Recording The Natural World Tutorial

When we got the opportunity to sit in on a two-day workshop with Chris Watson, who specialises in recording sounds ambiences, natural and other location sounds, we jumped at the chance.        Chris’ work spans radio, TV and a huge variety of sound-design projects and the majority of his year is spent recording […]

When we got the opportunity to sit in on a two-day workshop with Chris Watson, who specialises in recording sounds ambiences, natural and other location sounds, we jumped at the chance. 

Chris’ work spans radio, TV and a huge variety of sound-design projects and the majority of his year is spent recording on-location all around the world, so the chance to see his technique and general approach to work first-hand certainly wasn’t to be missed.

The workshop was held at Bath Spa University’s Newton Park campus. Set in the countryside, the site has woods, a lake, waterfall, farmers’ fields and various other natural habitats for us to explore.

Both days started off with a sit-down session in the campus recording studio, during which Chris shares his thoughts on kit and technique, playing various recordings of his own work. We’d then head outside in the afternoon, using his own and the university’s equipment to put the theory into practice.

Although recordings of location sounds and ambiences are readily available off-the-shelf, nothing beats going outside and capturing your own. In this respect the workshops were an inspiring and fascinating experience, something we hope we convey in this feature. Here we’ll take you through the variables involved in recording natural sounds and pass on Chris’ personal insights, gleaned from the workshop sessions. Prepare, then, to get cold and wet as we venture into the great outdoors…

Choose Your Weapon

At the heart of your location-recording setup is obviously some sort of recording device, which you’ll need to learn certain aspects of inside out. Input level, record start/stop, limiter and low cut-filters will all need to adjusted or operated as you work. If you own a compact mobile phone-size device, you may find that these kinds of operations or features are buried deep in some sub-menu, which isn’t ideal, especially in harsh weather conditions (you don’t want to be taking out your recorder in snow, rain or high winds to navigate menus). If you can, therefore, arm yourself with a recorder that has tactile, easily accessible controls.

Connectivity is of prime importance. During the workshops we used condenser microphones and DI boxes requiring both XLR connections and phantom power. Mics and DI boxes can be powered by onboard batteries but Chris advises against this approach, preferring power to come from the recorder itself for practical and reliability reasons. As he points out, he wouldn’t want to return to a wildcat habitat to change the batteries in a set of mics when he can place himself safely far away at the end of a long cable run, providing power from the device at his fingertips.

In addition to the condensers we also used a range of contact mics and hydrophones, which have a high- impedance output and therefore require a DI box for conversion into low-impedance mic-level signals. If you don’t want to carry a DI box around, choose a recorder with instrument-level jack inputs.

When it comes to monitoring in the field, Chris opts for Sennheiser HD25s, stating that he’s not heard anything better for the job. What’s more, every part can be easily replaced in the event of damage. We opted to use our moulded EERS earpiece headphones for maximum noise exclusion, letting us truly use the microphone as our ears as we explored. If you take this route, ensure that the sound quality of your earpieces is up to the job.

Chris has a tip for setting up monitoring levels that eliminates the need for constant visual reference to input levels. He’ll play back some reference material, such as a Radio 4 spoken-word piece, on his recorder and determine the most comfortable maximum level for his headphones. He’ll then put a visual marker – a stripe of Tipp-Ex – on the output level dial as a reference point. This enables him to use his perceived volume of sounds as he works to gauge how hot the signal is without having to look at the recorder. Chris also uses a limiter to catch accidental peaks and  a low-pass filter when necessary to remove unwanted low end. Unwanted rumble or noise created by wind, for example, can drastically increase a signal level, so removing it before it’s digitally captured can yield a better signal-to-noise ratio going in.

 It’s important to note the name, date, mic configuration, location and the focus of each recording. This can be done in written form or verbally, by momentarily switching your recorder to its onboard mics.

Mic Options

Think about a sound recordist working on-location and you’ll probably visualise a boom pole, shotgun mic dressed up in a furry windshield, and a recorder packed into a shoulder bag. If this is the case, you might be quite surprised by some of Chris’ favourite pieces of kit – as well as by the ways in which he uses them

Sennheiser HD25s have a tight headband, making them better at rejecting external noise than HD25-SPs.

Chris turned up on the first day with boxes containing his recorder, cables and attachments and an arsenal of mics. The first on show was a pair of omnidirectional condensers, the tiny DPA 4060 lapel microphones. Chris says these are great for working on-location due to their tolerance of humidity – they’re designed to be worn on the body, near the mouth and so on, so they cope with moisture quite well. Producing a thin wire coat hanger from one of his boxes, Chris attaches an omni to either side and goes on to explain why this arrangement has become one of his everyday rigs: “I’m favouring omnidirectional capsules more and more in my work. Shotgun and other directional microphones are useful for avoiding some sounds, but when I work on my own I like to use omni mics as they’re like a prime lens in cinematography. The challenge is to get the mic in the right place to start with. This is much more satisfying to achieve, and I find the recordings are much more useful.”

Chris demonstrates the versatility of his regular hotel-grade coat hanger as he suspends it from above and bends the hanging curve straight, enabling it to be quickly and reliably set up on the ground.

Not everything in Chris’ setup comes from a hotel room, though, such as the parabolic reflector that he uses to capture sounds he simply can’t get close to, such as a bird call from high up in the trees. He uses a flexible Science reflector kit from Telinga and demonstrates the advantages of this model over rigid products by bending the reflector into a tube so it can be easily packed into a bag. He makes use of the space inside the tube by packing it with clothes and so on – important when you need to carry various bits of kit around to be ready for different opportunities.

Chris also carries contact mics and hydrophones made by Jez riley French. The contact mic is good for capturing sounds through vibrations rather than air and works well when placed in undergrowth or below loose soil or sand. Hydrophones can be submerged to capture activity underwater – make sure they are firmly secured so you’re not recording movements of the microphone itself in the water.

DPA’s 4060 omni microphone. Chris wraps brass modelling wire around the lead to act as a mini boom stand. 

Another of Chris’ go-to microphones is the SoundField ST450 Portable Microphone System – a multi-capsule microphone that can give out information on X (front/back), Y (left/right) and Z (up/down) axes. The additional dimension can be captured as four signals in the B-Format, giving Chris the flexibility to work for mono, stereo, quad surround and ambisonic arrangements in post-production. He uses this in a normal windshield setup, so at first glance it could be mistaken for a shotgun mic, but in reality it’s far more versatile. The ST450’s preamp enables Chris to shape the spread and directionaility of this multi-capsule array as well, while the Harpex-B decoder plug-in offers further flexibility in post.

Chris doesn’t rule out the use of shotgun mics, but he does mention that they reject some sounds rather than capturing the natural, focused amplification that a parabolic reflector can. He also says that they don’t cope well with indirect sounds, so recording indoors with them can be problematic as there are lots of reflections.

Chris gives us an insight into his choice of microphone and setup: “A parabolic reflector offers great directional options when it comes to recording things that are totally inaccessible, but I like to spend time setting up microphones with long cables whenever I can. I really like using my SoundField microphone for surround work as it’s all in a single microphone casing and you can start off by getting it in the right place, running cables, then exploring the potential with it by interacting with the mic capsules. I’m just finding recording with tools like gun microphones less satisfying, but that may be because I’m using them in the wrong places. But I do use directional mics in my mid-side arrays along with figure-8 mics. I’m enjoying an omni-based mid-side setup at the moment, too.”

We placed contact mics in a rotting tree stump in the hope of recording the sound of insects. Lots of movement was detected among the loose soil and grass at the base.

On The Record

Now that you have an idea of the different types of microphone or pick-up devices you can use, you need to determine what it is you’re going to capture. Chris breaks down the three levels of sound he focuses on in a project: atmosphere, habitat and focused sound. We’ll start with atmosphere.

Also known as a wildtrack or room tone, atmosphere is a background recording that needs to be a good few minutes in duration to run behind other, more dominant sounds. You may record an atmosphere at a good signal-to-noise ratio into your recorder, but its playback in post-production should be set to the level you’d expect to hear it at naturally. An atmosphere needs only a small dynamic range, so you can’t set out to record snippets of wood ambience, for example, but have to later remove unwanted sounds such as car horns and planes. Picking a suitable location is something that Chris gives a lot of thought to, and he’ll listen out for the right sonic opportunities before hitting the record button.

A hydrophone can be used to capture the sound of water moving; in still water, the lack of movement enables it to pick up underwater-wildlife sounds.

Finding a location with a suitable dynamic range may require you to travel outside your local area. On-site at Bath’s university we could hear a nearby main road faintly in the background of our atmospheres, along with sounds from building work being carried out nearby. If there’s quite a lot of activity in terms of wanted sound in your surrounding area, try positioning yourself in a place that’s dense with indirect sound, as this helps to diffuse dynamics and can achieve a more constant level. Chris tells us that he can spend a long time finding the right spot and that it’s also important to achieve good stereo balance for imaging purposes. This will ensure that your captured atmosphere provides a steady bed of sound for other sounds to sit on and that you’re not having to tweak things in post-production.

Habitat recordings need to have a more dynamic sound and will also need to be played back louder, reflecting their natural playback levels. The techniques Chris shares for recording these moments usually involve positioning his recorder based on his knowledge of the subject matter. Playing back an incredible recording of vultures eating a bird carcass demonstrated the lengths he’ll go to to achieve an interesting perspective and close-up recording. In this instance, the recording was captured by a small quad array of omni mics placed inside the carcass, capturing the haunting vulture squarks and violent pecking sounds. In surround it conveyed the impression of being inside a large space – and being attacked.

Finally, focused sound, a category that Chris also refers to as species sound. These can be recordings of various sounds intended to be sequenced and mixed in when needed in post-production to create a mocked-up reality backdrop to picture-based events. He mentions a few examples, including crashing waves, dialogue, gunshots and singular sounds from the animal kingdom. To put this into context he plays back a close-mic’ed recording of a hissing cockroach (captured in a New York apartment) layered on top of an expected natural habitat atmosphere, which gave the illusion of them all having been captured in the same place.

In terms of channel count for these three categories of sound, Chris will usually record focused sounds in mono, unless there are various sources to capture as a whole or an element of ambient sound is to be recorded as well. Atmosphere and habitat recordings will tend to be stereo or quad-channel recordings.

The Telinga Science reflector kit enabled us to clearly capture the sounds of ducks some distance away (in the middle of a lake).

Being Patient

Before we finish, at the end of the second day, Chris explains how he’s learned over the years to get exactly what he wants from his field recordings: “I’ve got hours and hours of really crap recordings, so I’ve learned to record less. I discriminate very carefully these days about when I press record, and I’ve also learned the art of listening when I’m working with animals. I actively study their behaviour, so I can optimise any opportunity to capture them – the right time of year, season and so on. I spend a lot of time on-location just listening to all sorts of places. For instance, I’m currently recording tawny owls for a project, so I’m aware that this time of year is good for recording them as they are very vocal around now, as the younger birds are being pushed out of their territory by the adults. I also know they’ll start calling just after dusk and again around midnight. So I’ll go out just before dusk, set up my mics in a likely area of woodland and leave them there. But of course, the birds don’t have a script to read so you have to wait until things happen, and the British weather also causes its own issues, too. So a tight plan for one trip to record on-location can easily turn into ten trips because of the variables.

The SoundField ST450 Portable Microphone System and Harpex-B decoder plug-in are ideal for Chris’s ambisonic projects





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