Sound Recording – How to Capture Natural Audio

Capturing audio is one of the most rewarding parts of working on Discover Oregon. With good equipment and the right location, I can record hours of natural sounds after just a few minutes of setup. You never quite know what sort of interesting recordings you’ll end up with! Here are some bird sounds I used in Portraits of Oregon:

The biggest challenge of recording nature sounds is that almost everything you want to record is quieter and farther away than it would be in a studio.  That aside – the end goal is the same as in any other type of audio recording. You want to maximize the audio quality of your intended subject while minimizing interfering noise. There are two main types of noise you’ll encounter while capturing natural audio: environmental noise and recorder noise.

Environmental noise comes from cars, planes, and other unwanted audio sources.  To reduce it you’ll want to find locations off main roads, perhaps hike away from roads entirely, or record during hours when humans tend to be a bit less noisy (like at night or early on weekend mornings).  Another work around is to simply record more content than you need and cut around the interference.  I’ll typically leave my recorder running dusk though dawn on most trips, and then use Adobe Audition to find and export the most interesting and pristine fragments.

The second source of noise is from the recorder and mics themselves.  This is a much bigger deal for recording nature sounds than interviews in a studio because natural sounds are typically faint and distant like these coyotes:

To capture gentle sounds like this you need a recorder with quiet preamps and mics so that the background noise doesn’t overwhelm your subject.  How do you find such a recorder? Well John Hartog of Oregon Soundscapes was kind enough to point me in the right direction when I started out. One of the most important links he shared with me is Avisoft Bioacoustic’s Microphone Input Noise Comparison for Animal Acoustics. This is written specifically with the unique challenges of recording quiet natural sounds in mind. You generally want your recorder to have an A-weighted Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) of no worse than -120 EIN, and preferably -125 EIN or better for very quiet surroundings.  Be warned – most of the recorders on this list don’t include microphones!  Since I’ll typically pack into locations I’m only interested in compact all-in-one units.  I assume many of you are too.

Based on this list, my go-to recorder to is a Sony PCM-D100.

This all-in-one recorder has a great setting where it can dramatically improve your signal to noise ratio (S/N) by recording on two different audio levels at the same time. It may not have XLR inputs, but the onboard mics are so good that I don’t need them.

To maximize battery power and minimize noise, I’ll typically use it with these settings:

CD quality 44.1kHz or 48kHz 16 bit setting

Record Level: 5

Mode: S/N 100

If this recorder isn’t in your budget – don’t worry!  I spent a lot of time capturing natural audio with an H4N when I first started out, and still think it’s a great beginner recorder.

You’ll just need to keep in mind that the Zoom H4N is much better suited to ‘’robust’ soundscapes such as close birds, riotous crickets, or a babbling stream.  You’ll likely also want to get some sort of mini tripod to keep your recorder off the ground, a better windscreen, and some big rechargeable batteries to go with it.  See what I use in my gear guide.

Once you’re all set up, then pick your location, make sure the mics are on, and start recording! If rain is in the forecast, I’ll make sure that my recorder is under a cover or some sort of natural overhang for safety. Then when you’re done, head home and strip out the interesting parts with a visual audio editor such as Adobe Audition. By being able to see the waveforms – you don’t actually have to listen to hours of audio in order to find the most interesting parts. Good luck, and happy recording!