Dead Kitten windshield on my Sony PCM-M10 recorder,
which is on a Hama Mini Tripod.
In June 2012 I bought my first sound recorder - a Sony PCM-M10. As a complete novice, I set out to make my own natural soundscape recordings, learning as I went. In reality, though, I had already listened to many natural soundscape recordings by other people and become aware of the issues that many of them had addressed or needed to address, and thus I had already learnt quite a lot in 'armchair' mode before I ever got my first recorder. In any case, as a (classical) composer I was already well experienced in thinking carefully about what I was doing when setting up interestingly balanced and satisfying configurations of sounds, so really natural soundscape recording was just an extension from what I had already been doing some years before.
'Expertise' is a relative thing, and I prefer to keep clear of the term 'expert' relating to me or indeed others; I simply do the best I know how or can work out how, and learn from my 'errors' and unexpected or indeed unwanted outcomes, and, in the process, have usually obtained recordings that have greatly pleased me (and indeed others if my usually 5-star ratings in Freesound.org are anything to go by).
Anyone else, if they are willing to use their 'grey matter' and think about what they are doing, similarly could quickly get making excellent natural soundscape recordings, without significant recourse to supposed 'experts'.
What I am presenting below is NOT intended to be regarded as any sort of comprehensive guide or handbook, but simply some tips that some people (mostly but not all novices) may find helpful - that is all.
Some really basic considerations
Be as clear as possible about what sort of sounds you want, and their perspective and relationships to each other within a recording. Then you can be purposeful in choosing recording sites and recorder / microphone placements. This obviously improves with experience, so you help yourself greatly by auditioning your recordings critically as though you were somebody else - a complete stranger - coming to each respective recording for the first time ("Now, what might I do differently if I were this recordist?, etc....").
Microphones. For natural soundscapes, generally a microphone setup with a wide acceptance angle is best, as this gets a really spacious sound-stage in any recordings. The Sony PCM-M10 internal microphones are not only of excellent quality (to a point) but also give wide coverage*, so if you want to travel light as I do, with a minimum of additional equipment, this model has a lot to recommend it for natural soundscapes. Naturally, for 'solo' recordings of birds, or interviews with people, that recorder would need an external microphone of suitable, more directional type to be plugged in.
* Actually many sources describe its mics as 'omnidirectional', but I should emphasize here that they are not genuinely so. Probably something like 'wide-field cardioid' would be about the best description. If they were genuinely omnidirectional, without some sort of baffle between them they would give an even less effective stereo image than they do. (For my critical comments about their stereo image, please see my comments on the PCM-D100 much further below.)
Another consideration is the type of microphone configuration. For natural soundscapes one thing to avoid is the crossed, X/Y configuration, such as you would find in the current Zoom recorders. The problem with that configuration is that it is used in an attempt to eliminate the natural phase difference that your ears would hear from any specific sound source that is not exactly central in the soundstage. That may be good for making mono recordings or subsequent mono reductions, but it would actually greatly reduce the natural spaciousness and realism of a three-dimensional soundscape such as we are interested in here, and in particular would make listening with headphones a particularly horrible, unnatural-sounding experience.
Ideally the microphones should be separated by the normal distance between a person's ears, and indeed with an object the size and shape of a human head filling that space, with the microphones pointing at a similar angle to that of our own ears. In practice, of course, most of us would not be wanting to cart around an artificial head, and indeed I, for one, cannot even justify the extra weight and space taken up in my pack to be carrying just the requisite two external microphones. However, even with the internal microphones of my little Sony PCM-M10 the little bit of separation between those would be a vast improvement on the 'same axis' X/Y configuration of the Zoom models and no doubt some other makes of recorder.
On the face of it, Ambisonics would be the best setup of all - though, having looked at the configuration of Ambisonics soundfield microphone setups, I see that they do not separate the individual microphone units within the overall capsule, so they would most likely lose something important that a straightforward stereo setup gives, because they would be unable to record the phase difference that we hear from non-central sounds.
I was impressed by the great spaciousness and apparent realism that is achieved in many people's recordings made using the M-S (mid-side) microphone arrangement, and was hankering after doing this myself (necessarily using external microphones). However, when I researched further I found that, as I expected from my own reasoning, M-S encoding simply doesn't make sense if you want an accurate representation of what you heard. The M-S method actually gives you a FALSE, reconstituted impression of stereo, which has lost a lot of the original stereo details (because it doesn't record left and right separately). I also found that recordings that were converted from M-S into stereo were nonsensical when listened to with headphones. Whereas the stereo image tended to be bigger than the space between the speakers (good!), through headphones the stereo image was remarkably two-dimensional, centred bang in the middle of one's head! Impressive, yes, but a grotesque distortion of what the actual recorded subject sounded like 'in the flesh'. M-S would be a valid system ONLY if instead of a bi-directional mic for 'side', a wide-angled proper stereo pair were used. Then, post-processing, one could adjust the balance between the stereo image and the central mono image.
Windshield. I carried out a comparative test between four makes of suitable type and size, and came out with a clear winner, the Røde Dead Kitten. It is essential to use such a windshield when recording outdoors, because even small breaths of wind cause microphone disturbance, at least for the recorder's internal microphones, and a very modest wind indeed will very readily cause gross clipping of the waveform - i.e., overloading and consequent distortion.
Using the Dead Kitten, I find that I rarely get intrusive microphone wind noise with wind strength below force 5 on the Beaufort scale. However, I note that for a given wind strength I get significantly more disturbance with the recorder facing more or less into the wind, so I seek to keep the recorder's back to the wind as much as reasonably possible. However, how much wind noise is considered acceptable is going to differ between recordists and of course the types of content that they are recording, so you need to find out for yourself how much wind is (un)acceptable for your purposes.
Correct significant frequency response anomalies with a graphic equalization curve in a suitable sound file editor. I use a batch operation ('effect chain') in Audacity for all my new recordings, using a saved graphic equalization curve that corrects for a slight muffling of the recording caused by the windshield. I carefully worked out the curve to use, assisted by the plug-in program Span from Voxengo, which is the best free graphical frequency spectrum analyser that I have yet come upon.
However, please do not fall into the trap that I did, of actually correcting for frequency response peaks or troughs in your own listening setup, blaming those on the recorder! The need is to use the most accurate (as distinct from pleasing-to-listen-to) listening gear. The vast majority of 'hi-fi' speaker systems are configured for some sort of 'pleasing' response, as were my very nice Castle Harlech speakers. You need a linear response, which is approached by genuine 'monitor' quality listening gear.
My own correction curve for use in Audacity on all new files to compensate for the slight muffling caused by the Røde Dead Kitten windshield. The data needs to be inserted in a file called EQCurves.xml, which in my case (in Windows 8) is in the path: C:\Users\Philip\AppData\Roaming\Audacity\. Change the curve name to whatever is most helpful for you to identify it. Please note that this may need modifying for your own purposes, or indeed a totally new curve might need to be constructed; it is simply what has worked best for me so far. For other sound file editors, most likely you would need to convert the format of the data for them, and I suspect in most cases they would not recognise such precision. The first data on each line is the frequency in Hz, and the second is the amplitude change setting in dB. Actually I very much doubt whether any of the decimal places beyond the first are significant for practical purposes (though the second might be significant at the very bottom end), so I'm a bit mystified as to why the format uses 12 places!
Please note that this is a revised version, uploaded on 1 March 2014, for I have removed the part of the curve that had actually been correcting for my Castle Harlech speakers and not genuinely for my recorder as I had been assuming up to just a few days before.
<point f="7000.000000000000" d="0.500000000000"/>
<point f="7969.000000000000" d="1.000000000000"/>
<point f="10000.000000000000" d="3.000000000000"/>
<point f="11108.000000000000" d="3.700000000000"/>
<point f="12000.000000000000" d="4.000000000000"/>
<point f="15000.000000000000" d="4.000000000000"/>
<point f="21000.000000000000" d="3.500000000000"/>
<point f="22194.000000000000" d="3.800000000000"/>
That equates to the following curve:
Transferring the above curve to WavePad - In 2016 I upgraded my copy of WavePad and found that at last that program stores custom EQ curves, which it did not when I set up my new-soundfile processing procedures. It's a bit awkward to transfer the curve data, because WavePad stores it in the Registry. However, it was not really difficult to do, so that I did not have to set up the curves from scratch in that program. I note, however, that WavePad takes much longer to apply an EQ curve to a file than Audacity does. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the slower speed might be associated with using a better, less sound-degrading process than the Audacity uses, so I would not go out of my way to use the faster option just for the sake of the speed.
Be prepared to embrace the unexpected and serendipity! In my experience, particular field recording sessions often don't come up with what I thought I was after, and I ended up, often quite dubiously, recording something else instead, which I had not previously thought to record. More often than not, such recordings have turned out to be real gems. If I had simply stuck to my original intention I would in most of those cases have returned empty-handed and with a sense of failure, whereas, with my more open-minded approach, each recording outing has been something of a joyful adventure, in the vast majority of occasions providing me with something new and wonderful.
On my latest outing while writing this note, I set out to a rugged bit of far Cornish coast path, aiming to record seals on a rock island known as Seal Island - but the seals weren't performing. Instead, just a little further along I came upon some fantastic blowhole activity at the foot of the cliffs, and got some beautiful and indeed quite spectacular recordings of that, which I hadn't been expecting at all.
Placement for optimal sound balance...
What is good balance anyway? Generally speaking, there is no single 'right' answer as to what constitutes 'correct' balance in a recording, because it all depends what you are after. What may look to be a 'failed' or poor recording from one perspective or for one particular purpose may actually be a brilliant recording from a different perspective. For example, when I set out to record wind chimes high up in the Teign Gorge on 30 January 2013, I found that a gale was blowing - far too strong to record in, and where I found some shelter the chimes' sound was still often drowned out by the roaring of the gale through the trees nearby, so I was getting to feel a bit despondent about that. But then it dawned on me that actually chimes recordings in that workably sheltered situation would be wonderful and spectacular recordings of a gale in the valley woods, with wind chimes going in and out of focus as the roaring gusts came and went - and indeed I did persist and make a series of recordings, which actually turned out wonderful and spectacular.
Different perspectives on a location - In many situations it can be worthwhile making more than one recording of a particular soundscape, with different balance / perspective - in particular, some element of the soundscape more to the fore, or less so. I bought a second recorder so that I could make a concurrent pair of recordings with different perspectives, or indeed, if far enough apart, one with wind chimes and the other without.
Sea hissiness - I have found that sea or other very 'active' water with a strong white noise element in its sound is usually best not recorded at all close, unless there is some form of screening that subdues the hissiness, which latter is hard on the ears for extended listening, and which obscures all sorts of details that one would normally want to hear in a natural soundscape, including bird sounds. This is NOT something you can usefully correct afterwards, because you would simply muffle the overall sound, which is not at all what to aim for as it would lose detail and impart a dullness to the recording. The point of shielding from the main part of the sea hissiness is that you can then hear a whole lot of details that are otherwise masked by the hiss, and those details need all their high frequencies intact in order to be heard properly.
So, if I'm recording sea sound, usually my best recordings are a bit back from the edge of a clifftop, just enough to keep the recorder out of direct line of sight of the noisy bits of the sea. Generally that does not lose detail in the sea sound unless the recorder is particularly heavily shielded from the sea, and indeed actually greatly increases the detail because of the subduing of the obscuring blanket of hissiness. However, if the clifftop from which one is recording is quite high, one's distance from the sound source may well be enough to attenuate the hissiness enough anyway, so that shielding could then be counter-productive (but again, depending on exactly what one is after).
Manage the relative distance from the recorder of different specific sound sources. - When I am recording more than one set of wind chimes (always in a natural soundscape), I find that I need to keep aware of which sets of chimes have the more penetrating and 'carrying' power, for they need to be placed further from the recorder than those with a more genteel sound. Thus my Music of the Spheres Gypsy chimes need to be placed well back from the recorder, and, at the other extreme, my smaller Woodstock chimes need to be closest - though with rather an exception for the Chimes of Mars, which have a particularly shrill and penetrating tone, and thus need to be placed just a bit further back than the other small chimes.
Think about the stereo soundstage, and position the recorder to get the best out of, e.g., birds that seem to be answering each other across a valley or between different trees, or simply flying about in a flock. A flock of jackdaws or brent geese having a flyabout and coming overhead is a wonderful sound in a recording, and I have found choughs particularly delightful because of their aerobatic flying and their really zingy calls from one to another.
Authenticity and informality
Edit out or keep in? No rule nor 'received wisdom' can inform you properly about this, for exactly what you edit out or keep in is bound to depend on your particular intentions for the 'finished' recording. However, I do get the impression that there are a lot of recordists out there who appear to be 'expert' and very tech-savvy, and yet who upload to sites like Freesound.org remarkably rough and 'unfinished' recordings. A good start is to cut out the bits at beginning and end (and anywhere else) where you yourself have disturbed the recording. That includes not only 'handling noise' but also any of your body noises, and sounds made by your camera when photographing the recording setup.
For my own natural soundscape recordings, generally I cut out all bits with people's voices, dogs barking, aeroplanes, farm machinery, intrusive sound of people's footsteps passing by, and some motorboats out at sea. Sensible flexibility greatly helps, though, and I do sometimes leave in the odd very quiet distant aeroplane, which can sometimes add a little extra perspective to a peaceful natural soundscape, and I tend to regard reasonably distant and quiet motorboats in that sort of light and keep them in. I always regard bumblebees and other insects flying by as a very welcome part of the soundscape, but I edit out all but the very quietest of the little clicks I often get, caused by small hard insects - I think mostly beetles - colliding with or falling onto the recorder.
The place of wind sound in natural soundscapes - As already remarked, microphone wind noise, and indeed the sound of wind in the trees or whatever, can be a very effective and and pleasant part of a soundscape - the microphone wind noise, if softened by a furry windshield, often sounding like the wind in your ears and thus improving rather than detracting from the recording's authenticity of effect. While I understand that recordists will vary widely as to how much microphone wind noise is acceptable to them, I do think that many recordists of natural soundscapes tend to go too far, and actually diminish their recordings, by always using impressive-looking big Blimp furry windshields, which undoubtedly give a 'professional' look to their operations (hey, a bit of social status, what!) but actually remove something of the authenticity of their recordings - no more so than when they are actually recording windy soundscapes! I myself have found most wind recordings that I have downloaded remarkably unsatisfying, because their lack of any microphone wind noise makes the recorded wind sound seem remote and almost artificial, lacking in a proper sense of perspective.
Beginnings and endings - Abrupt beginnings / ends, typically also with some handling noise and other disturbances, are a real turn-off for the listener, and inform him that the recordist doesn't care a toss (whether or not the latter is really exactly the case!). Clip off from your recording all audible traces of your handling and retreat from or approaching the recorder, and then, use the Fade In or Fade Out functions in your sound file editor to give a smooth beginning and end. I personally have settled on a 3-second fade-in at the beginning and a 6-second fade-out at the end. Raw, 'unfinished' beginnings and ends may be authentic in the sense that they are part of the record of the recording session, but they are NOT part of the natural soundscape that you are recording! So, a genuinely authentic recording of a natural soundscape requires that you remove as much as possible that gets in the way of experiencing the full authenticity of that soundscape - and that certainly includes anything like rough beginnings and ends, which draw attention to you and the recorder.
Add at least 3 seconds' silence to the end of each recording. Although this isn't essential, generally it is good practice. That, then, would ensure that any CD compilations of your recordings have at least a reasonable 'settling time' gap between tracks, even where you've neglected to set a suitable 'pre gap' duration in your CD burning software. Still longer gap times can be very helpful for the best listening experience. Indeed, for classical music CDs, my preferred gap times between tracks are 6 seconds between movements of a work, and 10 to 12 seconds between whole works. Running tracks together end-to-end may be fashionable, but it does not make for aware and healthy listening, and makes the whole listening experience relatively dull and fatiguing.
Keep yourself out of the recordings! - In other words, once you've started the recording, get well away from it, and preferably behind it so that any sounds you do make would be less likely to be picked up.
Make long recordings! - Whenever practicable, make recordings of half an hour or longer. Indeed, most of the time I regard 30 minutes as being a minimum target duration of the final, edited version of a recording. Because of the bits cut out during editing, that means that I aim to record for 40 minutes or even longer, depending on how much I think I'm likely to need to cut out.
Long recordings of natural soundscapes enable the listener really to get into the experience. Short recordings never have a strong feeling of authenticity about them, because their very shortness draws attention to the recording, and indeed to a CD compilation that contains it, rather than to the soundscape itself. I generally aim for whole-CD recordings of an hour upwards, or two-per-CD recordings of 30 to 45 minutes each. It is always best to record for longer than you're likely to use in a CD or other application, for you can cut the result down to your required length. If you recorded only for 5 or 10 minutes, then you can extend that only by the horrendous practice of looping. Anyone who does the latter has no genuine feel for nor understanding of nature or natural soundscapes, and their work would be best avoided.
Think in terms of recording authentically, in order to get the most satisfying results - i.e., resist the temptation to produce mixes. If you want to record particular combinations of things, then take the extra bit of trouble to find situations where you can get those particular elements right there together in a single recording.
'Authenticity' can be rigidly overdone, like so-called 'political correctness'! The skill to cultivate is that of treading the fine line between a rough and ragged recording that is unfocused / 'scattered' and containing distractions on the one hand, and an over-polished, over-sanitized one on the other, which has lost something of its one-time vibrancy and 'life'. It takes considerable awareness and sensitivity to be able to tread that line at all well. Some people are able to cultivate that quality in themselves, while others appear to be programmed to work by following rules and instructions, and are completely closed to developing any really aware and sensitive approach. Many supposedly 'professional' nature recordings are very poor from my perspective for this reason.
Various practical considerations
Guarding the recorder(s) while making recordings - Because the majority of my recording situations were beside or at least close to fairly well used footpaths, I found it highly advisable to be quietly lingering on the footpath, reasonably near the recorder, though not necessarily in direct sight of it, constantly looking out for approaching people. On spotting anyone approaching, I would quietly hurry towards them, signalling to them with a finger on my lips (with a lot of smiling to communicate friendly intent and that I'm not telling them off!), and then, when close enough, to explain in a whisper about the recording being made just ahead and the need for the quietest possible passage along that stretch. Generally the majority of people are co-operative in their intent, though probably about half of them are, sadly, so dim that they clearly haven't understood what I'm going on about and are still noisier than they need be (some even continuing yacking as they pass the recorder), and inevitably I get the odd individuals or groups that clearly resent any request to modify their behaviour, even for just a few hundred metres along the path, and go grumpy-quiet, heavily stomping on their way - and then, as a rarity, I have had the odd ones who at once went into argumentative / abusive mode on the basis of "It's a free country and we have a right to do what we want! Who are you to tell us what to do...?!". In the latter case all I can sensibly do is shrug my shoulders and turn my back on them, withdrawing from engaging with the particular people, and just accept that I've got a bit to cut out of my recording there.
I have a particular challenge as I am usually making two concurrent recordings, generally some distance apart, so that one recorder is quite often more or less unguarded. That can lead to disturbances where walkers without the sense they were presumably born with actually go up to the recorder, talking loudly to each other about it, and even pick it up to look at it more closely to try to work out what it is! I thought that attaching a conspicuous notice by the recorder would work, but my experience so far of doing that has served as a warning as to how irrational perhaps as much as 50% of 'serious' walkers tend to be in responding to something unexpected that they encounter beside the track. I'm not saying that notices are completely ineffective, but rather simply that it would be unwise to put a lot of trust in their effectiveness; guarding is still strongly advisable if people are likely to pass by within sight of the recorder(s)!
Recording level - For the best sound quality and most natural effect in natural soundscapes, always record the full dynamic range. That means always recording in Manual mode, and setting a suitably low recording level, to ensure you don't get overloading (waveform clipping). You can always bring the level of the recording up to an optimal level afterwards in soundfile editing software. Keep Auto mode for things like impromptu interviews with people, where recording quality and dynamic range are not so important. For my own purposes, on the Sony PCM-M10 I most usually use number 4 on the recording level wheel (sensitivity always set to High), increasing that to 5 in very quiet situations where no prominent peaks (such as from fairly strong wind gusts) are expected. And of course, conversely, if there is at least a reasonable possibility that I might get clipping with the level set at 4, then I turn that down further, occasionally as far down as 3. For a thunderstorm (which hardly ever happens for me in Exeter), I would expect to use level 3, though experience of some close earth strikes might persuade me to set it even a little lower if those strikes caused clipping. You might think that auto level control is the answer for thunderstorms - but actually that would simply give you a degraded representation of the real experience, so it is not for anyone who is seeking to portray nature realistically.
The biggest dynamic range that I've yet had to deal with was from the sea violently booming in a presumably fairly small cave at the end of a cleft in a sort of rock 'apron' extending from Tregerthen Cliff, near Zennor, Cornwall, UK. I think something of a megaphone effect made the booms so intense for recorders placed near the edge of the cleft. In that case I finally got all the booms without distortion by spending several minutes initially watching each recorder's level display, and adjusting the level so that even the loudest booms during that period didn't go above about -9dB. The levels arrived at were something close to 3 on Low sensitivity - the lowest setting I had ever intentionally used. Then, back at home, once I'd nipped of the beginning and end of each recording to remove handling noise, I then normalized it to 100%. That still left them at an absurdly low level, however, and for playing at a realistic level the playback volume needed to be increased by a whacking (and anti-social) 12dB.
For the finished and 'polished' recordings afterwards, I generally do NOT use the Normalize function (i.e., in the sound file editor) - at least, unless there is a particular need to set the biggest peak to a specific amplitude. The 'normalize' function does not and cannot know what is the right listening level for any particular recording. Therefore one needs to use the Amplify function instead, and find out by some tests just what on-screen core waveform size corresponds with the best listening level for that particular soundscape, so that it will sound life-like when the playback volume level is set to a particular standard setting. If you use the Amplify function to increase rather than decrease the level, then you need to check that no peaks have got clipped. If they have, undo the amplification and repeat with a smaller increase. Or, just possibly in certain situations, allow the particular clipping if there are no more than a very few such clipped peaks and you cannot hear the distortion they have produced - but always regard the allowing of clipping as an exceptional rarity for some special reason, as it does adversely affect the sound even if you don't notice it.
My own yardstick is to make all my recordings play back at something about the original subjective sound level when my hi-fi volume setting is right for a reasonably life-like reproduction of wide dynamic range symphonic music for full orchestra. Thus the vast majority of my recordings can be played at the one playback setting, and at least potentially without need to readjust between (at least classical) music and my own recordings. The exceptions, with particularly large dynamic range, include a few of my booming cave recordings, as noted above, and also the odd close-up blowhole recording and certain thunderstorm ones.Finally, a caution about what appears to be a bug in the PCM-M10, which I have noticed in both of my recorders. You would surely reasonably expect that if you set your recording level well and avoid clipping that you can see in the waveform, you won't get overloading and distortion. However, I have found that peaks of low frequencies can cause overloading distortion without the waveform of the saved file having reached clipping point, and sometimes indeed the offending peaks being of really modest amplitude. Also I noticed that the distortion (heard as transient partial dropouts, not as the sort of crackle / 'spitting' that I would associate with clipping) often doesn't correspond exactly with the largest peaks in the particular sound event. I get this generally from wind noise in the microphones and also from the very low frequency thumps and booms that the sea can make on the more rugged Cornish cliffs. I generally manage to avoid this by ensuring that the recording level is set low enough to give good headroom, and may reduce the level just a bit further where there are strong booms from the sea or it looks as though there may be fairly pronounced microphone wind noise (i.e., in spite of the furry windshield). However, in the latter case often one would want to edit out the very strong peaks of wind noise anyway, so it is less important than with the sea booms, which are definitely wanted.
Recorder placement - If you travel light, like me, you may want to use just a tiny mini-tripod such as the Hama Mini Tripod, as I've done. However, there are issues about placing a recorder so low. For most purposes that does degrade the sound as compared with what you yourself would hear during the recording session. Putting the recorder so low has various undesirable effects. Proximity of the ground narrows the soundstage (i.e., between top and bottom), so to some extent impoverishing it. It also is liable, especially when on a rock surface, to bring out an interfering bass resonance, which may manifest as some degree of boominess or rumbliness, and in many of my clifftop recordings it has imparted a somewhat cavernous sounding coloration that I didn't hear at the time. It may also actually attenuate very low frequencies that really need to be heard in the recording, such as in the thundering of large breaking surf, or where the sea is crashing against cliff formations and giving very low frequency booms and whoomphs. Also, such a little tripod as the Hama Mini Tripod is difficult or impossible to use where there is more vegetation than a fairly well cropped turf.
Nowadays I have advanced from that situation. Yes, I do still take one or two Hama mini-tripods with me, because in some situations they are my best option, but now I usually carry also at least one Tamrac Zipshot tripod. I actually have two of the full size and two of the 'Mini' size Zipshot - the 'Mini' size actually being what I would call 'midi', and actually an excellent compromise size for many purposes, though on my clifftop recordings it is still low enough often to cause a bit of cavernous-sounding coloration. The Zipshot has the advantage over conventional camera tripods, that it is much lighter (i.e., for similar height) and also very much quicker to set up and pack up. Its two main disadvantages are that, being so light, it is relatively easy for the wind to blow it over, and also, its legs are NOT adjustable, so it can be used only on notionally level spots - though if the ground is sufficiently uneven it is quite often possible to find a sufficiently level placing of the legs even on a fair gradient. I have also been using the Zipshot tripods for suspending wind chimes on clifftops where there are no suitable trees or bushes to suspend them on.
Thirdly, on many outings I also take with me one or two Jobi GorillaPods - tiny mini-tripods with rather stiffly flexible legs, which latter you can curl around a tree branch, railings, top of a fence post (if narrow enough) and various other supports. This enables one often to get excellent impromptu recorder placements, and higher ones than one would get from using a normal tripod.
However, there is an issue about higher placement of recorders / microphones, because the higher you place them (including very much the height difference between Hama Mini Tripod and the Zipshot Mini), the more they are liable to catch the wind. You thus need to think carefully about that when considering higher placements.Tamrac Zipshot tripods in action on clifftop near Perranporth,
Cornwall, UK; standard size with Woodstock Chimes of Polaris,
and the recorder on a Zipshot Mini.
Warning - great care required in order not to lose equipment
over the cliff! -- In fact on one occasion I did have a Zipshot Mini blown
over a clifftop and lost in the sea - fortunately, with no equipment on it!Recorder perched on branch by means of a GorillaPod,
for recording of birds and wind in the Teign Gorge,
Drewsteignton, Devon, UK
Editing of sound files - To cut out sections, e.g., where I want to remove aeroplane, people, dog or wind disturbances, I use the Crossfade function, but there is a catch, because I find it doesn't work quite right for me with the default options. Audacity has a crossfade plug-in, which I have got to work okay, but I find the crossfade facility in WavePad just a bit more intuitive and helpful, so it is this that I use. In both cases, however, there is a weird little practical fact that needs consideration. The idea is that you select the passage that you want to cut out, and the crossfade function both cuts out what is in the middle and draws the cut ends together, tapering them both and overlapping the tapers, so that theoretically, with similar-enough sound before and after the deletion, the join would be undetectable. You can set the length of the taper, which needs to be a different length in different situations, and, in WavePad, the degree of overlap. In WavePad the default is always an exact overlap, but this can be adjusted by setting the 'Gap' parameter, which by default is set as equal to the overlap length, which to my mind ought to work fine.
In practice I find that using the default exact overlap results in a dip in playback volume during the passing of that overlap, so I always have to change the Gap setting to about two-thirds of the overlap length. This is not a WavePad quirk but a peculiarity of overlapping the cut ends. I have tried creating crossfades manually, and I found then that I had to draw in the ends to about a third more than the length of the overlap. In the Audacity crossfade plugin, instead of fiddling with the degree of overlap you set a parameter for increased level within the overlap.
Listening facilities for editing / auditioning - For really effective editing work you need real 'monitor' quality playback. That is, it needs to be as accurate as possible, not necessarily what you find most agreeable. That might seem a rather perverse thing for me to be saying, but the reality is that most people (including professionals), despite any beliefs to the contrary that they may hold about their listening to recorded sounds (including music), do not want genuinely accurate rendition, and actually want particular distortions and colorations that make the sound more impressive or 'agreeable' in some way than the original. Even if you want to end up with such a 'rose tinted spectacles' version of your recording, it is better to do your first auditioning and editing based on accurate rendition, for that way you have real control over your end product. You can always adjust it afterwards to be the sort of sound that you were after - i.e., if you feel that you really must! However, if you work this way you might well become better attuned to accurate rendition of the original sound, and, having cultivated some better awareness, let go of that obsession with altering the sound to fulfil some actually poorly founded criteria that you had been applying in the past.
A cautionary story - beware!
For ages I had been struggling along with my decidedly non-hi-fi Creative computer speakers (which nonetheless did a tolerable job as computer speakers!), but I found that I was missing things that way. So eventually, after some careful online research, I obtained a pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones (and indeed at a remarkably reasonable price for real quality headphones), because I thought there was no way that I would be able to have full frequency range monitor quality speakers either side of my computer. I should say that basically headphones and I do not mix - I detest them all - but I really had no other option in order to have accurate sound there at the computer where I'm doing the editing work, with the recording's waveform in front of me in WavePad or Audacity. The particular headphone model is absolutely spot-on for sound in terms of unforgiving accuracy, at least frequency-wise; I'd never before heard such neutral, uncoloured sound from any playback device. It was just unfortunate that they were physically stressful for me to wear, and I was always greatly relieved whenever I took them off.
Because of inherent limitations in listening through headphones, I regarded it as essential to give a full post-editing auditioning to each of my recordings, and for that I was faithfully using my proper hi-fi system. I realized that my Castle Harlech speakers would not pass as full 'monitor' quality, but I thought they were nonetheless very good indeed as far as domestic hi-fi cabinet speakers go, and indeed more neutral and apparently more accurate than many a much more expensive speaker system that I'd heard, including some that were claiming or at least implying that they were of supposed 'monitor' quality (nearly all with an unnaturally aggressive, over-bright treble). Anyway, listening to the recordings like that, with a wide stereo separation, gives a much better impression of the original soundstage than the always very artificial effect of the headphones, and thus is the best indicator of what people could hear when playing the recordings on their own hi-fi setups.
However, then I bought a pair of Audioengine A2+ speakers to replace my old Creative computer speakers. Their performance was so startlingly accurate that I then added in an Audioengine S8 subwoofer. The result was amazing for accuracy, putting the Castle Harlechs to shame, and rendering the Sony headphones redundant. It then became clear to me to my horror and disgust that I had been applying a completely unnecessary equalization to all my recordings to compensate for the bass hump supposedly of my recorders. That bass hump was clearly belonging to the Castle speakers, and thus should not have been corrected for in the recordings, which all thus had been significantly harmed with a fairly draconian bass cut. Unfortunately, 'undoing' that cut in a test file by applying an inverted version of the original 'correction' caused a jarring roughness in the bass, so it became clear then that for all my recordings where really low bass was important (mostly sea recordings) I would have to take new copies of the archived unprocessed original recordings and process / edit them all over again, omitting any supposed 'correction' to the bass - an absolutely huge task.
Although this is tiresome for me, at least I have the satisfaction of putting right something that I'd been doing wrong, and ensuring that some incredibly beautiful and in various cases powerful recordings are made available without the previous serious 'dent' in them. Also, I put my Castle Harlech speakers up for sale, with plans then to replace them with a pair of Audioengine A5+ speakers plus another S8 subwoofer, for really accurate listening in the room at large.
The bottom line, thus, is that 'monitor'-quality listening is really essential for editing and auditioning natural soundscape recordings - at least, if you want any semblance of accuracy in the end product.
Quirks / bad design of the Sony PCM-M10
The microphone sensitivity switch is a slider switch, which very readily gets reset from high to low sensitivity without one's noticing, when one puts on the furry windshield - the windshield's elastic coming right over that switch. Nowadays, once I have put the windshield on the recorder I then very carefully lift the elastic that is hiding that switch, and check carefully that it is set to High, and change it if necessary. Indeed, because it can be a bit difficult to see the switch position when viewed like that, I even manually push it anyway, to make doubly sure that it is set to High. Caution! - It is all too easy for that switch to get changed back to Low when you let go of that raised bit of the elastic! I have thus got into the routine of using a particular way of lifting and letting go of the elastic, which minimizes any possible pull towards the switch's 'Low' position.
Opposite, on the underside, is the playback volume rocker switch, which sometimes gets activated when the windshield's elastic is pressing on it. Even if, like me, you never use the recorder's pretty useless playback facility, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the volume control display in the main window, by operating that control, so that when the volume control is inadvertently activated you will know what has happened when you see that particular display. All you need do when that happens is ease the windshield elastic just a little forward on that side, but not enough for it to pop off.
Another slider switch that can inadvertently get set to trash a recording, though fortunately for me that happening has been very rare, is the one for selecting manual / auto recording level. I did have one potentially major and great recording trashed by this, because, not being used to that happening, I hadn't checked to ensure that the recording mode hadn't been changed from manual. It was only when I was about to switch off the recorder, happy to see that it was still recording after some 90 minutes, that I noticed in the display the dreaded word 'Auto' in place of the level indicators - and I had no time then to repeat the recording. "Oh, shit!", as they say!
Inserting a micro-flash card is a bit tricky and disconcerting, because the slot for it is actually too large! It is thus difficult to get any real sense of the card properly locating in anything - but actually with both my recorders I found that when I'd got the card roughly located and then closed the cover over it, it worked. But evidently a bit of bad design there, no doubt because of the slot also being compatible with another memory card type. My immediate neighbour, who also recently got one of this recorder model, had exactly the same issue, so it isn't just me being 'funny'!
If your recorder has an inserted memory card and you have set it to use that rather than the built-in memory, if at any time you do any file management operations within that inserted memory from a file manager on your computer you will find that the recorder at once automatically reverts to using its built-in memory, and you would have to go through its menu system to re-set it to use the inserted memory card. I've thus learnt always to just copy (not move) files from the recorder to my computer (using my file manager FreeCommander), and then, once all the wanted files have been copied over, to do the deletions of the originals through the recorder's own facilities. Then the recorder remains set to use the memory card and not the built-in memory.
As a considerable rarity I have had a recorder spontaneously stop recording immediately or at least soon after I'd started the recording (though on one occasion the stop was after 56 minutes), so occasionally losing me a recording opportunity that I'd thought I'd got 'in the bag'. At different times it has happened for both my recorders. A helpful protection against more or less immediate stopping would clearly be to watch the recording time display for, say, five seconds before you move away from the recorder to leave it undisturbed.
Later note (2016):
I eventually got a suspicion that that obnoxious behaviour was a result of a badly designed / made power on/off and hold switch. Its return spring is very weak, so that after a little use I found that the switch didn't automatically return to its centre (neutral) position. I therefore then made a point of always moving the switch back to the centre after operating it, and with that policy in place I have not had a recording spontaneously stop for the best part of two years now.
The battery level indicator is extremely misleading for rechargeable batteries, even when it has been 'told' (through the menu system) that you are using rechargeable ones. It looks as though such batteries have a very short recharge life, but that is quite a deception! After just a session or two the indicator would be showing apparent low charge, but generally, if the batteries are any good to start with, you can keep using it like that for session after session. Unless you have a very long and important recording coming up, you don't need to change the batteries until the battery level indicator is flashing, and even then, it is widely claimed, if really necessary you can still record for at least a further half hour before the recorder automatically shuts down. Best, though, to change the batteries at the first opportunity once you've seen the level indicator flashing. Working like this, I have never yet had a recorder run out of charge during a recording - or indeed at all.
The distortion caused by non-clipping-level peaks of very low frequencies, as already noted under Recording Level further above. I can only surmise that some component in the recorders gets overloaded by the very low frequencies at levels below the general clipping level. Naturally I suspect the internal microphones, which are generally excellent otherwise - though I guess it could be some other component.
The Sony PCM-M10 discontinued - upgrade to PCM-D100?
One of my two PCM-M10 recorders had a rarely-manifesting fault, in which the level of the left-hand channel would be almost inaudibly low for part or all of a particular recording, but by the time this became frequent enough for me to be moved to raise the matter with Sony (in 2016), I'd already been using it for over 3 years, so it was well outside any warranty, and thus all I could do was to purchase a new one. The catch was that then I found that the model had been discontinued, with nothing replacing it. How absolutely crass can a company be, to do such a thing?! The PCM-M10 has been widely recognised as markedly superior to the other generally available small recorders in the same price range, and has become hugely popular. Sony's lame 'justification' (at least, to me) has been that the PCM-D100 is the replacement, but that is just bullshit and complete nonsense.
The D100 is definitely a wonderful piece of work, but in NO way can it be called a replacement for (i.e., simply an updated version of) the M10. It costs more than twice as much, it is more bulky and is more than twice the weight, and it eats batteries more than twice as quickly. If you buy a D100 you aren't buying a reasonably improved equivalent of the M10 but a very major upgrade to a completely different, more professional-type model, as the price would indicate.
In March 2016 I finally bit the bullet and purchased a D100 - though recognising that it would not necessarily be used in place of the M10 recorder because of its bulk and weight. Here follow some notes on my observations as I test the D100.
One great down-side - the microphones are MUCH more wind-sensitive than those of the M10. Using a DeadKitten furry windshield, I found that even a really gentle breeze disrupted recordings. This was promising to be quite a headache to attempt to resolve, as, on my hikes, I do not have pack space for a 'Blimp'-type windshield, and it would be difficult fitting in such additional kit as external microphones - and in any case a sufficiently good quality stereo microphone setup looks like costing more than this recorder did - not good for me on my meagre State pension income! Also, the recorder isn't directly compatible with most quality plug-in microphones - of all stupid things! You'd need an external phantom power unit to operate most of them, for a start.
I tried experimenting with the Rycote Mini Windjammer and the Gutmann furry windshield for the PCM-D100, but they both proved to be insufficiently effective, so I was still unable to use the D100 in most situations where I could previously use the M10.
Eventually I started making progress when I tried two of the appropriately-sized Movo windshields, which were both rectangular-box-shaped. The furry one (model WS-R30) gave as good a performance as the original version of the Røde DeadKitten, which was a small advance, though still very much inadequate for the D100, while the non-furry one (model WST-R30) was poorer in performance 'as is', but suggested to me a fairly radical solution to the whole issue. The point is that the latter model, because of its well-defined shape, maintained some still air space around the front of the microphones - which is an important ingredient of a more effective wind-protection setup. Effectively I could use it as a miniature 'Blimp'. I then discovered Windcut, a UK maker of particularly effective furry windscreens at a fraction of the price of equivalents from the big-name makers, and had them make a custom 'furry' to fit over the Movo non-furry.
I then used that combination through the latter half of 2016 to late February 2017, at which latter point I finally woke up to my need to investigate the poor (rather screamy and abrasive) quality of the treble in all my sea recordings made in that time. When I did investigate I found that the Movo non-furry 'inner' had been imparting a distinct peak to the treble, centring at around 5KHz. The issue was not a quirk of that specific make / model, but rather, of that semi-rigid squared design (regardless of whether it was furry or not), which would suffer similar internal resonances whatever the make and model name. So I had to drop the use of those Movo shields like a hot brick and start trying out using furry windshields as candidates for the 'inner', over which the larger custom Windcut furry would fit.
My apparent 'final solution' was reached in April 2017 and thoroughly field tested the following month, with really good results, which would surely be equivalent to using the PCM-M10 with an original version Røde DeadKitten - perhaps even slightly better. I am still using the custom Windcut 'furry', but am now fitting that over another custom Windcut furry made to exactly the same design but small enough to fit directly onto the D100. Both inner and outer are made, at my special request, with the seam down the middle (top or bottom) and not going round one side as it does in Windcut standard 'furry' for the D100.
If you want to order these for yourself I suggest you ask Windcut for the custom furry to fit over the Movo windshield for the D100, plus the custom furry to fit the D100 directly, both with seam down the middle (top or bottom), NOT round the side, and both exactly as supplied to Philip Goddard in Exeter. Then hopefully there would be no misunderstanding. The outer windshield would be too loose to fit directly onto the D100, but it does fit just sufficiently snugly over the rather thick elastic mouth of the inner furry of that particular design. Although a very strong wind could theoretically blow the outer off, this would work fine for natural soundscape recordings generally, where you still wouldn't be able to record in really strong winds anyway.
The correction curves I'm now using (in Audacity) are generally as follows:
<curve name="W/cut on W/cut half + 9dBbass">
<point f="5.000000000000" d="-3.000000000000"/>
<point f="10.000000000000" d="9.000000000000"/>
<point f="35.000000000000" d="9.000000000000"/>
<point f="55.000000000000" d="0.000000000000"/>
<point f="670.000000000000" d="0.000000000000"/>
<point f="4000.000000000001" d="3.650000000000"/>
<point f="24000.000000000004" d="4.000000000000"/>
<point f="24000.000000000004" d="4.000000000000"/>
That corrects for both the treble muffling and the rather deficient very low bass from the D100; the bass correction can be left out if you don't want that. - And then, herewith the other option I use, where I need to minimize microphone wind noise or other boomy bass frequencies; it is shaped still to let through a fair amount of really low, non-boomy bass, as usually it's only the boomy frequencies that one may need to tone down. Note that no more than two decimal places could be significant, even if that!
<curve name="W/cut on W/cut half - boomy bass cut 9db">
<point f="5.000000000000" d="-12.000000000000"/>
<point f="10.000000000000" d="-1.000000000000"/>
<point f="20.000000000000" d="-1.500000000000"/>
<point f="24.220000000000" d="-9.000000000000"/>
<point f="70.000000000000" d="-5.500000000000"/>
<point f="175.000000000000" d="0.000000000000"/>
<point f="670.000000000000" d="0.000000000000"/>
<point f="4000.000000000001" d="3.650000000000"/>
<point f="24000.000000000004" d="4.000000000000"/>
<point f="24000.000000000004" d="4.000000000000"/>
For recordings in which at least the treble is really continuous and unvarying (more so than in sea sound, so this really refers to sounds like a waterfall or venting steam), a separate curve needs to be made - the same but with the treble dB values doubled or even further increased.
The microphone alignments - only the wide stereo setting is of any use for natural soundscape recording - though I suppose a slightly less-wide coverage could be chosen (though surely not sensibly for natural soundscapes!). I tried the 90-degree X-Y configuration, and recordings that used it gave a very narrow sound-stage, sounding as though half-way towards being mono. Those recordings had depth, yes, but it was like the depth impression of looking into a tunnel, but without the tunnel's reverberation. Basically a highly unnatural effect, which has use only for recording things like musical instruments close-up, or getting solo recordings of people. It sounds particularly bizarre through headphones.
I should point out, though, that such an extremely restricted soundstage is not intrinsic to the 90-degree X-Y configuration, and I found that with the Røde NT4 stereo microphone, for example, its fixed coincident 90-degree X-Y configuration gave a very acceptably wide and spacious soundstage, albeit not as wide or spacious as that produced by the D100's wide stereo configuration.
The D100's wide stereo setting gives a particularly wide and spacious soundstage, MUCH more vividly and precisely detailed than that provided by the M10. A long recording in Branscombe Landslip (near Beer, Devon, UK) captured with awesome precision the sea echoes on the cliff towering above, with the movement of the echoes precisely captured just as I had heard it - whereas all the M10 could come up with there was a general haze of sea sound, with only the odd vague hint of movement across the soundstage. With the D100 you really got the impression of hearing the cliff towering above you.
The strongly directional quality of the microphones can result in quite unnatural sides of the soundstage when you are listening with headphones, for sounds coming from hard left or hard right are not heard at all (at least noticeably) in the other ear. The effect is quite disconcerting and distracts your attention from the soundscape itself, at least until you've got well used to it. However, when I play such recordings through my monitor-quality room hi-fi system they produce a really vivid, breathtakingly realistic three-dimensional soundstage, with even the hard-left and hard-right sounds usually seeming to be behind or beside the speakers rather than coming from them.
The 120dB signal / noise ratio function - amazing!
This is switched off by default, but I did my initial test recordings with it on, rather doubting whether its effects would be acceptable to me, because it uses the recorder's level limiter mechanism in a clever way to increase one's available dynamic range free from system noise. I have to say, I found its effectiveness quite astounding, clearly with the limiter functionality still managing the peaks. NONE of the big peaks of wind disturbance, nor any of the deep boom peaks from the Beeny Cliff cave system got even a hint of distortion, and all the strongest peaks were contained at 'maximum' level, with no clipping at all highlighted in Audacity. Yet in all cases the recordings sounded completely natural, without even a trace of wavering or 'pumping' of the general sound-stage as one gets from all ordinary level limiters.
For the Beeny Cliff recording I had deliberately left the recording level set at a 'normal' value (6 on the dial), whereas with the M10 I would have set the level ridiculously low in order to avoid distortion of the stronger booms, so I was treating that recording just as a throw-away test one - but the D100 handled all that perfectly. By limiting the strongest peaks it had reduced the dynamic range, but at least it had reduced the range to what was playable without distortion, and sounded really convincing and lifelike. The lesson here is that if I want the strongest peaks to stand out to their full extent in such a recording in future, I can simply set the level lower and then turn up the playback volume to get the correct overall sound level. The latter is what I was always having to do with the M10, but here the S/N ratio enhancement would mean that I would get better sound quality for an equivalent degree of under-recording and subsequent compensatory turning up of playback volume.
It looks, therefore, as though I shall have this feature switched on for all my sessions, making the setting of levels much less accident-prone than is the case with the M10 or indeed pretty well any recorder without that functionality. Careful setting of levels would still be necessary, of course, to get the best results each time, rather than merely acceptable results.
Rendition of very low frequencies
Whereas with the M10 I usually had to apply a significant cut to the lower bass to get a reasonably accurate sound, with the D100 I found that it was actually fairly weak in its recorded level of the very low frequencies (and yes, I did check that its low-frequencies-cut filter was switched off). To ensure an accurate playback I applied a correction curve, as follows:
<curve name="9dBbass boost">
<point f="10.000000000000" d="9.000000000000"/>
<point f="35.000000000000" d="9.000000000000"/>
<point f="55.000000000000" d="0.000000000000"/>
Please be aware that Audacity cannot handle that curve properly if the lowest point is below 20Hz or / and the highest beyond 20KHz. You have to manually edit the EQCurves.xml file in the Audacity folder to create or edit the particular curve. and if you want to use that curve in a command chain you have to manually create a chain file containing that curve. Trying to create that chain within Audacity would result in a chain called 'Unnamed' being used instead of what you have chosen!
- except that in practice I have it combined with whatever treble correction curve I'm using. I have that curve saved in Audacity, so I can easily apply it to all relevant new D100 recordings. It is extremely important, however, to use that curve ONLY as part of a command chain that includes first an overall level reduction (negative amplification value) so that the boost of very low frequencies doesn't cause clipping. In fact I have given myself a choice of command chain to use for new files, because not all recordings would really benefit from that bass boost even though it would be technically correct. So, I have an alternative command chain that does the windshield correction but not the bass correction, with only a small prior level reduction to avoid clipping, and I would use that especially for recordings where it is important to minimize audible microphone wind noise.
Although I would prefer simply fully linear and accurate recording of all frequency ranges, actually the slight weakness of recording the very low frequencies in the D100 would result in much less pressure on peaks incorporating very low frequencies, so minimizing the possibility of distorted major peaks, at least when one is not using the limiter or 120dB S/N ratio feature. That weakness therefore does have a positive aspect, provided one doesn't mind having to apply a correction curve to boost those very low frequencies. Without that correction, many soundscapes can lack a certain feel of vibrancy and depth - though obviously that would be noticed only with really good listening setups that reproduce those low frequencies properly in the first place.
Thank goodness, all slider switches, including microphone sensitivity, are recessed and not at all easily moved in error as they are in the M10, and their positioning makes it extremely unlikely that any would get accidentally moved while putting on or removing a windshield.
Eventually, after making my first really major recording with the D100 - a 7½-hour one very well placed in Branscombe Landslip, near Beer, Devon, UK, in particularly sheltered conditions on 24 April 2016 - I came to the somewhat embarrassing and very inconvenient conclusion that the D100 was showing up quite dramatically how narrow, blurred and foggy the stereo image produced by the M10 really was. Indeed, to such an extent that I realized that I no longer wanted to make further recordings with the M10, at least using its internal microphones.
Because of the blurred-image issue with the M10 and the near-unusability of the D100 because of the extreme wind-sensitivity of its microphones, I reluctantly got investigating external microphone options for both recorders. However, that proved to be a frustrating and hair-tearing experience, and indeed an expensive one, which left me quite relieved when I very quickly came to the clear conclusion that it was simply not workable for me to attempt to use external microphones with either model of recorder. At that point I'd become clear that I would not use M10s any more, at least for 'serious' natural soundscape recording, and so opted for purchasing an additional D100 to give me my two recorders for really time-efficient sessions. As I have remarked further above, at last I have reasonably resolved the wind-sensitivity issue, so look forward to producing a good number of recordings now with the breathtaking realism that the D100 readily gives with its own microphones in wide stereo configuration.(More observations will be added here...)