Picking up good vibrations

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21 December 2010

The group capture video and audio recordings of the seal pups on Norfolk beach
The group capture video and audio recordings of the seal pups on Norfolk beach

The weekend of 11/12 Dec I was in Norfolk recording the sound of the sea, seal pups and a frozen pond, as part of a Wild Eye course. Wild Eye is the International school of Wildlife film-making, offering anyone with an interest in film making and sound recording the opportunity to learn new skills from experts, such as Chris Watson, Jez Riley French and Piers Morgan (the founder of Wild Eye).

The Wildlife sound recording course, was a fantastic opportunity to meet other practitioners working in various fields, using sound as their primary medium.  I signed up to this course to learn about the best methods of practice when recording wild life, in particular birds.

My parabolic reflector
My parabolic reflector

All my soundscapes are recorded via in- ear binaural microphones and the narration via a Sure SM58 microphone. I wanted to get some pr actice using a range of other microphones and equipment. During the course I was able to purchase a parabolic reflector and use it along with Chris Watson’s DPA’s (very nice of him to loan them), to pick up the sounds of the sea, seal pups and a family conversation at Norfolk beach. The reflector had a wire coat hanger attac hed in the centre to hold the two microphones in place, a small piece of cardboard was added to separate the microphones.

The most fascinating field recording session of the weekend was when I tried out my contact microphone, (microphones that pick up audible vibrations), in the garden of Whitwell Hall. Jez Riley French makes the contact microphones, but because of the way in which they are made (small and durable), it means you can have fun and experiment with them. I stayed in the freezing wintry garden for hours to bury mine under the snow, under the mud, a pile leaves, a pile of logs, in a mole hill, wrapped around a tree, suspended around a piece of hazard tape and coiled around a wire fence… of course all these experiments required some sort of movement, so plenty of stamping, tapping and pinging was needed to pick up the vibrations which were then translated into sound.

Contact microphone wrapped around wire fence
Contact microphone wrapped around wire fence

Chris Watson’s latest project,  The WIRED Lab uses contact microphones attached to wire structures blown by the wind to create music. Jez Riley French, has a love for creating compositions of audible silence and stillness and makes his own contact microphones to record hidden and over looked sounds.  Chris and Jez played some samples of their work to the group, and provided some useful tips.

1. Atmospheres (also called wild track or buzz track) – this is the foundation of any track and is essentially the ambience of a room/location, it is also crucial for creating any soundtrack. It is important to get the levels right, when playing back to an audience as you want them to lean in and listen rather than play a track that is too loud and forcing them to listen.

Chris usually works with wired dynamic microphones that have metres of cable that can be left outside to record, while he stays inside to listen. This is what he did during the course, which meant that the group were able to hear the wildlife close up, which would have been impossible if we had tried to capture it sitting out in the garden.

2. Habitats Chris told the group a fascinating story about his time in Kenya, where he wanted to record the sounds of vultures eating, so he attached two omni directional microphones to the ribs of a dead zebra, then buried the cable of the wires under the sand and sat and waited for over 5 hours for the vultures to come and feed. His patience paid off, the result is gut wrenching and cringe- worthy but definitely worth a listen.  The track is called Vultures and its available on his album Outside the Circle of Fire.

3. Microphones Chris discussed the three main different types of air pressure microphones with the group, along with polar patterns and editing software.  There were a few items on sale at the course, including second- hand parabolic reflectors. I brought one as I was keen to be able to capture the sound of individual birds, using the reflector, because it instantly turns the microphone into a directional one.  Any microphones can be used with the reflector, including a dynamic microphone, as it has a large output and no hiss, however, it can be heavy due to the magnet inside, so will need to be securely attached to the reflector. The light weight omni directional microphones work very well and also pick up sound from the back of the reflector.

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