How To: Recording A Birdsong Podcast in the Field

For years I’ve been recording birdsong as an amateur recordist. Until recently my setup was an Edutige EIM-001 plus an iPhone. The EIM-001 is omnidirectional and high-gain, so it captures more sound, and in all directions. It’s great for doing environmental recordings that match what you’re hearing, and means you generally do not need to point the microphone in any particular direction or pay much attention to the microphone at all really.

Doing a podcast

In recording the Songbirding podcast, I was going completely against my instincts as a recordist. Where normally the recordist aims to erase themselves from the recording, to keep the audio “clean” and without any hint of a human being behind a microphone, this podcast takes a more authentic approach to recorded birdsong. And it was so counter-intuitive that the idea took years to form.

That stated, once I got past the idea of not hiding myself, there were still many other challenges to deal with:

  1. Footsteps: gravel, grass, etc: It took a while for me to be comfortable with having walking sounds at all (first feedback I got was that it was actually nice and relaxing), but amongst those, I had to be careful around “noisier” terrain such as gravel, dead leaves, and very tall grasses. Interacting with these tend to make sounds that loudly cover many frequencies at once and can disrupt recordings a lot. This is where having multiple people could be tricky, as you can’t control others’ movement sounds.
  2. Talking too loudly: This one is key: I’m using an omnidirectional, high-gain microphone. This means it reaches in all directions, amplifies everything, and I’m holding it. No one but the mic needs to hear me, and if I’m too loud I’ll risk the recording hitting peak too much, so I tone my voice down a fair bit.
  3. Talking too quietly: That said, there’s no one there to warn me I’m being too quiet. I try to keep the mic in front of me so I can remember that I do need to project at least some. It’s a balance!
  4. Wind & weather: Anything more than a light breeze will bring up windshear noise, even with a fuzzy windscreen on. The windscreens are necessary, but only help so much. I would say if the wind is noticible in any significant way it can be very frustrating to record – especially if it’s summer where there is leaves on the trees that rustle in the wind.
  5. Distance & pitch (higher pitched birdsongs are quieter!): The one case where the mic doesn’t quite match my own ear’s abilities is higher pitched sounds. My guess is the windscreens might have some blame in this for absorbing some of the higher-pitched sounds a bit. I try now to make sure if there’s a high-pitched sound that I get really close to it.
  6. Antropogenic noise: Airplanes, trains, cars, etc. Other people. Sometimes when the best birdsongs are being belted out, a jetliner flies low at the same time.
  7. Winter: clothing: In colder weather, I had to beware the extra noise from more layers of clothing. I’m holding the mic at the end of an arm that everytime it moves makes a slight noise due to the nylon jacket.
  8. Insects: A later summer thing, though can happen any time when there’s mosquitos and blackflies. Those that land on the mic can usually be removed in editing, but when the cicada are out, they can dominate a recording with their wide-frequency sound.
  9. Patience: This one takes a while to learn, but listening to a bird sing for a whole minute can feel like far more time than that has passed, and it can be easy to underestimate how much time you’ve recorded something for. A good, clean recording can be a rare thing, but it is easy to forget that once you’ve had several iterations of the same birdsong over and over again. Always record more when you can, since you might not be able to get that same bird or species again that day or again that season!
  10. Flubbed takes: In a solo recording situation you are your own director, and while you can’t ask a bird to do another take you can do this to yourself by repeating something you feel you might have flubbed or not expressed correctly. You can always edit for the best take that way. On a couple occaisions I waited until a bird stopped vocalizing to re-take something I said earlier so that I’d have a clean recording. One could use this to correct uncertain bird IDs (multiple takes with various ID guesses) but usually I kept my uncertainty in to keep it authentic. If I ever did make use of multiple takes it would have been at times where being unclear might be a detriment to the listener.

Equipment

Since recording in summer 2019 I’ve acquired a Sony Zoom H1n, which I now plug a Edutige ETM-001 into its Line In (the ETM-001 basically the same mic as the EIM-001 but with a different plug). What this allows me to do is get my phone out of my hands (the Zoom is a bit easier to hold) and also reduces potential interference from cell signals and getting phone calls or text messages. The built-ins are unidirectional, so I need to point at a source, but are in a stereo configuration and at higher gains are sensitive enough to give an improved sense of immersion.

The Zoom also has a manual gain controller, which means I can dial the gain up even more and thus the recording gets that much more. It’s also easy to set it to save audio in uncompressed WAV files, which are the ideal to capture good quality audio. To hear a comparison, listen to a bonus episode of Songbirding such as the Christmas or Halloween ones – they were recorded in fall/winter with the new setup.

Another advantage is I can use the Zoom as a traditional podcast mic for narration recordings, using its built-in (unidirectional) mics. This can be done on-device, or just connect it with USB to a laptop to use it as an external microphone.

Bonus: Livestreaming!

Recently I’ve experimented with live-streaming via Twitter/Periscope. Normally when you go to livestream on Twitter it is video-based but last year they added the option for audio-based streaming (just tap the microphone icon), and I found a way to make it work well.

My setup for this at the moment is as follows: the Edutige ETM-001 is plugged into the Zoom H1n. I then have a stereo cable running from the Line Out of the Zoom to the iPhone (using a headphone adapter). With this setup I can simultaneously record a session (the Zoom is recording) while outputting it to the iPhone to stream into Twitter. Since this is live and thus no chance to boost levels after the fact (except in a resulting recording) I tend to make sure the limiter is on (always a good idea anyways) and turn the gain all the way up.

I’ve not done much with this yet though, I’ll update this as I learn more when spring migration arrives.

Editing Into a Podcast

I’ll probably write something in more detail in the future, but for now I’ll keep this simple.

Birding by ear is generally a slow-paced thing, it would be a bit frustrating otherwise. For this reason I try not to edit out the space between an individual bird’s songs/calls unless it really begins to drag a lot, or if I’m editing a segment that is a feature on that particular song.

I try to set the pace of an episode in the first few seconds, much like one might set ground rules of a game at the start, so that the audience knows what to expect. Fast-paced birding-by-ear isn’t realistic and might get quite exhausting quickly. To match that, when using music I tend towards slower tempos.

I do some heavy editing between encounters of species – several minutes of quiet walking isn’t going to add anything to the podcast but time – but I do blend the editing in a way to sound continuous so things feel consistent, unless I specifically refer to a recording break when talking, in which case I’ll do a quick fade out/in.

Originally I aimed for 45-50 minutes per episode, but quickly found that around 15-30 is probably a better range. With the pacing being slow, anything significantly over 30 minutes might be too much. If I have 40 minutes of good material, then I have two 20-minute episodes.

Expanding the Birding-By-Ear Podcast Pie

I hope someday soon to hear more podcasts like this. I would be great to learn the birds from areas I haven’t been to, or species I don’t hear often enough myself. I’m both open to having a guest host for Songbirding or helping promote someone else’s birding-by-ear podcast. Feel free to reach out if either of these is of interest.