A multi-disciplinary designer’s journey in field recording, sound design, and music.

The Bear Locker

Posted: October 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects

Beer, toiletries, ice chest, field recorders. Yep, that's a well-stocked camping trip!

The metal bearproof food locker is a common sight in the developed campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They’re infamously noisy to open, close, and move things around in, and are usually the first sounds you hear in the morning. They do their job, though…provided you have them closed. I once had a close encounter with a bear whose head was stuck right into my slightly open bear locker (in my defense, it was in the midst of dinner preparation), but that’s another story for another blog.

I finally decided to record one on a trip this summer. It was a kayaking trip, so I had both my Zoom H2 [yeah, this is an older sound] and a hydrophone, so I decided to use both: The Zoom would get the stereo effects and the hydrophone would pick up the raw vibrations. I placed the H2 horizontally centered in the locker, and placed the hydrophone on the single shelf inside. Holy resonance, Batman!

Today’s sound is a collection of hits from this outdoors session, made with hands, metal objects, and a rubber mallet, first at normal pitch and then an octave lower. It wound up mixing rather well with my collection of shovel-in-wheelbarrow sounds from a while back. Get those subwoofers ready for the second half…


[Zoom H2 (120° capsule spread), Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophone into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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Mountaintop Insect Ambience

Posted: October 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

Sierra Buttes, California: Less than 9,000' high, but the tallest thing around...with active insect soundscapes!

The thing that strikes me the most about recording at high altitude is the quiet. Sounds that get masked by wind, rustling leaves of trees, traffic, and other sources become extremely articulate. Unless there are birds nearby, this usually means that insects are what comes to the ears most clearly.

Atop a California mountain on a sunny summer day, I came upon a patch of blooming buckwheat that was being visited by bees and other insects. The trees were pretty far away, but cicadas were singing loudly, and the wind was pretty still. I set down my recorder and walked away for about 20 minutes to bag a nearby peak.

The killer moment in this otherwise quite ambient snippet is right near the end, when a huge, fat something buzzed right past the mics. I’m assuming it’s a type of bee, but with such a deep, rumbling sound, it sounds like a cartoon or a parody of an insect sound, like something out of A Bug’s Life, as opposed to a real creature. Since I walked away during the recording, I’ll never know!


[Sony PCM-D50 field recorder]

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Drones in Questionable Places

Posted: October 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design

Yes, I recorded audio in a bathroom. Draw what conclusions you like, you twisted little Intarweb Monkeys!

Sometimes, you need to record in embarrassing places to get the good stuff. A recent example for me was in a bathroom of a local supermarket.

Longtime readers and listeners to Noise Jockey know my obsession with cool drones. This one was an ancient, badly-needing-to-be-cleaned ventilation fan. It was really not that large, but it made this intense, deep thrumming sound that just had to be recorded. Luckily, no one came in while my recorder was rolling, presenting at best a challenging set of questions I’d have to answer…

[Note: This will be the last post you'll see on Noise Jockey using my battered and worn Zoom H2 Handy Recorder. It's been replaced with the Sony PCM-D50, which you'll be hearing more of this fall and winter! When the card and battery tray doors break off, and you've dented the mic grilles, and you've dropped it two dozen times, and its recording settings won't stick between sessions, it's time to just let go and upgrade...]


[Zoom H2 field recorder]

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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

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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Prosumerism

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: gear, theory
prosumerSign

Use gear made by those who make gear they themselves use, and make gear for other users. That's prosumerism.

[Gigantic über-thanks to Tim Prebble and Richard Devine for their contributions to this article.]

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Meet the Super Clamp: Rigging a Bicycle for Sound

Posted: September 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear
The Bogen Super Clamp held this OktavaMod MK-012 right near the action.

The Bogen Super Clamp held this OktavaMod MK012 right near the action.

I’ve posted before about photographic grip equipment for use in audio recording, but one little widget rises to the top of that list for me: the Bogen Super Clamp. While intended to position cameras and flashguns in unusual places without marring whatever it’s clamped to, the Super Clamp is super fun for audio, too.

Super Clamps come with a stud that locks into the clamp itself, and ends with a 1/4″-20 screw thread. All it takes is an adapter to change that to a more mic-mount-friendly 3/8″ or 5/8″ thread, and as long as everything’s screwed down tight, you can hang mics upside down, on the sides of vehicles, you name it. Combining them with other accessories like umbrella swivel adapters gives you even more mounting flexibility. The padding on their jaws also makes them pretty gentle on whatever you place them on. Just don’t overtighten them on surface that can’t take crushing pressure, like carbon fiber handlebars.

This bicycle mounting held pretty well on relatively gentle roads, and took 3 minutes to rig.

This mounting held pretty well on relatively gentle roads, and took 3 minutes to rig.

It’s large, bombproof, and heavy, so maybe it’s not something you might casually throw in your field recording bag. But if you want to position a mic somewhere that a mic stand can’t go, or shoot an unusual perspective, the Super Clamp can go there. I’ve used it to attach mics in all sorts of odd places. A great way to get some neat ideas is to watch this Chase Jarvis video, in which he uses Super Clamps and the Bogen Magic Arm to get unique point-of-view shots. Extrapolate by replacing the cameras with mics and it gets interesting.

There are other ways to get mics in weird places, too. The Super Clamp is not unique to Bogen: Matthews makes basically the same thing. There are many smaller jobbies, too, such as Cardellini Clamps, but they’re actually more expensive.

The photos in this post show my OktavaMod MK012 (who’d want to run a test like this with a really expensive mic anyway?) atop a Rycote Softie shock mount and inside a Rycote Baby Ball Gag windscreen, attached to the rear triangle of my Gary Fisher HiFi Pro mountain bike. I wore my field recorder on my chest, utilizing a Lowe Pro chest harness I use for my camera bag when I backpack.

I’ll end this post with a sample of me riding around my street…not horribly exciting, but you’ll get the idea. The clip starts with pedaling uphill, then freewheeling on the flats, the disc brakes kicking in, and finally me clipping out of the pedals. The rumbling noises aren’t traffic, but rather the knobby tires rolling on the pavement.

Rear-wheel, bike-mounted microphone by noisejockey
[OktavaMod MK012 mic with cardioid capsule into Sound Devices 702 recorder]

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