Quick dispatch from Zimbabwe

I really should be studying. In fact I should be sleeping. Though it is only 21:30 right now, I am waking up at 5am again for the morning game drive, which acts as a practical class in the field. When we return a few hours later, it’s time for breakfast, followed by some time ‘off’ for studying notes and books and excercises. Then follows an hour long lecture on the subject of the day – probably more about trees tomorrow. We’ve done a hell of a lot of tree stuff in this first week during the FGASA field guide course in Zimbabwe.

Stopping for our morning coffee break

After the lecture is over, it should be about lunch time – finish your food, and continue studying for about an hour or three until it is time to get back into the vehicle for the afternoon/evening game drive. Return to camp three hours later, have dinner. It is eight o clock now. Study for another hour, two hours – bed. Alarm goes again at 5am, and the circle continues. No days off – this is the seven day a week schedule for the 55 days of this course.

I really should be studying or sleeping right now.

Practicing some basic car maintenance

 

Last night I got woken up at 2:30 by a lion walking past and roaring about 10 meters from where I sleep. I thought I had been dreaming about lions until I heard him roar again. So I jumped out of bed, scrambled my recording gear together, and stumbled outside to try and record it. Had a chat with the night guard, set up my mics, and tried to go back to sleep – no luck on the sleeping part after this, but I did record the lion when it roared again, though fairly distant, and in tandem with a jackal.

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Sound recording in Africa – the plan & preparations

Tomorrow my plane leaves for Zimbabwe. I’ve planned a 4 months trip through southern Africa, with the aim of recording wildlife and nature sounds. Besides Zimbabwe, I’ll visit Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and I literally want to record anything I can – I have no specific goal to record a type of species or sound, and neither do I have a particular end product in mind. It’s simply about the joy of recording, and hopefully finding places that aren’t as infested by manmade noise as Western Europe is. As you can imagine though, there are a number of potential problems and pitfalls that I’ve tried to address before setting off, in order to get an as good result as I possibly can.

 

Problem 1 – The best nature and wildlife sound recording happens when you understand your environment

I have never been to Africa, and I know nothing about the habitats and wildlife of the countries and natural parks I am visiting. I have seen nature documentaries, but that is about the extent of my ‘knowledge’. I could go and plant my mics and see what happens, but I want to take it beyond that and try to have a better understanding of what I am recording, and how to record it.

For that reason, my time in Zimbabwe will be spent taking a 55 days professional safari guide course. This is a very intensive, 7 days a week training program, after which you get the opportunity to try and pass an exam. If you pass, you are awarded a Level 1 Field Guide certificate, accredited by the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa (FGASA). In other words, you can then work as a junior safari guide. Have a look here for the full overview of what is being taught in this 2 months course.

I have no intention to change my career to become a safari guide, but I am very interested in the knowledge taught at this course. It includes subjects such as animal behaviour, ecology, geology, plants and grasses, weather and climate, astronomy – it’s incredibly diverse as it’s intended to steamroll you into having general knowledge about the environment and the wildlife of southern African countries. We’ll spend multiple hours in the bush every day, both on foot and in a vehicle, setting off twice a day, just before dawn and a few hours before dusk, with theory classes taught back at the camp as well.

While I will not be Mr Super Survival Man & The Ultimate Field Guide Expert after a mere two months of intense training, it should hugely increase my knowledge about the places that I am visiting after the course. With a bit of luck, I can also get some sound recording in while there.

 

This photo was taken at the Nakavango centre in Zimbabwe, where the field guide course takes place
Image credit Nakavango Conservation Centre

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Slowed down blackbird + tawny owl = deep sea chorus

Slowing down recordings, yes we have all done it, but would I ever get bored of it? I slow down sounds to my heart’s content. It is like Christmas every time – what wondrous goofy or awe-inspiring sonic textures lay beyond the pitching down of this here sound? Those are the sort of questions I heroically and relentlessly seek answers to.

Here is a recording I made of a blackbird doing what it does best, sitting on a tree branch singing its guts out, showing off and telling all other nearby songbirds how it’s done.

And this here is a male tawny owl hooting wistfully from a perch to a distant female.

Now what happens when we slow these recordings down and combine them?

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A simple technique for wide & enveloping sea recordings

Somehow I find myself with a microphone at the beach a lot. I don’t particularly tend to relax much on beaches at all, but still end up visiting them often. And it might be the biggest cliche in nature sound recording, but don’t we all love that sound of waves lapsing onto a shore? Besides, the sea never sounds the same. Weather conditions of course have a great impact, and so do the time of day, ebb and flow and naturally whether it’s a sandy, rocky or pebbled beach.

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Testing Schoeps CCM 4’s: wide ambient loveliness

I own a pair of Sennheiser MKH8040’s and though they are stunning sounding mics, they do have an irritating fault and that is that they add a huge bed of noise to the ultrasonic frequency range. This becomes annoying, or even a problem when pitching down my recordings – something I do a lot when designing sounds.

Enter the pair of Schoeps CCM 4’s, which are a direct competitor for size and quality to the 8040’s. I’d rented these for a weekend in Summer 2014 to try and see for myself what the fuss is all about, as Schoeps mics have an almost mythical air to them, supposedly sounding like angels pissing in your ears if you are to believe the halleluja-ing Schoeps owners on internet forums. Whether this is due to simply them needing to justify the astronomical cost of these mics or if there’s really something special about them was what I was curious to find out.

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Telinga-tastic: super close up recordings of birds & crickets

In Summer 2014 I’d finally bit the bullet and bought a Telinga Universal MK2 parabolic dish reflector, a piece of equipment that I’d been umm’ing and ah’ing about for years. Though a bit pricey in my opinion, this is a well-built, lightweight parabolic with the added benefits of it allowing you to use your microphone of choice and its relative portability due to the dish itself being foldable.

I’m using an MKH8040 in the Telinga, guaranteeing a flat frequency response, high sensitivity & low noise. It being a cardioid mic it is relatively susceptible to handling noise, so some practice is required using this in a parabolic as a lot of this kind of recording is handheld whilst tracking your subject (like flying birds for instance). The above sound file is an example of tracked recording, as these are the calls of common terns that were flying over my head and around me, at distances ranging from ~20 to 5 meters from the mic. They seemed to be playing a game of chase with each other, which I don’t know if it’s a mating ritual or simply them having fun.

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Hydrophone recordings: farting plants & screeching beetles

In June 2014 I took my hydrophones to a likely looking lake and started fishing for sound. It already being past the explosion of life that is spring I wasn’t sure if I’d encounter much pond dwelling activity underneath the surface, but it turned out I did not need to worry. As soon as I threw the mics in the water, a previously hidden world of sonic richness came to the fore, full of surprising little clicks, squeaks and screeches originating from water beetles and plants.

Headphones are recommended to appreciate all the subtle and quiet detail in the following recordings.

 

The almost creature-like pitch bending whine that you can hear in the left channel from the start of this recording is a plant letting off gas – a plant farting, yes. A fancier way of putting it is that this is somewhat ‘the sound of photosynthesis’, as oxygen is released as a waste product during the photosynthesis procedure.

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Brent Geese in wintery Holland

Here’s a 5 minute snippet of a 20+ minute recording I made of a group of Dark-bellied Brent geese chilling and eating on the mudflats of Schiermonnikoog, a small & remote Dutch island off the North-West coast of the country. Two thirds of this island is a nature reserve, there are no cars & other motorised vehicles allowed except for those who live on the island – the total population is approximately 800 and all live in the one village the island boasts. There only footpaths in the reserve, no roads (not even for cyclists) lead through or around it. All in all a pretty good area for nature sound recordists, although there can still be planes heard flying relatively nearby every 30 minutes or so.

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Grey Seal pup recordings

Recordings of Grey Seal pups in the dunes by Horsey beach, Norfolk, UK – December 2012.

These seals are about 3 to 5 weeks old; 3 weeks after they are born, their mother leaves them and they crawl from the beach into the dunes to shelter against the wind whilst they wait to shed their fur, after which they dive into the sea. They tend to leave for the sea to get food when they are about 6 weeks old.

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The sound of 35000 bees

In early September 2012, me and two other sound recordists/game audio folk (Andy Riley & Augie Restivo) went to visit a friend of mine who had recently installed a bee hive into his garden. We were armed to the teeth; our total gear list consisted of 10 microphones and 4 recorders. We all felt slightly goofy bringing that much equipment for what was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon in the company of approximately 35000 bees (in fact my friend the owner figured the number was close to 50000). But as it turned out, having that many microphones simply meant we could geek out and stick mics wherever we wanted in order to try and record this army of bees from every possible angle.

We captured a lot of material that day, but below are what were in my view some of the most interesting results.

This first snippet was captured with 2 tiny DPA 4060s taped onto a stick and placed right at the little gap that the bees use for entering and exiting the hive.

 

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