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Sound amazing: thanks to the digital revolution, it's now easier than ever before to record high-quality audio on portable equipment. Tessa McGregor offers her tips on the best kit for capturing the sounds of the wild.

I was following a tiger trail through dense mangroves. Humidity, heat and biting insects vied with mud and thorns to make progress difficult. My shirt was ripped, my face scratched, but adrenaline and excitement carried me forward. My heart was beating so loudly that I thought that it would spoil the recording.

With my MiniDisc recorder strapped to my waist and my microphone in hand, I was able to describe everything, including the climactic moment of stepping into the tiger's lair--a raised clearing surrounded by trees, like a castle surrounded by a moat of mud. It was full of scent marks, claw rakes, faeces and carrion. Listening to that recording, years later, still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and the excitement flood back. The power of sound is unparalleled; it hits the emotional bull's eye.


For my first radio programme, the result of winning the 2001 Journey of a Lifetime award, I was handed a MiniDisc player and a dynamic, omni-directional microphone. I wanted to record lots of ambient and wildlife sounds, so I also invested in a stereo condenser microphone as well.

I found their portability and ease of use revolutionary, but that didn't stop me making classic mistakes, including recording over previously recorded tracks (when recording with MiniDisc, don't forget to press the 'endsearch' button!) and ruining an interview because I had set the recording level incorrectly. Luckily for me, these mishaps happened early on in the journey and reminded me that familiarity with your equipment is everything. I was so sad to part with the BBC's MiniDisc recorder that l bought the same model (the Sony MZ-R50). We've been inseparable ever since

While I love MiniDisc, some people hate it, and it's now outmoded technology. There are numerous different recording options, all of which have their pros and cons, admirers and detractors: Until relatively recently, analogue cassette and open-reel tape were the standard media. The Sony Professional Walkman set the standard for portability, quality and reliability at an affordable price. But by the mid-1990s, R-DAT (Rotaryhead Digital AudioTape) and MiniDisc had superseded analogue tape. By then, portable DAT recorders were small and lightweight, making them easy to carry in the field.

With DAT, you get high-quality sound recording (uncompressed data with very low distortion errors), free from the speed variations and tape noise that can affect analogue tape. However, DAT is less robust than analogue tape and more vulnerable to environmental problems such as dust, dirt and humidity.

MiniDisc recorders are the smallest, lightest option. They use an audio compression algorithm called Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding, which compresses recordings with minimal loss in sound quality, enabling 74 minutes of stereo sound to be recorded on one disc. They also don't suffer from tape hiss and have a wider frequency bandwidth and lower overall distortion levels. They're also the cheapest option, I've heard numerous professionals say that they aren't robust and are unreliable in humid environments, but over the past seven years, I've used Sony MiniDisc recorders on all of my expeditions with excellent results, whatever the climate and location.

Sony revamped the original MiniDisc system and launched Hi-MD in 2004. Improvements include the ability to record uncompressed data, and a new IGB disc. Files recorded via an analogue microphone or line inputs can be digitally transferred to a computer via the USB port.

Although tape and MiniDisc recorders can both deliver broadcast quality and are still in use, they are becoming obsolete. It's increasingly difficult to find new models. On the positive side, prices have never been more attractive and quality equipment can be purchased on limited budgets.

The digital revolution has made it possible to create high-quality recordings, stored in a robust format with no moving parts. Digital solid-state recorders use CompactFlash memory cards. The data can be downloaded to a computer immediately for analysis, storage and editing and for transferring to CD. CompactFlash cards are available in a wide range of sizes, from 32MB to 8GB, but not all brands work with every type of recorder. It's important to check with manufacturers which cards are compatible with which model.

Digital hard-drive models are ultra-portable, easy to use, and have specially formatted hard drives (typically 40GB or more) for storage. The digital recordings are stored as data files on the disc, making random access very easy. They also have high-quality built-in microphones, but have yet to prove themselves in the field.

Solid-state recording technology is probably the best field option, but the need to upload the data from the card and store it securely requires access to a computer with enough storage space and, ideally, the ability to burn CDs as backups. Therefore, this isn't the best option for long expeditions and very basic conditions.


For high-quality recording, an external microphone is essential. The mic is as important as the recording device and must match devices in terms of connectors and quality. XLR connectors are used on professional models. They have two balanced signal lines per microphone and an earthed shield as well as the best resistance to electrical interference.

There are two classes of microphone: condenser mics, which have an internal amplifier and require a power supply--either a battery or 'phantom power' (so called because it's drawn from the recording device); and the less sensitive dynamic mics, which don't have an internal amplifier and don't require extra power.

The latter are simpler and sturdier, but aren't as responsive.

Further differences include the way in which mics pick up sound: directional mics (also known as cardioids) pick up sound from a particular direction, while omni-directional mics will pick it up equally from all directions. Mono mics record a single channel of audio, whereas stereo mics record a different signal to each channel.

If you plan to record sounds from a distance, you'll need either a shotgun or a parabolic reflector mic. Both are sensitive and expensive and need to be used with a mount and/or windshield. I use a combination of stereo condenser and gun mics, but mono dynamic mics are simpler and less fragile.

It's essential to check your recordings in the field using goodquality headphones, both to monitor them as they're made and to check the quality of the playback. This helps to detect problems immediately and fix them before you record that unique track. Headphones, like microphones, must match the recording devices in terms of connectors and build quality, and should provide enough insulation from ambient noise to allow you to hear the recording accurately. Be aware that some insect repellents can damage cushioned-style headphones by causing the foam cushion material to disintegrate (this is also the case for the foam material used on many microphone windshields).

Your recording equipment also needs to be protected from dirt, dust and moisture. Field cases are a good investment and will help prolong a recorder's life and reliability. Waterproof bags or cases should be used in wet conditions. Silica-gel crystals can also help.


So now to the difficult part: deciding which equipment is best for your expedition. Evaluate all of the factors, including destination, terrain, how long the expedition will last, access to power, the purpose of the expedition and what you want to record. Will the recordings be research tools or is a radio programme the main aim? How will you use them: in a diary, on the web, in lectures, for a broadcast? What is your budget?

Reliability, portability, power consumption and battery life are crucial considerations. If you want to download recordings to your computer, the choice must be Hi-MD or digital solid state. If not, the field is wide open. For good-quality wildlife recordings, a gun mic or parabolic reflector is necessary. Otherwise, it's down to personal preference and what you can afford. Whatever equipment you choose to work with, the most important thing is to be well acquainted with it and to know how to get the most from it before setting out on your expedition.

Tips and tricks

1 Don't go anywhere without a recorder. At a pinch, this could even be your mobile phone if it has a recording feature, it goes without saying that the best opportunities will come when you're least expecting them.

2 If you're going to speak on the recording, try to be natural. Take some deep breaths before you start. Use keywords rather than a script. Address the listener directly ('You know that feeling when ... '). Most of all, try to forget the microphone and let your instinct take over, thinking always from the listener's point of view. If you're describing a scene or a situation, let sounds paint the picture as far as possible, using your voice just to fill in the gaps. In the best pieces, the sounds and spoken word dovetail together to make listeners feel as if they're actually on the spot.

3 For some purposes, you'll need others to do the talking, but the formal interview style is best left to professional reporters. Your job is to 'tease out' what the person has to offer and the best way is often to keep your own contributions to a minimum, perhaps even just giving encouraging looks, gestures and nods. If your interviewee is nervous, put them at ease by reminding them that what they say can be edited or even deleted. Switch on discreetly--often the other person wilt barely notice--and let your pre-recording conversation ease seamlessly into the recorded one.

John Pilkington
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Title Annotation:ESSENTIAL GEAR
Comment:Sound amazing: thanks to the digital revolution, it's now easier than ever before to record high-quality audio on portable equipment.
Author:McGregor, Tessa
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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