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    How to Record Birdsong—Part 1

     

    Two years ago in this space I wrote a three-part primer on the use of digital audio recorders for birding. A lot has changed since that time. The hardware I reviewed in Part 1 no longer is available. The software I discussed in Part 2 has been upgraded—plus, I’ve gotten better at using it. As to Part 3, the philosophical part, the key issues are still there, but I think they’re more acute now than they were in 2012. Any way you slice it, two years is a long time in the Digital Era.

    It’s time for an overhaul.

    One other thing. Of late I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about making, analyzing, and archiving recordings of bird vocalizations. In the past few months, a number of my birding friends have acquired what we lovingly refer to as “cheap pocket recorders.” More than ever, folks are appreciating birdsong. Something’s “in the air” right now, and that’s exciting.

     

    Let’s start off on the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2014. On a rocky hillside in Las Animas County, Colorado, I recorded this Rufous-crowned Sparrow:

    The first thing to note, I hope you’ll agree, is that the sound quality is great. Which brings me right away to a new perspective. I stated in 2012 that pocket audio recorders should be used chiefly for documentation purposes, not really for enjoying the beauty of birdsong. I hereby retract that statement. We’ll come back to this matter in a while.

    Now let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater: Pocket audio recorders are still good—more than good, they’re great—for documenting rarities.

    A couple hours later that cloudy Saturday morning, I heard a White-eyed Vireo—a rare spring migrant through eastern Colorado. The bird was several hundred feet distant, and I couldn’t see it. So I pressed RECORD, and obtained this documentation:

    Not great, not even all that good, but perfectly adequate for documentation purposes.

    How did I do it? How did I go from hearing the bird, to operating the hardware, to downloading the recording, to editing the sound file, to uploading it to the internet?

    I’ll get there. I’ll get to each step in the process from hearing the bird in the field to getting the recording online. But first things first. First we need equipment.

     

    1. Which gizmo? Two years ago, I enthusiastically recommended the Olympus VN-8100PC. I still regard it as the best $50 investment in my life. But the product is no longer available. That, and I have a confession: Along the way, I upgraded to the Olympus LS-10. It’s bigger, heavier, and costlier than the VN-8100PC; those are negative attributes. The LS-10 also has better microphones and the all-important Olympus “zoom” option, about which I’ll say more in a bit.

    Unfortunately, the LS-10, like the VN-8100PC, is no longer available through Olympus. Do not—I repeat, do not—buy a logical-seeming upgrade, like the Olympus LS-10S. See if you can find an LS-10 or VN-8100PC through a reliable online source other than Olympus. Or, if you’re wary—as I am—of buying used electronic products online, go for the Olympus WS-823. I haven’t yet tested it out, but several of my birding friends are using it, and the preliminary reports are favorable. It seems a better option overall than the Olympus WS-822, another produce I’ve heard birders are using.

    The ideal digital recorder has the following: high-sensitivity microphones, a “zoom” option that combines the two microphones into a single shotgun-style setup, “low-cut” filters for dampening low-frequency “noise,” wind baffles, a decent carrying case, and a short USB cable. Good customer support and an intelligible user’s manual would be nice, but Olympus hasn’t gotten there yet.

    Olympus isn’t the only show in town. One of my birding friends uses the Sony ICD-TX50, less expensive and substantially smaller than the Olympus LS-10. The Sony ICD-TX50 is quite a bit smaller, in fact, than the discontinued Olympus VN-8100PC. In direct comparison with the LS-10, the Sony ICD-TX50 is a bit less sensitive and a bit “noisier”—in the same league, I would say, as the old VN-8100PC. If you want a no-frills-but-perfectly-serviceable entry-level digital recorder, the Sony ICD-TX50 may well be your best bet.

    The Zoom H4N portable digital recorder seems promising, although I base that assessment solely on specs and reviews online. Given the company’s name, you might expect that the Zoom H4N would feature a “zoom” option, à la the Olympus LS-10—but I can’t quite tell from the reviews and specs online. One reviewer mentions a “zoom”-like setting, but I’m not seeing it in the specs online.

    There are alternatives to the “cheap pocket recorders” offered by Olympus, Sony, Zoom, and others.

    You can use your smartphone—either as a recording device unto itself or in connection with an external microphone. Not having an additional piece of equipment—that is to say, not buying a separate, standalone product from Olympus or Sony or Zoom—certainly is appealing. But a smartphone by itself isn’t as good. So download an app like Audio Memos that gives you more options. As to the external microphone, you can go fancy or simple. In a two-part online review of external microphones (Mic up that iPhone and Mic up that iPhone: Follow up), Bill Schmoker makes the case for simplicity. And Diana Doyle, in her trademark readable and informative style, offers additional tips in an online tutorial, Pocket Bird Recording: In the Field.

    Going in the opposite direction, you can spend thousands of dollars on recorders that look and feel like cinder blocks. And if you have any cash left over, you can splurge on microphones that either look and feel like a rocket launcher (these are the shotgun microphones) or the Arecibo Observatory (these are the parabolic microphones). They perform a bit better than the Olympus LS-10. They’re not for me. Then again, I once swore that I’d never upgrade beyond the VN-8100PC.

    03-04 Schwarz and Martínez

    Left: Pioneering tropical ornithologist Paul A. Schwartz records birdsong, ca. 1960; photo by © Ramón Rivero. Right: Topiltzin Martínez records birdsong with a newer instrument, June 2014; photo by © Ted Floyd.

    A final matter, before we move on. Please, if you’re using a different product from the ones I’ve tested, let us know what you’ve found. Or if you’re using one of “my” recorders and disagree with my assessments, tell us about that. I’m not a tech guy, and I may well have some of my facts wrong. I’d love nothing more than to learn cool stuff about making, enjoying, and understanding digital recordings of birdsong.

     

    3. Operating the hardware. Hey! Wait a minute! What happened to step #2? I’m going to postpone that till the end. It’s a biggie. It challenges us with some subtle philosophy and psychology. We’ll come back to it. For now, let’s talk about operating the hardware.

    Note: Unless I say otherwise, all my remarks from this point forward are about the Olympus LS-10.

    I wish I could say with a straight face that using the LS-10 is as easy as whipping out the recorder, turning it on, and pressing RECORD. It really is that easy with the VN-8100PC. With the LS-10, however, you have to unzip the case, take out the recorder, turn it on, give it a second or two to boot up, press RECORD, adjust the record level (or decline to do so), then press RECORD again, then point it at the singing bird. That process takes about 5–10 seconds, in contrast to 3–5 seconds for the VN-8100PC. If you’re on a fleeting rarity, seconds can make a difference.

    Before you head out, make sure you have the settings right. You’re not recording a concert. That is to say, there’s no time to fiddle with settings in the field. Human musicians will sit around and wait for you, but most birds will not. Here are the settings I use on the LS-10:

    MIC SENSE: HIGH

    RECORD LEVEL: ca. 8, but see below

    LOW CUT FILTER: ON (you’ll see that this is indicated by an “X” symbol)

    RESOLUTION: 16 bit

    SAMPLE RATE: 44.1 kHz

    RECORDING FORMAT: WAV

    OPTIONAL MICROPHONE PICKUP PATTERN: ZOOM

    RECORD LIMIT: ON (this is indicated by “LIMIT”)

    WIND BAFFLES: Make sure they’re affixed.

    AA BATTERIES: Make sure they’re installed.

    INTERNAL MEMORY: Make sure you have some.

    I find that the preceding settings work well for practically all field situations. With loud birds in otherwise very quiet environments, I might turn the record level down to around 5. With faint, faraway, rare birds I might crank it up to 10. Basically, somewhere in the 7–9 range is fine in most applications.

    Left: Bill Evans and Michael O’Brien record flight calls, August 1998; photo by © Volker Dierschke. Right: Reese Burke and Hannah Floyd record flight calls, June 2014; photo by © Ted Floyd.

    Left: Bill Evans and Michael O’Brien record flight calls, August 1998; photo by © Volker Dierschke. Right: Reese Burke and Hannah Floyd record flight calls, June 2014; photo by © Ted Floyd.

    Alright, now you’re ready to whip out the recorder, turn it on, and press RECORD—remember, you have to do it twice. Oh, and don’t forget: Be sure to hit STOP when you’re done recording. Several times, I’ve forgotten to do that. Right before I press STOP, I make it a point to speak softly into the recorder (real soft, as these microphones are quite sensitive, especially with the settings above) where I am and what bird species I just recorded. I don’t trust my memory. The recorder automatically stamps the date and time for you.

    More annoying than forgetting to hit STOP is accidentally turning on the recorder and/or accidentally recording. When I was at in Las Animas County last month, I rolled under a barbed wire fence (perfectly normal practice while doing fieldwork) and managed somehow both to turn on the recorder and start recording. No, I’m not going to post the recording that resulted. Use your imagination. But here’s a decent recording I got of a Rock Wren while down in Las Animas County:

     

    4. Download the recording. The LS-10 has 2 gigabytes of internal memory, an amount that can be gobbled up during the course of a weekend’s worth of fieldwork. So you should buy a memory card with an extra 8, 10, or more gigs of memory, yes? Actually, I recommend against that strategy. It’s a matter of personal discipline.

    I find it essential to regularly download, rename, and organize my files. If I don’t do that every 30 or 40 recordings or so, the files become as disorganized as the proverbial shoebox full of notecards in your mom’s attic.

    To download the files, turn on your computer and connect the recorder to the computer via a USB cable. Doing so will automatically activate the recorder. Grab all the files from the recorder, and drag them over to the computer. A bizarre feature of the VN-8100PC, the LS-10, the LS-10S, and probably other Olympus products is that the files aren’t really deleted—at least, not on my Mac (a friend says this isn’t a problem on a PC). Anyhow, you can’t see the files or access them, but they’re there, taking up space. So double-click the ERASE button on the recorder, then answer ALL ERASE at the prompt; the gizmo will confirm with ERASE DONE. Perform this operation from the recorder itself, disconnected from your computer—after you’ve properly removed the hardware.

    Organize your files! It requires additional time and discipline, but it’s worth it. I give each file a name with the following info: Bird species (four-letter banding code), year, month, day, time (24-hour format), state (or country), county (or equivalent jurisdiction if outside the USA), and location. Like this:

    08-file management

    Thus, I recorded a Long-billed Thrasher [LBTh] at Choke Canyon State Park [CCSP], Live Oak [LiOa] County, Texas, at 8:49 a.m. on April 23, 2014, and again at 8:51 a.m. Two days later I recorded another Long-billed Thrasher, also at Choke Canyon State Park, but this time over in the McMullen [McMu] County portion of the park. I recorded a Northern Mockingbird [NoMo] in Reno, Washoe [Wash] County, Nevada, at 12:10 p.m. on December 8, 2013, and I recorded Pearly-eyed Thrashers [PETh] at the dates and times shown on Guana Island, off Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

    Note that I record in .wav (waveform audio file) format, generally the highest-quality files you can make with “cheap pocket recorders.” They are the audio equivalent of “raw” or “uncompressed” photos. They’re big. Just those seven files above (three Long-billed Thrashers, one Northern Mockingbird, three Pearly-eyed Thrashers) take up 54.6 megabytes. Amass a thousand such files (which you’ll easily do after a year or so of making recordings), and you’re getting up toward 10 gigabytes. So storage is a consideration. I keep my files on the cloud.

    Alright, we’ve acquired a recorder (step #1), heard the bird in the field (step #2, but, remember, we’ve skipped that for now), recorded the bird (step #3), and downloaded the recording (step #4). Now for the fun part.

    Click here to continue reading.

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    Ted Floyd

    Ted Floyd

    Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
    Ted Floyd

    Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

    • Derek

      The VN-8100PC you linked to on Amazon is currently in stock and available to buy

      • Ted Floyd

        Thanks, Derek. But it’s not available through Olympus, right? So no warranty and no customer support? Also–and maybe I’m overly cautious about this–I suppose I’m wary of buying an old product, even if it’s brand-new. Definitely, one doesn’t want to buy a never-used peach or cucumber that’s been sitting around on the shelf for a year or so. Same thing with an Olympus recorder?

        When you buy from Amazon, can you tell how old recorder is, i.e., when it was built in the factory?

        Then again, my Olympus recorders, now several years old and heavily used, seem to be working just fine.

    • Pingback: How to Record Birdsong « ABA Blog

    • Nate Dias

      Thanks for these posts Ted – getting into sound recording can seem intimidating to a lot of people and you are doing a good job de-mystifying it.

      In terms of Amazon items being covered by warranty + customer support: Amazon is not like eBay where (virtually) everything is used / secondhand. Some Amazon-listed electronics vendors have brand new, unopened and still in-packaging electronics. Others offer used equipment and others offer both. My understanding of the Amazon vendors who sell brand new equipment is that such equipment is fully supported by the manufacturer and warranties apply – unless the product has been sitting on their shelves for so long that it has been “end-of-lifed” by the manufacturer. This can always be determined prior to purchase by visiting the manufacturer’s website or contacting their support dept.

      * This support + warranty coverage was certainly the case for my Tascam DR-40. Which leads me to my next point – I think Tascam products are worth considering as entry-level digital audio recorders. I like my DR-40 – it is easy to use, capable, durable and they are available for under $200 brand new. I carry it in a ziplock bag in my backpack while birding and it’s always there. Even without external mikes, it does well for “quick-draw recording” or documentation of rarities.

    • gwapuffin

      Having done some recording I will offer a few notes on using hand held recorders.

      Do not roll off any sounds during recording, there may be something in
      the roll off range that you will need. The same roll off frequencies
      can be edited in post if they are not needed.

      Audacity recommends installing LAME in your Audacity folder to add the
      option to save files as MP3 . The link for LAME is on the Audacity web
      page.

      If you want to study sonograms I would recommend opening your file in
      Raven lite ( another free program) and use the sliders to quickly
      produce the best image.

      Record in Mono if you want to reduce the file size. You do not need a stereo image for study or documentation. You need microphones that have a barrier of some sort to produce
      realistic sounding stereo files, I don’t know of a recorder in this
      price range that will do that with the built in microphones.

      Most hand held recorders in your LS 10 price range will do a good job of
      recording robust bird sounds, if you can hear it – it will record it.

      Recorder model preference is mostly about a personal choice for I/O
      ports, controls, menus, power and the image produced by the microphones
      used. Different microphones color the sound slightly, again it is a
      personal choice.

      Recorder self noise is usually masked by the microphone self noise and
      the microphone self noise is usually masked by ambient sounds such as
      vegetation moving in the wind. You will be hard pressed to find a
      location that will not have ambient sounds in addition to your subject.

    • Pingback: How to Record Birdsong—Part 3 « ABA Blog

    • Paul Hurtado

      I have a Sennheiser ME67 shotgun mic and I would like to “upgrade” my Sony HiMD recorder to something else.

      Any suggestions for an equally small/portable recorder, that uses easy-to-find batteries, can be used in the dark, has good preamps, etc?

      • gwapuffin

        I use an XLR/ 3.5 cable on my ME 66 to a M-10 and it works fine with the K6 power, be sure to turn off PIP on the M-10. The M-10 has a buffer as well.

        • Meena Haribal

          Hi Paul,
          I have been using Sony PCM 10 and these days I don’t even use the external microphone. In Japan, recently I used only Sony PCM 10 on manual mode and I think I have decent recordings!

          • Paul Hurtado

            Hi Meena! Nice to hear from you, and glad to hear the PCM M10 works that well. I still like the extra reach of a directional mic, but if I go with a non-XLR recorder that one is at the top of my list! :-)

    • Anthony G.

      Ted,
      Two years ago I had done much research prior to acquiring a professional sound device in particular for live music recording and ultimately decided on the H4N. I’ve been involved in recording studios and music production for quite some time thus not a newbie in this area. There is no “zoom” feature to speak of on the H4N as you would consider say with a camera lens. However, the H4N has two built-in multi directional microphones so that you can change the microphone angle on the fly. What this means each of the two built in mics can have a narrower, more focused recording range when set at 90 degrees or wider range at 120 degrees (page 30 in the manual online talks more of this). The H4N microphones are crossed which allows the unit to capture sound sources in the center and over a wider area. The unit comes with a wind shield protector and the ability to add yet even two more external corded DIN mics so that you can truly acquire more of a realistic “surround” sound and record 4 separate channels at once. The sampling rates go beyond CD quality at 44.1k to 48k (DVD quality) and the unit also offers 24bit recording with 128 oversampling in uncompressed WAV format. The unit is feature rich, from numerous perspectives including that of recording in a variety of formats such as WAV and Mp3 which spans across a range from a low quality 48 kbps (kilobits per second) to a much higher quality of 256 kbps (compressed and CD quality). The unit can do also 320 kbps in VBR (variable bit rate mode – this keeps the file size to a minimum yet at a higher recording rate). Mono and Stere options are available as well. I hope you at some point find the time to sample for yourself this wonderful product. As of 2014 the H4N is still available and there’s been a price drop. I had paid $300 its now $227 online. Anyone who is serious about top notch portable recording should investigate this device. The unit even comes with a threaded cone shaped handle to screw into the base and allows the use of mounting it to a tripod. There are many illustrations of the H4N on youtube as one quick example.

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    • David Kazdan

      I agree that the Olympus “zoom” feature is a better-than-nothing directional microphone. It certainly will not equal the lateral rejection of a shotgun microphone or the acoustic signal amplification over noise of a parabolic or horn microphone. Note that the LS-10 is several years out of manufacture. Current are LS-12 and -14, with slightly different features. Small note: Arecibo is a spherical reflector, not parabolic. That was chosen to permit scanning the sky with the moving overhead antenna.

      • Ted Floyd

        Okay, but there’s something else. The Olympus “zoom” feature gives you one, not two, tracks. That’s essential for understanding, appreciating, and interpreting the sound spectrograms.

        Oh, and thanks for the correction on Arecibo.

    • Ted Floyd

      Principal Skinner and Bart Simpson record nocturnal flight calls with a “cheap pocket recorder.”

    Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
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