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

Ibises and Cows

Posted: August 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, nature recording

Somewhere in the murk there's quite a few noisy critters...

I originally considered this clip an outtake from the Nature Sounds Society Field Workshop this summer (which has been previously covered in older posts). I had never seen white-faced ibises before, and their ducklike honking and loud wing flaps were mixed in with local cows that were just waking up. It was about 7am.

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]

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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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Gas Lantern

Posted: September 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, sound design
This rare Mt. Hermon June Beetle kept trying to mate with our propane gas lantern. Randy fellow!

This rare Mt. Hermon June Beetle kept trying to mate with our propane gas lantern. Randy fellow!

(I’m on a bit of an nature recording roll since my last post about recording rutting Tule Elk…)

As much as I love backpacking, car camping can be pretty cushy. You can bring as many “luxury items” as you want. One such item is a propane-powered gas lantern. It’s such a staple of camping that I never thought to record it until a recent trip, when the forest went almost dead silent one morning. With the significant other still asleep in the tent, out came the battered Zoom H2.

This recording has just a couple of distant bird calls, but otherwise turned out pretty clean. It’s a simple hissy drone, but as a layer for other sound design purposes, I’m sure I’ll find a use for it someday (like shortening a piece of it for wind effects from airlocks, sci-fi helmets, or the like).

Gas Lantern by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder, 120°-spread rear stereo pair]

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Campfire

Posted: September 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording
Note to self: Don't melt microphone.

Note to self: Don't melt microphone.

There is something so primal about fire. Everyone I know considers just sitting and watching/listening to a campfire burn is better than television, and can be done for hours, pleasurably, in silence.

Of course, when I get excited, ideas like physics kind of go out the window, like the whole heat-rising thing…nothing got damaged, but in retrospect a lower position would have allowed the recorder to get closer. I am sure the makers of the Zoom H2 didn’t intend to have its plastic case survive high temperatures.

I recorded the sound of my campfire while backpacking California’s Sierra National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness on a nice, still evening. This particular campfire had a log that made some, uh, gassy emissions, and sounded very much like a milk foamer on an espresso machine. You’ll hear it about halfway through the clip.

Campfire by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder, 120°-spread rear stereo pair]

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Paddleboat

Posted: August 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, found sound objects, sound design
I'm pretty sure this paddleboat was not intended for wilderness exploration.

I'm pretty sure this paddleboat was not intended for wilderness exploration.

Before embarking on mountainous backpacking trips, I like to acclimate to the altitude for a day with some light activity. On a recent, trip, my girlfriend and I wanted to do some lake kayaking. Sadly, the sole outfitter in the region didn’t bring their kayaks that season…when offered a paddleboat instead, we shrugged, thought it was incredibly silly, and said, “Sure!”

The next thing we knew, we were out for four hours in this damn thing. We paddled halfway across an alpine lake, and fought 10-knot wind on the return trip in a craft with the hydrodynamics of a brick. The only way we survived was to sustain ourselves by playing Ghost and Twenty Questions like we were eight years old. From those plastic bucket seats, my ass was complaining for days afterwards.

It was a silly, weird, and fun…and oddly mechanical-sounding. There was this constant thrumming that sounded really regular and sustained for a muscle-powered vehicle. Early in the day there was no wind or chop, so I managed to get several minutes’ worth of clean recordings from this thing. It could easily be processed just a little and recontextualized as a mechanical texture for some device or ambience.

I almost didn’t bring my Zoom H2 on this trip, but I’m sure glad I did. I’ll have more examples from this trip in future posts. (Technical note: Dropping six rechargeable batteries at once into a cold mountain stream does not improve battery life.)

Oh, and photos from my trip can be viewed online if you’d like.

Paddleboat by noisejockey
[Zoom H2 recorder, 120°-spread rear stereo pair]

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