There’s one tricky aspect about nature field recording that’s not often discussed: distance.
Imagine you’re recording in foothills alongside a forested mountain. The wind picks up. You need to move into the shelter of the trees. It’s a half hour walk to get into the right position. When you’re there, you hear a woodpecker drumming in the distance. The problem? It’s across a chasm on the hillside.
Unlike their urban counterparts, nature recordists often need to travel large distances to evade noise, find shelter, or track down elusive sounds. Many nature recordists will tell you it’s what they love about recording in the wild. Just the same, many wouldn’t turn down an offer to save a bit of time.
Equipment can’t do too much to deal with a distant refinery or a sudden hailstorm. However, there is an important tool that is used to bring wildlife subjects into greater focus: the parabolic microphone. Today’s post will review one popular offering by American manufacturer Wildtronics.
Catching Up with Parabolic Recordings
This review is two years late.
I had first started learning about parabolic dishes in 2015. Prompted by intriguing field recordings by Tim Prebble and Daan Hendriks and a review by fieldrecording.de writer Sebastian-Thies Hinrichsen, I explored the market for parabolic microphones here on the blog.
Parabolic microphone offerings are generally divided into pricey sports broadcast versions and a few models for field recordists. That makes sense, of course; parabolic field recording is a specialized technique. A parabolic reflector dish isn’t something you can stow in your daily backpack as you walk around town. Even taking one into the wilderness requires preparation. So, field recording with a parabolic dish tends to be a conscious, deliberate decision both in gear choices and the subjects recordists pursue. Parabolic field recording is a specialized practice.
The market’s gear offerings reflect that. For years, Telinga was the name most field recordists were familiar with, in part due to Prebble and Hendricks’ field recordings. People also had mentioned the discontinued sub-$100 Sony parabolic reflector as a starter option. It was not widely known at the time, but Ohio-based Wildtronics also offered a range of reflectors that targeted the middle of the market.
I got in touch with Wildtronics owner Bruce Rutkoski while researching the article. Later, I asked if I could demo a dish. He kindly loaned me a All Purpose Parabolic in mid-2017. Unfortunately, opportunity called, and very shortly after the box arrived on my doorstep, I packed up everything I had and moved permanently to South-East Asia. I hastily returned the dish to Rutkoski with my apologies.
Thankfully, I was lucky to be able to take the All Purpose dish for a spin before I left. So, today, I’ll give an overview of Wildtronics, and the dishes they offer. I’ll discuss my thoughts on the reflector, what it got right, where I feel the gear could grow, and share field recordings I captured in an urban ravine on a mist-filled morning.
- Introduction to Wildtronics parabolic microphones.
- Unboxing gallery.
- Parabolic microphone field recording results.
Introduction to Wildtronics Parabolic Microphones
Wildtronics offer no less than 7 parabolic reflector dish microphones. When I first discovered the company, I was a bit confused by the product line.
In reality, the offerings break down into dishes that come with a microphone, and those that need an external one supplied.
The dishes with microphones include both mono and three-channel mono-plus-stereo options, both of which are offered with and without low-noise preamps. These all-in-one models are meant to get field recordists up and outdoors quickly. They’re also known for their flexibility to output via XLR or 3.5 mm to portable recorders as well, complete with built-in headphone monitoring.
For those that want to bring their own microphones, the Pro Universal ($599) and All Purpose ($350-$400) are the best choices. (There’s also a 11.5-inch Pro Mini ($179-225).) The difference? The Pro Universal uses a booster amplification system. The All Purpose and the Mini can also use Wildtronics Amplified Omni Microphone which is tailor-made to work with their dishes ($249). Wildtronics’ Micro Mic PiP ($75) and Micro Mic XLR ($80) are other options.
Here’s a PDF that breaks down the product line in a chart.
I selected an All Purpose Parabolic. It wasn’t long before the dish arrived at my door.
The Wildtronics All Purpose Parabolic was shipped in a very large box. The hardware was stored tightly in a smaller box within the larger one, with the dish tucked inside.
The All Purpose Parabolic dish features a polycarbonate 22-inch (55.88 cm) dish. In general, larger dishes allow greater gain and are more receptive to recording lower frequency sounds. The dish I received was transparent, a better choice than the optional “black ops” version if you’d like to see the targets you’re aiming at. The dish is flexible, and in fact arrives in a large box slightly bowed. It can be bent and folded a reasonable amount and will still spring back into its original shape.
Packed along with the dish is a surprising amount of hardware. A plastic disk mounts at the back of the dish and allows connecting the handle, microphone mounting apparatus, and windscreen frame. There are also microphone width adapters and fabric and foam windscreens included as well. The hardware is mostly metal and thick plastic. All of it was more durable than I expected.
Assembling the Dish
There’s a photocopied booklet included that explains how to assemble everything. The process is complex. While the manual does provide images, the written instructions are provided in block-paragraph format and are a bit of a challenge to understand. Bullet points or numbered instructions would go a long way to making the steps more understandable. So, make sure you set aside some time for this task; if you’re impatient like I was, you’ll find yourself quickly becoming frustrated.
In the end, the process includes:
- Attaching a back plate to the dish.
- Connecting the handle.
- Aligning a microphone in the grey plastic microphone tube.
- Inserting the microphone tube into the back plate.
- Installing the optional windscreen frame.
While the dish’s mounting system is flexible and can arrange microphones pointing outwards, typically the microphone is mounted pointed towards the dish. Positioning is critical; improper alignment drastically affects the sound. The grey plastic microphone tube is scored with marks to guide proper placement. Aligning a microphone inside it is the most finicky part, and is actually quite important for finding the microphone’s ideal focal point. XLR cables are run through the backplate, out a small hole in the central column, alongside the microphone, and connect its back. The entire apparatus can be covered with a stretchable windsock across an optional windscreen frame.
Once assembled, however, your patience will be rewarded. The entire kit is incredibly lightweight, sturdy, and comfortable to hold and use.
Parabolic Microphone Field Recording Results
So, how did the Wildtronics All Purpose Parabolic perform in the field? First, it’s important to learn how parabolic microphones work, and how microphone selection affects the results.
Using a Parabolic Dish in the Field
Parabolic microphones are sensitive to sounds in one direction. The dish gathers the audio and focuses it towards the omnidirectional microphone in its centre. That doesn’t mean the reflectors completely ignore the sound on either side. Some audio outside the dish’s “ray” will still be heard, but at a diminished volume.
Another important thing to note is that parabolic field recording is not capable of full fidelity recordings. Why? Well, lower-spectrum sound waves are quite large. At 20 Hz, they are about 17 meters across. So, to capture them accurately, you’d need a dish at least that big. At around 56 centimetres, the Wildtronics dish (or any other field recording reflector, for that matter) isn’t capable of capturing low end with precision. This isn’t really a flaw with parabolic dishes per se – it’s a fact bound by physics.
Parabolic dishes are remarkable just the same. They are able to capture mid- to high-frequency sounds clearly even from substantial distances. Since the dish collects some frequencies better than others, success depends on the voice of your subject. As Wildtronics notes:
A bird with a 2 kHz voice will appear almost 20 times closer, and an insect or bird with a 5 kHz voice will appear 40 times closer, so good results can be obtained with distances up to 500 feet!
Choosing a Microphone
Parabolic reflectors work best with omnidirectional microphones. They capture sound from all directions, making them a perfect match for receiving the reflections from the bowl of the parabolic dish.
What microphone is best? It’s best to choose one with low-self noise. Why?
All audio equipment has some degree of self-noise inherent to their electrical components. When this noise nears the level of the subject, you’ll hear more noise from the gear than the bird you’re trying to record! Other factors, such as wind, leaves rustling, and the environment itself contribute noise as well.
Wildtronics lists selected omni microphones, their price and self noise. The chart also shows if the secondary windscreen accessory can be wrapped around the microphone, and which adapter sleeve is needed for the microphone’s thickness.
I was interested in controlling as much of the sound as I could to get a clearer picture of the dish’s capabilities. That way, I would use the amplification from a respected Sound Devices MixPre-6 and a microphone whose sound I trusted: Audio-Technica’s AT4022 ($349). This was one reason I chose the All Purpose Parabolic as opposed their all-in-one parabolic and microphone combos. What’s more, that would keep the recorder and dish under $1000, a fair price for beginners interested in trying parabolic field recording for the first time.
During the summer of 2017 I was staying in a town in Ontario, Canada. It’s a dense province. Finding a truly quiet spot would take hours of driving. In a way, this worked to my advantage. By recording in an urban centre, I would be able to gauge how well the dish would pick up both natural and urban audio, and discover its ability to reject city sounds.
I woke at 4 a.m. and headed to a forest on the outskirts of town.
Note: the following recordings are completely unmastered.
Note: you are welcome to download and experiment with the full resolution clips. Please do not distribute them, even for free.
While most people use parabolic microphones to record birds, insects, or wildlife, others have found they’re useful for recording vehicles. The idea is that a parabolic microphone allows focusing on a moving subject and rejecting other sounds around it. I began by recording some isolated car passes:
One thing that is apparent from the recordings is the lack of handling noise. The dish didn’t transmit any grip movement or motion into the recording.
I tried the dish with other random effects. Here’s a recording of water rushing deep below in a sewer, aimed through a sewer grate:
Aiming the parabolic at a slow-moving stream trickling over some rocks:
In the previous take, I aimed directly at water flowing over some rocks. You can hear the detailed tricks from the stream. Before I focused, though, I had more general aim:
Notice how the detail vanishes, and how present the city becomes in the recording. It’s interesting to notice how aim and the background behind the subject affects parabolic recording.
The dish’s most provocative results occurred when recording insects and birds. Now, remember I’m in an urban park. There will be ambient city noise. You can expect better results in the wild. Just the same, the results were interesting.
A soft insect bed lay over the entire ravine. So, anywhere you turned, a cricket drone blanketed the park.
Here is a general cricket bed with ratcheting, and a few isolated trills:
It’s soft, but the details are promising. Again, aim was important. I was pointing the microphone in a general area, about 10-15 meters away. Moving a few meters to one side picked up a very distant hospital vent which intrudes on the insects with a dull roar:
Again, this shows what is behind a parabolic dish’s subject is significant.
With better aim, though, more details appear:
And, once I was able to target a single insect, some amazing tones emerged (around 0:15). These are from some insects closer than 2 meters:
If you envision recording in a more natural environment without city drone, you can imagine how results would improve. In fact, just a quick pass of the SIE-Q plug-in improves the track quite a bit:
Without the traffic rumble, you can imagine how the parabolic would perform in the wilderness.
The insects were easy targets. They didn’t move around much. Finding good bird cries were more difficult. I had hoped to catch the sound of a dawn chorus. However, the park was mostly empty. After a while, a few Blue Jays woke. A small group of them had nested in some tall trees.
My first attempts weren’t too great; there was a road behind the tree:
All the same, the nest was easily 15 meters distant and 10 meters in the air. From the recording, you would think they are much closer. The parabolic was able to focus quite well on their distant cries.
I rotated around the tree so the road was behind me:
Overlook the poor recording location for a moment. It’s clear the background is pretty grimy. Consider instead the detail. You’ll notice you can hear smaller details, such as stepping on the branches, and wing movement. It’s astounding how much detail the mic picked up from so far away.
Now, there’s a tone in there, and some city rumble. With a bit of EQ and de-noising, we can approximate how it would sound in the wild:
And here I’ve touched up the medium distant bird calls:
Obviously, your results will be much better in a quieter location. Still, the urban recordings were revealing. They show how powerful the reach of the Wildtronics parabolic microphone can be, and the importance of being mindful to one’s surroundings.
It was interesting to note that the focus wasn’t too rigid. Your aim can wobble a bit and still capture a satisfying recording. Tracking animals was the same; it was easy to follow a bird hopping from branch to branch without damaging the recording.
Parabolic field recording is incredibly fun. I had a great morning wandering and aiming the dish to try to find cool sounds. But what were my thoughts on the Wildtronics microphone itself?
- The dish is well made. It is durable.
- The cushioned handle is comfortable to hold, even for extended periods of time.
- The dish is light. I never became tired of holding it.
- There was very little handling noise.
- The foam windscreen is sufficient for typical recording.
- Despite the challenge of the urban environment, I was impressed with the dish’s considerable reach.
- Sound quality. Together with the Audio-Technica AT4022 and the Sound Devices MixPre-6, I found I didn’t need to crank the gain, and little-to-no noise was introduced into the recording.
- Portability. Carrying the disk through many locations can be cumbersome. Need to adjust your recorder, or dig a battery out of a bag? You’ll need to set the awkward dish aside to get anything done. Of course, this isn’t the fault of Wildtronics, and it’s a hassle for any kind of pistol grip or boom pole. Just the same, I would suggest taking advantage of the parabolic’s shoulder strap to make life easier.
- Assembly instructions. The manual could benefit from clearer and more detailed instructions.
- Website. Wildtronics’ online presence could also benefit from refinement and simplification. Finding the right model can be challenging. Wildtronics have told me a website refresh is in the works so this will be addressed in the future.
My thanks to Wildtronics for loaning my the All Purpose Parabolic for this review.
- Visit the Wildtronics website.
- Find them on Facebook.
- Wildtronics explains the science behind parabolic accuracy.