Dawn chorus

During Chris Watson’s recent visit, he took a group of sound design students out to make recordings of the dawn chorus. Inspired by this, Jonathan Prior and I decided to do our own early morning excursion a few days ago, on May 11th. The dawn chorus is at its peak around this time of year. We chose to record in Holyrood Park between the Salisbury crags and Arthur’s Seat. Chris said that the best time is from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after, so we set things rolling just before 4:30am and let the recording run for an hour, right across the daybreak.

Each of us used a Rode NT4 to make a stereo recording. As you can see in the photo, the mics were pointed in opposite directions and spaced apart, so we’ll be able to use the two stereo recordings to create a four channel piece at some point.

Here’s a 15 minute clip from my hour:

[audio:https://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/audio/HolyroodPark-dawnchorus-clip.mp3|titles=Dawn chorus, Holyrood Park, 11.5.2011]

Jonathan has uploaded his entire hour here.

The Google map below shows the location of the recording. This should make it clear why we chose it – plenty of habitats for birds, and the topography blocks out the noise of the city really well. It’s pretty amazing to live in a major world city that has this kind of environment right in the middle of it. Holyrood Park is owned by the Queen, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been over-run by the developments of ‘luxury’ flats that seem to be taking over most of the city.


As time wore on during the recording, the birdsong was punctuated by a few other sounds: outbursts of croaking and flapping from what I think was a pheasant; a passing aeroplane; a cheeky honk from a train echoing off Arthur’s Seat; and a couple of noisy motor vehicles.

The biggest surprise of the morning came at the very end when we were packing up. It must have been about 5:45am, and a man came walking by, the first person we’d seen out there. He was quite well dressed, wearing a smart duffle coat. He said good morning, walked past, then came back and asked if we were professional film-makers. He said he was looking for someone to make a music video for a gospel group – could we do it, or did we know anyone who could? Part of me really wanted to say yes, just because of the unexpectedness of the offer. I didn’t though.

This sort of thing seems to happen quite often when I’m out doing field recordings. I think it’s the result of standing still for a while in a public place with some extremely conspicuous and strange-looking equipment. It seems to invite encounters.

One drawback of the location was the wind. It was a fairly still day by Edinburgh standards, but up in the park there was a stiff breeze. If you look at the map it’s easy to see how the wind gets funnelled from south to north directly into our chosen spot. Despite using a Rycote windshield (the big furry thing), I ended up with a bit of wind noise on my recording. Wind blowing on a mic creates low frequency rumble. I really hate it. To my ears, field recordings with wind noise on them sound really amateurish.

When we set up, it all sounded fine in the headphones. We then retreated maybe 200 meters away, to avoid the mics picking up any rustles or other noises from us. After a while, there were a few gusts that must have been too strong for the Rycote fur. I actually have an extra high wind cover – a sort of fleece jacket that goes under the furry stuff – so I’m going to start using that more often from now on.

In the clip above, I’ve reduced the wind noise by applying some low shelf EQ in my audio editing software using a plugin. I cut about 12dB at 240Hz, with the Q set to minimum for a gentle slope. Luckily, the birdsong is in a much higher frequency range, so cutting the low end like this hasn’t messed up the recording too much. If you listen carefully (e.g. at about 5:17) you’ll still hear a bit of wind rumble, but much less than on the original..

Listening to a dead rabbit

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week sound recordist Chris Watson came up to the University of Edinburgh for a visit which I’d organised. It was fantastic. An amazing man. As expected, I learned lots about field recording, but he also turned out to be a great storyteller, full of tales about his many travels, including recent visits to both poles, and stories of Factory Records, David Attenborough and so on.

As part of his visit, Jonathan Prior and I ran an audio recording training day for researchers and PhD students from the university. About ten of us travelled by train to the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, chosen to give us a range of environments to experiment in. Journalist Neil Cooper also joined us to write a piece for the Herald newspaper, which you can read here.

By the beach, with a thick haar (the local word for sea mist) rolling in, Chris showed us some of his equipment, including a parabolic reflector mic for very focussed work, such as isolating particular bird calls, and a pair of miniature omnidirectional mics he uses for more ambient recordings. As the name suggests, omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all around the mic capsule. Compared to cardiod mics – which pick up sound in front of the capsule – omnis are less sensitive to wind and handling noise and also tend to have a flatter, wider frequency response, particularly in the low end.

One technique Chris uses with the omnis is to attach them to a wire coat hanger. This gives a nice spacing for stereo, is super-lightweight, and very versatile: the hanger can be hung from vegetation or spiked into the ground.

Like all non-coincident stereo techniques, the coat hanger setup compromises mono compatibility, but if you can live with that the resulting recordings are superb. As I’ve said here before, my main mic for field recording is the Rode NT4 which has a fixed 90 degree XY pair of cardioid capsules. This could be seen as the opposite of the omnis, in that it is directional and coincident. I find the directionality useful, especially in urban environments where I often want to block out the traffic noise coming from behind me. However, compared with the omnis, the NT4 sounded quite ‘closed’, almost slightly stifled, whereas the omnis were incredibly open and natural sounding. Obviously this is all subjective, but I was taken aback by the difference. For ambient soundscape recording, the omnis were definitely better in my opinion. Plus there is the versatility of having two tiny, lightweight mics to position as you wish. The only advantages of the NT4 would be mono compatibility and directionality. Better get saving for some of those omnis…

I experimented with both the NT4 and the omnis recording the waves rolling in and the general ambience of the beach. Chris’s tip was to make several recordings from different perspectives and then layer these – he said in his experience this would give a more recognisable impression of the sea than just using one recording. Listening to the results I’m inclined to agree. The following mix was made from six different recordings, including some made very close to the breaking waves and others made further back up the beach:

[audio:https://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/N-Berwick-Beach-Sea-mix-1.mp3|titles=North Berwick sea mix]

During a break for lunch, Chris spoke about his experiments attaching mics to animal carcasses to record birds feeding. The most well-known example of this is on the track Cracking Viscera from the album Outside the Circle of Fire. He produced that track by attaching mics to a zebra carcass, enabling him to record feeding vultures. However, it seems that Chris has used this technique on a number of occasions, starting one Christmas with a mic’ed up turkey carcass, pinned down in his garden using tent pegs, and starlings descending to peck at it, to the delight of his children. Deadpan, he explained that even though his daughter had left home by that point, their turkey was still big enough to fit four mics inside for a surround sound recording. Another story involved a roadkill rabbit and some ravens on the Isle of Mull. I quickly got the gear rolling to record this:

[audio:https://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Dead-rabbit-clip.mp3|titles=Listening to a dead rabbit]

A few notes of thanks, first to Chris for sharing his incredible expertise with us. For help with funding and organising his visit, thanks to: the Institute for Academic Development; Martin Parker and Jules Rawlinson from music; Dan Swanton and Jonathan Prior from geography; and my admin team in CRFR (all at the University of Edinburgh)..

Chris Watson visit

This week, I’m organising a visit to Edinburgh from sound recordist and Cabaret Voltaire founder member Chris Watson. Amongst other things, he’s giving a seminar in human geography and performing a concert at the end of the week. These are public events – details below. Jonathan Prior and I are also hoping to interview him and produce a journal paper reflecting on Chris’s ways of working, what they can tell us about sound recording and its possible place in geographical research.

For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Chris is a world renowned sound recordist who specialises in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres. His work regularly appears on BBC television and radio. He works with people like David Attenborough and Bill Oddie, but also releases his work on experimental music label Touch. Last week he had a programme on Radio 4 entitled ‘Jules Verne’s Volcano’ which is still available on the iplayer:


Seminar: ‘Capturing acoustic landscapes’.

Time: 4pm Thursday 21st April

Place: Old Library, Geography, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street EH9 8XP

Performance: as part of Dialogues festival, http://chriswatson.eventbrite.com/

Time: 8pm Friday 22nd April

Place: Inspace, 1 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AB.

Creative Practice Primer

For those of you who haven’t yet seen this…

One of my recent projects has produced a ‘Creative Practice Primer’, a resource for researchers who wish to experiment with creative methods, particularly where digital media are involved. Based on a workshop at Dundee Contemporary Arts in November 2010, it contains documentation of several small projects, advice on techniques and technology and relfections on experimentation in research:


There’s a lot of sound and audio stuff in there – covering contact mics, hydrophones, field recording techniques etc. Any feedback would be appreciated..

Sound, space and power in a primary school

I’ve just had a paper published in Social and Cultural Geography based on my PhD research in a primary school. It’s all about how sound is used in the exercise of power in schools. It’s part of a special issue on spaces of education. If you have access to the journal, you can download it here.

I had another paper in Surveillance and Society last year that is a bit broader but also has some stuff about sonic surveillance. That journal is free to access, and you can get my paper here.

This is all pretty cool as these are my first academic publications touching on questions of sound. The research was just conventional ethnography – no audio recordings sadly. However, I did go on to make a short film called Seven Primary School Spaces in 2008 where the sound was a major focus. Check it out:

I’ll be showing this film at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference this year in a session on ‘Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method’ which is being organised by Katherine Brickell, Bradley L. Garrett and Jessica Jacobs from Royal Holloway..