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..