Efficient prep for the travelling recording engineer
Planning to record out on location invariably takes a good degree of organisation. Speak to the client, plan the session, get everything you need together (with a few spare bits and pieces just in case), pack the vehicle and off you go. Although when a project requires air travel there can suddenly be a number of new considerations to take on board. In this post I want to explore some of these considerations and pick apart the planning process in an effort to make travel and recording abroad as simple and efficient as possible for the travelling recording engineer.
1) Packing light
Weight restrictions on flights are well publicised, especially with ever-changing budget airline allowances causing havoc with travellers. With this in mind, it makes sense to not just keep weight down, but to keep total baggage weight at the front of your mind when preparing for a fly out job. Our order of thinking goes something like this: check flight baggage size/weight restrictions, select suitable cases/bags as close to the size limit as possible, check equipment specs, gather equipment (with a few alternatives such as shorter leads, smaller mini cases for delicates), gather clothes for duration, put everything quickly in the cases being used and weigh each case to see how things are looking. At this point it doesn't have to be neat, because you'll likely be changing it all around as you refine your selection. If under weight, great. If over weight, try to get the weight down to at least a few KG below the limit. This is because there may be items you buy when away that you need that extra allowance for. Always remember, travelling light is so much easier!
2) Packing small
Clothes can be very bulky and end up taking up way more space than allowed for. This is especially true during winter, when the best thing you can do is wear the bulky stuff and save some valuable space. We swear by sealed dry bags with roll tops, the kind that are used for hiking and mountaineering. There are incredibly light ones available that can compress down your clothes making them really compact, ready for travel. Another advantage to using dry bags is that they keep clothes clean, dry and flat too, meaning you don't have to look like Worzel Gummage when you arrive on site! When trying to reduce packing size of equipment, it often comes down to project requirements (which may not be very flexible), so the best you can do is be efficient about your use of space, take the time to get a good fit in the space available, and get to know exactly where everything is.
3) Clothes vs equipment
It may be that you can carry your clothes and equipment in one small travel pack, packing an ultra compact setup, ready to go right out of your bag; In which case you'll be footloose and fancy free! But on larger projects requiring more kit, stands and connecting cables, the equipment weight and size quickly increases. Add power supplies and spare batteries, mic foams, headphones and a laptop, oh and a small bag of connectors, USB drives, consumables etc, and its time to think sharp about fitting all of this efficiently into your case along with all of your clothes. At this point maybe booking a bag in the hold will ease the load and save unnecessary stress.
4) Cases and bags - To hold, or not to hold
What kind of bags to use? Peli style cases are bomb proof, but are far from subtle when it comes to going through customs and attracting attention to your potentially very expensive and breakable equipment. This of course depends on where you are travelling and the scale of the production/job, so its well worth doing your research on the countries you are visiting before hand to help you make the best decision on what to use. If it is necessary to put a case in the hold, an unassuming rugged wheelie case can be good for those bulky, less breakable items; while strong laptop/gear back packs are great for the cabin. It's a good idea, if possible, to keep the expensive/delicate equipment (the stuff you'd rather not say goodbye to) with you in the cabin to try and minimise the chance of coming face to face with your crushed case on the baggage collection belt! When abroad, a little piece of mind goes a long way.
5) Can client supply anything?
It is great to be self sufficient, enabling run and gun recording with no stress, but there may be other ways to ease up the travel load by way of planning ahead and clearly spec'ing some kit to be collected on site. Cabling is a big one here, as long cable runs not only weigh a lot but also take up precious space. So if you have a good relationship with the production team, ask them to arrange for audio cables and power extensions to be ready for you. BUT remember to bring euro/international adapters for laptops and chargers etc as UK style three pin 13Amp power is often not available outside of the UK.
6) The extras
Finally, when you travel quite a lot, there are certain items that just make everything that little bit easier.
Waterproof backpack cover: being based in the UK, we know about rain, but even 'hot' countries have torrential rainstorms.
Compact, strong umbrella: leading on from the last item, a decent umbrella will just make things more bearable when the heavens open.
Warm, packable jacket: seems obvious, but you really notice how good a jacket is when you have to wait outside for random bus/travel connections and its freezing cold!
Dry bags / compression bags: Mentioned earlier but worthy of another plug, if you want your clothes (and anything else!) to stay dry and clean while taking up less space, Invest in some of these. They even come in a range of colours so what's not to love!
A simple medical kit: plasters, tape, painkillers, thread, alcohol wipes etc. This can be scaled up/down depending on location, won't take up much space and will make life so much easier.
Of course, none of us want to loose any of kit, regardless of durability or cost, as everything has its place in a recording system, but a little piece of mind when travelling can go a long way to help you stay stress-free when working on exciting projects away from familiarity. Of course, If you have any of your own tips we would love you to share them - Happy travelling!
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Foot note: It is March 2021 and so the last year has been one of zero travel, not least for exciting audio/recording projects. This article was written with all the production crew we have worked with firmly in mind, who we know can not wait for the time when travel does once again become a 'thing'.