Sound Clips...Article "How to Get Started in Nature Recording...
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How to Get Started in NATURE RECORDING
by John Neville
If you like the outdoors, enjoy the sounds of birds and frogs, don't mind working alone, NATURE RECORDING might be for you. Like Nature Photography, you need the right conditions and good equipment. The more time you can give to the hobby the more opportunities or luck you will have making good recordings.
Typically, dawn is the best time to be out recording. The birds are proclaiming their territories. This is also the time of least human activity. A good NATURE RECORDING must be free of background cars, trains, mills etc. Nature itself can also provide unacceptable background noises: rain, wind or loud waves!
It might take weeks or even years to obtain one special recording but the result can be magical and the memories last a lifetime. For example, I recorded a pair of Northern Cardinals near Long Point in May 2000. It was dawn and the Cardinals were the first to begin singing. There was no wind, in fact , it was a perfectly still morning. There was only minimal sound from a nearby creek and the birds were only 5 meters away. Their rich whistled notes were truly beautiful. In my mind , it was a moment shared with the birds and never to be forgotten.
At its simplest, we need a recorder and a good microphone . Having said that, there are many kinds of recording machines and microphones. Traditionally, reel to reel, cassette and R DAT tape recorders have been used. All of these are still available and can produce excellent results. My first recorder was a Marantz cassette machine which was easy to operate. By way of illustration, a friend of mine is using a 30 year old reel to reel recorder with great results. Once upon a time , that same machine was being used to create the first Solitudes recordings. In 1993, Sony released the first MiniDisc recorders . It is this technology that I am going to recommend to the beginner who is currently looking to buy their first recorder.
"Walkman"- sized recorders can fit easily into a pocket! Their portability is one of the great benefits to the nature recordist. They utilize an audio compression algorithm based on psychoacoustic principals, known as ATRAC. This system emphasizes the signals which best match the human auditory system (from the ear to the brain).The overall signal is compressed to 1/5 th of the original input with very little loss of quality to the human ear. MiniDiscs record in digital format on a disc 7 x 7 cm, giving 64 minutes plus of record time . The transfer of sound to the MiniDisc occurs via a laser beam. Because there are no moving parts involved ,this technology is not only reliable but very tolerant of extreme temperatures and jungle humidity! The Sony MZ-R30 and MZ-R50 are no longer being made but recordists still try to buy them second hand.The latest models MZ -R55 , MZ-R 700 and 900 are even smaller.The Sharp company also produce a good line of modestly priced MiniDisc recorders. You can transfer Minidisc recordings directly to your computer providing you have a line out socket, suitable software package such as : "CoolEdit 2000"for Windows or "Amadeus 11 for Macintosh systems. This allows you to edit or transmit your recordings just like print or digital photography files. To learn all you ever need to know about MiniDiscs check out http://www.minidisc.org/
Some recordists will argue that microphones are the most important component part of their kit. The microphone or sound receiver comes in two basic types:The omni-directional accepts sound from all points of the compass. The uni-directional microphone receives signals in one direction only.There are many choices, but due to limited space I will try to simplify the options. The omni-directional receiver is good for "soundscapes ", where all the birds in the marsh, or backyard are desired .With the aid of a long cable an omni-directional mic can also be placed near a song perch to make specific recordings of one animal. Uni-directional equipment has a long barrel and they are known as"shotgun" microphones . It is the barrel which makes them receive in one direction rather like the beam of a light. There is a new microphone out called SonoPak, nice and small, available here. These are great microphones to experiment with! Because the equipment is very sensitive to touching, a mount and windscreen are necessary. These shotguns are very portable and easy to focus on individual birds. The Sennheiser ME67 is a good choice. This unit will work well with the MiniDisc recorder and get you into the field at a reasonable cost. You will need to buy or make a special 1/8 inch adaptor cable to connect between the shotgun and the recorder.
The dish-like object we call a parabola is also uni-directional. With a microphone fitted at its focal point , facing in, the dish can be aimed at a desireable sound 50 or more meters away. Please avoid the small 33cm (13 inch) reflectors available on the market as they tend to be unsatisfactory. The better ones are 45cm (20 inches) or more. Parabolas are very useful pieces of equipment to bring in specific animal sound from a relatively long distance. One good example for the beginner is made by Mineroff Electronics, see http://www.mineroff.com/. The quality of a recording made with a parabola can be amazing and very selective. Unfortuneately, most dishes are rigid and therefore clumsy to handle in the field.
More Expensive Equipment
If you have the option of purchasing more expensive equipment: I will again simplify the choices. Top of the line MiniDisc recorders are 1) the Marantz PMD 650 and 2) the HHB PortaDisc. Both can be purchased for under $2000. Sennheiser produces the best and the most expensive MKH series shotgun microphones ,see http://www.sennheiserusa.com/ . These mics have an excellent signal to noise ratio and are very effective from 6 to 20 meters distance. However, Sony and several other companies produce very acceptable products at a more modest cost.
Telinga, http://www.telinga.com, produces excellent parabolas for field use. The polycarbonate 55 cm. dish is very durable, light and can be rolled up for field use. This company also produce their own microphones and you can buy them as part of a complete package. This format will allow you to make quality recordings 33 or more meters away and the cost is about $1200USD from Naturesongs.com. Whenever possible, have your dealer test the equipment before you take delivery. It is very annoying to get into the field and find out that your equipment is not working properly!
Blending into your environment is a bit of an art (fieldcraft) but wonderfully satisfying. The reason to do so is simple.The closer you can get to the birds the better the recording opportunity:"half the distance and double the signal". Wear dark, dull clothes as the birds can easily see bright colours. Bird song and human vocal sounds use similar frequencies, therefore, speech should be minimal ! Its important to move slowly and quietly. Sudden movements may spook the object of your attention. Likewise , the sound of your feet on gravel or rustling clothes will spoil your recording. Sometimes a gradual approach to a singing bird can be made obliquely so that you appear non-confrontational. Another technique is to observe a bird's favourite song perch, then sit down and wait quietly for its return. If you are still and quiet you may eventually be accepted as part of the landscape. I have had a Woodchuck walk within two feet of me before even noticing my prescence and still not move away. Having moved obliquely towards a White-crowned Sparrow it also moved to meet me, out of curiosity ! The closer you become to your subject the stronger the signal to your microphone when the time comes for recording.
When your recorder is in record mode, use earphones to check the gain or record level. Your ambition will be to achieve a strong, clear signal without over-recording the subject. If the subject is a soundscape such as a chorus of frogs make sure through the earphones and the record meter that none of the sounds are over-recording. Once in the field, always have your equipment ready to make a recording. Opportunities sometimes happen suddenly, so be prepared ! If the animal only calls intermittantly : such as a Pied-billed Grebe or an American Bittern in a marsh; make a long recording to include the bird. With a MiniDisc you can edit out unnecessary sounds later.
Being prepared seems obvious until you are out in the field. Very often I get up before dawn when my mental faculties are not very sharp. It is necessary to have all equipment packed and ready to go! That means all power packs charged and in the carrying case. When I leave the house or car there should be spare power-packs and disc in my pocket. A garbage bag is very useful in case of rain. Recorders and microphones can be totally ruined if they get wet . A polyethalene bag can and does completely relieve ones anxiety !
It is really important to document your discs as you go along. For example, if you were regularly recording in the backyard you might label a disc BY 01 02. This would tell you instantly that this disc was the first "backyard" disc made in 2002. Further, you should announce at the beginning of each disc the number, date and time of the recording. It is also helpful to describe the conditions including temperature and the state of the weather. From then on announce each new recording with "take ... " and the condition at that moment. This extra effort makes documenting your prized recordings easier. In my case, I make a computer file for the discs and list each good recording. The second file is a species list where I list a bird and follow it with each good recording, which disc, which take, the date and where the recording was made. I am surprised and sometimes depressed how quickly the details of a disc fades in my memory! To have a quick reference is essential for compiling material.
Be Careful with your Toys
If you start the day before dawn and keep walking and recording in the woods, you will be very tired by lunchtime. It is rather like having an accident during the last run of the day at the ski hill.You must be careful and methodical putting your precious toys away! I once left a microphone on the car roof; when the car speed reached 60 kph the microphone became airborn!
Where to Obtain Advice
After obtaining the best support you can from your local dealer, you will often want to ask more questions. The Macaulay Laboratory of Natural Sound, Cornell University, has a very useful web page evaluating various pieces of equipment. The lab has an annual workshop for recordists which I can highly recommend. Check out this page: http://birds.cornell.edu/LNS/happenings/happenings_index.html/.
Visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/naturerecordists to connect with NATURE RECORDISTS from all over the world. The moderator is Doug Von Gausig. He has a web page http://www.naturesongs.com where archived material is stored.
The Nature Sounds
Society holds an annual Field Recording Workshop, where pros and beginners trade tips and
learn together, and sound editing classes http://www.naturesongs.com
"Members will at all times conduct their wildlife sound recordings activities so as to: do nothing to the detriment of wildlife or its environment, obey current legislation on such matters, respect the lawful rights of others and observe the Countryside Code."
Living in Canada you may not be able to participate in their regular meetings but the compact disc(CD) made up by and circulated to the membership is truly inspiring!