Nature field recordist Christine Hass captures wildlife field recordings with a compelling aim: to connect to nature through sound. Her vocation has led her to capture clips of coyotes, marshes, bird choruses, and other rich ambiences.
I’ve been following her blog on her Wild Mountain Echoes website and her SoundCloud profile for some time. What is interesting is how her field recordings work with one another. Her profile showcases over 100 wildlife clips that combine to create an evocative portrait of the American Southwest. The thoughtful field recordings blend to create an immersive snapshot of a sonically rich part of the planet. She showcases this unique sonic identity in a number of CD releases focusing on specific slivers of the US landscape: the Great Basin, the Sonoran Desert, and others.
I’m a huge fan of her field recordings. I was curious how Christine worked to record wildlife sounds in such unforgiving, diverse, and often subtle environments. I reached out to Christine and asked if she would like to share with us how she works, and the kit she prefers. She kindly agreed.
So, today we learn how science and research informs Christine’s work, and influences her gear choices. She also shares a special experience with us: how removing a field recordist from an environment helps capture authentic sounds, including a surprising wildlife sound clip of her own.
Creative Field Recording: Can you share why you capture nature field recordings, and how you began?
I probably came at nature recording from a different direction than most – I’m a professional scientist who studies animal ecology, including communication. I was interested in learning more about vocal communication in an animal I was studying, the white-nosed coati (a relative of a raccoon), which reportedly vocalized into the ultrasonic range. I picked up a Zoom H4n to record vocalizations of captive coatis up to 35 kHz. Then, since I had the recorder, I started recording dawn choruses, and water, and elk bugling, and I was addicted. I started acquiring more equipment to improve the recordings and it’s become quite the obsession.
As with many people, recording literally opened my ears to the sounds around me, and I became aware of how much human-caused noise is all around us. Not only is this a hindrance to nature recordists, but can also interfere with animal communication. Studies are accumulating about how animals, particularly birds, have to modify their behavior in order to be heard over all the sounds we make. Most people (excluding field recordists, of course) are generally unaware of how much noise is in their environment and how much it impacts not only the animals around us, but also our own health.
So although I’m relatively new to acoustic studies, it’s opened up a number of new avenues to research for me, including how the physical and biological environments affect how a species vocalizes (or stridulates, for insects); how the physical environment determines the frequency spectra of sounds in space and time; how environmental change (including climate change) affects an area’s soundscape; the impacts of noise on human and animal health and well-being, and what metrics can be used to quantify these different aspects of sound .
Most of my research is done in the field, often in remote wilderness areas. I am drawn to very quiet environments, and I’ve used my recording gear to try to capture the sense of peace I feel when I’m in those places. So in addition to my research, I like to record the natural environment because it’s fun and challenging. When I’m tense or having trouble sleeping, I often call up some of my recordings and listen for a while. It really relaxes me.
CFR: What is your favourite field recording equipment?
That’s a tough question. As a freelancer, I’ve been slowly acquiring gear from the bottom of the pile, so it always seems like there’s probably something better out there. I do a lot of different types of recordings, from single species (shotgun, Audio Technica AT897 or parabola with DIY Primo EM–172s), to soundscape (Audio Technica AT2022 or DIY Primo EM–172s), to ultrasonic (Dodotronics Ultramic 200k), to underwater (JrF hydrophone). With the exception of the Ultramic, everything is fed into a Sony PCM-M10. The Ultramic is a USB mic, and I’m currently feeding it into a Samsung Galaxy S3, although I’ll probably upgrade to an iPad soon. If money were not an object, the kit would be slightly different. I still have the Zoom H4n, but seldom use it, as the pre-amps are too noisy.
I started making my own mics with the Primo EM–172 capsules, not only because I like making stuff, but also the flexibility in mic housing. I created one stereo pair using pen caps that are great for using in “tree ears” fashion. I also fit two capsules side-by-side in the side of a wooden dowel, with some threaded stock on the end of the dowel (twice, so there’s two capsules per channel). This has turned out to be a very versatile set of mics that can easily be adapted to a spaced or barrier array or used in a parabola.
CFR: Why is it your favourite (perhaps as compared to other kits you may have tested)?
Quiet pre-amps and mics are the holy grail of the nature recordist. Even for research purposes, it’s much easier to study the squiggles on a spectrogram if there’s not a lot of background noise. In addition, I hike into some of the spots I record, so I want the lightest kit I can find, as I’m also carrying water, clothing, and a DSLR. So my gear has to be light, quiet, and cheap. If cost were no object, some gear might change, but it’s hard to beat a couple of Primo capsules into a PCM-M10 for a very portable soundscape kit.
CFR: Can you share a favourite experience or field recording you made using this kit?
For recording wildlife, I find it really helps to be out of the picture. Our presence has a huge impact on wildlife behavior, and many animals, including insects, mammals and birds, will stop their vocalizing (or stridulating) if we get too close. So I like to leave my mics behind and either take a hike for a couple of hours, or wait out of sight at least 100 meters away. It often takes the birds at least 20 minutes to settle down and get back to what they were doing, and you can really tell this in the recordings.
In this recording, I had hiked into a mountain range in Arizona, near the US-Mexico border, to record some birds. The access road into the canyon had washed out, so I was the only one there. I attached my EM–172s on either side of a small oak tree, not far from a dirt jeep trail and small creek. I hiked on up the canyon, out of sight, and watched the birds and butterflies for about an hour.
When I got back home and listened to the recording, I was surprised to hear the sounds of a mama black bear with at least one cub. In the recording, you can hear the mama bear huffing, and jump into a tree. My guess is that she detected my scent near the recorder. I’m glad she didn’t get too curious about the gear.
Many thanks to Christine Hass for describing her gear selections and nature recording experiences!
Quick Links: Christine Hass’ Kit
- Primo EM–172 electret condenser microphone.
- Audio Technica AT897 line + gradient shotgun condenser microphone.
- Audio Technica AT2022 stereo electret condenser microphone.
- Dodotronics Ultramic 200k
- JrF hydrophone.
- Sony PCM-M10 portable stereo recorder with omnidirectional electret condenser microphones.
- Samsung Galaxy S3.
- Zoom H4n portable stereo audio recorder with electret condenser microphones.
- Visit Christine’s Wild Mountain Echoes website and store.
- Follow her on SoundCloud.
- Visit her Facebook page.
- Find some of her field recordings on the Nature Sound Map website.
Read more about the A Month of Field Recordists series.