Sampling Natural Sounds
As a humble home studio hopeful who has never pointed a mic in earnest at anything outdoors before, James Walters goes in search of the basic equipment.
Do you remember that article by Robin Lumley in SOS around three years ago, about making music from the sounds of the earth? [SOS Nov 1986.] At that time Robin and partner Pete Willsher, with Michael Parker and Steve Parr, were getting an album together [called Strange Bedfellows] using only sampled natural sounds - of water, wind and sea, plus a million examples of the teeming wildlife which still manages against the odds to stay alive on this crowded planet. This was a project which had begun in their imaginations some years before and was just then really beginning to take off.
The necessary digital technology was at last just hitting the streets and the BBC had come up with an initial research budget, plus the free run of its Natural History Unit's amazing sound library.
Since then the world has been listening with fascination: ABC Television made a documentary for the US network; there were spots on 'Tomorrow's World' and Television South West's 'Wild About The West'. Natural sounds began to be used in natural history films, television programmes, and even a radio commercial, which won the 1987 Independent Radio Advertising 'Best Creative Use Of Music' award. Alas, I managed to miss all of that and so the months and then years passed in apparent silence - except in the mind, where all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas and imaginings were churning around and demanding action...
Since I was knee-high to Ludwig Koch's microphone, I have always wanted to compose music as fruity as birdsong and as sumptuous as the sea, and now, as a trained psychotherapist, I am passionately interested in sound therapy. Lumley and Willsher were therefore actually doing something which had long been close to my heart. They were showing that the arrival of affordable (well, nearly) digital gizmos for capturing pure, clean sounds of all kinds and playing them back under precise control, has changed the whole game for all musicians and miscellaneous sound freaks. Now any sort of sound - animal, vegetable, or mineral - can be brought into live concert or studio and can be shared with anyone who has a radio or a Walkman. Everyone involved in sound as art, entertainment, education, advertising, or therapy, just has to explore the potential.
But where to start? Frankly, I had less idea than an inebriated sand wasp! But even if I did not know, I reckoned I knew where to find a man who did - down at the BBC Natural History Unit - and he turned out to be a very nice man indeed...
There may be the odd one or two collections of wildlife sounds in the world which are larger, or more comprehensive, than the BBC's - indeed, the one at Cornell University in the USA may have the edge for hard-core scientific research purposes - but, as a library of strictly broadcast-quality stereo samples, it is doubtful if anywhere else beats it.
You could be forgiven for imagining that this pre-eminence has come about because a succession of clear-sighted managements, starting way back, has always recognised the crucial importance of sound as a raw material and basic resource, and so has insisted on the unit always being funded sufficiently to guarantee the highest standards. It was a shock to discover that in reality the whole thing seemed to be run on the kind of shoestring normally associated with one-horse home studios! The space available is tiny and, if they cannot transfer everything from tape to disc soon, they will be bursting out of the door. The lack of space combined with the shortage of equipment makes accessing the library and copying specimens inconvenient. The immensely complex and vital catalogue is still maintained without benefit of computer or even word processor (though this latter state of affairs is happily expected to change for the better soon). We are talking dedicated, workaholic (and therefore shamelessly exploited) professionals here - but I suppose that is the story of most of the best outfits the world over.
Nigel Tucker, the Library of Wildlife's Sound Technician and a dedicated naturalist, whose baby it all is, cannot be sure exactly how many samples there are, but is confident that well over 5,000 different species are represented, usually in many different versions and variations. New sounds come in every day from various sources - automatically from the soundtracks of all original Natural History Unit programmes, also through normal liaison with similar institutions worldwide, and as a result of Nigel's own forays into the field. Naturally the latter are quite expensive operations and are usually dovetailed to fit in with trips, which may be required, say, in the context of particular programmes or series. Then part of the expense is met out of that production's budget and the library's own tight resources can be squeezed a little further.
Maintaining the catalogue is itself a massively painstaking and delicate operation. It is not enough merely to list the bald identifying facts (species, location, etc), since the descriptions must be user-friendly to a general range of programme-makers, who may have no special expertise in natural history and who are looking for nothing more specific than a certain atmosphere or difficult-to-put-into-words ambience. The good news, if you are not all that bothered about taking your own samples after all, is that you, too, can come and pillage this Aladdin's Cave of auditory delights - for a price. For a £25 per hour search fee, plus £20 all-in fee for each sample you choose (think about it - it cannot stay that cheap for long!), you might find what you want without any aggro at all.
If you are too proud to settle for factory presets and/or sample library discs, and can never resist tweaking programming buttons, this will not turn you on at all. You will want to get out there and sample a few sounds for yourself. Leaving aside for the moment all esoteric natural history questions - like where would you go, and when, to record a flock of swans in flight; or mating woodlice - and putting on 'hold' such domestic problems as whether you will need wellies or a wet suit, sandwiches or a tandoori take-away, let us consider the basic equipment you will need.
If you have no assets in the world except energy and drive, you will be out there with anything from a pocket dictation machine to a recording Walkman (Pro-Walkman, if possible) and the kind of microphone that probably comes with petrol tokens. You will come back with tons of indispensible experience and maybe even some unique footage - but probably not a lot in the way of broadcast-quality sounds. For that you have to borrow, hire or buy a DAT (digital) recorder and a serious mic of some kind.
All the people at the cutting edge seem to agree that nowadays anyone can record very good, broadcast-quality samples with the current, relatively low-priced, portable DAT (digital audio tape) recorders.
If you have been paying attention to this magazine, you will have noticed Paul Ireson's reviews of the Casio DA1 [March 1989] and the later/better DA2 [September 1989], which is the cheapest model at £625 plus VAT. This little beast could well provide all you will need, but it is difficult to find serious professionals who are totally unstinting in their endorsement of it.
Unless you plan to buy several DAT machines, you are probably going to want one to do everything - come with you into the wide, wet, cold and blue yonder, and then, when you are back at the ranch, master all your hit albums and even go straight to CD with them - in which case you may have to face paying twice as much! For £1400 plus VAT you can have a Sony TCD10 (or for £1700 a TCD10 Pro) or a Technics SV260 (£1500). These are all reckoned to be brilliant machines, which should handle your requirements, but you will have to weigh up the exact details of their individual specs against a realistic assessment of your circumstances and aspirations.
In theory you need nothing more than basic facilities for obtaining neat samples, but ask yourself if, in the places you plan to go, the machine is built well enough to stand the hammering it is bound to get? Are the control panel and buttons going to be easy enough to see and handle when you are freezing to death or hanging by your eyelashes in some perilous place? And what about later in the studio? Will you need the machine to have both digital and analogue inputs and/or outputs? Will you need to record and/or play back at 48kHz and/or 44.1kHz? (These things are a matter of how you want to transfer signals from one piece of equipment to another, and whether you are intending to master for CD). It makes sense to go into all the angles before you buy, but it may not be so easy to make the right decisions before you have tried out the DAT machine of your choice, so perhaps you should hire before you buy (see below).
If you already have a microphone and some experience of recording in other situations, naturally you will build on that by experimenting. All you need, apart from good luck, they tell us, is endless patience, resourcefulness, tenacity, good ears - and money! Eventually, it seems, you might well need several different physical types of microphone. PZMs (Pressure Zone Microphones) might do an extremely neat job on capturing ambient water drips in a cave, but a tightly directional 'shotgun/rifle' mic could be the only way of isolating a target sound from surrounding cacophony when you cannot get close to the subject. If you insist on combining your sampling forays with macho activities such as serious rock-climbing or white-water rafting, a clip-on (lavalier) radio mic may be all you can cope with! In any case, sooner or later you will almost certainly have to think about reducing handling, cable, and wind noise through judicious use of pistol grips and windshields, etc ('Rycote' seems to be the magic name in this context).
For best quality recording, current conventional wisdom goes for condenser (capacitor/electret) microphones (XLR connectors are favourite), although these need preamplifiers and additional power packs. For stereo work, the classic 'crossed pair' of matched mics may well be suitable for ambient sound-gathering, but professionals generally favour an M&S setup - that is, one which picks up Mid (directional) and Side (ambient) signals, instead of the usual A/B or L-R. With this you have some sort of matrix box (usually part of the more expensive packages) in order to control what goes down on tape. All the main manufacturers offer their own versions: one approach consists of a pair of separate microphones clipped into a special bracket (one of these usually has a cardioid response, the other being figure-of-eight). The flexibility and versatility of this pattern may win you over: after all, it allows you to change one or both mics from time to time and to use them independently in other recording situations. Most of the smart money, however, seems to go on the specialised, all-in-one types, such as the Sanken CMS7, which (for just over £1700 plus VAT) gives you many refinements, including switchable options to enable recording on site of either conventional L-R or M&S signals. The stereo aperture of the latter signals can be edited later in the studio, or the whole signal transformed into L-R or mono.
If, in these troubled times, there is any spare capacity left on your flexible plastic friend, whatever package you go for is likely to cost well on the way to £1000 (eg. Sony ECM MS5 £790 including power pack; Fostex MZ2RP £661; Sennheiser MKH30 and MKH40 £499 each; Beyer M160 and M130 £540 in total). Before I resort to cutting corners in this department, I am wrestling with the thought that the quality of the microphone, which has always been the first and most important piece of equipment in the audio chain, is even more critical now that we are into DAT. Furthermore, it is going to cost me time, effort (who mentioned blood, sweat, and tears?) and even more money to chase around the wilderness looking for what may prove to be unique and unrepeatable natural sounds to sample. So why would I willingly junk my chances in advance by going out there with inadequate microphone technology?
If you simply cannot afford the right gear, why not ask yourself what your pattern of usage is likely to be? Do you really need to own these pieces of equipment at all or could you hire them by the day just as well? Hire charges from HHB Communications, for instance, tend to work out at around 2% of the total purchase price - that would mean about £70 for £3500 worth of just the right gear - per day. Also, ask about hiring with an option to buy later. You can buy or hire from the following companies:
- HHB Communications Ltd, (Contact Details).
- Hayden Laboratories Ltd, (Contact Details).
- ITZA Audio Modules & Custom Electronics, (Contact Details).
- Raper & Wayman, (Contact Details).
- Stirling Audio Systems Ltd, (Contact Details).
For sure you are expecting, like the rest of us, to be a big star and make several million quid fairly soon, but apart from that you may be in love with sound itself. If so, you will probably have to insist, one way or another, on getting your sticky mits on the vital equipment and going and pointing it at things quite regularly. Now, if life is already supplying you with enormous quantities of Mrs Thatcher's golden doubloons, it is easy - you just go out and buy the gear and get on with it - and very good luck to you, so long as you remember to send the odd postcard to us from time to time. You may have to be favoured by quite a constant flow of said doubloons, however, because apparently there is not much scope for freelance wildlife recording artistes.
In the real world, it is more likely that you will have to get a job - not necessarily one which is exactly in the area which really interests you, but within earshot if you are lucky. You could do worse than get taken on by the BBC as a Trainee Sound Operator. For this you need to be at least 18, have had a good general education - preferably with 'O' levels in Physics, Maths, and English Language - and above all, be able to demonstrate some relevant experience and keenness for sound-related activities. It helps if you have done something like work in hospital radio or at discos, or can demonstrate a substantial hobby - maybe flash that impressive library of stunning wildlife samples you have already garnered...
So you get a training and you're on the first rung. After that you are just as likely to find yourself pitched into the BBC's drama Department or World Service as you are into Natural History or Radio 1. Remember, though, that the point about being in the BBC is that there are many different directions you could choose to follow, once you find your way around, and you always have the edge on outsiders when it comes to hearing about what jobs there are. You can bide your time and make the moves you want, as opportunities come along. Maybe you, too, will become a Deputy Sound Supervisor and drive about in a BMW! To get that particular set of wheels in gear, write for details to the address below.
Head of Engineering and Technical Operations Recruitment, (Contact Details).
Feature by James Walters
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