Recording nature sounds

January 14, 2017
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Andrew Skeoch recording using SASS microphone head in IndiaI 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, nature 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. Here’s a picture of our friend Howard Plowright with his ‘big’ rig.

Parabolas are designed to focus in on birdsong from a distance – sort of an audio equivalent of a telephoto lens. If you are researching the repertoire and dialect of birds and animals, this kind of equipment does a good job, recording a distant critter without the clutter of surrounding sounds.

Howard Plowright with parabolic dish microphoneHowever, 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, and so my rig is quite different.

Our Early Recordings

When we first began recording nature sounds nearly 20 years ago, I inherited a pair of highly directional, shotgun microphones. While these actually worked quite well for our first projects, we realised quickly that their stereo field was too narrow for the soundscapes we wished to capture.

So I soon graduated on to using wider-field microphones; the ones I chose were pair of Sennheiser MKH60s. I think of them as ‘sawn-off’ shotgun mics; still directional, but with a much wider pickup. They had a field of around 30 degrees each side, before muffling off-axis sounds. Thus a pair, deployed at an angle of around 60 degrees from each other, gave an optimal field of around 120 degrees, progressively muting as sounds came from the side or rear.Andrew with hand-held pair of Sennheiser ME88 microphones This is similar to the field of view of the human eye, and was surprisingly good at giving a realistic stereo image.

Most often I’d hand-hold these mics in pistol grips, which allowed me to ‘follow the action’ and compose the soundscape in the field to some extent. The disadvantage with this approach was the need to keep totally still and silent, and the limit to how long one could stand like that. I got pretty good at just meditatively standing, but was often relieved when the situation favoured tripod mounting.

My Favourite Microphones

There came a day though, recording in India during our first trip there, that I realised I wanted to capture a much wider stereo field. The birdsong was all around me, the air pulsated with it, and I felt restricted by having to focus on particular sounds in the landscape. I wanted to be able to capture all of it, even if it was bit overwhelming at times.

The system I chose to use is the SASS, or Stereo Ambient Sampling System. It is a quasi-binaural system, based on a microphone housing that is similar to the human head. It captures sounds from all directions, and presents them in a coherent stereo image.

This is actually not so easy to do, for numerous reasons to do with the difference between how our ears hear sounds around us, and how a pair of microphones can actually record them.

I have had the SASS modified to accommodate a pair of Sennheiser MKH20 microphones; premium, omni-directional mics that have a whisper quiet and fine-grained noise floor. They produce very little hiss, which is of course extremely important for quiet natural environments, and recording delicate sounds over long distances.

Sennheiser MKH60 microphones hand-held in cross-pattern Sennheiser MKH60 microphones, tripod mounted in cross pattern Andrew Skeoch recording with SASS microphone head SASS microphone head in the Stirling Ranges, western Australia
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