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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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