Sound Recording Equipment

Developing field work skills and gaining knowledge of the natural world is key to what I do as a nature sound recordist. Getting out there into the field, gaining experience trying different approaches is the best way to learn, and I think ‘gear’ is secondary to this. However, obviously it is helpful to know what equipment can be effective and how to approach decisions regarding gear. Here are a few notes regarding the the microphones and recorders I use when recording nature sounds. In summary, the gear used depends on what the purpose of a particular recording session is.

Soundscapes: Often my primary goal is to record the soundscape as a whole which reflects the way we naturally hear sound when out in the field. To do this I use either a pair (stereo) or set of four (quad) omni-directional microphones such as Sennheiser MKH8020’s or smaller, less expensive microphones like Clippy EM172/EM272, LOM Usi pro or Earsight.

I often leave multiple recording rigs overnight and collect them the next day. Depending on the location and what animals (or people!) are around this sometimes requires strapping the rig high in a tree or concealing it carefully to avoid detection.

Preparing to leave a recording rig overnight in a tree above a favourite spot for hippos to rest at night. This rig needed to be well off the ground and out of reach of not only the hippos, but roaming hyenas were also a chance of tracking it down and chewing the gear! Kafue National Park, Zambia.

Individual Species: Sometimes a project requires isolating the sounds of a particular species. Extracting the sounds of individual species from soundscape recordings can yield some great results when there is little background noise. However, a directional microphone can be a more efficient way to target individual sounds. I occasionally use a Telinga parabolic dish as a highly directional setup, especially when bird species with mid to high frequency calls are the target. At other times I use a shotgun microphone such as a Sennheiser MKH8060 which can be more practical due its small size and has a more natural sound profile than the parabolic dish. 

Recorders: I generally use Sound Devices recorders such as the Mixpre-3, Mixpre-6 and SD702.

Microphones: For soundscapes my preferred microphone is currently the omnidirectional Sennheiser MKH8020. I have used Audio Technica AT4022’s in the past and they have excellent sound quality on par with the Sennheisers, but they are affected by occasional ‘popping’ clicks in cold, humid environments. Recently, my AT4022’s finally died after about 9 years of heavy use.

I also use a range of smaller microphones such as Clippy EM172 (EM272 is the newer version), Earsight Standard, LOM Usi Pro and Lom microUsi Pro. These smaller mics have more self-noise than the Sennheisers and don’t sound as natural (they can be a bit ‘bright’ and tinny so EQ is usually required to compensate for this), but the advantage of them is they are easier to conceal and very reasonably priced – handy when the rig is at higher risk of being damaged or stolen.

Microphone Setup: One of my main approaches to soundscape recording is using a pair of omnidirectional mics spaced 25cm apart with a baffle (foam block or similar) in between. Placing two omnis either side of a tree trunk (‘tree ears’) or in branches can also be effective (or four in a quad array). The distance between the mics can vary depending on what is available and wider spacing can work well too.

For those looking at boundary setups, this page is a helpful reference which compares a number of approaches –

An example of the ‘tree ears’ approach in rainforest in north Queensland. Two Clippy EM172’s are strapped either side of a trunk.