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Nature Recording with Andrew

I have been recording nature sounds professionally since 1993. I recall that when I was about 10 years old, a friend and I went off to a local park armed with a cheap portable cassette recorder. We managed to record a Wattlebird screeching from a few yards away and returned with much excitement to listen to this distorted squawk lost amidst a sea of tape hiss. I can't recall being inspired to a career by this experience, so I'll put it down to one of the adventures of childhood.

Needless to say, recording these days is a little more sophisticated...

The Right Technology for the Purpose

Often, when one thinks of nature recording, one envisages parabolic dishes or highly directional microphones. These are designed to focus on and 'pull in' birdsong from a distance - sort of an audio equivalent of a telephoto lens. This kind of equipment does a wonderful job if one wishes to record a single songbird without distracting background sound. In documenting the repertoire and dialect of birds and animals, this is the objective, and hence a commonly employed technology.

However, in our work, I am trying to record the whole landscape with each sound in a natural balance. I need a 'wide-angle lens' approach.

Actually getting a good stereo image out of a real 'surround sound' landscape is not as easy as it may seem. There are all kinds of subtleties around phase coherence and psychoactoustics that I shalln't go in to here. If you're interested further, there is a lot of information on the net about various microphone systems that achieve stereo, most notably binaural, ORTF, Mid-side (MS), co-incidently mounted pairs or just a single stereo capsule microphone.

Our Early Recordings

For many years, and for our early albums, I used a pair of Sennheiser MKH60 microphones, most often hand-held in pistol grips, with Rycote 'Softy' wind protectors. These mics are what I refer to as 'sawn-off' shotgun mics; shorter length directional microphones. They each have an optimal field of around 30 degrees around centreline before they begin muffling off. So a pair, deployed at an angle of around 60 degrees from each other, gives an optimal field of around 120 degrees, with progressively muting as sounds move to the side or rear. This optimal field is similar to the field of view of the human eye, and is surprisingly good at giving a realistic stereo image.

Whilst this microphone system had to be used sensitively and had its limitations, I found it to give remarkably good results. Firstly, the stereo image was good, with the roll-off mimicking what the ear does with sounds coming from behind the listener. Secondly, one could be quite targetted about what one is recording, without loosing the ambience and space of a landscape. And most importantly, the system was versatile in many different environments, and was easy to use and carry.

When we began in 1993, DAT (digital audio tape) was the only digital option for quality field recording. All our early albums were recorded on a Sony D10 Pro DAT recorder, using custom pre-amps from Moortronics.

The Latest Digital Technology

More recently, I have moved to a quasi-binaural microphone system, known as a SASS (Stereo Ambient Sampling System). This is a commercially available microphone housing manufactured by Crown, originally designed to mount a pair of Crown omni microphones. I have had my SASS modified to adapt the housing to fit a pair of Sennheiser MKH20 omni-directional microphones, one of the quietest and most sensitive microphones available, and a favourite of nature and field recordists.

The SASS captures a wider field than my MKH60 system, and with greater stereo integrity. The sense of space is absolutely lovely, and using the MKH20s gives a highly sensitive pickup with extremely low microphone self-noise. Because the SASS has a wider field, it is not so important to anticipate where the action is coming from, or follow it, and hence the optimal way of using this micrphone is on a tripod. I usually run a long cable (20 metres) back to my recorder, and monitor from there.

More photos of the SASS binaural microphone system.

Technology has thankfully moved on from the days of DAT tapes, and now there are a variety of hard disc audio recorders on the market. I now use a Sound Devices 722, a professional, dedicated audio recorder. This is the most wonderful gadget; built like a brick, 40 Gb hard drive (thats about 60 hours of record time; easily enough for our recent 3 month field trip in India), baby simple to use and functional in a wide range of climatic conditions. But best of all, Sound Devices have had a reputation for making the sweetest, quietest microphone pre-amplifiers in the business, and now it is built into the 722 as standard. So I just plug in the SASS, and I'm ready to record.

The quality of sound is spectacular; crystal clear digital audio. This complete rig is slightly more cumbersome than my earlier one, but the advantages of tripod mounting, gaining a wider field, and the improved sound quality, are well worth the extra lugging around. Plus, once back in the studio, the audio is transfered as WAV files directly onto our computers, ready for editing - no more real-time transcribing of DAT tapes.

The Art of Nature Recording

Having the finest professional equipment is only one part of getting a good nature recording though - and probably not as important as many would believe.

Every year, professional sound recordists - the kind used to working on TV studios and film sets - are sent out with top-of-the-line gear, to get 'some outdoor location sound' to accompany feature films and documentaries. Later, when it comes to post-production where sound effects and ambiences get added, the film editors and producers find that after months of filming on location, their sound guys haven't got what is needed. They often end up contacting dedicated nature recordists like ourselves to supply the required audio.

Recording nature is not as easy as it seems! It is an art, not a science, and most often it is the skill and ear of the nature recordist that captures the most evocative recordings.

This field craft is difficult to talk about, because it is gained through experience. It comes down to an empathy with nature, gained with time and experience, and a sense of how one's equipment will record what is in the environment. And each time one enters a new environment, you have to begin again, getting to know what is there and how to record it.

For me, the most rewarding part of this process is exploring my relationship with what I am hearing. Imagine the beginning of a day's recording; in the predawn it is often quite still, a good time to collect one's thoughts and tune in to the landscape. As one does so, one begins to be aware that it is not totally silent; maybe there are quiet insects calling, or a distant owl every now and then. It is actually a magical time, and the temptation is to fire up the recorder. However, the magic and stillness that is there rarely translates to a recording, which just sounds empty.

At some point though, things will begin to get lively. Good, some activity! The first birdsong is often lazy and spacious, but as the dawn proceeds and (particularly in spring) a full dawn chorus develops, the birdsong can become overwhelming. Often a bird's territorial dawn song is highly repetative, and each bird calls from one location. The result is a recording that can be both overly busy and boring. So I've often found that later in the morning, once birds are moving around and feeding, some of the best birdsong can be recorded.

What I am describing here is the aesthetics of nature sound; what sounds engaging to our ear. This is a personal and emotional response to the environment, there is nothing scientific or objective about it. It is all about developing our relationship with life around us, and being engaged as a listener, rather than a removed and dispassionate 'scientific' observer.

It is also about hearing the relationships between other living things, hearing a living landscape, rather than a collection of seperate animals. And the paradox is that these relationships - an acoustic ecology - turns out to be crucial to understanding the organisation of nature's sounds, and how each creature fits into the whole.

So for me, nature recording is a personal journey, an exploration of the music of our living planet. Nature sounds are more than simply nice or interesting, they can touch one's soul.

Nature Photography with Sarah
Our Home in the Bush