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)..