It’s a strange paradox. The most beautiful natural landscapes can produce an insurmountable problem for field recordists: noise. Yes, visiting tundra, grasslands, or moors provide stunning vistas. As we’ve seen in previous articles in this series, many of these places are quiet. They push field recording gear to its limits. The result? The tranquility of these places battles with noise from equipment, the location, and more.
Today’s guest has travelled across America recording wildlife sounds. Thomas Rex Beverly has captured sound from the Pacific Northwest to the Northern Rockies to Texas and from places in between. He has evoked the spirit of these environments through forest, desert, temperate rainforest, and other field recordings. His sound libraries have earned him great respect in the community.
What I found particularly interesting is the way Thomas classifies his recordings: many sound libraries are organized as active nature and quiet nature. That’s a compelling way to think about the challenge of recording wildlife soundscapes. After all, technique will vary between an active atmosphere and a quiet one. It’s especially important when capturing the subtle ambiences in nature.
With this in mind, I reached out to Thomas Rex Beverly to learn his thoughts about the difference. He graciously agreed to explain his ideas for recording nature soundscapes.
Today’s post shares his tips for managing noise in the field, for avoiding noise while considering ambient activity, and thought-provoking guidelines for working with sounds after they arrive in the edit suite.
Let’s learn more.
Creative Field Recording: Many people new to field recording ask how to record quiet sounds. Can you share your experience with recording and mastering subtle wildlife soundscapes?
Thomas Rex Beverly: Recording natural soundscapes is challenging and wonderful art form. There are many facets to capturing beautiful nature sounds, but let’s start by taking a look at post production. In my field recording mastering rules, I outline how I deal with hardware noise and human-generated sounds when mastering nature field recordings.
Field Recording Mastering Rules
Natural Soundscape = A pristine soundscape devoid of all human-generated sound. This term is used by both myself, Andy Martin, and others.
I believe in preserving nature sounds so I work tirelessly to discover locations where true natural soundscapes can still be heard. Since I work to preserve endangered natural soundscapes, I want the listener to hear the sounds as if they were present themselves.
- Rule 1: Field recordings including any human-generated sounds (i.e., planes, cars, and distant generators) must be thrown out. These sounds cannot be removed in Izotope’s RX.
- Rule 2: Excision of human-generated sounds from long recordings and subsequent crossfading is not allowed. If a section is removed, then the sounds must edited as two shorter clips.
- Rule 3: Sounds made by the field recordist can be removed such as handling noise, stomach gurgles, clothing sounds, etc. Also, sounds made by minor gear malfunctions may be removed.
- Rule 4: De-plosive, Spectral Repair, and Dynamic EQ (with a low shelf filter) can be used to reduce low wind energy.
- Rule 5: Limited use of high and low shelf filters is acceptable to reduce noise floor hiss, but never when sounds are present in those frequencies.
- Rule 6: Noise reduction is never allowed.
- Rule 7: Mark recordings as “natural soundscapes”, or list what was removed in the Soundminer “notes” metadata field.
These rules are my humble opinions and are not meant to be universal to all field recordists. I am just striving for clarity in how I master my field recordings.
I follow my rules as much as possible, but occasionally I break them. If a human-generated sound was removed from a clip, it is marked in the Soundminer “notes” metadata field. For example, I might break my rules when I can easily remove a distant generator from an otherwise amazing clip of a Roosevelt Elk bugling. That said, if a recording has had a human-generated sound removed, I think it is imperative not to portray it as natural soundscape. For example, the chart below shows how I notate each change in the metadata:
CFR: What would you say is the biggest thing that contributes to noise in nature recordings?
TRB: The self-noise level of the microphone and the quality of the preamp in the recorder are the main hardware factors. Look back at George Vlad’s interview for an excellent overview of how non-hardware factors like wind, humidity, sound source density, and many other factors can affect the perceived amount of noise in your recordings.
How to Record Natural Soundscapes with Minimal Noise – General Tips
General Process: My process for recording with low hardware noise is pretty straightforward. I record with high-end gear with low self-noise: Sound Devices 702 and Sennheiser MKH 8040s in ORTF (13 dBA self-noise) or Sennheiser MKH 50 and 30 in MS (12 and 13 dBA self-noise). Then, when mastering, I follow my field recording mastering rules.
Thresholds for Gear Choices: My threshold for recording loud soundscapes: microphones with approximately 23 dBA of self-noise and preamps equivalent to a Sound Devices 702. This rule comes from my use of DPA 4060s. Also, the 4060s have a lower sensitivity rating, so they are better choices for loud, close-up subjects.
My threshold for quiet soundscapes: microphones with approximately 13 dBA of self-noise and preamps equivalent to a Sound Devices 702. This rule comes from my use of the Sennheiser 8000 Series. The MKH 8000 series not only have a low self-noise, but they have a high sensitivity rating ideal for picking up details from far-field without those details being buried in the mic’s self-noise.
Know your microphone self-noise levels. I have a pair of DPA 4060s that I love, but they have 23 dBA of self-noise. So, I never use them to record quiet soundscapes. I only use them for things like thunder, rain, or high winds. Attempts to record quiet sounds with the 4060s has yielded disappointing and unusable results.
General Tips: The noisy sound of light wind or distant soothing water can help reduce the perception of noise floor by adding some natural noise from the environment to the recording. So, if you don’t have the ideal hardware, look for those spots in extremely quiet environments.
If you recorded something too quiet for your current rig, don’t de-noise. Generally, it will suck the life out of the recording. Set it aside and focus on louder soundscapes if you don’t have the high-end rig for quiet soundscapes.
Scout out different environments and test your current rig. Find environments with decibel levels that leave you with a usable recording without de-noising. I recommend using a decibel meter app to measure levels in environments where your current rig performs well. Then, use those decibel readings to find more locations where your gear will excel.
Sometimes, nature soundscapes can be recorded with noisier hardware, for example, a tropical dawn chorus. If the environment has a higher decibel level, then noisier (and cheaper) hardware can be used for recording. I’ve recorded louder soundscapes using my Sony PCM-D100, which has too much hardware noise for ultra-quiet sounds.
Lower Budget Solutions: If you don’t have the money for Sennheiser 8000s series microphones, try out cheaper options like Line Audio CM3s (16 dBA self-noise). While I don’t own a pair myself, I hear great things about them, and they are very affordable.
Another option is large diaphragm condenser microphones. They can be cheaper and have as low as 5 dBA of self-noise. However, note that wind protection and portability are challenges when using these larger microphones.
Ask for My Help: Feel free to reach out on Twitter (@trexbeverly) and ask for help! Have a recording you’ve made and don’t know if it is too noisy to sell? Have more questions about nature recording? I’d be happy to help. 🙂
There’s a ton of grey area between low-end and high-end recording gear and it is often very hard to navigate the infinite possibilities of gear choices. Feel free to reach out. I’m always excited to help beginning field recordists, and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction for your needs. I hope to help you avoid getting bogged down by gear choices and get out to do what we all love: recording in the field.
Thomas shared some examples of his nature sound libraries:
You can see my full gear list here.
Many thanks to Thomas Rex Beverly for sharing his insight and technique.
- Read Thomas Rex Beverly’s field recording blog.
- Visit his Web shop.
- Follow him on Twitter.
- Hear his field recordings on Soundcloud.