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]
The title of this article isn’t what you think it is.
You can’t shop for electronics or technology without hearing “prosumer.” People assume this portmanteau is a contraction of “professional-consumer.” Only marketing wonks have made it so.
That is neither its original meaning, nor the topic of this post.
The term was coined in Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock as a contraction of “producer” and “consumer,” predicting the merging of the roles of consumption and production into the life of one individual, primarily due to customization of mass-produced objects and the creation of highly specialized products. That is, person A makes widget X, who sells X to person B who makes widget Y, which person A, in turn, buys…it’s a massively networked set of cottage industries. This trend has exploded in the last decade. When Wired writes about micro-manufacturing and “no more factories,” we’ve probably arrived at a prosumer tipping point.
That, dear friends, is what this post is about. And yes, this is audio-related. Chances are, this article is probably about you, too.
Horse hair, water, mic, and wok lid. Now we're cookin'!
My last post featured teensy finger cymbals being dipped in water while resonating, recorded with a submerged hydrophone. This time we go a bit bigger.
Bowed cymbals are one of the classic clichéd horror movie sounds…clichéd because they’re awesome! (coincidentally, just yesterday, Chuck Russom posted some great examples on his blog.) I recorded some a while back, borrowing some cymbals from a friend at work who keeps his drum kit at work. During that session I also realized that the wok lid from my kitchen made similar sounds, but with a different timbre: More groany, throaty, less musical, but with a quality I liked.
So, I played the wok lid with a violin bow as I moved it into and out of a tub of water, again with the trusty Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone tracking to a Sound Devices 702. The H2a can be overly bright on some material, but for this stuff it was pretty good! (Next time I should record the above-water sound to a second channel with a small condenser mic for more mixing flexibility.)
The recording below is 100% unedited except for some slight compression and normalization.
[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]
So a fellow gets a hydrophone. He’s excited, and starts recording all sorts of crap. But then he has a free hour to himself and realizes that he’s got a box full of sound-making toys and objects that could sound pretty interesting underwater.
Let’s say I’m that fellow.
Before work one day, I sifted through said toybox and decided to give this a whirl. In search for a large container to fill with water, I decided to record in the executive washroom of Noise Jockey World Headquarters, and the photos in this post will give you a glimpse of the sumptuous luxury in which we conduct our noisy business.
Since our high-tech executive spa didn’t have a stopper handy, I grabbed a plastic tub and filled it with lukewarm water. I put the hydrophone halfway between the surface of the water and the bottom of the tub, suspended from a boom arm so the cable would be isolated from noise and the mic element wouldn’t sit on the bottom.
An Aquarian H2-XLR hydrophone set into a tub of water.
The Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone is pretty heavy and holds quite still. One gotcha is that a high-frequency hiss can occur from air bubbles forming on the microphone casing. This can be a challenge if the water coming out of your spigot is highly aerated. I’m still working on solving that one.
I donned a pair of finger cymbals (truly something every sound recordist should own!) and dipped one or both of them in the water after striking them together. They went into the water at a 60°-90° angle, so that they’d not create entry splashes or secondary water drips. This created a really neat tone that combined a pitch bend with a very resonant filter cutoff.
I’ve attached an edit of the raw recordings to this post. Pitch-bent down or up, obviously, there’s a lot of sonic possibilities for sound design. As with all such experiments I do, I tracked at 192kHz to ensure enough latitude for further sonic malfeasance.
[Aquarian H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]
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!)
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!
The Kodak Brownie. Man, what ever happened to lens turrets, anyway? I
I bought this Kodak Brownie 8mm film camera at a yard sale, way back when I was actually gonna shoot with it. I never did, so it wound up on my desk as a tchotchke, next to my baboon skull, remote control zombie, and tofu skeleton.
This turreted Brownie, as best as I can tell, was manufactured from 1955 to 1963 (the Brownie brand, by the way, is 109 years old this year). Its most prominent feature is a wind-up motor on the side of the case. There’s a small catch that clicks on every seventh rotation, but otherwise it’s a neat, small sound that has a fair amount of character. It has a rhythmic, “breathing” quality to its sound. I wound ‘er up tight and opened the side lid for sonic clarity. The low volume required a large diaphragm mic to capture it in loads of detail with a super-low noise floor.
I thought that it was evocative of clockwork servos on a steampunk robot, or as a smaller loop on top of footage that’s treated to look like a newsreel or home movie. It’s pretty midrangey, so it holds up well to being sped up or slowed down. You’re guaranteed to hear or see this used in actual media to be posted on Noise Jockey in the future!
This male Tule Elk was pimpin' with more than a dozen ladies in his harem. But really, who's gonna argue with a burly, mangy, and horny twelve-point bull about his dating habits?
The wind and fog were almost enough to dissuade me from visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore to capture images and audio of the California tule elk, one of the largest species of deer in the world. September is the end of the tule elk’s rut, so I was nearing the end of the time-window when I had the best chance of seeing and hearing bulls fighting, courting, and generally carrying on in order to secure mates.
As I drove down the windy, isolated road past long, undulating fences and remote dairy farms, I didn’t find the protected elk herds where I usually see them. I saw and photographed a few stray females, but they don’t typically make any vocalizations. Finally, I saw a harem of sixteen females and one male (“bull”) near the very end of the road. I used my car as a wind break for my microphone and windscreen, settled in, and waited for the stag to vocalize (snapping pictures with my telephoto lens when the opportunities arose). It’s rough to get ambience-free recordings out there; it’s a spit of land surrounded by storm-whipped water on all sides, and the wind was gusting to around 25mph, so the waves and wind were constantly roaring. (Side/tech note: Soundtrack Pro did a far better job on noise reduction, while preserving the desired frequencies and dynamics, than Sound Soap Pro.)
My patience and stillness was ultimately rewarded by several pretty clean recordings of the bull bugling. Trust me, it doesn’t sound like a bugle. More like unholy screams. The male tule elk’s call is as loud as it is piercing, with gigantic 2kHz frequency peaks that are 25dB higher than any other frequency. You may want to turn down your headphones or speakers at first. (I probably should have issued this warning for certain other posts, too.)