After travelling more than 30,000 miles, sound engineer and producer Clive Williamson recounts his experiences recording Natural Sounds in New Zealand for the BBC's Sound Archives, going digital all the way from DAT recorder to the final CD.
There can't be many places in the world that offer the huge range of climates and natural environments to be found in New Zealand. Snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rolling plains, dense forests and hundreds of miles of coastline have all been crammed into two islands only a little larger than the British Isles.
New Zealand is thinly populated so - theoretically - it makes an ideal place to record sound effects. You can escape the sounds of traffic and aircraft with relative ease, and quite apart from the stunning scenery, it's a captivating place to record because of the wealth of bird-life and its unusual range of geo-thermal activity like boiling mud pools and hot-water streams and geysers. Given all these attractions, and the fact that I was in the area anyway, a stop in New Zealand for an 'out-of-pollution experience' with a DAT recorder and a box-full of tapes seemed like the next logical step!
My recordings had two potential uses. I discovered that the BBC's Sound Archives in London had nothing from New Zealand, and would be interested if I brought back good material of the right sound quality. I also liked the idea of creating a CD of natural sounds from NZ for release by my group Symbiosis. So the project seemed viable, and I began to put together what I hoped would be the right equipment for the journey.
THE RECORDING GEAR
One other piece of equipment wasn't available when I left England, but was later to prove to be the ace in the pack! Clarity Systems, a relatively new company based in Southampton, promised to ship one of their new high-gain microphone pre-amps out to me in Auckland so that I could try it out 'in the field'. The plan was to use it with the ECM 959 to overcome the inherent noise in the D7's built-in mic pre-amp, which is fine with loud sources, but becomes problematic when the gain control has to be set between about 8 and 10. The Clarity pre-amp gives 50 to 60 dB of gain, depending on the source resistance of the microphones, and feeds directly into the line input of the tape machine. It is specially designed to work with dynamic mics like the AKG D202 and the Beyer M201, but can also be adapted to work with higher output electret mics by adding in-line pads. That was how I hoped to use it once I collected the equipment in New Zealand. In the event, the increase in noise performance seemed marginal with the ECM 959 (probably because the source impedance was wrong) but was stunning when I tried connecting the pair of Shure mics directly to the pre-amp. The two mics were more cumbersome, and extra weight to carry, but the results certainly justified the added inconvenience. Besides, the pre-amp was only the size of a cigarette-packet, so that was hardly a burden!
THE GRAND TOUR
Predictably with the range of outdoor environments and locations, wind noise presented the biggest problem, but the Rycote Softie with its 'hairy covering' did an incredible job of shielding the ECM 959, damping all but the strongest sea breezes. The Softie's pistol grip was comfortable to hold, and did a good job of cushioning the mic from any handling noise too. The unprotected Shure Beta 58s often had to be positioned at ground level to reduce the chance of wind noise, and sometimes I made recordings in the knowledge that heavy editing would be needed later to remove unwanted effects. Fortunately the Shure mics / Clarity pre-amp combination suited recording in the bush, where there was usually less wind to worry about.
Sennheiser's rifle mic generally performed very well, giving a tight pick-up of the sounds of individual NZ parrots like the kaka and kea, and having a high output which got round the pre-amp noise in the recorder without the need for any extra gear. The ME67 capsule added some brightness, which suited some effects and could still be filtered from others. I soon found myself wishing for a second Sennheiser to gather stereo effects at a distance. A pair of 'shot-guns' would have been very useful for some of the bush recordings of birds, and much of the geo-thermal activity, which is difficult to get close to without falling in to something hot and wet, or getting a facefull of sulphurous fumes! The Sennheiser's 'pro' velour windshield proved too refined for many of New Zealand's winds, and I wished I'd invested in a full basket shield with a hairy cover for the one mic I had!
THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
The height of my inventiveness came when I had to tie the ECM 959 to a hotel's broom handle to get close enough to record a pool of bubbling mud in Rotorua: the heart of NZ's thermal activity. The sound quality was really good, and later I was able to edit out my muffled choking on the 'bad eggs' whenever the wind changed (and pick the dried mud out of the Softie's fur: yech!). But nothing could protect me from the shower of guano from some juvenile bellbirds I was recording in the trees overhead on Tiritiri Matangi Island. So it goes.
PROCESSING THE RESULTS
The use of the Clarity pre-amp had unexpected consequences. Because the gain was so great, it was like having super-hearing! A soundscape that had sounded fine in real life - or in my Sony MDR-V4 headphones at normal volume - often revealed the drone of a distant crop-spraying plane or a motorboat at higher listening levels. Naturally the DAT machine, with its very low noise-floor, had recorded all this in perfect fidelity. Fortunately, many of the intrusions could be dealt with by careful editing on the Mac, especially as I was able to use special software plug-ins for Sound Designer by both Digidesign and Waves, which allow complex sound processing in the digital domain.
The most useful Waves plug-ins were the Q10 and S1 modules, which add 10-band parametric EQ and advanced stereo image manipulation respectively. The Q10 was superb for removing excessive low frequencies and notching out distant engine noise, while the S1 can alter - and if necessary, enhance - the width and balance of a stereo recording. Digidesign's DINR module (Digidesign Intelligent Noise Reduction) proved surprisingly effective in reducing the noise of wind in the trees from the bubbling mud-pool recording. Using DINR, it was possible to 'search and destroy' the background by 6dB without producing any audible artefacts in the sound of the mud itself. DINR's success depends largely on the nature of the sounds it has to deal with, but this software is pretty stunning when it works well!
PREPARING THE CDS
LUCK PLAYS A PART
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Three Sound Effects CDs of Clive Williamson's recordings are available for use within the BBC from Sound Archives:
ECD117 New Zealand - The Natural World 1; ECD118 New Zealand - The Natural World 2; and ECD134 Snapshots of Sydney and Urban New Zealand.
Price from Symbiosis in the UK: £9.95 (plus £1.50 postage and packing world-wide)
Credits: Thanks to Clarity Systems, Digidesign, HHB, Natural Audio, Sennheiser UK Ltd, and Waves for their help with this project. Photography by Clive Williamson and Emily Sinclair. All images captured on Kodak film and transferred to the PhotoCD system by Laserbureau for editing in Adobe Photoshop prior to publication (except 'Aotearoa' cover photo by Craig Potton).
Rycote Microphone Windshields Ltd:
Sennheiser UK Ltd:
(First published:as: "New Zealand Walkabout - Spattered by bellbirds, Snubbed by dolphins..." in LINE UP Magazine - The Journal of the Institute of Broadcast Sound, December 1996 / January 1997 www.ibs.org.uk)
NZ Bird Sounds to download:
Hear EXTRACTS FROM AOTEAROA CD (2.7 MB mp3 file) introduced by Clive Williamson or watch on YouTUBE...
Order CD, or listen and download from iTunes
Sponsored by Clive Williamson's acclaimed UK ambient group SYMBIOSIS: