Winter is here again and no doubt many sound recordists will find themselves recording outdoors in very frigid environments. Only experience can teach you to fully prepare for the wintry weather. Here are a few things to do to protect yourself and your gear in extreme cold weather conditions.
I got a good personal lesson in cold weather recording at former Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s funeral for NBC News in 1978 on a very cold, windy day in Minnesota. It was 20 degrees below zero and I thought I was prepared for it. I wasn’t. My mustache froze, turned white and I could barely breath. My hands were shaking and my teeth chattering. It was a torturous day. The gear faired much better.
The main consideration of recording in extremely cold weather is battery life. Cold temperatures always shorten the time a battery can operate. The chemical reaction that allows a battery to produce power is slowed down by cold temperatures, and the difference in powering time can be dramatic. This is true of all battery types, but more so for some than others.
When it comes to cold, plan for the worst. Keeping warm in subfreezing conditions requires advance planing.
When depending on batteries to power gear in the field in extreme cold, the operator will need extra batteries and must keep those batteries warm until they are used. Not keeping batteries warm will reduce their operating time even further. This is true for both throwaway cells and rechargeable batteries. Always fully recharge batteries just before a cold weather project.
One way to keep extra batteries warm is with your own body heat. Keep smaller batteries in pockets before use. Alkaline AA battery cells have a much shorter life in cold weather than lithium-ion batteries. If an audio mixer has optional power sources, invest in the battery package with the longest cold weather battery life.
For larger sized cells, wrap them in insulated material or blankets to keep them warmer. Sometimes an insulated cooler is a good idea for storage. The main point is don’t expose unused batteries to the brutal cold environment.
As for the gear itself, check each manufacturer’s specs to see the acceptable operating temperatures for both operation and storage. Even if your equipment can safely operate in the conditions being faced, remember that many plastics become more brittle in very cold weather. Cables also become stiffer and less flexible. Be careful in handling any gear in very cold weather conditions.
Just as in hot environments, acclimatizing the gear for the cold should be done before the recording begins. Most important in this consideration are the microphones. This where higher-end temperature resistant true condenser (or external RF biased) shotgun mics become most useful. For example, DPA tests their mics to minus 13 degrees F, and RØDE’s NTG-3 ($699), a true condenser immune to climate changes, comes with a weather resistant aluminum storage cylinder designed to protect the mic in extreme conditions.
A battery blanket can help keep batteries warmer and power supplies running longer.
Issues often arise when a microphone is still cooling down to the operating temperature. It is best to allow the mic to acclimate for at least an hour before use in extreme cold. Also, never allow a microphone get wet. This can come from condensation when a mic is repeatedly moved from heated conditions to extreme cold. Leave the mic outside, but in a weatherproof case, when alternating between a heated space and cold weather.
Protect yourself from the elements
Finally, worry about yourself when working in extreme conditions. Layer your clothing. Be sure to include lined boots, gloves and a warm knit hat. Gloves should be chosen so controls can be operated while wearing them. Often gloves with a flap that allows the exposure of fingers is useful for sound operators, and smart gloves, with electro-conductive thread woven into them, are good for working with touch screen displays.
Protecting yourself from the elements is as important as protection for the gear. A person's extremities are most likely to first be affected by cold temperatures so be sure you protect them with gloves, scarves, warm socks and boots. Once you become sufficiently cold, the quality of your work will suffer.
Human ears can get very cold quickly, as will fingers and toes. Keep them all protected in very cold weather. Obviously, while recording, the ears are needed to monitor sound. If outside for short times, headphones can provide ear muffs to protect again the cold. But not for long. For extended listening in cold weather, wear a cap with the headphones over the top or use high quality ear buds under the cap. It is best to experiment with this in advance, since not all users are the same. But prepare to keep your ears warm while being able to monitor sound.
As I learned at the Humphrey funeral, sometimes the weather is so cold that virtually nothing can make you completely comfortable. But getting the sound and keeping yourself healthy is the most important thing. Be prepared. Lessons in extreme cold environments come very hard.
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