Analogue to Digital and maybe back again


Analogue to Digital and maybe back again.

I always seem to start my pieces with some expression relating to the age of people about to read it.  Expressions like, “most of you weren't born before I started wildlife recording” or “for those digital children that read this stand by to be amazed” or something like that.

But on this occasion I will avoid doing so. My intention is to relate a voyage from the analogue world to the digital one, and then on to, let's name it a “digilogue” or “analital”, (I think the former is preferable!) world, a future age that encompasses the best of both.

Imagine a planned wildlife recording expedition and let's start way back in the past, say in the 1970's. One set out to record wildlife with a quality reel to reel tape recorder slung over your shoulder, an weighty device, sometimes over 20lbs (say 10kgms) when filled with the necessary 12 D cell batteries to power it. Over your other shoulder would be a length of cable as long as you could manage that would counter balance the tape recorder.  In your pocket was your favourite dynamic microphone, a Grampian DP4 or DP6 or even an more up to date AKG 190D.( Note condenser mics were few and far between and expensive)  In the rucksack on your back were the spare reels of tape, your windshields, headphones and enough food and water to last the day/days you would be away from the comforts of home.

You would be dressed in the obligatory brown or green rustle free garments that you had made sure were waterproof, or if the rucksack was capacious enough, a pair of waterproof over trousers and cycling cape.  These were needed as you were going to wherever you were going for some time and the English weather is always changeable. On your feet were a stout (heavy) pair of well dubbind leather boots that had trod many a mile and fitted your feet like a glove.

Around your neck were your bins (binoculars), and in any hand that was spare your favourite “point and squirt” device, your parabolic reflector complete with its own windshield and another dynamic mic already positioned at its focus point, ready for immediate use once it had been connected to the tape recorder. It was also there as a back-up in case you couldn't get close enough to the subject with the open mic.

You knew where you were going because you had done your research by reading books about the area, those written by previous visiting birdwatchers/ecologists etc. Additionally, more precise information had been obtained by writing letters to, and getting replies from those people you had been told about that knew the area more intimately.  A few additional phonecalls  would have probably secured a meeting with these knowledgeable contacts, You would probably arrange to meet nearer the time for a detailed face to face discussion.

All the above would have taken months if not years to put together, but now you were on your own, like any good wildlife sound recordist has to be. It would be light soon, the wind was in your face the smell of the earth was enhancing your well-being and you were off to capture that sound.

Your senses were awakening, and those basic hunting instincts were coming to the fore. As you approached the general area you looked for that place to conceal yourself but still with a view of your quarry. Speed was of the essence. Rucksack off, cable off, recorder placed on that convenient rock.  Microphone out of rucksack, camouflaged windshield fixed, cable attached and you were off to position the mic near the songpost the bird had been using, or so you had been told.  Microphone positioned (not as good as you hoped), and quickly back to your den, cable plugged into recorder, headphones on and machine switched on, gain adjusted to what you think it should be and the wait begins.

You had had to get in position before dawn to avoid any disturbance.  The well camouflaged dynamic microphones that you were using needed to be very close to the subject to get enough gain to make a decent recording.  

Of course you always had the default of using the parabola with all its inherent weaknesses, but that didn't obtain the best results and best results were always the aim. So there you are ensconced in your discrete den, everything sounded ok now when will the subject return?  Better switch on the recorder just in case, because you don't want to miss anything. Your 5 inch tape running at 7 1/2 inches per second will give you about 24 minutes to capture the sounds. Where is that bloody bird? Then with just 60 seconds of tape left it flies into its songpost, settles itself down and starts to sing.  Wonderful, good level of recording, really getting into its full song. Tape runs out!!!

My record for changing the tape on my old Nagra was about 15 seconds, but with cold hands a lot longer.  New tape on, subject utters a few strophes and disappears.  This, hit and miss situation goes on for a few hours but now the human world is waking up. Tractors are chugging about, the first planes are approaching the UK for breakfast, human noise is beginning to take over. Its time to start packing everything up. Ahh well!! Then just as that plane sound disappears over the sonic horizon the bird is back and starts to sing with all its gusto.  You have just put on a new tape and for the next 20 minutes or so you are in a state of nervous tension, will it keep singing, when will the next plane arrive, surely that tractor will start up again or someone will start chain sawing, but no, the creature sings and sings, providing you with a very complete repertoire of its song and then, just as if it knows the next plane is about to enter stage right, it finishes with a flourish and departs the songpost.  Seconds later the roaring shiny bird arrives and with a final click the tape runs out and the un-tensioned spools slappity slap around and around.  You switch it off, take a deep breath, look up and around, and find the world is a better place.

Some time over the next week or so you get time to sit in your “studio”, (the spare bedroom or a corner of the sitting room), to playback the tapes you recorded that morning. If you have taken notes of roughly where on the tape the sounds you may wish to hear again are, I rarely did, you can spool through to that place and listen. If you didn't then it takes 24 minutes for each of the tapes in this analogue world. You recorded 6 tapes that morning, so its going to take you roughly 3 hours to listen to them all and if you want to copy any more time.

Copying in this analogue world means loosing quality little by little every time  you copy that sound.  You also need another tape recorder to copy on to. For those of us first starting on this creative journey you had probably used up all your spare cash (or brownie points with your partner) buying just one, so you had to resort to the scalpel and splicing block.  With these basic implements you cut out the bits you wanted and spliced them together on an empty spool labeled with the name of the subject and stored with a written list of all the “cuts” you had spliced on to the spool. These would be used later if wanted to create a  separate recording.

You could have bought a analogue filter box from some firm like Electrosound.  It was the size of a shoe box and worked very well.  With this you could create your masterpiece to play to like minded friends but you needed that extra machine so that would have to wait.

That was the world you lived in, those original tapes were stored in your bottom draw for future use, but most of us just left them there to slowly disintegrate.

In the late 1980's the world started to change, the word digital began to be used all over the place, digital clock, digital cameras and eventually digital tape recorders. Magnetic tape was used in these first tranche of digital recorders in all sorts of forms.  DCC (Digital compact cassette), SDat, RDat and even reel to reel in my favourite early digital recorder the Nagra D, what a machine, as heavy as a Revox studio reel to reel analogue machine, but the quality of sound was amazing, or so we thought. You needed a good car battery power source to use it in the wild, but you also needed a car to carry it in! The future was digital.  So glad I recognised this and bought a few Apple Corp. shares!!

Every year saw a change, there was always something new to tempt you, there was Orb discs, Mini disc with there “psycho adaptive algorithms” and all sorts of other discs, there were CD's and DVDs, but then somewhere around the mid 1990's solid state arrived with Compact Flash cards and in 1999 SD cards arrived and then micro SD cards and now solid state memory is the “de facto” form of digital storage.

Synonymous with these machines came the need for a computer, you really needed one to get the best out of those digital recordings, with their filing systems and accurate timing and all that basic facts about the recording all stored together in “chunks” in the WAV file.  All this was sometimes too much for some of the generation of analogue recordists.  They carried on recording in the old way, making great recording , which in the end were probably dumped in a skip when relatives came to clear there stuff away once they left this mortal coil. But now, once your recordings are copied to your computer, without any loss of quality, you can, with a few deft clicks of the mouse manipulate the recording in a myriad of ways and all within seconds and without you losing the original recording, which can be used again and again. (This, of course does not mean that those relatives won't through your wonderfully kept hard discs in the skip as well!! At least they will take up less space at the tip!!)

Let us revisit a planned recording expedition now in 2019. You have googled information about the subject, you have downloaded exact details of where to find it, courtesy of a well meaning, attention seeking idiot who want to show the world how knowledgeable he/she is. There was been no need to communicate directly with anybody, no face to face discussions, no gaining trust, no waiting weeks for replies, no telephone conversations, in fact, no human to human interface at all.(Or does Facebook, Instagram or What's App count as human interface in 2019?)

When the recording day dawns, you now go out with a recording device weighing no more than a kilogram for the most professional machines. You still need a cable to connect to the microphones, but these are so much more sensitive and of such very good and accurate quality that getting really close to the songpost is not as necessary as it used to be. They are fantastic, really wonderful to use. You may still take the parabola but really it probably may not be worth it. As for batteries, these recorders at worst only use 8 AA's and some only 2. These will last you all day and most of the night as well. Once you are all connected up there is no need to start recording straight away for fear of missing anything as these wonderful devices have “pre record” they are continually recording onto an internal “flash” memory the last 2, 10 15 or even on one of my machines the last 30 seconds of sound picked up from the microphones.  Plenty of time for you to switch the machine on to record, but you still have to be there to physically switch it to record.

To get around this annoying necessity some recordists just connect all their kit up attached to a battery source no bigger than a pack of cards capable of providing days of power, and switch on and leave it recording. They can then get on with their life down the pub or go back to bed for a good nights sleep.

If this was an overnight recording say for the deer rut, they could have a leisurely full english at there boutique bed and breakfast establishment found by searching, and after their second or third cup of coffee meander down and collect their kit. Some recent converts to the pastime call that “fieldcraft”, which I suppose it is in a way. At least you have to get out in the "field!"

Unfortunately this approach means the recordist misses so much. Being out in the "wilds" by oneself, quietly sitting there soaking up the sounds without the ability to see clearly what is making those sounds provides the opportunity to improve your hearing ability.  The brain will automatically increase the hearing sense, a basic human protection necessity. The recordist will then experience this heightened sense of being and began to understand the sound world around much more fully. 

All in all the digital world we now live in makes the recording of wildlife sound much, much easier, there is little excuse for not obtaining a good quality recording with the kit now available. What has not changed is the human inability to placing him or herself in the "wild" world in a way that doesn't disturb the "wildness" around. I think we humans are getting clumsier, less able to move stealthily, less able to move quietly.  In fact I do believe that we humans now like to make noise more, we seem to need to listen to other sounds when we go into the "wilds", ear pieces stuck in our ears listening to whatever, while all around nature is doing its stuff. The seemingly basic need to have your smartphone switched on all the time just in case someone has a "twitter" or sends you a photograph of what they are eating for breakfast! Pathetic or what?

I do hope this is a nasty phase we are going through.  All I can do is show my grandchildren what is out there in the "wild" to see and listen to, with the hope of it being passed on to future generations.  Wishful thinking you say or neivity at best. Maybe but I will keep on trying because the rewards in this future "digilogue" world will be great so long as the approach to wildlife sound recording that was an absolute necessity when using an analogue work stream is applied, when necessary, to the digital work stream i.e. taking your time thinking about what you want to record, doing your own research, learning fieldcraft techniques and applying them, staying with your recorder while recording wherever possible. With all this in place using the wonderful recorders and microphones now available success is surely assured?. The ability to use those recordings for whatever purpose using those wonderful software programmes now available for post recording work, opens up infinite possibilities, whether it be for detailed scientific analysis or just for creative purposes. The wildlife sound world opportunities have been opened up beyond belief. 

So, I plead with all those would be wildlife sound recordists out there in the world. Slow down, think about what you want to do, carefully plan it, carefully get in that disturbance free spot, and then press the button or turn the switch, and record some of those wonderful sounds out there in that wide, wild world of ours.

RCB 09/08/2019


<  |   TOP  |   >
Designed by A2A Internet | Login