The Doc Project

14 things every audio producer needs in a go bag

Whether interviewing someone in a foreign country or recording streeters close to home, there are some things you should never leave the office without. Veteran producer Cesil Fernandes shares what you need to have in your kit to guarantee a great sounding doc.
(Cesil Fernandes/CBC)

What do boy scouts and great doc producers have in common? They're always prepared.

Whether I'm interviewing someone in a foreign country or recording streeters close to home, there are some things I would never leave the office without.

The most basic part of your kit is the bag. I use a backpack with a laptop compartment — it's large enough to carry everything I need, comfortable enough to carry around all day, and will easily fit in an airplane's overhead bin. That's easy. On to the important part — what's in the bag?

(Cesil Fernandes/CBC)

1.  Laptop: If I'm in the field or in the office, all my audio editing is done on a laptop. Whatever laptop you use, make sure it's got a battery life that will keep up with you because you never know when you'll be editing in the back of a taxi. I edit on a MacBook Pro using Adobe Audition CC. This is great setup for hour-long multi-track mixes, but for simpler projects I've had success using an old Dell laptop running Audacity.

Pro tip 

Partition your external hard drive. Larger drives can often only be read by either Mac or PC — partitioning creates a virtual split in the drive allowing one half to be read by Mac and the other to be read by PC.

2.  Mouse: This may seem like a no brainer but it's worth mentioning. As good as I am at multi-track editing, I can't do it using the trackpad on my laptop — that's why I always have a mouse in my bag.

3.  External hard drive: Storing your audio (whether it's voice tracks, music or raw interviews) on an external hard drive has two main benefits. When editing, having your audio on an external drive takes the strain off your computer's hard drive, making the editing process smoother and faster.

The second reason is more obvious. If your laptop gets damaged, or worse, stolen, all your audio is still safe on the external drive. I use a Lacie 2TB drive. It's water, drop and shock resistant — perfect for when you're in the field.     

4.  USB Keys: They're great for quickly sharing files between colleagues and computers, especially when you don't have an internet connection. A small thing that can make a big difference — especially when you're on a deadline. I usually have two or three USB keys in my bag at all times.

(Cesil Fernandes/CBC)

1.  Audio recorder: When you're in the business of making radio docs, your audio recorder is your best friend. There are tons of recorders to choose from. Whichever is in your kit, make sure you know how to use it with your eyes closed because when you're in the field, you won't have time to read the user manual.

For its big display and simple controls, I use the Marantz PMD 661. It's a reliable solid state recorder that I've taken around the world with me. It's an all around workhorse. Need a primer on how to use one? Check out this how to video featuring the insanely talented Karin Wells.

Pro tip 

Both of my mics are covered with CBC branded windsocks. Aside from doing the obvious (cutting back on wind noise), having a recognizable logo on your mic makes strangers much more likely to talk to you — a game changer if you've ever been tasked with recording streeters.

2.  Microphones: Your recorder won't be much good to you if you don't have a microphone to plug into it. When I'm in the field there are two mics I use over and over again: a Shure SM58 and a Sennheiser ME66 Shotgun Mic.

The SM-58 is a good all purpose mic for interviews while the shotgun mic is great for recording sound effects and scene-setting sound. Both of these mics have their pros and cons and a good doc maker will use them both in tandem. (Take a minute to read Doc Project producer Julia Pagel's fantastic post on field mics and their pickup patterns.)

 3.  XLR cables: To connect those mics to my recorder, I always have two male to female three pin XLR cables in my bag. A shorter four foot XLR cable is long enough to allow you some space between you and your subject but not too long that the cable becomes cumbersome. A longer 10 foot XLR cable comes in handy when you need to connect your recorder into a PA system or mixing board, say at a news conference.

4.  iPhone breakout cable: I highlighted how much your smartphone can do in an earlier blog post so it's no surprise a cable like this one (a 3.5mm TRRS Male to 3.5mm Headphone Jack and 3-pin XLR Microphone Jack) never leaves my bag. If my recorder stops working while I'm in the field, this 3.5mm to three pin XLR jack cable will allow me to connect all my microphones directly to my smartphone and still record great quality audio.

Pro tip

It can be easy to lose track of what's in your kit, but keeping it in a constant state of readiness is your key to success. Cables coiled, batteries charged, memory cards wiped ... if your kit's always ready to go — then so are you.

5.  Headphones: The golden rule of recording sound is always be listening to what you're recording. It's the only way to know if you're tape sounds great, or if it's being ruined by that noisy air conditioner in the background. At any given time I have more than one pair of headphones in my kit. I use a set of Sony MDR7506's to do all my editing on, but I always have a pair or two of cheapo earbuds at the bottom of my bag, just in case.

6.  Batteries: Lots and lots of batteries. My recorder and shotgun mic use AA batteries and I always have three or four brand new packs in my kit. Cold weather will also impact how long your batteries last, which is another reason to have plenty of spares.

(Cesil Fernandes/CBC)

1.  SOS bag: This item on my list is based on my motto: it's better to have and not need, than need and not have. In this zippered pencil case I have an array of random connectors, splitters and screwdrivers, band aids and even paper clips that always come in handy.

2.  Snacks: Some people see the free coffee and cookies at the airport lounge as a nice way to relax before a flight. I see it as an all-you-can-eat buffet. I constantly have a rotating cache of snacks in my bag, because when you're chasing a story, you never know how long it will be until your next meal.

3.  U.S. currency: Whether I'm home or abroad, I always have some U.S. currency in my bag. It's internationally accepted and can get you out of a jam when your credit cards don't work. 

Pro tip

Make sure you have everything you need to make a great sounding doc: 

4.  Poncho: My mom gave me this thin piece of clear plastic and it sat in the bottom of my bag for years. That is until it saved me and my gear from a downpour in St. Peter's Square. Since then, it's never left my kit.

Did we miss something? What's in your bag? Tweet us: @CBCDocProject.

About the author

Cesil Fernandes
Cesil Fernandes is the producer behind the award-winning CBC original series Back Story. He's traveled Canada and the world for CBC Radio, covering stories from the papal conclave to the Sochi Winter Olympics. He's covered the 2012 U.S. presidential election and his reports from the remote island of Eleuthera shone a light on over fishing in the Bahamas. He's produced docs for The World This WeekendDispatchesTapestry and Spark and is currently working on a new season of Someone Knows Something.


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