More than 40 volcanoes in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands form the northern curve of the infamous ring of fire that encircles the Pacific Ocean with hundreds of active peaks. But for audio producers, that’s not even the most terrifying fact about this vast region of fire and ice.
“I don’t know if you are familiar with the Aleutian Islands,” says audio storyteller and podcast producer Stephanie Joyce with a laugh, “but their nickname is, ‘the birthplace of the winds.’”
Before Joyce began contributing to the Outside Podcast and All Things Considered, she battled wind as part of her daily routine at KUCB-FM, a public radio station on Unalaska Island in the middle of the Aleutians. Sometimes assignments involved capturing audio amid howling winter winds on a crabbing vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea, or while watching as unexploded ordinances left over from WWII were detonated far out in the windswept archipelago.
“Anytime you’re recording out of doors, wind is going to be an issue,” says Joyce. “I have a Rode NTG2 mic that I really like, [with] the standard dead cat on it, and that lives on my microphone most of the time. But not on a boat in the middle of the Bering Sea.”
Joyce’s personal microphone solution for that level of windy conditions is surprisingly straightforward: an omnidirectional Electro-Voice RE50.
“When I was recording in the field a lot in Alaska, I would use an RE50 and then I would just get close,” she says. “I’ve tried all kinds of blimps and windscreens and dead cats, and at the end of the day, sometimes the only thing to do is just to not use a shotgun mic. Just use an omni and get really close.”
Taylor Quimby can relate. The senior producer of New Hampshire Public Radio’s Outside/In podcast is no stranger to high-wind conditions, either. Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the state’s Presidential Range at 6,288 feet, held the record for highest wind speed ever recorded for decades—231 miles per hour, clocked in 1934. His work often takes him to remote peaks with similar conditions.
“I have had [instances] where it’s so windy you don’t get anything on the tape, or it just sounds completely distorted and messed up,” says Quimby.
“[But] a lot of this is about, ‘What are you trying to convey?’ If you have some really blown-out, windy tape, that might seem like, ‘Oh, man. This tape is terrible.’ But if you’re trying to convey that it’s incredibly windy, then blown-out tape is exactly what you need.”
With a little creative editing, you can get extra mileage out of that wind-whipped audio. Take 60 seconds of sound and split it in half, Quimby says, then play the two halves simultaneously, one panned hard left and the other panned hard right. Maybe throw some reverb on it in the mix. The results might surprise you.
“You can create a really cool windscape that will sound to a person’s ears what it might feel like to be on top of a mountain when the wind is so loud and howling that you can’t hear anything else, and it’s flapping your coat and your jacket and rushing past your ears,” he says. “There are some fun ways to experiment with taking a naturally captured sound and building something immersive out of it.”
Now that Joyce’s days on the high seas are behind her, she tends to lean on a Rode blimp in windy conditions on dry land. Otherwise it’s a standard dead cat on the NTG2 with a pistol grip into a Tascam DR-100 MKIII field recorder.
Quimby uses a Zoom H4n stereo mic with an adjustable pattern from 90 to 120 degrees for ambient and environmental sounds, and a Marantz Professional PMD 661MKII handheld recorder with a shotgun mic for other situations on the job.
Whether you treat wind as a nuisance to avoid or embrace it as a character in your podcast, understanding that you can’t tame it is key.
“The tagline [for Outside/In] is, ‘The natural world and how we use it.’ So, we’re always looking for ways to understand how we interact with the outdoors. And that’s a two-way street.”