Feel like going on an adventurous nature recording trip? Be prepared! Nature recording guru Gordon Hempton has some important recording and survival tips for you.
The spectacles of nature take place where humans can hardly reach them. Nature recording genius Gordon Hempton visits the most remote places on earth to record sounds that are everything but created by human beings. Pure and unspoiled nature is his passion. First he captures the characteristics and essence of the natural elements such as wind, water, forest, desert, the flora and fauna in sound. Then he transports these stunning atmospheres with his precious high quality recordings back into our reality. Gordon created one of the most extensive nature sound libraries on the planet.
He published a book called “Earth is a Solar Jukebox”. It’s a guide how to listening, recording and sound designing with nature. It consists of two parts: Forces of Nature and Habitats. The 17 chapters are the perfect companion for your nature recording trip. In his book Gordon reveals where to go, what to bring and tells you how you can record under nearly all circumstances. With many years of recording experience Gordon has learned to read nature like a book. He gives you a lot of advice how you can become a nature recording specialist too. Get to know the earth soundscapes of our planet und profit from his tips and tricks.
Reading through the incredible accounts of his experiences, we put together some of Gordon’s best advice that you can achieve the technical results you want when you record out in the wild and also have fun not dying while you are at it!
Today we want to introduce to you the first episode of our “How to record nature sounds” series. The first episode is all about technical advice to get the best outcome for your own nature sound recordings:
“No matter how much you’ve spent on the rest of your gear, your recordings can only be as good as your microphone. So invest your full attention and 90 percent of your gear budget on getting the best microphones possible to record nature sounds.”
The microphones are your first point of contact with the sound. The placement of the microphones is always a critical decision. To capture the highest quality recording, you will listen to your surrounding using your mics and headphones, before pressing record – give your attention first to background, next to middle ground and last to foreground.
Background sound: is generally everything out of sight – and usually out of mind, as far as the audience is concerned. It ultimately determines whether or not your recording will be usable. In all habitats the background sounds are very important. Generally the faint sounds are the first clues of new information.
Middle Ground: is everything that is intelligible but still distant enough that the sound is not prominently featured. This is where most of the action takes place. Your audience will live and breathe in the middle ground, hardly notice the background, and only occasionally be directed to foreground activity.
Foreground: can be time consuming - or not. You can spend days observing wildlife behavior and identifying song posts, and slowly hone in on your featured subject.
In addition to the low-noise electronic equipment, wind and storm screens, and other gear that should now be second nature to setup and operate, you will find you’ll need other equipment and new guidelines the moment you consider expanding your environments to include aquatic recording, both marine and fresh water. Life underwater is a sonic wonderland, but you have to quiet your own boat noise, suggest a sea kayak, a craft of choice and you will also need to avoid the noise made by ships and tour boats. Even an ocean creature, like a local snapping shrimp, can scuttle you. Its loud snapping (up to 218 dB) can make it tricky, even in the absence of man-made noise, to make clean recordings of music quality. So go as far off shore as safely possible to avoid the shrimp which remain closer to shore.
The equipment used for Ocean Shores recording is the least specialized, as the sound pressure levels are relatively loud (35-45 dBA or greater). Still, a good wind screen is a must, as this exposed open terrain is often windy. The air also contains corrosive salts, so you will want to clean your equipment after each use, even corrosion-resistant equipment, like fabric equipment bags and the rubber sheathing on microphone cables. Accumulated salt will later attract wildlife, giving rodents one more reason to munch on your microphone cables. Instead of a standalone tripod, you can use a monopod to support your microphones, because handling noise is less obvious at these higher ambient sound levels. A monopod enables more exact microphone placement during the recording.
One essential piece of advice at the end: Once you’ve tentatively selected your microphones, you’ll want to test them before you buy them, side by side in a quiet, isolated outdoor location. Most dealers will allow this if they know you are a serious buyer.
“Next on your list is the microphone cable. Take 25-foot lengths with gold connectors such as Mogami. You will likely use two cables, and you will want to tape them together at one-foot intervals to simplify handling.”
Make sure to clean the xlr connectors regularly with contact cleaner to prevent dirt from providing resistance and deteriorating your signal. You can run 100-foot lengths because you have low impedance microphones without audible signal loss, but the added length is not worth the added weight.
If you want to record sounds under water – remember: You will want to add a long enough hydrophone cable to your hydrophone (to escape the inadvertent slapping of waves on the side of your kayak--preferably 100 feet or more. These cables are filled with oil instead of air to prevent the immense water pressure from creating leaks. You will only need one hydrophone, not two, as sound travels so quickly, a stereo recording is not practical.
Headphones connected to recording equipment help you to hear exactly what sounds the microphone is picking up:
“Of course you need a good pair of headphones to listen to your amplified signal. My headphones are Sennheiser HD 25-1 II (70 ohms) for field recording. They are not too expensive to replace after two years of rain, dust, sweat, and sliding in and out of my recording bag. They also do a great job of sealing out the sounds around me so I can listen to only what is entering my microphones.”
“As for digital recorders, those made by Sound Devices have quiet microphone preamplifiers that take the relatively weak microphone signal and amplify it to levels strong enough to provide more data and record a more accurate sound file.”
Maybe you wish to use a smaller, less expensive recorder. You’ll want a separate microphone preamplifier that will do this job and also provide power to your microphones. Be sure this mic pre amp is as quiet as possible, because this auxiliary device also has inherent noise.
“I dutifully listen not only to the delicate sounds of nature but also the faint evidence of distant noise pollution. When batteries are low (but not low enough to trigger a low battery warning) or conditions are moist, sensitive microphones can begin to sound granular.”
If the technical resources are optimal fulfilled you can listen to incredible nature soundscapes. Check out one of the world best nature recording sounds by Emmy-winner Gordon Hempton and listen to his Quiet Planet library CANYONS Demo:
Whether you are a beginner or seasoned veteran, we hope you gained some helpful insights to go out and rock your own nature sound recordings!
Stay tuned for our next episodes with many more tips and tricks and please check out the wonderful nature sound libraries (DESERTS, QUIETUDES, CANYONS, WETLANDS, CONIFEROUS-FORESTS, UPWELLINGS, DESIDUOUS-FORESTS, WINDS OF NATURE, TROPICAL-FORESTS, NATURE-ESSENTIALS, FORCES OF NATURE, WAVES, THUNDER&RAIN, FLOWING WATER, PRAIRIES, RIPARIAN ZONES, OCEAN SHORES, HAWAII) including extensive articles about the respective record theme by nature recording genius Gordon Hempton!