Hydrophone + Ice + Tonic. Sound and cocktail design in one easy step.
The latest addition to my microphone quiver is the Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone. For less than US$200, you get a really well-built unit with a high specific gravity (less sway in moving water) and a thin, flexible cable with an extremely supple “hand.”
I also got the rubber cup that enables it to be used as a contact microphone, and I must say that it also excels in this capacity: Super-low noise and very articulate, even recording human heartbeats with clarity (Hint: Aim for the sternum, the pecs have too much muscle and fat in the way). The H2a’s weight, however, prevents it from being easily taped upside-down or held in odd positions like my other contact mics I’ve used inpreviousposts.
I can’t hope to improve upon Darren Blondin’s excellent review of the Aquarian H2a, so in the short term, I’ll instead offer some quick and dirty recording results with it, with perhaps some more detailed results and analyses in the future. (Oh yes, some very strange recordings to come…)
When the H2a came in, I placed this device in all the usual places you’d expect for some quick tests: the sink, the bathtub, the cats’ water fountain. But having just discovered some very tasty tonic water for making cocktails, it struck me that I’d not recorded carbonation before. After hearing the clear, but not overly-bright, tones of the carbonation, I decided to mix up the room-temperature tonic water with some ice cubes.
The ice’s cracking, melting, and expansion was largely in the same frequency neighborhood as the carbonation bubbles and added an interesting dimension to the sound. Some initial sound processing makes me think that melting ice in still water might make for a cool creature sound pitched down -3 octaves or so, but for today, let’s listen to the original recording, unadorned and unprocessed.
[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]
This wasn't the helicopter I recorded. This is just the only photo of a helicopter I've ever taken! (Shot on the Kaikoura Peninsula, South Island, New Zealand.)
Audio professionals may cringe when they hear this, but I always keep a microphone mounted in my windscreen/blimp/zeppelin, which is always on a short boom pole. No doubt I’ll pay the price when the little mic suspension’s rubber bands stretch and age prematurely, but I like to be prepared for those unexpected moments.
This paid off when I heard a helicopter over my house…much lower and louder than usual. I poked my head outside and could tell the pilot was going in very tight circles over my street. I grabbed my mic rig and my field recorder, and all I had to do was plug in, power up, and hit “Record.” Granted, I happened to have a stereo mic in my windscreen, which wouldn’t have been my ideal choice, but I’d rather use it rather than lose the recording! (Want a horribly embarrassing tale about losing a choice recording opportunity? Read the epilogue after this post’s sound recording.)
I don’t exactly live in a city center, so I’ve got both highway and bird noise polluting most of my backyard recordings. This time, though, the helicopter was so low that the highway was drowned out, and he circled enough times that I was able to do some splicing of the takes to eliminate most of the birdsong. EQ could remove the rest, but I didn’t want to lose the higher-frequency sizzle that I liked in the recording. I did some surgery to make it loop seamlessly, and the result is below.
Epilogue and cautionary tale: I was at a hut on the Kepler Track in New Zealand when a helicopter landed on a nearby pad to drop off some fellow trampers/hikers who were “heli-hiking.” I scrambled for the Zoom H2 in my pack. Through the headphones, the sound was loud, intense, perfectly overwhelming what tiny background noise there might have been. I listened to the chopper landing, idling, and taking off. And then I realized I was only monitoring the entire event, not actually recording. The H2 requires one press of the Record button to arm recording mode, and another press to actually get rolling (a common interface convention in most hand-held recorders). In the moment, I lost track of how many button presses I did, and my fuzzy windscreen prevented me from seeing the time -elapsed readout, which of course wasn’t moving. What is there to learn from this, besides that I’m a complete spastic loser?
Never assume anything. Triple check everything, even if you’re going to introduce handling noise or off-axis sound into the beginning of your recording. Better to have a shorter recording than none.
Gear that’s always in record mode when it’s on is good, gear that audibly gives you feedback when you’re rolling is better, and gear whose display isn’t concealed by necessary accessories is best.
(P.S. The title of this post refers not to what I saw, but the song “Unmarked Helicopters” by Soul Coughing, which has been playing in my head ever since I made this recording. Damn you, catchy melodies, damn yoooouuuu!)
While on the Queen Charlotte Track, two DOC rangers were sitting under a tree and said that this weka – an endemic, flightless bird somewhat similar to a peahen – was acting super weird, talking to himself non-stop for no reason. I proved that the best way to silence a vocalizing creature was to point a mic at it…they had a good laugh when that actually did happen. Never fails. *Sigh*…
Eventually, though, the weka I dubbed Mr. Mutters started up again, and I got a stream of avian obscenities from him. He was tasting a canvas camping chair at the time. Brainpower not keeping up with curiosity.
But check out the really strange, squeaky chatter this guy was making. Pitch it down a few octaves and it sounds like some of the other talking-to-themselves dudes who hang around my office.
New Zealand Cicada from the Queen Charlotte Track, South Island.
I’ve heard cicadas on three continents, and they all sound different. I remember in Thailand they sounded like a constant-tone fire or burglar alarm, the high-pitched ones you hear in modern office buildings. In New Zealand, they have more of an overlapping start-stop pattern with more distinct “crrrkk”-ing, rather than a constant drone. they’d only seem to really get loud when in direct sunlight. It took me a day to finally be able to spot them consistently, get a photo (above), and then finally find some spots with minimal birdsong to record them (although I included one bellbird call in the sample below just for fun).
This post also should serve as an example to other field recordists around how specifications do not a microphone make. The Zoom H2, while handy and theoretically able to capture sound up to 20kHz, really muddies high-frequency audio content. In person, these cicada sounds were rhythmic, pulsing, and you could even hear each individual start and stop their rhythms. In the final rendered audio – sure to be made worse by conversion to MP3 for Internet posting – feels flat, inarticulate, and less interesting than what my ears heard. One just can’t expect excellent frequency response from a $200 device. Still, once again, it’s what you have with you that counts, so at least one comes away with something.
It’s worth noting that Samon has the H4n’s frequency response graph on their website, but not the H2′s. (If the same capsules used in each unit, it’s interesting how a peaks above 5-8 KHz still doesn’t always translate into improved fidelity.)
Respected wireless manufacturer Lectrosonics tests the frequency characteristics of their hardware with what they call “The Dreaded Key Test.” This consists simply of jingling a keyring with a lot of keys in front of a mic, specifically to test the reproduction of high-frequency transients. I’d recommend that anyone evaluating a microphone do this test. If the recorded sounds are articulate and discrete, that’s a pretty darned good sign. Otherwise, this test will result in tones that are harsh, indistinct, and more like a blast of static. As many other folks will recommend: Rent gear you’re interested in before you buy it, if possible!
This recording might not be of the bellbird, but what the heck. They produce the most amazing birdsong, so this little green dude deserves this prominent photo position just 'cause!
I recorded some pleasant-enough South Island birdsong one day along the Queen Charlotte Track, and found that there was this amazing, flutelike call deep in the background that went off every 10-20 seconds. It’s pretty far in the distance, but you can still make it out. I’d love to hear any identifications if a reader might recognize this. [UPDATE: Reader Barney from Nevada City, California correctly identified this as the call of the Australian Magpie. Thanks, Barney!]
A small sampling of the red-billed gull colony at Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand.
While on New Zealand’s South Island, I visited its largest colony of native red-billed gulls.
It’s tough when you’re presented with nifty creatures in large numbers that you can get close to (like the rutting elk from one of my earlier posts). You’ve got to balance getting as close as possible while respecting the animal and not threatening or stressing it. Well, I wound up getting nice and close, only to be dive-bombed by angry gull parents, all Hitchcock style. Too close after all! (I also got growled at by a sea lion, but that one wasn’t my fault, I swear! Another story for another day…) At any rate, I got a stereo earful of the chatty little bastards, with some background hiss and rumble from the pounding surf nearby.
The smokestacks of the M.V. Tutoko, motoring towards the sea on Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
I went on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound on the M. V. Tutoko. Her diesel engines made a throbbing hum that I found enveloping, comforting, and even calming. I headed to the upper deck and recorded her at the exhaust stacks. It took a little EQ to get rid of the splashing water alongside, but this recording should give you a nice sense of the unique timbre and rhythm. Easily looped, this could absolutely make a cool vehicle sound (with granulation and dopplering), or a unique interior thrumming for a vehicle or mechanical interior.
Portage Bay on the Queen Charlotte Sound, South Island, New Zealand.
This will be the first of several posts that highlight some interesting sounds that I gathered from the South Island of New Zealand, from December 2009 to January 2010. Big thanks to Tim Prebble and others for offering advice!
I walked the 71km Queen Charlotte Track with my photo gear and my beat-up Zoom H2, and gathered quite a bit of sound over the 3.5 days I spent hiking. The last morning I awoke early to this unusual dawn chorus of birds…the more I listen to it, it might just be a handful of birds or even just one loud one, with echos coming off the walls of the surrounding hills. It sounded synthesized to me, like an ambient song. Give it a listen below, with some occasional post-rain water drips falling from the trees. (While this is unprocessed, I applied some spectral processing to it and it sounded like it came out of Avatar…may share that later on…)
[UPDATE: Reader Tom Williams from Devon, UK correctly identified this as the call of the tui. Thanks, Tom!]
This Mordor-looking photo shows Mono Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. 12,000′/3,657m high, we crossed it in August, but we still got snowed, rained, and hailed on, and the winds were definitely in the 40mph range. A forbidding place, an intense day, and freakin’ cold to boot.
I remember the sound of the wind, especially, howling in my ears but also sometimes between spaces between rocks. Very distinctive, almost like the wind that you hear in movies.
I had to travel almost halfway around the world to a cute cottage in a summery, temperate rainforest to actually record wind that sounded like that.
Staying at a lodge along New Zealand’s Queen Charlotte Track on the South Island, a huge southerly wind kicked up around dusk and made this great whistling sound through our bedroom windows. What luck! Rather than be outside in an actual gale, I could position my recorder right near the sound source – tiny gaps between the windows – while having the windows themselves completely protect the microphones from the wind itself. I changed the perspective of the recording a few times, so rather than futz with it all to match or mess with a multitrack edit for this post, I just crossfaded to silence between each wind gust. You’ll get the idea.
So, just goes to show you: What you record, when, and where, can sometimes have little to do with the mental images one gets from the sounds recorded…which is why I included the photo above and not the nice real picture of tree ferns and sunshine!