Field Recording
Exploring the natural world by recording sounds and video

We provide training, equipment, and resources to help document the diversity of life with sound and video. Through workshops and informal training sessions, we teach field techniques and share technical knowledge to help meet the challenges of recording birds and other animals in the wild.

Sound Recording Workshop 2014
Join us for the 31st Annual Sound Recording Workshop!

June 7-14, 2014

The workshop is held every spring in the heart of the Tahoe National Forest at San Francisco State University's Sierra Nevada Field Campus. The field campus has a rustic feel, nestled under Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines at an elevation of 6000 feet. The main lodge is the central hub of activity where classroom sessions, dining, and shower facilities are located. Lodging is in tents on platforms (mattresses are provided).

From birds and bats to amphibians and insects, come and learn contemporary techniques for recording the sounds of wildlife with experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library. Participants start each day with a morning field recording session, followed by afternoon lectures and demonstrations.

Participants gain hands-on experience

  • Recording theory
  • Recording technique
  • Selecting appropriate microphones and recorders
  • Metering and setting input levels
  • Documenting recordings
  • Using software to analyze and edit recordings
  • Storing and organizing recordings and associated data

Your instructors will be Greg Budney, Audio Curator of the Macaulay Library; Bill McQuay, Audio Engineer of the Macaulay Library; Randolph Little, Lab Associate with extensive recording experience

If you are wondering what type of recording setup is best for your research or how you can hone your recording technique, the Sound Recording Workshop is the place to get advice from the masters. This workshop caters to students, researchers, birders and anyone interested in natural sound recording.

Enrollment Information

The workshop fee of $985 includes tuition, class materials, ground transportation from/to Reno airport, food, and lodging. Enrollment is primarily based on a first come, first served basis, with first consideration to students and researchers. Participation is limited to 20.

Workshop participants should bring a recorder, microphone, headphones, and recording media. A limited amount of recording equipment is available for use during the workshop. If you need to borrow equipment, it is important that you contact us as soon as possible.

Should you have any questions or would like to sign up, please contact Kelly Smith. Greg and the other instructors hope to see you at the course!

For more details, contact:

  • Kelly Smith
  • email: kls66@cornell.edu
  • phone: (607) 254-6323
  • fax: (607) 254-2439

Other Lab Workshops

The Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a Sound Analysis Workshop twice per year that gives participants in-depth training on computer-based sound analysis.

Here's our: Spanish Field Technique Guide.pdf

Quick Steps for Recording

To maximize the results from your recording opportunities here is a list of recommendations:

  1. Assemble the entire recording system and check record and playback functionality in advance. Doing so the night before is highly recommended.
  2. Plan to arrive at the field site before first light to capture sounds just ahead of and at dawn.
  3. Position the microphone so that a clear path exists between it and the vocalizing animal.
  4. When using a directional microphone take care to aim it directly at the subject. This is especially important when using a parabolic microphone system given their extreme directionality.
  5. Use the directional property of your microphone: when using a parabola have the noise to the back of the parabola, while with a shotgun microphone, adjust your position so that interfering noise should be to the side.
  6. Improve your recording by halving the distance between you and the animal. Halving the distance will yield a 6dB improvement in the desired signal and reducing the level of undesired background sound.
  7. Set the record level for the loudest element in the target vocalization, then leave it there unless the distance between you and the animal changes.
  8. Record for at least one minute, longer if the animal allows.
  9. Be aware of the noise you yourself make. Noise created by the recordist is one of the most common sources of unwanted sound. Train yourself to handle your equipment smoothly.
  10. Announce basic data* at the end of each recording.
  11. Review and organize your field tapes at the end of each day.

Recording Data

The list below is a quick reference of data that a recordist should consider announcing at the end of a recording.

  1. Species name
  2. Date
  3. Time of day
  4. Location
  5. GPS coordinates
  6. Behavioral context of sound
  7. Natural sound or response to playback. If playback was used announce this on tape.
  8. Number of individuals
  9. Habitat description
  10. Weather (e.g. degree of overcast, air temperature, water temperature (important for amphibian recordings.)
  11. Recording equipment-Audio recorder make and model; microphone make and model; if used filter positions
  12. Distance to animal

Recording Technique for Video

There are many different types and sizes of cameras available to shoot video, each with a set of appropriate field techniques for proper usage. Follow these guidelines when shooting natural history video.

  • Setup your camera and tripod system before heading to the field in order to check functionality and experiment with camera and microphone settings.
  • Before you start recording for the day be sure to check the time and date on your camera.
  • If you own a handheld GPS unit, bring it along. Save a waypoint at each place you record.
  • DSLR’s are a great option for shooting video. Several companies offer models that shoot excellent HD video. Canon (T2i, 60D, 7D, 5D mk2, 1D mk3), Nikon (D90, D3100, D7000), Panasonic (GH1 and GH2).
  • When using a Canon DSLR, Shoot video in 1920X1080 30. On a Nikon, use 1920X1080 24, (the only HD setting available).
  • Always set Shutter speed to 1/60 when shooting at 30FPS, or 1/48 when shooting at 24 FPS to maintain a proper look to the video.
  • Set ISO at 100-400 during the day, 400-1600 for lower light conditions (or higher in extreme low-light, with the understanding that the image will be somewhat noisy at the highest ISO).
  • Use the cloudy day white balance setting, or set the white balance manually with a white-balance card.
  • Concentrate on achieving critical focus. Most DSLR’s have magnifying buttons to zoom in on an area of detail on the LCD screen to check for sharp focus.
  • Always use a tripod. Footage shot with a tripod is vastly superior to handheld footage. We do not recommend shooting without a tripod at any time.
  • Select a high quality tripod and fluid video head.
  • Do not overweight your tripod and head. It is best to select a system that is rated for a few more pounds than your camera actually weighs.
  • Smooth, fluid movements with the tripod create the best shots. Be as smooth as possible when you are moving the camera.
  • Avoid jiggling, knocking, or abruptly moving the camera on the tripod as much as possible. This ‘visual handling noise’, aka camera jiggle detracts from the quality of the footage
  • Avoid ‘handling noise’ by employing hands off shooting. After framing, composing, focusing, and hitting record, take your hands off of the tripod and camera. This is a good option for static subjects like perching or vocalizing birds.
  • Collecting video specimen data is critical. Always note location, time, gear used and field conditions. When appropriate, also note behavioral information and any specifics regarding equipment configurations, specifics on shooting location or problems experienced in the field.
  • There are many ways to organize your video specimen data from field notebooks to spreadsheets. Employ an organizational system that suits you and your personal preferences best.
  • Collect high-quality natural sound in your video. This vastly improves the quality of a video clip. Avoid ‘handling noise’ when focusing, changing settings or tripod moves.
  • Most video shot today is widescreen, 16X9. Pay close attention to composing your image for the full field of view. Use the Rule of thirds. Treat the field as 3 organizational, compositional units. Align your subject in the right, or left third. Avoid bulls-eyeing (placing your subject in the center) in most situations.
  • Become one with your camera gear. Familiarity with the exact configuration of your gear, general layout, button locations, etc. will allow for easy, smooth use in the field.
  • Once you have found a subject, set up your shot rapidly. Compose the frame, set exposure, focus and hit record fast. The more rapid you can be, the more behavior you will get on camera (this will come with time as you become more and more familiar with the camera).
  • Shoot clips of substantial duration. When possible, shoot long clips. Always try and shoot 30 seconds before recomposing your image.
  • Let the subject leave the frame. If you are filming a moving subject like a swimming bird, let your moving subject naturally leave the frame to conclude the shot. This produces a pleasing end-point to the clip for production and archival purposes.
  • Try to collect the ‘Big 4’ behaviors, Portrait, Forage, Sing, Breed/Court. Be complete and systematic in your collection of diverse shot types. Try to cover all the bases, wide, close-up, head-shot, foraging shot. Of course, this absolutely depends upon your subject and its level of cooperation but be as complete as you can, when you can.
  • Behavior can be subtle. Don't be afraid of rolling on perched, static subjects. If you have a good cooperative subject, roll a good, clean, steady portrait of that bird. In many cases this type of shot is missing from the archive. Behavior-rich shots are valuable, but portrait shots are great too.
  • Shoot scenic footage (static and/or pans), especially with clear natural sound to represent the habitat of a species or suite of species. Keep the clips between 30-60 seconds. Try and be smooth and fluid with your camera moves with smooth panning shots to show surroundings and habitat elements.
  • When returning from the field, back-up your memory cards to redundant hard drives to prevent loss of your video work.
  • Audio for video is extremely important. Use a high quality microphone in conjunction with your camera, or employ an audio-mixer coupled directly to the camera for mixing sound with a separate external microphone. Alternatively, you can use a separate audio recorder to record separate audio tracks to be combined with the video later.
  • Check out these useful forums for DSLR videography information:

Here's our: Audio Equipment Guide.pdf

Here are a few things we recommend while you’re in the field:

If you’re trying to figure out the equipment setup that best suites your needs, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll find our summaries for number of the most popular recorders on the market for natural sound recording. All the recorders we review are bench and field tested by our staff. These summaries go beyond the manufacturer’s specifications to help you decide, which setup is best for you.

What type of recording do you plan on doing?

This advice applies primarily if you’re interested in targeted recording of birds, frogs, and other terrestrial creatures. Whether you plan on tracking down birds in the Amazon, studying vocal variation in Scytalopus or recording frogs in the pond near your house, we hope you find this helpful.

How much are you willing to spend?

If you can swing $2000, you’ll be set! Try to budget for at least $1500 investment and you won’t be disappointed. A good microphone is $500+ ($1200+ for the high end), recorder ranges from $350-600 ($1000-3000 for the high end).

Some highly recommended accessories are pricy and add up quickly, but well worth the investment! For an entire setup also plan on purchasing: headphones $100, shockmount $30-100, windscreen $30-80, cables $20+, memory cards $20+, case ($200+ for a PortaBrace) and often AA batteries.

Do you want a shotgun microphone or parabola?

There are advantages and disadvantages to both microphone setups. The biggest advantage of a shotgun microphone is that they are more portable than a parabolic reflector. If you’re looking for high fidelity recordings, however, a parabola is the way to go because they isolate the target very well, blocking out more background noise. They are more difficult to travel with, however, parabolas produced by Telinga are able to roll up. [Could add more advantages/disadvantages.]

What do the more expensive recorders offer?

Typically, better internal preamps. This allows you to boost the record level without hearing the recorder’s internal hum and capture targets that are farther away. Also, often times: XLR cable inputs, ability to use phantom powered microphones, quarter-inch headphone jack that won’t break as easily as eight-inch, and the list goes on.

Do you need a preamp?

Most recordists would hope the answer is no, only because they are a bit cumbersome. Often times, however, a preamp is the best way to add “clean gain.” It allows you to significantly boost your record level, without hearing the hum or hiss of the recorder’s internal preamps.

What is phantom power?

In simple terms, phantom power is when the microphone receives power from the recorder via cables. Any microphone in the Sennheiser MKH series will need to be powered by the recorder or external battery-operated power supply, such as a Sennheiser MZA-14 P48. Many mid-to-high end recorders have the option to supply phantom power, some records can not supply phantom power. Be careful to make sure your recorder/microphone combo will have enough juice to operate.

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