I have wanted to experiment with Ambisonic recordings for some time.
My hope was to use an Ambisonic Rig to capture interesting Airs to possibly use when designing ambient sounds for games. Maybe experiment daily and see what kind of interesting surround or stereo recordings I can get by putting the rig in interesting locations (like in a chimney, HVAC or Construction Sites), finding interesting environments to record rain in, or even taking it on a hike to capture river or wave sounds from interesting perspectives (like creating a surround file that makes you feel like you are wading in deep waters as a shark stalks you).
If you do not work in game audio there are usually two types of ambient sounds used:
Emitters - 3d placed sounds that play from a specific location and they are usually mono files. Ex. a small camp fire, files around a trash pile or even tree creaks and moans.
Airs - 2d sounds that play not from a specific location. Can be stereo, quad, surround, etc. depending on the game and its intended platform or limitations.
* Different Studios might call them different names but the concept is similar.
** VR type experiences might take Ambisonic recordings and decode them in real-time based on the orientation of the headset.
But there were too many limitations for me to learn the format (that I might or might not like) and utilize it to do sound design for games.
Basically my challenges were:
I would have to spend $1000+ dollars to even get an Ambisonic microphone
I would need a 4 channel recorder to capture the sounds
A recorder and microphone are not ideal for more challenging locations (hikes, daily commutes, recording in extreme weather conditions or in sketchy locations). Too big, heavy, etc.
Then the Zoom H3 - VR arrived...
I was so excited to get the Zoom H3 - VR, not because I expected it to be perfect but because I finally had a Ambisonic Mic/Recorder combo that was small enough to take with me everywhere and cheap enough that I would not mind taking some real chances with it.
After having spent a full week with the Zoom I can confidently say I am having a lot of fun recording using an Ambisonic mic. I have learned so much already, gotten some great recordings and have a lot more plans to try out different things with it.
The H3 - VR comes with it's own Ambisonic software that does not work with ProTools but is a stand alone program. You can input multiple files, preview them in multiple formats (surround, binaural, etc) and export them as those files. You can also adjust orientation.
But my current editing station only has 5.1 set up in ProTools, not the Mac OS so as a result I started to use the free Rode Sound Field Plug in. And I have to say it works like a charm.
The visuals of the plug in are super intuitive and the power you have to adjust the image of a stereo or surround configuration in the plug in is deep.
So far I have captured some interesting recordings. My current work flow is to record sounds, bring them into pro tools and use the Rode plug in to create interesting stereo and surround files with it. I am currently not keeping the raw ambisonic recordings because I am still experimenting with it and I am enjoying committing the files to what I like. I find usually there is one really great orientation that works with the recording I got so I don't find myself wanting to change it later. Also at the moment I am not experimenting in VR, so my end goal is to create stereo and surround files to possibly use in post or games.
The Zoom is relatively quiet. I have not noticed a large noise floor even when it is gained to max (100). But that being said if you record a room-tone with it gained pretty high and then gain that recording again in a DAW then you might start to experience some noise. But that would happen with most rigs. I did a recording of the wind howling through the windows of my apartment at night and got a great sound. I did have to gain it after the fact and apply filtering to get a desired sound from it but at the end of the day I was able to sculpt a really interesting sound from it.
Is the Zoom H3 - VR the best Ambisonic Microphone out there? No.
Is the Zoom H3 - VR the only small, affordable, compact Ambisonic Microphone/Recorder our there? Yes.
Does the Zoom H3 - VR fit in my pocket and is super easy to take anywhere? Yes! In fact you can't even tell it is there.
Here are some recordings I printed out of the Rode Plug In with the Zoom H3 - VR on my first day with it (warning, I can only keep these in my Dropbox for so long, so please grab them before they disappear).
I will have future videos and posts about the H3 - VR. But in the mean time I would like to end this post with a comment on brands.
When I posted a pic of the H3 - VR on Social Media someone commented that they had gotten some recordings of a very reverberant interior environment from this recorder once and put it in a VR experience and essentially encountered some phase issues when turning their head (with the headset). They then implied that the H3 - VR might be a bit of a clever toy recorder and that Field Recordists might have better results with more pro gear.
I had to respectfully disagree with the Field Recordist. It is a shame that they encountered issues with phase and head set orientation. But it might not be completely the H3 - VR's fault. It is possible that in a VR Ambisonic experience there might be several factors that can cause issues with phase. Maybe Faulty head tracking tech, mistakes or errors possibly in the software decoding the ambisonic recordings, lag with head tracking and the list can probably go on. Also I think heavy reverb can really mess things up when you are messing with speaker orientation and the recording's width. I am not saying this is the case, just that there are many issues that could have caused this and since it does not occur 100% of the time the issue could be local to that particular situation.
As for the Prosumer vs Pro gear debate. I think the quality of the recording you get is really due to the Field Recordist, their dedication to capturing a good sound and the opportunity presented to them. You can give a professional photographer a terrible camera and they can still get great shots because of their knowledge of composition and ability to alter the picture in post.
If you are interested more in how the limitations of equipment does not have to affect your creative output I highly recommend checking out Jessica Kobeissi's YouTube series that forces photographers to flex their creative eye by giving them toy cameras to shoot models.
DigitalRev also used to have a YouTube Series hosted by the great Kai W called the Cheap Camera Challenge that is worth checking out.
Well I look forward to sharing more Ambisonic Adventures with you in the future.