Loch Venachar :- Wildlife sound recording, what is needed?

I am sitting in that delightful cafe/restaurant on the shores of Loch Venachar pondering. The lake is restless and choppy, not inviting at all, in fact it is another dull, windy day useless for sound recording, unless you wanted yet another recording of waves lapping against the shore or the wind rustling the wonderful autumn coloured oak leaves nearby.

A couple of Raven flew past, one honked, the other was silent, it is that sort of day, nothing bright, and veering on the drab, except for those leaves which needed just a touch of sunlight to make them glimmer and shine.  The day would be a great deal better for that.

It was one of those mild autumns up to now, both the Red and Fallow deer at home had only made the odd grunt that I had heard, and I had been keenly listening.  It was mid October and I hoped that up here in the Trossachs I would get a better bellow or two.  So far everything was quiet and the temperature was far too high for this time of year.  I was always told that the deer needed a bit of a cold spell to start them off, and we have not had one.

The previous night, sitting on a mossy rock my backside gradually getting colder and colder, waiting for a bellow or two I began thinking about why I was I doing this and using the recording method that I had opted for that night. Why was I using my trihead set up rather than a basic parabola set up like I used when I first recorded Red deer those four decades before.

It was so much more fun then than now --- Why?

For a start it was new to me, being out on a chilly night listening to what sounded like giant beast grunting and bellowing through the valley, fantastic.
Listening to that recording recently though, made me realise that there was something missing. I had used a parabolic reflector with a cardioid microphone (AKG 190) and had lost quite a bit of the low bass sounds of those bellows and the sound picture that I envisaged. It sounded narrow and strange at times, the main subject was focused but the other roarers were somewhat off key.

The trihead I was using now, was giving me the width I wanted and I had decent focus with the central subject as I was using a hyper cardioid in the centre of the left and right omnis.  It had taken me a couple of nights to sort out where the head should be so that I could be close enough to the subject as he strolled through his patch, getting the cabling out of his way and back to were I was downwind of where I thought he would be, had taken some time.

The point I want to make is that, I wanted to obtain a species recording, not an atmosphere, soundscape, biophony or whatever else you call it, they are so easy to do, easy-peasy, but they are not a detailed recording of an animals’ vocabulary.  Unfortunately, it seems that there is a trend towards these easy recordings in the wildlife sound recording world.(It's a very small world!!!)

I am all for making it less arduous to capture a recording but not to sacrifice the quality of the final result, or accept a "lower form" of result. I am a great believer of the more thought and work you have to do to position your microphones in a good position, not too near and not too far away from the subject, and without disturbing it, the better the result will be, and the personal satisfaction will be at its highest. The main point though is that being too far away from the subject will mean that the resulting recordings can turn out to be just “landscape” recordings with the odd sound from wildlife somewhere about. The recordists then kid themselves that when they get back to their "studio", they may be able to isolate whatever wildlife sound they have luckily recorded into a decent species recording, or more normally pick a few seconds from the overall recording when some poor unexpected critter passes by and think they have done well.  Lazy people.
What does the average wildlife sound recordist want? I think they aspire to getting an accurate recording using an appropriate microphone set up.  It can be mono, stereo or multi-microphone, but remember that most members will want to play the recording back through stereo speakers or headphones.

How many members have a decent playback system?  Now that's another question!!!!

At meetings recently there has been a lot of surround/ambisonic systems shown. These meetings were set-up originally to provide occasions where newcomers to the hobby/craft, come to learn about how to go about wildlife recording. Shouldn't the emphasis be on showing how to go about recording with a more basic kit and the use of fieldcraft. I know a few plough this furrow well, and their guidance is well received, but there should be more doing the same. If a newcomer goes away thinking they need multi microphone set ups that cost thousands of pounds to create a decent wildlife recording, then I wonder if they will be put off for ever.

There are members out there who go to these and other meetings where the good and great sound forth about their sophisticated and specialised kit, they then buy replicas of this kit that these “leaders/experts” use/recommend as a proper way forward, and set off thinking they are going emulate them. They soon find that its not that easy.

Wildlife sound recording can be done in many ways, nowadays there are many recording devices and microphones to choose from, their cost varies from "reasonable" to "arm and a leg", spending a lot of money does not mean you will obtain a good recording.  Skills will need to be developed and when mastered one can develop one's kit to reflect the type of recording you want to succeed in. In fact, you will probably have various set ups to reflect the many different ways one has to go to get those elusive recordings and, yes, that may include a multi microphone set up feeding a multi channel recorder. The resulting files will then need a more than decent computer with probably some more specialist software so that you can manipulate the sounds you have captured in a way that, when played back through the multi speakered system in your specially set-up listening room, where you can sit in that "golden spot", you can re-live the geese flying over your head or the sound of a Red deer rut around you!! Now there's a brave recordist getting that recording in the first place. But you do not need all that stuff to enjoy wildlife sound recording.

Enough of my ranting, the thought of my frozen backside the other night is making me crotchety, the stag moved away from the mics and all I was getting through my headphones was the sound of the beck and the wind in the firs, the stars were twinkling but they made no sound, or did they? – my goodness, it was good to be there but my bum got really cold!!!

RCB 2019






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