Recording Birdsong in the Field

Over the last few years I’ve been recording audio outdoors (“in the field”), with a focus on bird sounds — songs, calls, and sometimes even wingbeats. With that I’ve learned a lot about the difference between traditional field recording for sound effects and background soundscapes versus recording for producing a documentary.

The difference between the two may not be obvious at first, but one way to look at it is that this is the difference between producing primary and secondary use content: primary being something like a documentary, where the content recorded is intended to be the majority of the final product, and secondary like sound effects and background soundscapes, where the content is meant to be a decoration or a building block for a much larger piece.

There is some overlap and nuance within this difference as well. Soundscapes in particular can be either for the “foreground” or “background”, the difference between the equivalent of a room tone (the recording of an environment without any overt noise/sounds) and something where there is one or many subjects that are a focus of the recording. A cold winter’s day with wind blowing through the conifers, versus the Northern Cardinal singing for an hour in the dawn chorus. Both kind of recordings are done similarly, keeping the recordist away from being an overt subject in the audio.

The most common kind of recording I do now though is one where I as a recordist am a subject within the audio. In film terms this would be referred to as diegetic sound, sound that is part of the world that is being captured. Typically in film, the noises of footprints, the rattling of a sidebag, the rustle of winter clothing from the audio recordist is removed from the diegesis (the captured world being presented), except in the case of more independent guerrilla filmmaking where the filmmaker may be the sole member of the film crew, and part of the story is the creation of the film. An example of this would be Les Stroud’s “Survivorman” series, filmed entirely by himself in the outdoors.

It has taken a while but I’ve come around to enjoying this kind of recording, as it feels much more authentic. While I do still make quite a few long-form soundscape recordings when the opportunity is available, being present as a live narrator can help give context to what is being heard, and in doing so make that world even more real.

This also can be less frustrating as a recordist as there’s fewer worries about me disrupting the recording inadvertently — no requirement to stand absolutely still so that I don’t make a stray sound, no requirement to look away from where I’m pointing the microphone to avoid capturing my breathing, and so on. There’s less worry about “clean” recordings.

That stated, there’s a few things I’ve learned about this style of solo recording where it’s easy to accidentally end up with an entire day’s worth of recordings spoiled if one isn’t careful.

Handling Noise

Professional film recordists tend to have a long boom mic and lots of means of keeping the sound of handling a recorder and a microphone from becoming part of the recording itself. While I don’t think it’s possible for me to completely avoid handling noise, there’s been more than a few times this noise was overwhelming the recording to the point of being distracting.

Every recording device and mic is different, and it’ll take time to learn how to avoid this noise for whatever device you use. Some examples of sources of handling noise, and related noises are below:

  • transferring the recorder hand-to-hand
  • shuffling the grip of the recorder when the current grip you are using gets tiring
  • moving your arm that hold the recorder too quickly when walking (often creating false wind sounds)
  • multi-tasking, such as using binoculars while holding the recorder
  • rattling of loose parts of the recorder or mount — for example, the Zoom H1n has buttons that can be loose and rattle as you walk, and so I had to use a very lightly applied scotch tape to keep these from moving
  • sliding of recorder when using gloves (winter)

Sometimes an easy solution is a shock-mount or other kind of handle to attach to the recorder, but that is never a solution that fixes all problems, just reduces them to tolerable levels.

Wind Screens

You’ll definitely need a windscreen, preferably a “fuzzy” windscreen, sometimes called a “deadcat”. One things very few people tell you though is that when you attach one of the fuzzy windscreens, you need to layer it overtop of a traditional foam mic cover. They are designed to be layered, and not doing this will cause the fuzzy windscreen to rub against your microphone, ruining recordings.

When layering the fuzzy windscreen it may seem like putting it over the foam is very difficult. This is normal. The foam cover going between the fuzzy windscreen and the mic isn’t going to look pretty whenever you take it off, it will be all distorted looking, but as long as it is intact it will work. It’s just necessary to provide extra protection and prevent unwanted noises.

Using the fuzzy windscreen will of course lower the amount of sound picked up by the mic. So, next we’ll look at compensating for that with the levels.

Levels

I’ve gone from using an iPhone with a high gain mic attached (Edutige EIM-001) to mostly Zoom microphones & recorders over the years. For the Zoom recorders, I’ve found that setting the gain to the maximum level (10) appears to be the best way to go, at least when using Zoom’s own microphones.

This is because the subject I am often recording is, at best, metres away from me, and at worst, a kilometre or further. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually have a bird loud enough to peak the recording levels. I need to pick up every bit of sound possible. But that comes with downsides, as you can probably imagine.

First, the handling noise mentioned previously is a much bigger problem than it would be normally. That’s why I have it first on this list — it needs to be in mind and accounted for in order to be able to maximize how much detail I can record.

Secondly, my own noises are going to be that much more. The terrain I am walking in will be much more evident — which is great for soft grass, sand, soft snow, mud, all those calm and pleasant sounding environments one can walk in. But it’s a acoustic nightmare for loose rock (the thick gravel one gets on railroad lines, as an example), the autumn leaves, and hard caked snow, and other “loud” terrains that would dominate a recording.

Some of these loud sounds trigger a misophonia for me — and I’m sure many other recordists have the same problem. Misophonia is a negative reaction (such as a headache, or ear-ringing) one can have to certain sounds. For me, static-like sounds that loudly cut across the spectra of sound frequencies like walking in autumn leaves or the running water of a sink tend to be what trigger it, so editing it can be especially difficult. Some people find these sounds relaxing, however, so it can all be relative.

One last concern about levels is when I am narrating in the field. Having everything at 10 means if I talked as if I was having a conversation normally, I will definitely peak the levels, and likely introduce distortion into the recording. It takes time to learn the balance, but watching the sound levels on the Zoom mic’s screen can help gauge if I’m too loud or too quiet.

As a side note — while the sound level meter on Zoom recorders and other models is fairly accurate for understanding how loud the human voice is, it is a poor indicator of how well heard something like a birdsong is. Because the human voice covers a wide range of frequencies simultaneously, it will appear in the level meter as if it is always much louder than any birdsong. Yet, if you were to listen to birds singing, and compare the level reading to an equivalent-sounding human voice, the birdsong will look like it is much quieter in the meter but sound the same level to the ear. So, don’t worry too much if what appears to be a loud birdsong in the field looks to be rather underwhelming in the meter, that is expected.

Limiters and “Low Cut”

For most microphones it is a good idea to enable a “limiter” on the recorder itself, which will prevent you from going above peak recording levels (which creates distortion). Some have this as a simple setting, some put this under “compressor” settings that will compress loud sounds down to being just slightly quieter with a tradeoff of only slight (and listenable) distortion.

Many recorders also have a “low cut” feature which help remove wind distortion — without low cut many mics when set to a high level (like 10!) will cause even the slightest breeze to overwhelm the recording, even with a good windscreen. Setting this to 80Hz is usually sufficient, though you could go higher and tolerate more wind.

Note however, that low cut will remove/lessen very low bass sounds, and make recording something like the Ruffed Grouse’s drumming sound unrecordable. You’ll want to turn this feature off when you’re capturing species like this.

Anthropogenic Noise

The bane of all nature recordist existence is the airplanes, trains, automobile traffic, gun ranges, that are ever-present in what can appear visually to be natural areas. Most budding recordists are absolutely shocked at how loud these things are in actual recordings versus what one hears in the field. This is because we have learned to live with these sounds well enough that our brains filter these out as unimportant.

However once you listen to a recording outside of the environment and context it was recorded in, your brain does not know to filter this out and it becomes clearly evident. This is a catch-22 for becoming a nature sound recordist. You get to capture so many interesting and wonderful natural sounds, but come quickly to realize how polluted our soundscapes really are, and how incredibly rare a true “natural” soundscape is. In most of Southern Ontario for example, it is an unexpectedly difficult challenge to record more than even a single minute of “clean” natural soundscape even in the most remote locations unless it is the middle of the night, during a loud natural event like a storm, or after a large snowfall where the snow can absorb considerable amounts of anthropogenic sounds. Even then, another jet airplane will become present in the soundscape every few minutes.

Some of the best strategies of avoiding this can be the time of day and getting to know locations. For example, some areas near where I live in Hamilton may look and seem like they would be great for avoiding noise, but are frequented by single and twin-engine small aircraft, one of the loudest and most disruptive kinds of noise. And many of these fly in circles, presumably some are students learning to fly, and others involved in aerophotography. They are essentially flying lawnmowers as far as the acoustics are concerned, with nothing to absorb the sound between them and your microphone. These kinds of aircraft tend not to be very busy very early in the morning, however, so good timing can help avoid them.

Taking Your Time

The aspect of time passes differently for everyone, so this may be very subjective. I have found many times in the early days of recording that I felt I had a lengthy recording, only to find I had two minutes of a birdsong, and not all of it was usable. Time passes differently once you sit and listen, two minutes of a birdsong can feel like ten. Keeping an eye on time and giving yourself a lot of extra material to work with can help offset anything that might have potentially spoiled a recording.

If I come across an especially songful bird I’ll often do my commentary a couple different ways, then set up the recorder on a mini-tripod and place it on the ground for a long-form soundscape recording. This gives me a lot of optionality with the content — I can use this both for a guided birding episode of Songbirding but also as future content of a soundscape-based production. I have been known to set down recorders, walk off, and come back an hour later. Or, just sit and listen along with the mic. (See note later though about off-leash dogs, if you do set the recorder down and walk away.)

Spare Batteries, Watching Battery Levels

Always keep spare batteries around, and check those battery levels once and a while! A recorder won’t tell you when it’s dying or dead. I wish so much that manufacturers would add some kind of audible warning when a battery was dying — I’d rather a recording have a stray sound effect than to have me continue to think a recorder is working fine when it’s actually dead. I’ve lost a lot of recordings to this. Especially in winter, when batteries do not last as long.

Cell Phone Interference

Sometimes you might have experienced this in an older car — you hear on your car stereo a bleeping or strange vibration sound when your cellphone is getting a text message or a phone call coming in. Cell phone signals can interfere with stereos and with recording devices.

I’ve actually lost quite a few recordings to my cellphone being too close to my recorder. Be wary of when you use it, you may be introducing unnatural static sounds that are not fixable if a cell phone is near your mic or recorder. Airplane mode is safest, but may not be practical. Sometimes to remind myself of this issue I’ll have my phone in my back pocket or sidebag instead, if the back pocket is secure enough to not worry of the phone falling out.

Off-leash Dogs

This is a somewhat strange problem I’ve had more than once – dogs like to go after the windsock of a recorder. It looks like a fluffy dog toy. So if you do set down a recorder somewhere on the ground, make sure there aren’t off-leash dogs around. “No off-leash dogs” signs don’t mean there will be no off-leash dogs, either, so you’ll just need to be aware of the risk and likelyhood of one coming along.

Review Your Recordings Regularly

One of the problems I’ve encountered is once I got into a rhythm of regularly recording was I didn’t spend the time to even do quick spot-checks of recent recordings. If you get into recording a lot, make sure to regularly check your recordings to make sure you haven’t introduced new practices or problems that negatively affect the recording that you might not notice at the time of recording.

Examples would be new rattling noises from a loose screw on a shock mount, a setting accidentally changed (like low-cut or limiter), unexplained noises from your recorder (one time I had to remove and reattach a mic to remove a hum the connection was producing, I never found the source), or your narration or handling has changed in a way to negatively affect the recording.

Livestreaming

I’ve been experimenting with livestreaming over the years, starting with Twitter and Periscope, moving on to Twitch. More to come on this later.

Current Devices In Use (as of April 2022)

Right now I swap between using a Zoom H6 and a Zoom F1, though for a lower budget you can’t go wrong with the Zoom H1n. The vast majority of my Season 3 and Season 4 episodes of Songbirding use the Zoom H1n. Of the mics Zoom offers for the F1/H5/H6 the XYH-5 is actually the best due to the shock mount and how its designed for very loud environments, meaning that one can set levels to 10 and not worry about distortion that much, so limiters are less necessary, and low-cut is also less necessary. This mic is actually fairly new to me so I’ll be updating this document as I learn more!

Other manufacturers provide very similar microphones and recorders, and no matter what you use, ideas like limiters, low-cut, compression, and so on can apply to any of them.

Here’s the full list of what I might carry into the field with me. I don’t always take all of this (not possible), ususally a mix of these:

  • Zoom H6 Field Recorder
  • Zoom F1 Field Recorder
  • Zoom H1n Field Recorder (not used as much any more but great recorder to start with)
  • Zoom XYH-5 Microphone (best for most circumstances)
  • Zoom XYH-6 Microphone (best for stationary soundscape)
  • Zoom SGH-6 Microphone (mono, may be useful for single-subject close recordings)
  • Zoom SSH-6 Microphone (adjustable width of field stereo, good for more focused directional circumstances)
  • Manfrotto MTPIXI-B PIXI Mini Tripod (x2) for both hand-held mode and stationary. I do wrap them in Neoprene with adhesive for absorbing handling sounds and avoid clicking sounds when the feet of the tripod touch each other when squeezing with the hand
  • spare batteries

The following are more useful for livestream contexts:

  • Lavalier Lapel Microphone Set, AGPTEK Professional Omnidirectional Condenser - do not use much except when I need my voice emphasized more
  • Panasonic FZ80 Superzoom Camera
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone Camera USB Adapter (can be used to feed audio from recorder into the iPhone for direct phone recording or livestreaming)
  • Raynox DCR-250 Super Macro Snap-On Lens (for Lumix FZ80 macrophotography)
  • iPhone cold shoe mount (to place iPhone atop the Lumix FZ80 when livestreaming)
  • full tripod for camera
  • spare old iPhone for reading chat

What I’ve used in the past…

Season 1 & 2

  • iPhone 6S + Edutige EIM-001 w/fuzzy windscreen

Season 3 Episodes 1-3, Halloween & Christmas Specials in 20192022

  • Zoom H1n + Edutige EIM-001

Season 3 Episodes 4-25

  • Zoom H1n using X/Y built-in mic with fuzzy windscreen (at max gain)

Season 4

Season 4 had a mix of setups depending on when and where the content was recorded. The most common use was the Zoom F1 + XYH-6.

Season 5

The first half of Season 5 was mostly using Zoom F1 + XYH-6 with some soundscapes using the Zoom H6 and Zoom SSH-6

Songbirding Serenades

Serenades uses a mix of recorders, the minimum setup being the Zoom H1n.

Songbirding Monthly

Generally Songbirding Monthly is using the Zoom H6 plus XYH-5 mic, with some soundscapes using the H1n or F1 + SSH-6.

Questions, Feedback, Contributions?

You can join the Songbirding discord at https://discord.gg/UnhY3ykU8y