Written by Audio

Wildlife Sound Recording Course

I spent last weekend near Reepham in Norfolk learning some of the basics of sound recording.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I’ve tinkered loosely with audio in the past. I’ve owned a Zoom H2 for a number of years, and in particular I’ve tinkered around with some binaural recordings.

But while the H2 is a fun device, it has its difficulties. Because the microphone is built into it, you get a lot of handling noise. And I now know that the pre-amps aren’t great on it. I did recently upgrade to the new Zoom H5, but I now know that this perhaps wasn’t my best buy, and I should have waited until after this course to look at something different.

The Zoom H5 comes with an X/Y stereo microhpone, and crucially also has a couple of XLR inputs. This latter is particularly important having come away from the weekend.

The course is run by a company called Wildeye, and I first stumbled across it some years ago. Every year, I’d promise myself that I’d sign up, and every year, as the dates got closer, the course would have filled anyway. So finally this year, I signed up a few months ahead of time.

The really great thing about the course is that you have some of the best in the business teaching it. It’s led by Chris Watson and Jez riley French. Chris Watson has recorded everything – working on television, radio, and feature films. He’s released audio on CD, and he’s produced installation pieces. Jez riley French is essentially a sound artist, using field recordings as his compositions. He also builds and sells his own contact microphones and hydrophones.

On the first evening of the course, everyone in the room went around talking about what they did and how they used sound. Some were at the very creative end – sometimes working in other mediums and looking to improve their sound skills. Others worked in different facets of audio. Some had a bit of experience, others didn’t. It was a really interesting mix of people.

Chris had set up a great four speaker surround system in the room where we heard most of our talks. Multi-channel audio is obviously a really interesting area, and something he’s working in more and more. The difficulty right now is distributing that audio. While the BBC has carried out experiments with multi-channel audio, regular broadcast radio is not capable of broadcasting in more than stereo, and sadly cost constraints mean that most broadcasters are counting their bits – bits cost money – and looking to drop rates rather than increase them. Experiments with things like DAB+ might be interesting.

[Multi-Channel Note: I was particularly thinking of a Radio 4 broadcast of Pinocchio from Christmas 2012, when I referred to the BBC’s multi-channel experiment, but I’ve just seen that Radio 3 has been broadcasting this year’s Proms in 4 channel surround! I feel that I should have known this. And interestingly, while none of my computers have more than stereo soundcards, using Google’s Chromecast might theoretically be a workaround – however since I was “casting” my laptop to the TV, it was my laptop’s stereo-only soundcard that the TV used. Incidentally, although Pinocchio was offered in 5.1 as a download as well as stereo via broadcast, it was actually made in 22.1 sound. I know because last year I stood in a room with that many speakers listening to an excerpt! The 5.1 version was actually a downmix.]

We began with a talk from Chris about what he tries to achieve with sound. He breaks audio into three types:

– Atmosphere (in film, the Wild Track) – used to convey general background. It forms the basic function of allow you to edit other sound over the top of it without the listener noticing the edits. There should be a minimal dynamic range in the audio.

– Habitat – this has a broader dynamic range with some very loud and quiet bits. It engages the listener.

– Species – this needn’t be an animal, but it’s a featured sound. More often than not with animal sounds, it’ll be mono. It could also be elemental effects like thunder or rain.

Jez talked about some of things he did. He had some amazing contact microphone audio that he’d recorded in Italy on teleferica wires. These are the wires that villagers used to use to send firewood down from the mountain forests to the village (He has a double album of this coming).

Then we got into some of the technical specifics of different kinds of microphones, their directions, and even looking at specialist kit like parabolic reflectors which can isolate single sounds from a distance by being accurately pointed.

We got into some specifics about different makes and models of microphones to get. And we also got into recorders. On Sunday I realised how true this all was when I used the same set-up and compared Jez’s recorder with his microphones, and mine with the same kind of mics. Chalk and cheese.

We did field trips to nearby woodlands – although we had to skirt one place where they were holding a Viking re-enactment. And I made lots of not-especially-good recordings.

I did find myself with Chris’s awesome DPA 4060 omni-directional mics (~£650) attached to a coathanger. These are really designed as lavelier mics – you see them on newsreaders. But they’re fantastic at recording soundscapes. Chris mentioned that he has a soundscape of Newcastle coming up on the radio soon, and he was able to wear these unobtrusively to capture the sound.

We also played with bat detectors, as the hall we were staying in was surrounded by bats. These are incredible and you could hear their sonar as they flew across above us in the twilight. The location was great for wildlife – even though a nearby campsite did spill sound over. Chris put out his gorgeous multi-channel microphone overnight in a nearby copse, hoping to capture owls and the dawn chorus. Running a long cable back to the hall meant that those who got up at 5am could listen to the sounds without disturbing the wildlife (I confess I didn’t get up).

A nearby disused station has steam trains running on a couple of hundred metres of track. On the Sunday morning we were able to do things like put contact microphones on the track and record the train passing by.

There was also a steam traction engine that made a very rhythmic sound. I have to do something interesting with those sounds.

The final afternoon was spent reviewing some of the audio, hearing about more kit recommendations and suggestions (I have a long Christmas list), and answering other questions we might have.

I came away with another of Chris’s CDs (I already own one), a pair of Jez’s contact microphones, and a lot of exciting ideas of things to do. I’d like to come up with some interesting pairings of audio and photography.

I heard some amazing audio while I was there including the teleferica sounds as well as some incredible Yoik singing – the traditional song of the Sami people who live in the far north of places like Norway and Finland.

And I’m going to take a day-trip to Kielder Forest to hear Hrafn: Conversations with Odin a sound installation within the darkened forest itself taking place in late October.

It really was a quite inspiring weekend.