Archive for October, 2010

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Getting ears in on the action

October 25, 2010

As my friend Nathan suggested on his own blog earbirding many months ago, there is no shortage of photos of birds on the internet that people photograph themselves. Photography is understandably very popular, and I am no exception either, having many hundreds if not thousands of bird photos online. But there are many fewer birders who record bird sounds, even though these sounds are usually just as distinctive, fascinating, scientifically useful, and important for documentation as any photograph. Humans are visual creatures, and this bias is reflected in the preponderance of photos over sound recordings online.

The aforementioned Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop seeks to even out that ratio, at least a little. I am the latest convert, and I’m going to write a bit today about my new recording apparatus and how I hope to use it.

My recording rig consists of just a few parts really:

  • recorder
  • microphone
  • microphone mount and windscreen
  • protective case
  • headphones

and that’s pretty much it. There are cables connecting these parts of course, and things like the memory card for the record. But the basic elements are really just the recorder and the microphone. Hell, the recorder has a built-in microphone already, so in principle I wouldn’t even need any of the other things. But, to make interesting and useful nature sound recordings it turns out that having a better mic and such helps immensely.

So, here’s what everything looks like in close-up:

The Marantz PMD661

See the quarter to the lower right to get an idea of the size of the device.

Here’s what the readout looks like:

The Marantz PMD611, when turned on

The readout is quite bright and legible, which can of course be quite helpful in the field. Using the various buttons on the top, you can navigate to many different menus and change the file-naming format, the kind of recording you are making, and many other things. (Yes, you are advised to read the manual thoroughly before using it.)

Here’s the microphone, a Sennheiser ME66 with a K6 power unit attached:

The Sennheiser ME66 shotgun microphone, with K6 power module attached

Again, a quarter is placed next to the unit to illustrate the size. It’s about 8 inches in length. The microphone is actually a pretty typical kind of microphone, but it has a long cylindrical shape that is specifically designed to give the reception directionality. You basically just point the “shotgun” in the direction of whatever it is you are trying to record, and it picks up those sounds preferentially to those occurring anywhere to the sides. (This kind of directionality is called a super-cardioid by audiophiles.)

To actually use the microphone in the field without having ridiculous wind-noise effects or without getting my sweaty paws all over it, I use a shock-mount and a windscreen:

The Rycote windscreen and shock-mount, with microphone

You can see that the mount has a shock-absorbing system to help reduce handling noise when I change the position of the microphone. This setup as a whole provides a nice easy way of handling the microphone and pointing it at birds. Of course, the original intent of these accessories was probably more for reporters at press conferences, but really, when you think about it, that’s sort of what I’m doing too. It’s just that the press conferences are all being held by birds up in trees.

Cables of course connect all these components, and to make field use effective, I will also be using a set of quality studio headphones by Sony. When it’s all put together, here’s what the setup looks like:

The full setup

The recorder is in a custom-fitted carrying-case made by Porta-Brace, made specifically for the PMD661. All told, the whole rig probably weighs no more than a pound, and it takes apart nicely and fits pretty compactly into luggage.

Will I be able to use all this and have a DSLR camera slung around my shoulder at the same time? I’m not sure – I’m guessing that I’ll probably have to make a choice when I head out in the morning what my primary focus is going to be in a session, photography or sound recording. That will dictate which equipment will be more at the ready. But it seems a shame to have to choose, when opportunities for doing both may arise within moments of each other. I’ll see what I can come up with in the next few weeks on that front to make them both viable options on any field outing.

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My New Thing

October 24, 2010

This falls under the not-exactly-timely category of postings, but I wanted to finally talk about “what I did this summer”. Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to attend the Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop held annually at the Sierra Nevada Foothills Campus (SNFC) northwest of Lake Tahoe in California. The workshop was held in mid-June, and I made it there.

And let me tell you, it was awesome. So awesome that I had to italicize the word “awesome”.

The workshop is run by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney, who has held it I believe every year since 1986. He has a small staff of about 5 people from the library and elsewhere helping him run the thing, and it is a truly outstanding opportunity to learn about the art and science of nature recording. As I mentioned in my January post, I went into this not knowing thing #1 about nature recording. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, as I have spent the better part of the last 5 years listening assiduously to bird song recordings, and last year I did use my old Sony cassette recorder to take voice notes while hiking in Costa Rica. I know, that’s not much of a recording resumé, but it gives you an idea of how little experience was actually required to attend this workshop. The reality is, all you need is the enthusiasm to learn about it, and a willingness to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning every day of the week. They take care of the rest.

If you are interested in reading a very well-written description of what goes on the workshop, I recommend reading “Birdsong” by Don Stap. The middle chapter of the book is devoted to following Greg Budney during one of his summer sessions in California, and the account is very close in its description to my own experience. Although the names of workshop participants aren’t given, I was actually able to recognize one of the people mentioned, just by his description of her background – one of the great people I met there has attended most every workshop offered in the last decade.

But back to my own experience. Again, it was phenomenal. Outstanding. Terrific. Really, it was perfect in just about every way. Just a couple days in, it really began to sink in just how perfect it was. I immediately likened it to Birder Summer Camp, if there ever was such a thing. So just how was it perfect? Let me recount the ways:

Staff. Greg Budney is a remarkable, experienced, super-smart, super-affable, organized, laid-back, and helpful workshop leader. Along with Randy Little and Bill McQuay, they were able to instruct 20 of us with our wide range of previous experience in a clear, organized fashion.

Location. The Sierran foothills in mid-June is an excellent place to learn how to record birds. We had ideal weather virtually every day, with little wind and no threat of precipitation. It made getting up early as easy as it can be, and it was nice to learn the nuts and bolts of recording (which are tricky enough) without having to deal with the elements. Of course, doing real nature recording will involve learning how handle less-than-ideal recording environments, but it was great to not have to worry about that as a beginner. In addition, the foothills provide several different recording environments that are easy to reach on subsequent mornings, so that you can get a good sampling of varying bird life and habitat on successive days, thereby expanding your recording experience very quickly. Greg and Randy now know the area inside-out, and make it easy for newbies to get a handle on what to record where.

The Field Campus. We stayed at the SNFC, about a 90-minute drive from Reno. The site is located around 6000 feet amid Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines next to the churning Yuba River, and is enchantingly quiet at night but rife with singing birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers during the day. We slept in large tents situated on wood platforms, and in the tents were cots that we put our sleeping bags on. In this way, it was very simple, rustic accommodation but also quite comfortable.

The Food. Our meals were ably prepared by a staff of a great chef and several amazingly friendly summer interns. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the food was some of the best I’ve eaten anytime, anywhere. It was so good that our workshop class made a point of it to acknowledge their cooking prowess with applause every night, and at the end of the workshop we even chipped in to a kitty to give them all one enormous, well-earned tip.

The Birds. Hermit Warbler. Mountain Quail. Pileated Woodpecker. Sandhill Cranes. Gray Flycatcher. Calliope Hummingbird. Evening Grosbeak. Sage Thrasher. Fox Sparrow. These and many more species were regular staples in our daily outings. I was very impressed with how vocal and numerous the birds were.

The Workshop Itself. I learned the proverbial “ton” about sound recording. On the first day those of us lacking our own equipment were able to borrow some from their collection of loaners, and Bill McQuay got us up to speed very quickly on how to use the rigs. The very next morning we went at it, and every day thereafter. Nothing beats actual field experience and just plain practicing on your own, and that was the main component for learning how to record. This field experience was augmented with afternoon classes and sessions focusing on the equipment itself and how it works, how to organize your recordings, listening to our work.

The Participants. You know how in any group of at least 5, 10, or 20 people there’s always bound to be one person who is a downer, or weird, or who you just can’t really talk to without getting at least a little annoyed? I do. But in this workshop, I can honestly say that I liked absolutely everyone. I have no idea how that happened, but we all got along. I don’t recall a single awkward moment, or wishing I was talking to someone else. When it was time to socialize or talk about the day’s recording, I felt like I could talk to any of the other participants. We came from very different places and backgrounds – a couple women came from Mexico, one guy from Argentina, one from Peru, one from Bhutan. We had people with lot of recording experience who are professional ornithologists, and a few people who hardly knew any birds. But we all had an interest and a need to do nature recording in some way, and if nothing else, that bound us all together very strongly.

Because my intention was to focus on sound recording, I opted not to bring my digital SLR for photography. That just would have been distracting, and inconsistent with my focus. I did bring a point-and-shoot, but even for that I was too much immersed in my daily recording efforts to do much in that regard. However, you can browse some workshop photos taken by one of the staff. In the second-to-last photo in the set you can actually see me attempting to record an American Dipper.

I won’t be able to go to the class next year, as I will be in South America virtually all year. But I will make every effort to go to the class in 2012. Hopefully by then I’ll have contributed a whole slew of new recordings to the Macaulay Library. Oh yes, I guess I should update you on the whole contributing-the-recordings thing next….