Wildlife Recording in Stereo - Introduction by John Burton

This article appeared in Wildlife Sound March 1973 ff.


So far few of the wildlife sound recordists scattered around the world have ventured into the field of stereo recording, and even fewer have published their results in the form of either articles or stereo LPs.

One of this pioneering band is Sten Wahlstrom of Sweden whose stimulating paper “Stereophonic Recording of Wildlife Sound” was published in the April 1969 issue of Recorded Sound (pp458-62) and should be read by all interested in this subject. It includes an illustrated description of his ingenious stereo parabolic reflector about which my colleague, David Tombs, writes further in Part 1 of this article.

According to Jeffery Boswell in his “A Discography of Palaearctic Bird Sound Recordings” (British Birds V57 1964, supplement p63), the earliest known stereo wildlife recordings were taped bin the USA in 1958 or 1959 by Donald and Marian McChesney. The earliest attempt in Britain was made in Kent in May 1961, by J Simpson, who recorded a Nightingale.

Sten Wahlstrom himself began recording in stereo in 1962 and, with Sven Aberg, published his first stereo disc “Faglar I Stereo” (7-inch, 45rpm, FS1 Biophon, Stockholm) the following year. On 21st May, 1967, he produced for Swedish Radio the first natural history programme to be made entirely in stereo, both commentary and wildlife illustrations.

The first experimental BBC attempts that I know of to record a wildlife subject in stereo were made in 1964 by my engineering colleague D.G. Stripp, he made some recordings of the dawn chorus in a Kentish woodland and also recorded some domestic geese in an Essex farmyard. All have now been processed in the BBC wildlife collection.

Early in 1971, I was allowed to start recording wildlife sounds in earnest. I was fortunate in obtaining the expert assistant of David Tombs of the BBC Bristol Audio Unit. A stereo enthusiast, David is a first class and ingenious recording engineer, and also has the extra advantage from my point of view of being a keen bird-watcher as a result of us working together for several years.

Our first trip, to the RSPB reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk, from 29th March to 3rd of April, was naturally very much an experimental exercise. The equipment available for our use was a stereo Uher, two 3 foot diameter stereo parabolic reflectors, a small selection of microphones, headphones and two small mains-operated loudspeakers. In spite of the limitations of this equipment and the cold, rather windy conditions we experienced, we came away with some reasonably satisfactory recordings.

We learned a great deal from this exercise, and although for our next trip, in May, also to Minsmere, we had to use basically the same equipment, David had made some refinements, such as, for example, microphone pre-amplifiers. Again the weather was windy and generally unfavourable (we only experienced two good days) but we nevertheless made many satisfactory recordings of both habitat atmospheres and individual bird species. In fact, we recorded 49 species altogether, including Bitterns, Water Rails, Avocets, Bearded Tits and the exceptionally rare Cetti’s Warbler, a male of which happened to be singing at Minsmere. It was on this occasion that we made successful recordings of displaying Avocets with David’s stereo parabolic reflector which he based on the Wahlstrom Stereo Parabola.

In June 1972 we spent a fortnight in Nothumberland, working mainly on the Farne Islands and in the Cheviots. This time we were accompanied by a BBC recoroding engineer from London, Cedric Johnson, and altogether were very much better equipped. In addition to our proved and trusted range of microphones, we enjoyed the benefit of two stereo Nagras and a pair of Sennheiser MKH805 gun microphones. The Nagras were a delight to use, being even more simple to operate than the mono version. Although the weather was again unseasonable, being unsettled with much wind and rain, we did experience some ideal recording conditions at times and, in consequence, we returned home with a large number of excellent recordings. Among species we taped were Fulmars, Shags, Eiders, Oystercatchers, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns, Sandwich Terns, Puffins, Guillemots, Green Woodpeckers, House Martins and Grey Wagtails.

In July, David and I returned to Minsmere for a few days to carry out test recordings for a stereo radio programme I wanted to produce about Minsmere and its birds. We eventually recorded this in August under the title “A Day at Minsmere” with Robert Dougall and the chief warden of Minsmere, H.E. Axell, as the two speakers. It has already been broadcast twice in mono, but it not due to receive its stereo transmission until June 10th on Radio 4.

Independently of me, David has also made a couple of experimental recordings of nature trail programmes for “The Living World” series on Radio 4. In the course of all this work, we have naturally gained a great deal of useful information, and David has already written up the technical data for internal BBC consumption. However, it seemed to me that much of this expertise should be made available to a wider public, particularly as it is within the interests of the BBC to encourage other wildlife recordists to try stereo recording for themselves. I have, therefore, persuaded him to contribute a article on this subject to “Wildlife Sound” which now follows.

Wildlife Recording in Stereo - part 1

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