A multi-disciplinary journey in music, sound, and field recording.

Field Workshop Notes, Part 3: Parabolics

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording

Lookit that man out there. He's quite a dish.

One of the best reasons to spend a weekend with other sound recordists is a chance to try out new gear. A classic nature recording technique is the use of a microphone set in a parabolic dish.

The general public knows of parabolics mostly from seeing people use them on the sidelines of sporting events. In nature recording, they’re for capturing species-specific sounds rather than ambiences. This is because the microphones in parabolic dishes are mono, and have sound pushed into them by the dish itself. This creates a very narrow “beam” of listening. Perceptually, parabolics seem like they “zoom in” on sounds, but this is simply due to such microphones just attenuating all the sounds outside that narrow cone.

Parabolics are also interesting because the frequency response is directly tied to the size of the dish. For most song birds, this is fine. Besides, making and transporting a 17-meter-wide dish just to get a 20Hz-20kHz frequency response just seems silly. At that point, you’re practically into SETI territory! :-)

I got the chance to use one at the Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop. The unit you see in the photo above was the one used by the founder of the NSS, Paul Matzner, so I was holding a bit of history: Hand-made of fiberglass and aluminum, the NSS archives have lots of photos with Matzner holding this thing. Had I looked at the archives before heading into the field, I’d have gotten a way better handling technique. Holding it by its edges introduced horrendous amounts of handling noise.

Today’s sound is from this unit, recorded at 5:01am at Yuba Pass, off California Route 49. As far as I can tell, this is a chestnut-backed chickadee. You can tell, even in this recording, he’s got a lot of pals around (woodpeckers and sparrows at least).


[DPA 4006 omni microphone in custom 1m parabolic dish into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Field Workshop Notes, Part 2: Gear + Dawn Chorus

Posted: July 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording

Neither dirt, nor fog, nor clouds of mosquitos keeps a field recordist from his crack-of-dawn tasks!

I’m finally unpacked and rested from the inspiring (and exhausting) 26th Annual Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop in California’s Sierra Nevada. Since my last post was a compilation of high-level personal experiences, I thought that I’d report back about what worked, or didn’t work, in the field on the technology side of things…as well as share a recording from our first early-morning field session.

  • Outdoor Gear. My REI trail stool was instrumental in keeping my body still (I can be a fidgety so-and-so), the importance of which can’t be understated when your preamp gain is at 80% of maximum and you can hear birds’ wing flaps 20 meters away. [Hint: For nature recording, more layers of softer materials – like fleece, soft-handed polyester, and wool – are the best for staying warm and silent. Consider gaffer-taping your metal zippers, too!]
  • Microphones. My primary MKH 50/30 rig performed brilliantly, with a strong signal-to-noise ratio even in the quietest moments. I also got a chance to try out a rather large parabolic microphone…more on that in a later post. [Hint: If you want a mic for nature recording, you need to be looking in the <-16dBA self-noise range, the lower the better.]
  • Recorders. The ol’ 702 worked its usual wonders. I monitored as mid-side in the field, only converting to left/right once I returned. A +8dB side signal using Tom Erbe’s +Matrix plug-in made for a wide, enveloping sense of space without losing center imaging.  [Hint: Batteries drain faster when cold. Store spares inside your jacket, or in your sleeping bag with you overnight!]

The gear list across everyone was pretty insane: many Olympus LS10 recorders, several Sound Devices 744T’s, a Sony PCM-D50, and mics from DPA, Neumann, Røde, Sennheiser, and Telinga. Recording techniques varied from mono to mid-side stereo, XY stereo, ORTF, Jecklin discs, and even two binaural dummy-head rigs (see this site for a good explanation of all this alphabet soup). An outdoor mic directionality seminar helped to illustrate what each is good for, which was a rare opportunity and extremely educational.

Yeah, yeah, whatever. But what did it sound like?

Today’s sound was recorded around 5:45am on a day with a slight breeze and scads of ground fog. The location was Sierra Valley, north of state route 49 in the Sierra Nevada. This recording includes at least swallows (cave or barn, I’m unsure), American bitterns, red-winged blackbirds, white-faced ibises, yellow-faced blackbirds, and a bullfrog, and certainly more that I can’t identify.

Get those headphones on and close your eyes…


[Sennheiser MKH 50 and MKH 30 recorded as mid-side pair into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Field Workshop Notes, Part 1: Video Diary

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording, news, video/motion

[Sound Design] Field Recording Workshop 2010 from Noise Jockey on Vimeo.

I’m just back from the 26th Annual Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop. I thought that I’d share some video diary entries that I shot with my new iPhone 4. As far as I know, this is the first time that video of this workshop has ever been seen online.

I’ll be sharing more of the learnings, experiences, and recordings in the coming weeks. For now, I hope you enjoy this set of dispatches from the field.

[You can read about the gear I took with me in a previous post.]

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Preparing for a Field Workshop

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear, nature recording, news

This weekend, I’m attending the 26th Annual Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop. Held in the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an SFSU field research station, this year’s instructors will include Gordon “One Square Inch of Silence” Hempton and others, with naturalist and illustrator John Muir Laws as a guest lecturer.

I thought it might be interesting to share what I’m bringing with me to this interesting outing. (Well, OK, fine, I really needed to make a packing list and I just suckered you into reading it.) Later this summer, I’ll not only share some recordings and photos from the field workshop, but will recap the gear used and how it all performed.

So, what am I bringing?

Read the rest of this entry »

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Mutant Starling

Posted: June 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording, sound design

European Starling, hero mutterer and goer-on-forever.

[Photo by donjd2 (CC)]

The European Starling is a common bird that yammers like a manic street preacher. They have a really varied voice, quite expressive for standard birdsong.

I recorded one in my backyard and found that the frequency content really held up well under creative processing (unlike the raspy, high-mid-peaked calls of crows). Today’s sample is a continuous utterance from a starling that’s been pitched down 800 cents and run through the GRM Tools PitchAccum filter, which I just adore for thickening sounds in unusual ways.

For me, it’s evocative of an exotic or alien ecosystem, especially with those other weird R2-D2-like tones in the background…but, again, the vast majority of those tones are being made by a single Starling.


[Sennheiser MKH 50 into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Of Noise and Crows

Posted: June 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
Crows

Recording crows...it's murder, I tell ya.

Thanks to SocialSoundDesign.com, I’ve discovered the joys of iZotope RX, an amazing noise reduction tool that has made real one of my hopes: To capture reasonably clean sounds in my own back yard. I live pretty close to a major highway, so getting usable recordings has been impossible up until recently.

A neighbor’s willow tree harbors a very chatty and schizophrenic-sounding European Starling. While recording some of its yammering, a crow flew in, circled over me three or four times not more than 20 feet overhead, and then left, as if to warn me that I was too close to the community tree in Birdsville. I tracked him with my mic as he flew. Well, after that, I packed it in. It wasn’t going to get better than that.

The sounds of the background are still there, of course, but much less prominently than they were. The crow was close enough and I tracked accurately enough that while there’s a volume dropoff, there’s not a lot of apparent Dopplering. The caws are fairly shrill, so don’t turn this up too loud. (Note: From a sound design standpoint, pitch shifting crow vocalizations down doesn’t sound that interesting. They sound like asthmatic dogs coughing up a cat’s hairball, and not in a good way.)


[Sennheiser MKH 50/30 mid-side stereo pair with into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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The Many Voices of Water

Posted: March 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
Blackstone Canyon, my local refuge from Bad Things.

Blackstone Canyon, my local refuge from Bad Things.

I live at the foot of a number of hills that converge into a canyon not five minutes from my house. We have a very Mediterranean climate, so this canyon is dry in the summer. In the winter, the canyon is alive with creeks, streams, and small waterfalls. These winding watercourses have quite varied voices, from deeply resonant hydraulics to burbling, rock-strewn runs. Its sound never ceases to calm me.

This short piece is an aural tour of my local watershed. It crossfades from one water “tone” to another, from the rivulets at the end of the canyon to some of the waterfalls at its head. Of course, the limitations of MP3 encoding sadly adds some warbling and artifacting to the higher frequencies.

When doing this kind of recording, a medium to long boom pole is essential to get nice up-close perspectives without going into the drink yourself.


[Røde NT4 stereo mic into a Sound Devices 702 field recorder]

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New Zealand: Meet Mr. Mutters, the Wacky Weka

Posted: February 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
weka

Meet Mr. Mutters.

[This is the last in my series of recordings from New Zealand, recorded December 2009 – January 2010. Thanks to every wonderful soul I met along the way, and for readers who have helped with identifying certain sounds.]

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.

The Wacky Weka by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder]

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Of Cicadas and High Frequency Sound

Posted: February 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, gear, nature recording
New Zealand Cicada from the Queen Charlotte Track, South Island.

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!

New Zealand: Cicadas on the Queen Charlotte Track by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder]

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New Zealand: Bird As Flute

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording
This recording might not be of the bellbird, but what the heck. They produce the most amazing birdsong, so he deserves this photo just 'cause!

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!]

(Listening directly on SoundCloud will show my comments where these specific calls are happening, if you don’t see them below.)

NZFlutelikeBirdsong by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder]

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