Short guide to overnight recordings in nature…

Overnight setup at the Black River 2017, Sweden.

Nature recordings are some of the most fun to make, and some of the most challenging. Conditions vary wildly. During a nature trek you have even less control over the circumstances than some other field recording endeavors, and there is so much to record, and a multiple methods of doing that. One that I employ a lot is to leave the gear recording unattended for a long time , aka the “drop and recover technique”.  I do that because no matter how silent, hidden, and stealthy you are, animals will always pick up your presence. This will influence them, and thus the biophony of what you want to record will be different. Leaving your mics  alone will avoid this to a considerable extent. Sure, your mics probably will be noticed by the animals, but most of them will, after a while, no longer be bothered by them, and resume their normal behavior. A second advantage with this  technique is that, because you are recording for a long time, you increase your chances of capturing something truly special or remarkable. And if your battery last long enough, one session could easily entail a recording of the dusk chorus, the dawn chorus and the night. and perhaps even a part of the day. A second advantage is that this way, you can leave two rigs in separate places, and thus record more sound! A good way to get more out of the trip, which usually amounts to be a sizeable investment. Luckily, these days most recorders offer enough memory and battery life to record a very long time, so overnights can be done with even modest setups. There is one downside though. This approach quickly amounts a a ridiculous amount of hours to listen to. You should also budget time for that.

Overnight setup at Limpopo, South Africa 2013, during the Sonic Mmabolela residency.

In the beginning I did this, I was very weary of doing it. It’s a big step to leave your precious gear out there in the elements, unattended. But seeing other people doing it showed me it was possible and convinced me to try it too. It is well worth it. In this post I’ll explain a bit the methods I use when I leave my rigs overnight, how I protect them and make sure that there’s a reasonable chance the rigs recording something good. This is all stuff I learned throughout the years, by experimenting and by borrowing ideas from many others. It is my own personal approach, there is no right way in doing this. So let’s get started. And if you’re weary, as I sometimes still am, you can always just do it with your backup rig, or create a special inexpensive rig to do this with.

First of all, dropping a rig overnight requires some preparation. It’s not just plonking a rig down somewhere, press record and hope for the best. The most important preparation being: asking yourself the question what do I want to record?  Which kind of fauna, flora and which kind of places. In my humble opinion an overnight (or any long term unattended) recording is ideal to record ambiances, so I always record these with a stereo setup (or even a surround setup if I can get my hands on one). And then when you found a location that might be suitable,  don’t rush. Don’t just plonk your microphone at the first accessible place and press record. Take your time to explore the area a bit, listen how different places in the area sound. Listen for a particular reverb you might like, an openness in the sound, or maybe the opposite, a lot of sound sources very close by. Use the landscape to find an ideal recording location. Valley slopes are interesting, forest edges can create a beautiful reverb. Locate possible sound sources, like a mango tree that might be visited by elephants during the night. trees that might have a fruit favoured by a certain bird, …   Take your time to listen. There might also be some distant sound sources you wouldn’t notice immediatly, that might become annoying or too present over time, like a distant wild water river, or a generator of some kind. Sometimes these background sounds only become noticeable after we spent some time carefully listening to the space.   As in all nature recording, or any recording of a place you are not that familiar with yourself, it really helps to have a guide, who knows the place, and the behavior of the animals in there, and the people that might visit it. They are indispensable, tell them what kind of place you need, what you would like to find.

And very importantly: test your gear before leaving for a trip. Check out how you can maximize battery life. Do you have enough storage for a whole night of recording? Which external batteries will you be using? Also: how long does it take to recharge your batteries after a full night of recording. If you’re on an excursion of several days, you’ll need enough batteries so that you have at lease some of them charged up again by the time you go out again. These days, most recorders will allow an external battery (USB, NP1, V-mount, …) to maximize recording time.

 

Ok, so you have found a place. Now how to continu?

The two main rigs of the Finland 2018 trip, ready to go.

First of all, get a good all risk insurance for your gear. Most insurance policies will not cover your gear when it is unattended. However, a lot could happen when travelling to the recording location, or when coming back after you picked up the gear. And often you’ll be in circumstances that are demanding of you and your gear. So an insurance is always handy.

Then you should only leave your gear unattended in really remote places where the possibility that a passerby might stumble on your rig is really really low. You should ask your guide to help you find such places. Also, ask about the behaviour of people in a certain area. Some places might be visited at night by hunters, campers, people picking mushrooms, or harvesting caterpillars. You don’t want them to stumble on your rigs.

The main rig at the Black River in Sweden in april 2018. Two Cinela pianissimo’s with a kelly rain cover.

Weatherproof your gear. Weather conditions might change, sometimes very quickly. It might start to rain, even snow. There might be a huge temperature difference between day and night. At some point, your microphone or recorder might find themselves in full on sunlight. You should account for all of these, as you won’t be there to protect the gear should the weather change. As with all outside recording, you’ll need some wind protection for your microphones. And for the weather: I have used a cinela pianissimo and kelly raincover. And the rycote duck over a blimp. Both helped to protect the mics in even very heavy rain storms. The new DPA 4060’s (or any of their mics with the new core technology) are also very water resistant and I believe can be used in rain. And I have used umbrella’s to protect gear from both sun and rain. The recorder goes into a dry bag, with plenty of battery. You could also construct a recorder box (but make sure it has enough ventilation to avoid overheating.  Several people have shared their recorder box designs online). I also know of people who made their own blimp or weather protection from fabric that is acoustically transparent and waterproof (or at least rain proof), sometimes with some extra padding for rain drops (apparently, pool filter foam is ideal for that). Put a silica gel bag in the dry bag or recorder box. To rainproof any cable connections that might be exposed (like the Y-splitter cable into the single stereo cable), I wrap them in some electrical tape.

Do not only think about rain, but also about the sun. If the dry bag with the recorder is in direct sunlight, or if you’re working in very warm weather, it might overheat. Put it in a place where there will be some shade (or put some leaves and twigs over it). I have also used an umbrella to keep my mics in the shade (it helps knowing where the sun will come up in the morning). If you are using a recorder box, be sure to have some ventilation holes in it, as your battery and recorder will generate heat. That needs to be able to escape, so make sure there is a bit of airflow around your recorder (without the ventilation letting rain in). There are other more (very) fancy options using Peltier elements, but those need their own power. Personally I have not experimented with them, but for recording in very hot conditions, it might be an option.

I’m actually working on my own design for an overnight box. Once I have a design I’m happy with, I’ll share it here. For now, you could always look at Tom Benedicts design. And I know Leah Barclay at times uses a Dri-box for long unattended recordings.

Very cold weather poses it’s own challenges. In cold weather, your batteries will be spent much, much faster. Also, any humidity might freeze, and freezing water expands which might damage your equipment. Cables become a lot stiffer, which might cause them to break faster (or at least be much more difficult to roll out and up again).  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to go out recording yet in very cold weather, but I would love to have the opportunity to go out and record the deep winter. When I will finally go on my arctic adventure, these are some of the tricks I’ll try. A lot of them come from Timothy Muirheads blog post on recording in cold weather. However, Timothy doesn’t really address overnight recordings, so here are a few ideas I’d try.   I might make a recorder box from an knock off peli case and don’t use any ventilation holes, so the heat of the recorder stays in. I might even put some heat packs in there, for a warm start, and some isolation to keep the heat in. Batteries should be best be carried on your body till just before you start recording. The heat of your body will keep the batteries in a good chemical condition to actually provide power.  Another route I might take is to put my recorder and battery in an isolation box to keep food warm, such as these, and put that in a dry bag. To avoid any moisture getting into the mic and then freezing, I’ll probably tape a tiny bag of silica gel in the blimp. Timothy also mentioned you need to keep your ears warm. I did that by wearing a light merino wool hat over my ears. The best one (and most acoustically transparent one) I found happened also to be the cheapest one: a grey one from 66° north. Unfortunately, that hat got left on a bus somewhere, and it turns out that outside of Iceland, they are very expensive and difficult to find.

Can you spot the rig? – overnight recording in the Savannah of Gabon

Camouflage your blimp, and your dry bag. It will help your rig be more inconspicuous and less easily noticed by birds, other animals. It will not make your rig invisible, but it will take animals a bit longer to notice it, and they might not be startled by it that much. If they get close enough, they will notice it though. I use camo scrim around the blimp (fastened with some velcro) and a camo dry bag. Another huge advantage is that any human passerby’s that might happen to pass along in the vicinity will be less likely to notice your rig. If you have a stealth mode on your recorder (no backlight, no meter lights…), use it. (Some animals are startled by it, or behave aggressive towards it).  Avoid bright colours on any part of the rig that is visible from the outside. Use natural colours. Also use the environment to help hide your rig. Use trees and shrubs to find a kind of natural shelter. You could put some leaves and branches on the recorder bag, Even some grass or twigs on the tripod holding your microphone.

 

 

Underneath all this, there’s a camo dry bag, with a recorder inside.

 

Research the behavior and curiosity level of the animals that might be present in the location that you are recording. Chimps will be curious about your gear, so will bears and especially bear cubs. I read that elephants don’t like flashing lights. Some birds are attracted to shiny things…

Now that you made your rig as inconspicuous as possible, write down the GPS coordinates of where you left your rig, or log them in another way. It avoids having to spend some hours to look for the rig when you go pick it up. Even if you have a pretty good idea of where you left them, places in the forest, the bush or the Savannah quickly look very similar, and you might only be 10m away from your rig and still not find it. When recording in places that still have a decent winter, you’re bag might be cover by snow.  Also ask your guide to help you remember where you put the rig. They know the area a lot better than you do, and they usually have an amazing spatial memory. Sometimes you can also put a little bright coloured flag a few meters away from your microphone (never next to it), or if it’s a rig that will only be recording a short while and that you’ll pick up after a few hours, but it will be dark when you pick it up, you could hang a small red bicycle light a few meters from your rig (insects usually can’t see red light).   The GPS coordinates also come in very handy later when logging the recordings. Or if you ever want to get back to a place. Up until now, I have used a GPS app on my phone, but I noticed that in very remote area’s it is not always that reliable, so at the moment, I’m exploring using a stand alone GPS device.

Clippy mic succumbed to surprise rain storm, Gabon 2018

Tie your mic stand to a tree or root (I use zip ties), so that even curious animals can’t knock it over or drag it away. I also have a belt connected to my dry bag and that I sling around a tree. Use trees, bushes, rocks to protect the gear and don’t put it on any animal path (next to it can be great though). Also check with your guide if you’re not missing something that would suggest this is not a good place to tie your mic down.   I also cut away loose twigs or long grass stands that might tick against the mic or mic stand and thus create contact noises.

Leave enough headroom for the dusk and dawn chorus, or animals that suddenly get very close. If the recorder has limiters, turn them on. Over time, you’ll be able to judge how much headroom you need on your rig. And sometimes clipping is unavoidable. An unexpected loud thunderstorm. Two cats fighting next to your rig. A Cicada coming to sit op top of your microphone.

A lesson I recently relearned is to do a last minute double check your recorder before closing up the bag. Sometimes you’ll be in a rush, but take a few moments to do so. Is it running? Is it recording? Do you have enough battery and memory space? Is the hold funtion on (if your recorder has one)? A good practice is to reformat the card just before recording. Or at least make sure it is empty. On my last trip I noticed I stupidly forgot to put back the memory card in the recorder at one instance. Luckily, I had a backup card with me and could put that in, but I didn’t check if it was empty, so while it did record 11 hours, it was full just as the dawn chorus was about to start. And off course this happened after a 4 hour steep uphill hike in the mountains. Lesson learned (again).

If  you are working near water: e.g, in a low lying wetland, next to a river, lake, pond or a coastline: always check how high the water might rise after a heavy rainfall, and don’t put your rig there. Also check for variations that might occur due to eb and flood, or meltwater.

Have a backup rig with you that you can use if something were to go wrong with the main rig. It doesn’t need to be a copy of or as fancy as your main rig. But have a system that you could still use if something would go wrong, even with all these precautions, with the main rig. You’ve done all the trouble, made the whole investment to find and get to this nice recording location. Make sure you can keep recording even if something were to go wrong. As a bonus, a second rig will allow you to record in two places at the same time when all is still peachy.

Above is some advice for if you leave your recorder really unattended. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable with that,  or the location is more tricky, or perhaps there are situations where you need to stake out and monitor things. There’s always the option of using your backup rig. Or you can always go camping. Get a neutral looking tent (natural colours). An perhaps cover it with a big camo scrim. And get a looong cable (+ 100m). Put the recorder in your tent that you put up at the maximum distance the cable allows, you can monitor the recorder before going to sleep, and any tug on the cable will tell you if something is going wrong. You should avoid anything that creates too much of an odour (cooking, camp fire, smoking) and try to keep as quiet as possible (Don’t snore!), but you can make some great recordings.

Manmade sound is everywhere, so you might need to go a long way before you find some spots where you can really record some pristine nature. If you find them, it could mean that you yourself are very far from civilisation.  When going to / working in remote locations, I think it’s a good idea to be always be with two people or more, so you’re not alone if something were to happen to you, and you can help each other out. It doesn’t always have to be with life threathening things, but sharing batteries, the one connector that you forgot even after you went through your checklist three times, or they might be willing to share their chocolate. Or just have a great story to tell.

When going out to record, it’s easy and tempting to quickly become bogged down in all the technical details of setting up and securing your rig. Also take time to listen. To take in the place.  Before you realize, you have checked and double- even triple checked your rig and you’re on your way back, without having taken the time to just be in the space for a bit. You’ve done all this troube to get here. Take advantage of it to take in the moment, to be in the surroundings. Listen, watch, breathe a bit. Most probably, these will be some of the moments you remember most of the trip.

The main rig on the last overnight of Finland 2018

The one problem with this approach is that you quickly end up with a ridiculous amount of recordings. A trip of a week can quickly escalate into over a 100 hours of recording, sometimes far more. So need to plan extra time to listen to countless hours of (hopefully beautiful) recordings after your back. You can use a spectrogram or just looking at the waveform to identify things that might be of interest, but I myself to listen to every recording at least twice. Otherwise it’s too easy to miss some truly remarkable sounds. I must admit though, I have a backlog of a few years by now…

And I would like to stress, this is just one way of making nature recordings. You don’t have to leave your mic unattended. And sometimes nothing beats the exhilaration to get up way before dawn and go out there and listen to the world wake up. (but sometimes, staying in bed is nice too).

 

Ps: this article originally started as a facebook comment and in the end turned out a lot longer than I planned it to be. It seems that I did pick up one or two idea’s from people along the way. I can’t trace each idea to the person who taught me it, or inspired me, but some of the people from whom I’ve learned a lot were, amongst others, Francisco López, George Vlad, Pete Smith, Jana Winderen, Chris Watson, and Jez Riley French.

 

 

 

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