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Hi there,

I just got back from an amazing weekend in the lowvelt of South Africa recording birds, leopards, lions and of course, ambience. It is winter here so a lot of the bird life is away up north. Both myself and the other field recordist struggled with getting good velt ambiences because it was so quiet. We got the odd section where some bird or buck spoke but for the most part, the areas were dead.

Any advice on what to do in this situation? We were using the Scheops CMC 4 with an MK 4 capsule and a Sennheisser 418. What to do, what to do?

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I wonder what the world sounded like in 1200 or before. –  Utopia Oct 2 '10 at 21:24
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8 Answers

Sounds like you were armed with some great mics - curious to know what recorder and preamps were you using? I had a similar situation recently when nature was much quieter than I had anticipated, so I enjoyed recording wind thru trees, flowing water and miniscule insect life instead.

It may not have been your intention to record a very quiet ambience but I hope that you did because they are extremely rare.

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We were using a Sound Device and a Nagra LB. We had to crank them up so we got a lot of preamp noise. I did test them this morning through a larger system and some of the quiet stuff did cut through but it needed help which then increased the sound of my speakers and system. –  oinkaudio Jul 26 '10 at 11:21
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I am afraid that you will probably need to do multiple trips at different times of the day to different locations. Sunrise and sunset are usually the best times. Speak to your guide explain what you want and be prepared to wait.

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This isn't a matter of gear or technique (well, at least in your case, you're geared up good-'n'-proper. It's situational. Sometimes the critters are out in force, sometimes they're not. As much as you plan, nature doesn't always cooperate. There are, however, some things you can use to predict success.

  1. Sunrise is usually when the biophony is its most active, at least with regards to birds. Some birds and insects also perk up at sunset. Sunrise and sunset are easy to find online for almost anywhere in the world. Remember that "nautical twilight" is the start of this active period, and that's when it's light enough to see the horizon. It's like the magic hour in photography; the activity lasts until about an hour after sunrise (in my experience).

  2. Look for water sources that offer places of concealment for wildlife. The American bittern, for example, has a very specific (and odd!) call to carry through the reeds it hides in, making it tough to see but pretty easy to hear. This combo - wet and concealment - is among the reasons that rainforests can be absolutely deafening at times. Water doesn't just mean water, it can also mean large amounts of food for both birds and insects...and bigger things. Know where the crocs live before getting too close. :-)

  3. Look for access to sunlight. Many species are energized by the sun and become vocal when in the sun. I've noticed this from California to New Zealand, for both birds and insects (Remember that you can be in a deep forest and if there are birds in the treetops, they'll often be the loudest.)

  4. Migration patterns. Birds just take off and go elsewhere sometimes, and you can often find the info as to where and when online with just a bit of research.

There are species, of course, that totally buck these general guidelines, but you'll probably want to figure out what it is you want to capture. Birds and insects contribute the most to ambiences, but nighttime is interesting for coyotes, crickets, hyenas, and any number of other interesting critters.

Note: These are guidelines only but I have found them to help. Your mileage may vary.

(All that said: Keep the recordings of silence. You never know when you may use it elsewhere!)

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Sounds like recording room tone... Hardly anything there to record!

I'm assuming you had a Sound Devices recorder or similar? (judging by the quality of the mics...)

How much noise were you getting off the pres? You probably had them cranked...

The biggest problem I find for myself in those situations is trying to stay quieter than the environment. Even the smallest move - fraction of an inch - or any breathing - can be picked up in the recording.

How did the end result turn out? Get some cool stuff?

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Yeah you're even hesitating to breathe, we should work in apnea as I find I tend to hear more stuff when I stop breathing! I often start recording and then remember I forgot to take a deep breath... –  Justin Huss Jul 26 '10 at 7:40
    
I was the other recordist. I had a Sound Devices and he had a Nagra, can't remember which one. We had to crank it up a lot and I know that the MKH418s is noisy at best of quiet times. I had my mic on a tripod far far far away from my interference. We'll have to listen in studio to let you know how they where. I'm sure some sections where good. Over the whole few days we got some really cool stuff though! –  Andrew Spitz Jul 26 '10 at 8:21
    
Yah, Andrew, I listened to some of the stuff and I got a couple of ok quieter segments but for the most part it is mixed with preamp noise. I got a couple of good minutes by the watering hole on Sunday morning but there is still hiss. Great time though and our barrels sound great!!! –  oinkaudio Jul 26 '10 at 11:23
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Sounds like a fun trip. I'm jealous.

Consider yourself lucky to find quiet outside. It's hard to do these days. The Schoeps MK4 is a wonderful mic (it stays in my Zepplin 80% of the time) but it's not a very high-gain mic. The 418 is also great, but a tad noisy on the side element.

I'd say resist the temptation to crank the pre-amps up over 60% or so, which will start introducing noise, and just record at a low level. Most ambiences I hear in sound effects libraries etc. are way too loud anyway and end up getting pushed down quite a bit on the mixing stage. If you need more level, you're better off doing that in the mastering stage. My 2 cents...

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Totally agree. Never crank it up that much, but still! Yeah, the 418 is too noisy, I wanna sell it or keep it as my second mic for louder sounds, cause I do love it! –  Andrew Spitz Jul 26 '10 at 17:58
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I realize that each pre-amp and mic combination might react differently but ... is there some kind of summary post we could start regarding optimum gain before introducing piles of noise?

For example I found that turning the gain past "5" on my Sony D-50 was the tipping point for S/N on for really quiet ambience.

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I agree with Jay, finding areas of zero noise are to be cherished and milked for all they're worth. In my experience, even being 50+ miles away from Los Angeles in the Carrizo Plain, my recording rig still picked up LAX air traffic to a high enough level that we had to wait for planes to clear. It's very unfortunate the degree of oblivious noise pollution in our world.

That said though, I suggest digging deep into the recordings and maybe even make some wind!

I've done some recording out in the Mojave desert wherein there were large areas of dead silence (thankfully), and seemingly dead air in a canyon with no movement. Yet, in the studio I cranked the dead air and played with some EQ, which resulted in discovering some interesting gentle wind tones which do have some subtle movement to them, yet have the weight and presence of a pleasantly round wind. Admittedly, they're some of my favorite go-to winds when I'm in the edit.

You may be quite surprised at what you'll find buried in quiet recordings.

I highly agree with the other comments of sunrise/sunset recordings. Some of the best opportunities I have found have been when I jet out to nature at about 6:00 AM when the birds are waking at first light. Usually by about 9:00 AM the birdsong has all but tapered off. Speak with rangers or guides about what you're seeking, they tend to be very enthusiastic and helpful, and not only provide you a list of local birds and info about them, but they may even be able to pinpoint great spots on a map where particular birds nets or hang out.

In very remote areas, especially deserts, my experience has been that there's a lot of sitting and waiting involved - in the sense that you may be recording a whole of nothing until something really cool crosses your path in the blink of an eye.

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really quiet ambiences push the limits of portable recorders very hard. this is where the sound devices series really shine.

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+1! A Sound Devices preamp and a mic that has a self-noise of 16dB or less are considered a nature-ambience-recording-class combo. –  NoiseJockey Oct 3 '10 at 0:51
    
Same counts for the Fostex FR-2Le, Tascam HDP2, Tascam DR680... You don't necessarily have to spend the big Sound Devices bucks to capture quiet sounds or ambiences. –  Daan Hendriks Oct 3 '10 at 10:52
    
look into chris watson's recent work to hear gear being pushed to the limit.. –  georgi Oct 3 '10 at 11:35
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