Recording on commercial aircraft is a complicated and time-consuming task. It involves planning, special equipment, time and money. Although the price of commercial flights has dropped massively over the last few years, security is now tighter than ever making this task even harder. If you are planning on taking a trip by plane in the near future and want to record some on-board ambiances, then there are some important considerations to make.
If you need a certain type of ambience, for example: a particular aircraft model; few passengers or lots, then planning involves researching what airlines operate particular aircraft types; where they fly to; what flights are busiest and of course the price will be a factor too.
To make the most of any recording, it is always best to try and get as many versions in different locations/positions which means that a flight with plenty of spare seats is best. Try booking a flight late and one that doesn't require seat allocation. Many cheaper budget airlines don't allocate seats to passengers and this will allow you to get a good seat for recording the takeoff and landing and, if it isn't busy, move around the aircraft recording alternate takes in different locations. It would be ideal to record ambiences at the front of the aircraft, middle (above the engines which is noisiest) and at the back (more on this later).
It is near impossible to walk through security and on to an aircraft with a mass of recording equipment nowadays. Security and hand luggage restrictions just don't allow for it. Therefore a small compact recording set up is required. There are many hand-held portable recording devices on the market today such as the Zoom H4 and Nagra Ares-M. I own and often use the Nagra Ares-M recorder as it is extremely small and lightweight; has a clip on microphone; runs for hours on just 2 AA batteries and above all it looks like a cell phone (which is ideal for this application as it does not arouse much suspicion as opposed to the Zoom H4 which could be said looks like some sort of stun-gun). But there are plenty of other makes and models out there so check the market and road-test some recorders to see which is best for you.
Before attempting any recordings, make sure you know the make and model of the aircraft. Ideally, if your recorder gives you the option, rename the default filename to be something legible. An example maybe for a Boeing 737 could be B737. Also it is advisable to 'slate' at least the first recording (but ideally all) with the make and model by saying it into the microphone at the beginning of the recording. The make and model of the aircraft will be written on the aircraft's safety card/instructions.
Currently the use of electronic equipment (such as cell phones) on takeoff and landing is prohibited on most commercial aircrafts. This means you may find it difficult to record at these times. But if you are going to try, make sure you are discreet and try to capture the whole event. A takeoff recording would be best from the taxi onto the runway and for at least a few minutes into the flight. On landing, a few minutes before touchdown and ideally, to the point of the aircraft engines shutting down. If you have a choice of seats on takeoff or landing, try sitting a few rows behind or in front of the seats above the wings (if the engines are on wings) as this is where the engine noise is loudest and will 'mask' other characteristic sounds onboard such as the air conditioning units and seat/furniture creaks which will add to the overall ambience.
Once in the air, it is best to record each ambience for at least 2 minutes. This will allow for a long section with the subtle changes in engine, passenger and crew noise to be spread out making the looping of the ambience easier and less obvious. It also means you have greater flexibility when editing out any undesired sounds such as babies crying, PA announcements, clicks and pops etc.
Once at cruising altitude, moving around the aircraft and recording in different locations means you come away with a set of versatile sound effects rather than just multiple versions of the same thing. This is why it is best to try and book onto a quiet flight with lots of empty rows of seats. As discussed earlier, try and get different recordings at the front, middle and back of the aircraft with also a window and aisle seat variation for each. The sound level, tone and atmosphere will be different in each location as the cabin will resonate differently due to the distance from the engines.
Try to position the microphone up at around head height or above the main body of the chairs (if sitting down) so that the diaphragm is open to the space of the cabin. If the microphone is down deep between chairs, the sound will be dampened by the cushions, thus not capturing the full frequency range of sound within the aircraft cabin. If possible, also get recordings standing in the aisle.
You must make sure to 'slate' each recording by saying into the microphone the make and model of the aircraft (as already explained it is ideal to do this for all recordings) and the position of the recording, for example "front of aircraft, aisle seat at cruising altitude". Don't rely on remembering these details as when you come to edit and label the recordings, as much detail as possible will help to sell your sounds. A file description detailing all the information is much better than just 'aircraft internal ambience'.
If you need the toilet, don't forget to take the opportunity to record the ambience inside there too! Come away with as many different variations as possible.
Alan McKinney is the founder and co-owner of http://www.soundscalpel.com and professional sound designer with over 15 years experience.