Field recording symposium at the British Library

Posted: 29 January, 2013

On 15th-16th February the British Library will be holding a two day symposium that seeks to open up and explore the practice, art and craft of field recording through a series of panel presentations, listening sessions and screenings. Starting from the early days of field recording, ‘In the Field’ aims to relate the multitude of contemporary field recording practices to their historical precedents and investigate issues in contemporary practices. These include: How field recordings are distributed to and heard by an audience; Recording the unheard; Mapping the urban; and questioning the extended nature of the field in a digital networked landscape.

A varied group of practising field recordists have been invited to speak at the conference, including the society’s very own Simon Elliott! Other speakers include:

Chris Watson (

Jana Winderen (

Mark Peter Wright (

Felicity Ford (

This is a joint venture between the wildlife sound section of the British Library and CRiSAP (part of the London College of Communication, University of the Arts) and is part of the Sounds of Europe project.

Tickets are priced at £25/£15 conc for the full two days and £15/£10 for one day. Everyone with an interest in field recording, whether professional or personal, is welcome to attend. Full details can be found at


Desert Waterhole

Posted: 14 December, 2012

At 1800h local time I fixed a Sennheiser MKH 8040/30 middle and side rig against a sun bleached log by the edge of a small muddy pool. This was the only surface water I could find on the floor of a steep sided valley formed by the ephemeral river Kuiseb on the western fringe of the Namib desert in Namibia, southwest Africa.

Covering the windshield with green camouflage scrim I ran a stereo mike cable back 100m to my hide which was perched by a stony outcrop on the valley side, from here I could observe from a distance and record in close up. But not just yet.

I tested the mikes, sealed off the connector with tape and retired to camp as darkness crept over the dunes.

At 0300h I returned to the site, easily finding my way under clear star bright skies. There was no light or noise pollution here at this time and the effects were startling. In the absolute desert stillness the starscape fills the sky from horizon to horizon and the sense of quietness was massive.

I could hear very little, occasionally the micro sounds of scurrying beetles and small rodents. However my first recording at 0330h picked up the very distant hoot of a spotted eagle owl (Bubo africanus) far off down the gorge, over 1Km away. Much closer, amongst the stones and sand by the mikes, barking geckos (Ptenopus garrulous) would occasionally call from the mouth of their burrows.


By 0800h with the sun and temperature rising in a cloudless sky groups of Namaqua sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua)  were landing around the mikes to drink then dipping their breast feathers into the pool. These birds collect water in their feathers and return to give their nestlings a drink. A round trip at this site of over 40Kms.


After two hours of burning heat the birds, and myself, have had enough. The sandgrouse disperse and I recover the mikes after recording a day time finale and chorus from a myriad species of flies.


Three very different recordings with the same set up, in the same place separated simply by time.

Chris Watson


Posted: 26 November, 2012

August: well, it’s finally stopped raining, and for the past few days we’ve had just the weather I look forward to on theNorth East coast in July. Light offshore winds have calmed the inshore waters, such that on some days there is not even the hint of a breaking wave.

In the sunshine it’s a great place to be, because at this time of year the terns are bringing their young off the breeding islands and are feeding just offshore, and with 2012 proving to be a bumper year for little fish around here – from sand eels to mackerel – these waters are a mass of diving kittiwakes, terns, auks and gannets, often pursued by marauding skuas.

Today I was down at a favourite spot from 4.30am at low tide before a lovely sunrise, anxious to get some new tern calls. I wasn’t disappointed: as the sun rose over the patch of sea in front of me I could hear the rapid fire splash, splash, splash of the terns, mostly a mixture of Common and Sandwich.


But soon I was rewarded with more than I had hoped for. A few of the very rare breeding Roseate Terns come down here to feed, and one can often grab the occasional call, but today shortly after 6am a party of about 10 Roseates split off from the main flocks, and proceeded to give their characteristic harsh disyllabic calls right in front of my mics. 


A magical moment, and well worth getting out of bed for!


A Chance Encounter

Posted: 14 August, 2012

I often happen on something of interest during my forays and this tale is about a little incident on my last outing. I often monitor bats with a full–spectrum recording technique and I spend a lot of time listening in the darkness during these sessions. Over the years, I have heard many nocturnal sounds, although seldom near the fixed microphone position.

I was recording on Shotesham Common in South Norfolk, last weekend. The dry areas are rough, summer grazing for a herd of beef cattle. Serotine Bats forage for invertebrates on the cowpats and I target them repeatedly, trying to get a well-modulated sample for a clean spectrogram and their wing-clapping display flight.

I was retrieving my equipment in the darkness, when I was surprised to hear a Common Sandpiper call from the Shotesham Beck, a minor tributary of the River Tas. Luckily, my full-spectrum recorder was still running and the call registered, although distant from the microphone. I happened to know that this species had not been recorded locally and later, I was able to extract a very weak signal from a noisy sound floor and provide evidence of identification; another species for the local parish list !

Meanwhile, the next day I heard a mystery call near the same spot. I suspect Little Ringer Plover, but on this occasion, my recorder was not deployed. It is early July and hardly the migration season, but clearly many species are starting to move. Listen here for the brief sequence uttered by the Common Sandpiper





Posted: 13 July, 2012

British WSRS members will know just how bad 2012 has been so far, at least since April Fool’s Day. Those of us in the North East of England have experienced rain and floods of Biblical proportions. So there’s not been much opportunity to record anything but rapidly, vertically falling water for the last few months. May and June normally find me in a tent somewhere in an isolated forest, enjoying recording the calls of raptors. This year, this was the sound inside my Vango:


So why is it, when we’re so fed up with this weather at home, that some of us spend our hard-earned cash to travel far across the world to record the sounds of…RAIN? It’s the same H2O, but do these rainforests of St Lucia really sound so much better than the dripping woodlands of Northumberland?


And only last month, I was getting really excited – and soaked to the skin – by recording a spectacular thunderstorm in the beautiful Bamboo Path near Kyoto, Japan.


Please, please can I have a nice, calm, typical, DRY, day to record the normal sounds of the Northumberland coast in summer, like these Sandwich Terns over Hauxley?




Nutcracker suite

Posted: 10 March, 2012

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. It is very true, but luck often eludes the wildlife sound recordist!! However, that is what makes this blog posting notable.

I was fortunate to be able to record in Macedonia in spring 2011. I was in the mountains in the south of the country with a group of recording friends. I heard Nutcrackers calling from a very long way away but one or two others in our group managed to record them. A day later at a different location, a few miles away, I heard them again, this time much closer, just by a tourist track in a national park. They didn’t call for long, certainly not long enough for me to get my gear set up. The next day I went back to the location and simply waited around from soon after dawn for them to appear, I was hoping that they were creatures of habit and would be in the same place. I was rewarded with a family of them calling from high in the conifers almost above my head. They soon stopped calling but were clearly visible as a family group in the trees nearby.

As a wildlife sound recordist you learn to wait and control any impatience. So I waited, then to my surprise, two Nutcrackers flew into a tree very close to me and called. In fact they were so close that had my arms been a few centimetres longer I could have reached out and touched them. They seemed almost oblivious to me and simply called and moved around in the trees and came closer and pecked on branches, presumably for grubs, for the best part of 40 minutes. While I recorded, I even managed to take some photographs with my digital pocket camera.

Eventually they moved off and stopped calling, but that was not the end of the experience. I stayed within 250m of the spot where they had called but kept ‘bumping into them’ as I walked along the tourist trail. One bird in particular seemed to be accompanied by a family of Long Tailed Tits wherever he went. Were they looking for food disturbed or dislodged by the Nutcracker? I don’t know, but it seemed to be more than just a chance encounter between the two species. Here’s a clip from when one Nutcracker was foraging with the Long-tailed Tits.



Posted: 31 January, 2012

Out to the lake this Sunday morning.

Perfect recording conditions: calm, cloudy, minus 2 degrees (everyone else will stay in bed).

Crawl successfully to the edge of the water under cover of darkness before dawn.

Set up the mics, ready to go…

Oh dear!

No headphones!

Is it possible to be embarrassed when you’re all alone?

Never mind. Just check that all the knobs are correctly set and the appropriate LEDs are flashing, and hey presto! Some nice  Teal and  Whooper swan calls salvaged from the ruins of forgetfulness.



Lynx Recordings – Revisited

Posted: 12 December, 2011

You may remember the Blog on Lynx recordings made in Macedonia by Reynard (see posting of 13th Sept 2011). These have been reprocessed by another recordist, but still using WaveLab as the editing software, using two different approaches as described below.

The original recording was made in MS, but the sound seemed ill-focused. It was processed with the following steps.

  1. It was separated back into MS then recombined with less Side mic, to produce a more tightly focused version, with regard to the Lynx calls.
  2. The result was processed with a Sony Audio restoration plug-in (SoundForge 9) to remove the top end hiss.
  3. EQ to further reduce hiss above 10kHz, and also LF below 100Hz.
  4. The interval lengths between Lynx calls were reduced by selecting the individual calls and crossfading them together.
  5. Resample and dither to 16 bit 44kHz
  6. Create an Audio Montage ( i.e. a mix) with the edited file together with background tracks of forest sounds and wind tracks (Just a bit of forest and a bit more wind).
  7. Boost the Lynx calls (only) by 3dB using ‘level envelope’ (A bigger boost produced obvious pumping)
  8. Render down to a final file
  9. Code as mp3.

Listen to the processed recording here:


The result is less obviously a mix than Lynx + forest, but probably not as good as Lynx + wind (see blog post of 13th Sept 2011 for comparison recordings). However, looking at the audio spectrum for the final mix, you’d be very hard put to pick up any edit points.

A second approach gave a different result:
As before (see above) the width of the sound stage was reduced and the file length was shortened.

Listen to the processed recording here:


A Sony Noise reduction plug-in, in 2 stages was used to process the recording. This captured a noise profile from a background part of the track and then the background was subtracted from the file as a whole. If you listen to the result we hope you agree that it is pretty effective. The point about this approach is that the final recording has had no spectral editing and no mixing with any other file (wind, forest etc) to try and mask the background noise.

Listen to the processed recording here:.


Although from a bioacoustic standpoint, the shortening of the inter-call periods is not good practice, this was done for the purpose of illustrating sound processing techniques. What do you think to the quality of the processed recordings, especially when compared to the original field recording?

Lynx recordings

Posted: 13 September, 2011

The sort of terrain in the vicinity of where the Lynx were found, high in the mountains, close to forest. However, they chose to call from the shelter of a boulder field above a mountain river.

We were fortunate enough to be recording wildlife sounds In The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in May this year. By chance we came across a pair of Lynx (Lynx lynx) apparently mating. This was unusual in two respects, (i) the animals are very rare (and rarely seen) and (ii) they apparently mate in the winter months – not in the spring. Interestingly the Lynx is the national symbol of The Republic of Macedonia. We managed to make recordings of the pair over a period of about an hour. However, they were quite distant, hidden in a boulder field under which roared a mountain river  in full spate.


So getting a good signal from their calls was almost impossible. With the help of some sound-editing software and the input of a fair amount of time, the calls were extracted from the noisy background. Whilst the calls are still compromised by the loss of transients, they sound much better following the elimination of the water roar and the addition of a more ‘gentle’ background.  Here are two recordings, a cut from the field recording and a processed recording. What do you think?


Reynard and Prolix

New Additions to the British Library’s Wildlife Pages

Posted: 13 September, 2011

Early Wildlife Recordings

Recordings featured on the 1953 HMV publication Songs of British Birds have recently been added to the Early Wildlife Recordings online collection. Archival copies of the complete four disc set were digitised by audio engineers in the Sound Archive’s Technical Services Department, thereby bringing more works of Ludwig Koch into the digital age. A brief overview of the publication can be found on the ASR blog and all recordings can be listened to here.

Research Resources

An updated and expanded version of the Wildlife Sounds Select Bibliography is now available on the Research Resources webpage. The bibliography is subdivided into three main sections covering general interest, recording techniques and archives and bioacoustics textbooks. The document also includes a list of relevant periodicals, all of which can be accessed in the British Library Reading Rooms. The bibliography is by no means complete, but does provide the reader with a wide range of literature relating to the fields of wildlife and environmental sound recording.