Introduction to Wild Soundscape Recording

A wild soundscape is the complete sound ensemble of a wild location. In recording wild soundscapes we aim to capture the widest possible range of detail, rather than concentrating on a specific animal species or natural phenomenon.

So we need a rather different approach from those used by recordists in the tradition of Nicholson and Koch who specialise in excellent recordings of individual bird calls. Nor is recording a wild soundscape like recording a band in a studio - or even a gig in a pub. The first big difference is volume. Wild sounds are often intrinsically quiet. That means that background noise - sound you don't want in your recording - is much more significant. There's a whole lot more background noise than you'd expect - not least because you are recording in an open space. There are no walls to exclude unwanted sounds from "outside".

Apart from specific interruptions such as people shooting in the nearby fields and planes flying over, the main noise problem is bass rumble from roads. Low frequencies are very non-directional, so even if you use a highly directional microphone, rumble will be picked up from a much wider area than the higher frequency sounds you want to record. The tyre noise of cars and lorries from roads can reach five miles or more, and I remember late one Saturday night clearly picking up the bass beat of a village disco at least that far away.

Another problem for stereo and surround recording in the field is the difficulty of achieving precise channel balance - of ensuring that all the channels are equally sensitive when recording. In the studio, time and effort are expended to balance the channels at the start of the session before actual recording is commenced, but in the field not only is there often insufficient time, but the process could disturb the wildlife, and the settings on portable equipment are in any case less precise than those of a studio desk. So we should ideally use recording techniques that permit precise channel balancing to be performed in post-production rather than essentially in the field.

The other two main concerns are natural phenomena - wind and rain. Wind can cause a sensitive microphone to "flutter", introducing clicks and silences into the recording, but you do need a very sensitive microphone, so flutter is inevitable if the wind is stronger than the microphone can handle. In general it's difficult to record in a wind stronger than a light breeze (Beaufort force two - about 8 miles per hour or 3.5 metres per second). Your microphones will always need to be fitted with wind protectors, and to make decent recordings of the sound of wind itself, special equipment is needed.

Rain creates two problems. First, microphones and recorders don't like getting wet, so if you record in the rain you need to protect them. That leads to the second problem. Rain hitting a shelter or waterproof cover makes a distinctive, frequently unnatural sound that can spoil a recording. I sometimes record from my car when it's raining, and the unmistakable "plink" of raindrops on the metal of the car roof spoiled several otherwise good tracks until I worked out how to avoid it.

But the most important consideration for the wild soundscape recordist is to capture the true complexity of the natural ensemble without influencing it by one's presence. That requires much more than technical expertise and appropriate equipment. It requires fieldcraft - a combination of objectivity, acute perception, extraordinary patience and a high order of self control. Without these attributes of character, no amount of skill will be sufficient to make really good recordings.