopped recording aircraft and moved on. On the contrary, I keep doing it and I will soon offer more content as a free update to existing users. Until then, enjoy these sounds and let me know what you think of them. All feedback is welcome.