I was sick at home one fall day and I heard a European starling singing. Loudly. I didn’t see it outside of any doors or windows, all of which were shut anyway, and then realized that it was perched on my chimney, and therefore was singing right into my house.
All my high-end nature recording mics were in my closet; nothing was hooked up and my batteries might not have been charged. So, even with oodles of gear around, I just grabbed my handheld Sony PCM-D50 that was right on my desk, and started rolling.
Of course, the chimney did an equally good job funneling nearby road noise. Perhaps its narrow aperture did some pre-filtering on that background noise, as it was pretty easy to remove using iZotope RX. It also helped that the signal to noise ratio was very high, given the bird’s proximity relative to the ambient noise. (Tip: Ever use Strip Silence on birdsong? Try it. Super weird!)
Thus quoth the raven, "Press record, idiot!" (This picture was taken years ago in Oakland, CA, not where today's sound was recorded.)
[One in a series of posts from my spring 2011 trip to the southern California desert.]
I love ravens. Not because I’m all Mr. Gothy McLordbyron, but because they’re big, majestic, smart as hell, and have gravelly voices. Like crows, but drunker. They’re the Tom Waits of the bird world.
Ravens aren’t exactly rare, and perhaps because of this, they’re hard to record in the wild. They can be anywhere: Urban areas, tops of trees, windswept hills…but by the time I show up with a recorder, they’re either deciding to be quiet or are surrounded by traffic noise, intense winds, other birds, or even people. I’ve had the darnedest time capturing one cleanly.
Thankfully, the ravens of Joshua Tree National Park are pretty fearless…well, they’re also always looking for snacks, and have learned that people can be a good source for tasty (dropped) morsels. I’ve noticed that they often travel in pairs or groups of less than four to six, and one day we were followed by a pair of ravens as we wandered the desert trails. The vocalizations aren’t anything super-special, but they’re (for once) pretty clean, articulate, and detailed. Just what I was hoping for!
This raven was talking to his companion quietly as they spread out looking for snacks. He landed about twenty feet from me and I recorded him as he was hopping around. I like the little lilt he added at the end!
But in listening to it again, I came to love the moment that was captured: Dense fog all around, the sun kissing vernal pools and long-grass marshland in the middle of the Sierra Nevada, and all the animals calling out to each other, re-establishing territory and familial bonds. I came to rather like the sound of the cows mixed in with the ibises, the swallows, and the blackbirds.
Field recordings don’t always have to be pristine to be interesting. Sometimes you must bend your mind to the material.
So, I’ll share it here today. Hang out until the very last bit, where an ibis takes off and flies overhead – great clarity in the call and the wing flaps.
[Sennheiser MKH 50 and MKH 30 recorded as mid-side pair into Sound Devices 702 recorder]
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 SocietyField 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]
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 SocietyField 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]
I’m just back from the 26th Annual Nature Sounds SocietyField 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.
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 ToolsPitchAccum 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]
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]
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.
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!]