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Equipment safety in the African bush

As I set off two months ago for this sound recording & learning-about-African-nature-and-wildlife endeavour, I had essentially no idea how to tackle the problem of protecting my equipment from the environment here. Since then, I’ve amassed close to 600GB of sound recordings and learnt a few tricks regarding the safekeeping of my stuff while its left outdoors for sessions as long as 24 to 30 hours. The bottom line conclusion of keeping your gear from being torn to pieces by big & curious African wildlife: it’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible, especially if you’re lucky enough to get some help from people who know better than you.

To recap briefly, the reason why I set off to Zimbabwe for two months was to follow a FGASA course, which was going to train me at lightning speed how to be a safari guide. That course is now done and dusted, I’ve passed, and I can conduct a guided safari/field experience from a vehicle now. But the point here is that as soon as I mentioned my sound recording plans to the course instructor, he immediately and strongly discouraged me to leave my equipment out there in the naive way that I had imagined it was going to work.

My brilliantly thought out plan was: I’ve got a bunch of long and strong cable ties, I will just tie my mics to a tree and job’s a gooden. His immediate answer to that was that baboons will come and check this strange shiny new thing out, and absolutely destroy it within minutes. And if the baboons won’t get to it, then the elephants might. And if not the elephants, then count on the hyenas to run off with your expensive toys. Want to set up and record by the water? A hippo will come and shit all over your mic before it crushes it to bits. So his suggestion was to use a cage, and a strong one at that – a cage to trap leopards with would do the job nicely, and it just so happened that this reserve here owned one of those.

Behold, the leopard cage
 

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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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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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Hydrophones – beginner experiments

Today, I made a little trip to the beach. Earlier in the morning I had received two hydrophones in the post that I ordered from Jez riley French, and I was eager to try them out.

I’ve never owned or used hydrophones before, so this was all purely an experiment. I pretty much plugged the two of them into the pebbles, spaced approx a meter and a half apart, rolled back the cable towards the recorder, and hit record, whilst adjusting the levels. I clearly need some practice with all of this – these cables are 10 meters each and I was fiddling about quite a lot before I had them untied.

When I was finally ready to record, I noticed there was some sort of buzzing tone or interference in the signal which I couldn’t directly locate – and I didn’t feel like getting my shoes off again to go back into the cold British sea’s water and mess with the hydrophones to see if it had any effect. I decided to just let the recording roll.

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