Stealth Recording

Do you have any experience with stealth recording? If so I’d love to hear your experiences & mic/gear setup… So why would anyone need to do stealth recording? Well other than recording concerts there are a few scenarios that immediately spring to mind, one that I have done & one that I was asked advice for…
Firstly the easier scenario: a film I did called Stickmen (IMDB + trailer) back in 2000 was set in bars, cafes & pool halls and since the film was shot here in Wellington I did a lot of recording – firstly visiting each of the locations when they were empty (to get clean backgrounds/room tones) and then visiting each place at different times to get various crowd tracks. Recording the room tones was easy as I was the only one there but the crowd sounds took a bit more thinking about – pulling a Rycote out in a crowded bar would probably mean I get a lot of recordings of people asking where the cameras were etc… So I made a very simple stealth recording kit by putting my DAT recorder (this was 2000) in a ‘normal’ looking bag & recorded using two Oktava MK012 omni mics, each with mini-fluffies on them, like what people use for on-camera mics. Being condensor mics any wind, even in interiors, can cause mic rumble/buffets eg someone opening an external door to the bar. The Oktava mics were small enough to just poke out each end of the bag when I was ready to record and I happily recorded lots of very useable crowd tracks. I would do a quick headphone check when I started recording, but sometimes wouldnt even bother & if it was say a bar, I would often set the recorder rolling before I even entered the bar, with the mics in position so I didnt miss anything but also so I didnt have to mess around once I was inside.

The second scenario for stealth recording is more critical, and thats recording in a public place where (a) you don’t want people to know you are recording but also (b) it may not be safe to record. I don’t have a lot of experience with this but I do have this to say: PERSONAL SAFETY is THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR! There was a sad case in the local news recently of a man being shot dead while on holiday in Jamaica when someone grabbed his girlfriends cellphone, a struggle ensued & the thief shot the guy dead. This is very sad, but best you learn from their mistake: if you had the choice of being stabbed by a pschotic meth junkie with an infected knife OR losing your brand new Schoeps microphone which would you choose? (If you choose the former then its maybe something you should discuss on your next visit to the analyst) Same goes for your iPhone, your hard disk recorder, your wallet, camera, and anything!!! To clarify your decision making make sure you are fully insured so getting robbed will actually just mean a free upgrade in gear. And also constantly duplicate your data so losing your recorder doesn’t mean losing the previous days recordings. I also strongly reccomend not recording on your own, so there is someone to help should you get hassled..

Ok so back to the practicalities: its easy enough to carry a recorder without it being obvious, whether its a small handheld recorder in a jacket pocket or a larger hard disk recorder in a small camera bag. Whatever you do use its probably best it isn’t some brand new stylish bag – something bland & maybe dark… People wearing iPod headphones are pretty common nowadays but if it is a truly dodgy area you are going into then maybe even wearing those makes you a target. But wearing headphones is not even critical – you can happily record without them, and you can do a test recording with headphones before you head outside, to insure there are no problems with cables, mic placement etc….
Speaking of cables you can of course route those inside your clothes, but the tricky part is what microphones to use? I know of a couple of options but havent used them myself so I would really appreciate comments from people who have used them or have better solutions.
Firstly, DPA make some very high quality very small microphones – here is a link to their miniature mic catalog
Secondly, Core Sound make a range of high quality miniature binaural mics which are worn as though they are headphones… But thats about the limit of my knowledge, whats your experience?

16 thoughts on “Stealth Recording

  1. Enos

    I don´t do as much location recording as I´d like to, but I do go out at times to record sound for projects (mainly ambience/atmos). I recently went around a few Manchester pubs to record some pub ambience and found it to be quie fun!! However, I did not have any crazy plans for hiding the gear, so I walked into one of the pubs and sat down in the corner, had a quick peak for levels and then tried to deliver my most innocent looking expression to divert attention. However, I discreetly pulled out the stereo mics,which where attached to a small suspension pole which quicly got spotted! So one of the older English men on the bar stood up and walked to me. He began demanding explanations for my recording and then went on about his years in the military where he worked in the communications department and some weird stories about spies during the war. He started getting slightly uneasy with my recording even though I tried to explain what it was for. Anyways, it came to the point that I had to sowly retreat and just leave before he really kicked off!!

    I thought it was really funny, but the next pub was afronted with more stealth…

    I used a small Edirol 4 track hard disk recorder with a pair of Sony Professional ECM66B lavalier microphones. I didn´t have access to other microphones that day but this setup worked just fine!

    1. admin Post author

      A few times I’ve been confronted by people when recording & my first instinct is to stop recording when I talk to them… but in future I will make sure I DO keep recording as you just never know what you might record!

  2. Cormac

    I picked up a cheap digital recorder recently and have been wandering around town with it recently. It’s relatively small so I can get it in a jacket pocket and it came with 2 lavalier mics which I’ve been clipping to the bottom of my jacket. As long as I’m careful I can get fairly clean recordings and they’re pretty unobstrusive.

    There’s a couple of different recording apps for the iphone, not sure if there’s a wav option but if you could match that with an omni mic that would be pretty stealthy

  3. Benoit Tigeot

    I think one of the most important thing is the time. It’s the same with a movie camera. When people are accustomed to seeing the camera, they forget that their that they are filmed. I know that sometimes we haven’t a lot of time to record ambiances so for me for Stealth Recording.
    The best is
    2 DPA 4060 with a Sonosax MinirR82
    or ORTF Schoeps with Sonosax Minir92 (Two pictures;

    They use a Manfrotto Magic Arm to keep the position of the microphone.

    The recorder

  4. Michael Maroussas

    check out
    i bought a pair of their “sennheiser-driven” stereo omnis a while back when the pound/dollar rate was really favourable but even now their prices are pretty good – i recommend them. Not sure how comfortable i’d feel walking about with these glasses on – anyone tried these “croakies”?

    The pen’s pretty cool too –
    as long as someone doesn’t ask to borrow it!

    The other issue of course in terms of safety these days is terrorism. I remember years back recording a chat track in chinatown in london: i remember stopping outside the restaurant to poke about in my bag to turn my recorder on then walking in to sit at a table by myself with a rucksack with wires hanging out, rycote shell poking out looking a bit pipe-bomb ish. If i did that now i’d probably be picked up on cctv within 5 seconds and tazered as i went to hit record!
    Also a mate of mine who works at a big post facility in soho went up onto the roof to record a skyline one night and within ten minutes had police helicopters circling with spotlights who thought he had a rocket launcher! Surveillance photos arrived the next day at the company asking if the boss recognized who was on their roof and what was he doing! Maybe croakies are the way forward!

    One thing i think helps is avoiding eye contact – in a crowd you’ll inevitably get the odd ‘oo, look at that microphone’ but people usually move on if you act invisible – but if you look at them you’re immediately engaging with them and it draws them in to ask you about it.

  5. Michael Maroussas

    sorry to waffle on but one other thought: what a great album it would make to compile a collection of all the different nutty monologues you end up recording when crazies approach you when you’re fx recording! Could be onto something!

    1. admin Post author

      Relatedly I once used a fragment of a slightly odd guy I recorded in a piece of music – I named him Mr Red (he always dressed in red) & I recorded him out my window as he walked down the street by my old studio every day, singing/shouting quite loudly to himself… I was kind of keen to give him a copy of the final song but was talked out of it by a friend, who claimed if the guy had problems with delusions then giving him a CD with him singing on it might tip the balance for the worse…

  6. rene

    another option is getting access to the location before it fills up with people, and setting up a stand-alone rig that doesn’t need to be directly manned.

    If the rig is set up as though it is part of the fixtures of the establishment it won’t attract much (or any) attention. Run a wireless headphone rig for monitoring.

  7. jeff p

    I had to record backgrounds at a school and didnt have the ability to hide my recorder anywhere. So I put my sony d50 on a tripod in the hallway, set the levels and sat on the opposite end of the hall. When the college kids got out of class they walked by without addressing the mic and since I wasn’t near it they didn’t see me as they were focused on the recorder as they walked by.

  8. Enos

    This was not exactly stealth recording, but last winter I had to record some ambience and sound effects and went out scouting with a portable field recording system..the system was a fairy simple setup with two Sennheisser 416 and a Sound devices 442 mixer recording to a small portable hard disk recorder.

    The thing is it was past 1am when I took off to scout the city parks and streets and I was out until about 4am. So I was walkng around town with my layers of clothing, hat,scarf, these big headphones on and the equipment looking like a real weirdo! Anyone who would have seen me mus have thought I was a total freak! However, I managed to “borrow” a dirt sack from a construction site and drop it from a height onto man surfaces (grass,dirt,leaves,etc…) and record the impacts! This ended up being the most used sound effet on this short film I did the sond for! It became one of the elements in many SFX in everything from the impact of orcs falling to the ground when killed as well as orc chieftain Goblok´s heavy footsteps and many other moments in the film!

    Not really a stealth recording other than it being late night and freezing cold! Its great fun though and the city is much quieter that time of the night which helps us sound people record in peace!

  9. Nathan Moody

    For the ultimate in stealth, how about a pair of Countryman or similarly-small peaked-response, omni-pattern lav mics? This way you can get around many of the typical visible-mic problems. You could hide the lavs under the collar points of a shirt (or similar), and the peaked response will bring back what’s muffled from the clothing atop them. Then you could run the cables through a light jacket into a small preamp, and then into a MicroTrack, H2, or similarly small recorder via line in. Wire yourself like onscreen talent, but in stereo, and then stay as still as possible to reduce cloth rustle!

  10. Music Supervisor

    I loved the article on stealth recording. I loved how you got the crowd tracks for the movie Stick Man. Very stealthy! Ya for me personally if the choice is life or keeping my ipod. I choose life!

  11. Pingback: Music of Sound » Stealth recording 2

  12. Sound Traveler

    Your post is several years old, but I’ve done some stealth recording here and there over the past 18 years or so, as a part of urban field recording.

    My first recordings of this nature were with a Sony Minidisc recorder and a basic stereo lav mic pinned just inside a jacket lapel. It gave surprisingly clean sound, with ambience, room tone and nearby voices. Good enough for very basic and undemanding production. With the recorder in the inside pocket, and the lav mic taped to prevent microphonics, it worked quite well.

    Later field recordings involved Sound Professional binaural microphones pinned to the sides of a camera bag, and recording into a Sony PCM M10 or an Olympus LS 10. As long as I stood still, or put down the bag, capturing ambience and room tone was a doddle. I’ve also attached binaural mics to the handle of a backpack and roamed about. The stereo effect doesn’t sound quite right due to mic placement, but it does give a good sense of ambience. And with the right kind of backpack, there is little to no rustling sound or microphonics, as the gear is inside the backpack.

    There are now binaural microphones that slip into the ears just like earbuds. This provides the most accurate and lifelike binaural quality because of the unique shape combinations of the head, shoulders and ears, which are lacking from other setups. Of course, the files sound best when played back through headphones rather than speakers, and you need to be careful of microphonics. And the larger stealth benefit is that people assume you’re listening to music, rather than recording the sounds.

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