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Category: Recordist Profiles

Recordist Profile: Andrew Spencer

Recordist Profile: Andrew Spencer

Andrew Spencer recording a Gould's Toucanet, Cristalino Lodge, Brazil, September 2009.
Andrew Spencer recording a Gould's Toucanet, Cristalino Lodge, Brazil, September 2009. Click to hear the recording.
Andrew's current recording rig: a 22-inch Telinga parabola with a Sennheiser ME62 microphone and a Fostex FR2-LE digital recorder.
Andrew's current recording rig: a 22-inch Telinga parabola with a Sennheiser ME62 microphone and a Fostex FR2-LE digital recorder. Note the duct tape, sweat stains, etc.

I’ve been bugging my old buddy Andrew Spencer to send me a recordist profile for months now, but until this week he was too busy slogging around South America.  Now he’s on a stateside break until July, when he’s headed back to the Bird Continent  to take up residence as a professional birding tour guide.

Ten years ago Andrew and I used to take off on birding trips all weekend every weekend, not to mention most days after school.  After I caught the recording bug, it wasn’t too long before Andrew caught it too.  Now, he’s the top contributor to Xeno-Canto, with 2500+ of his recordings online.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve added Andrew as an Earbirding author, so you’ll be seeing occasional posts by him on this site from now on.  I figured it was a good idea to introduce him to his audience before handing him a keyboard — hence this author profile.

Here’s what Andrew has to say about himself and his recording.

I started watching birds when I was about five, but didn’t start recording until after my first trip to South America, to Ecuador in 2006. While there I realized that the ability to record birds in the tropic was absolutely fundamental to fully enjoying South American birding, and as soon as I got back I bought my first recording rig.

In the few years since then I have become ever more deeply obsessed with recording…what at first was something to help call unknown birds in and document unknown sounds for later identification became a quest to record as many species, song, and call types as I could. As a result I have traveled around much of the US and South America recording birds.

Since I started recording I have used a number of different recording rigs, in the following chronological order:

Sony HD mini-disc with a Sennheiser me66 shotgun mic

This was my first rig, and a basic yet ultra portable setup. The minidisk recorder did a decent job in terms of recording the sound, but had several serious drawbacks, chiefly the lack of ability to manually adjust the gain.  [listen to a Yellow Rail Andrew recorded with this rig]

Oade modified Marantz PMD660

I used this recorder with both my shotgun mic and with a Telinga Parabola I later purchased. Of all the recorders I’ve used this was by far my favorite; it had remarkably clean and powerful preamps, approaching those of high-end recorders. It did have some durability problems, and repeated exposure to high humidity in the tropics caused problems with the output lines.  [listen to a Tepui Wren recorded with Marantz & shotgun, and a Golden-cheeked Warbler recorded with Marantz & parabola ]

Fostex FR2-LE

My current recorder, I got this on short notice to replace the malfunctioning Marantz. As a whole it does a decent job, but the preamps are noticeably noisier and less powerful that the Marantz, and the rig as a whole is less durable in my opinion. I mostly use a Telinga Parabola and a Sennheiser me62 omnidirectional microphone with the Fostex, which produces acceptable but usually not stellar results.  [listen to a Peruvian Plantcutter recorded with Fostex & parabola]

I use a couple of different recording styles while in the field, depending on where I am and who I am with. In North America I usually have a small list of targets that I want to record, and if I find a vocalizing bird I stick with it for a long time trying to get different sounds out of it. Other times, especially if I am on a trip to an area I don’t go to much or with non-recordists I will record a bird making noise but move on fairly quickly to the next species.

I tend not to use headphones while recording, even with the parabola. While using headphones does allow one to pinpoint a singing species with more precision I find that it also makes it harder to hear other birds singing around you, and the process of putting on an removing the headphones both eats up time and is really quite annoying. With practice I feel it is possible to pinpoint a target with a fair degree of accuracy and by watching the meters on the recorder. Since I don’t use headphones I also rarely use the wind coat for that parabola, since this allows me to look through the clear dish and at the bird, if it is visible, and pinpoint it without having headphones.

Unlike some recordists I am a big believer in post recording editing. Typically I will filter out low frequency rumble if it doesn’t overlap the target signal, amplify the recording if it is very quiet, and if necessary remove background talking and handling noise. For editing sounds I recommend Raven Lite, available free from the Macaulay Library, and for more advanced editing Adobe Audition.

Recordist Profile: Bob Zilly

Recordist Profile: Bob Zilly

Bob Zilly, 1/25/2009.
Bob Zilly, 1/25/2009.
Bob's two recorders.  Left: Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder; right: Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder.
Bob's two recorders. Left: Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder; right: Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder.

Bob Zilly of Longmont, Colorado describes himself as a “casual and opportunistic” recordist.  I’m excited to profile Bob in this first post of 2010 not only because he’s a terrifically nice guy, but also because I think his recording style and equipment will appeal to many readers who might like to get into audio recording in a relatively quick, easy, and inexpensive way.

Bob uses the simplest kind of digital recording device: handheld voice recorders.  No external microphone, no headphones, no cords or cables to worry about (unless you want them).  At right you can see his two rigs:

Olympus VN-5200PC Digital Voice Recorder (right).  This thing retails for well under $100.  It records only in a compressed format (WMA), which won’t do for some audio purists, but it really doesn’t distort bird sounds either, as far as I can tell.  For someone who just wanted to dabble in recording — say, brushing up on the local songs, documenting the occasional rarity, maybe even determining a crossbill type from time to time — this model would be ideal.

Olympus LS-10 Linear PCM Recorder (left).  For a couple hundred dollars more, this machine allows higher-quality recording, eliminating the compression that MP3 and similar formats introduce.  Both this and the above recorder can be operated with an external shotgun microphone if desired.

Here’s what Bob had to say about why he records, and how he likes his equipment:

Several years ago I bought a digital voice recorder to replace pen and paper for keeping lists. I found that while playing back the recordings I could sometimes hear the bird I was talking about. After that I would sometimes record the sounds of birds that I didn’t know in order to help identify them.

Mind you, voice recorders certainly have limitations. The microphone’s pickup pattern is less than desirable and I often hear airplanes, insects, and handling sounds on my recordings. I sometimes yearn for a shotgun or parabolic mic to pick up faint sounds and exclude background noise — but then again my equipment fits in my shirt pocket and I can be recording in the time it takes to pull it out of my pocket and press a button.  I don’t usually go out specifically to record bird sounds but since the recorder is always in my pocket I can record whenever an opportunity presents itself.

I also recently bought a true high-fidelity pcm recorder (the Olympus LS-10) but I’m still just using the built in microphones and have just started playing around with it.  Jury is still out on whether I like it. I tried setting record levels manually on some quiet sounds and this led to lots of amplifier noise because I had to crank the levels up a lot to see anything on the VU meters. Later I tried using the auto record level function but then the quiet sounds were barely audible. I think my voice recorder did a better job. I’ll play with it some more but I may have to think about getting a shotgun mic and possibly an external preamp too so I can use line in.

It’s true, of course, that the single most important piece of equipment in a recording rig is the microphone, and these handheld recorders don’t have the best built-in microphones; they’re designed for a human voice at a distance of a couple of feet, not a Song Sparrow 80 meters away.  But for those who simply want basic recording capabilities when the opportunity arises, these things can work pretty well, as this recording by Bob shows.  I’ll let him introduce it:

I was visiting my mom in Illinois and woke up at 4:00 AM and heard this guy. I just opened the window and grabbed the voice recorder. The hum is from the building next door, not the recorder. Because of the hum and the bugs its not the best recording but rather an example of how opportunistic you can be with simple equipment.

Not too shabby!  Here’s hoping that Northern Cardinal helps inspire others to follow Bob’s lead and get into recording, even if it’s just the casual kind!

Recordist Profile: Tayler Brooks

Recordist Profile: Tayler Brooks

Tayler Brooks
Tayler Brooks

The second installment in our occasional profile series spotlights Tayler Brooks of Brier, Washington, a newly active young recordist who was one of the expert sound ID panelists at the recent Western Field Ornithologists conference in Boise.  Tayler grew up in western Washington and became interested in birds at the age of 12.  For the past three years, bird sounds have been her favorite bird-related area of study.  She has just started her second year in college, studying biology; she is very involved with various projects of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is a volunteer for her local Audubon chapter.

Here’s the equipment that Tayler uses:

  • recorder: Marantz PMD660 modified by Oade Brothers Audio to have quieter and more powerful preamps. In Tayler’s words, “I like it quite a bit actually, it does everything I want it to really well, I think. I feel like it’s a major improvement on the minidisc in most aspects, except most notably battery life (it goes through batteries like there’s no tomorrow).”
  • microphone: Sennheiser ME67 shotgun microphone with K6 (AA battery) power supply (thus, the same microphone that Paul  Hurtado uses)
  • shockmount & windscreen: Rycote Softie
  • no headphones.  “I feel I can better pinpoint and position the mic to be on target with the sound source using my unaided ear since my mic is less directional than a parabolic mic setup.”


Tayler had this to say about how she uses her equipment, and why:

With my growing interest in better understanding bird sounds, I now almost always take my recording equipment into the field with me whenever I’ll have a decent change at being around birds that are making noise. Like binoculars, it has become one of those things that feels strange to leave the house without when I’m bound for places in nature. One thing I’m always looking for when I record is capturing variation be it within species or populations, so I can be more familiar with the lesser known sounds of even common species. That in particular opened up a new world of discovery for me when I really started to take a closer look at the more complete set of sound a given bird species makes. Also, recording vocalizations from species groups not well represented, such as many types of waterbirds (gulls, ducks, and non-breeding calls of shorebirds) I also find exciting.

I asked her if she had any tips for beginners, and she responded:

Go recording solo or with small groups of people. This may seem obvious, but I thought I’d mention it since I often go out in search of birds with a group of five or so. The smaller the group (in many cases), the more you’ll be able to hear, and making cleaner recordings that require less editing is all the more easy.

Also, give recording in mono a try. It’ll save you a lot of memory space.

Tayler has contributed many fine recordings to Xeno-Canto.  She particularly recommends this Red-eyed Vireo recording and this Winter Wren.  Enjoy!

Recordist Profile: Paul Hurtado

Recordist Profile: Paul Hurtado

In response to my last post, Paul Hurtado suggested that I periodically profile recordists and their equipment, as a service to beginners and those shopping for new gear.  I loved the idea, and since it was his (and he volunteered), I’m starting with a profile of Paul himself.

Paul Hurtado in the Adirondacks.
Paul Hurtado in the Adirondacks.

According to the bio he sent me, Paul grew up roaming the wild lands around Pueblo, Colorado in search of all things spineless, scaly, slimy or feathered. Since graduating from the University of Southern Colorado, he has been working on his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, using mathematical models to study the ecology of infectious diseases.

Here’s the run-down on Paul’s recording gear:

  • Microphone: Sennheiser ME67 shotgun microphone with K6 (AA battery) power supply (purchased on eBay for around $250-$300)
  • Shockmount & windscreen: homemade.  The shockmount for the microphone is fashioned out of PVC pipe, flat aluminum stock, screws and wingnuts from the hardware store, plus shock cord from an outdoor store.  The windscreen consists of men’s dress socks. (Editor’s note: homemade shockmounts are really cool and I’d like to talk more about them in a future post.)
  • Recorder:  Sony Hi-MD minidisc recorder, model MZ-RH910, with the external AA battery pack
  • Cable: 3-pin XLR-to-stereo mini cable to connect the mic to the recorder
  • Headphones: regular walkman-style

And here is said gear posing for a photo, with the dress-sock windscreen pulled partly off so you can see the microphone and the skeleton of the shockmount:


Paul says:

I originally wanted to get a recording setup to record rarities or interesting breeders (e.g. out of range Chihuahuan Ravens, empids, etc.), but I more often find myself doing other things instead. So far, I use it mostly for personal enjoyment of some of the more common local species and the occasional vocal migrants. It’s a great way to get out and spend time just observing a few individuals for a relatively long period of time. Nest vocalizations, territorial disputes, all these things are amplified enough to reveal a lot of cool behavior you just can’t experience under most circumstances.

I do occasionally chase “target species” I’d like to record (e.g. winter finches are always a treat here in western New York), as well as night-flight calls during migration (although a nice Bill-Evans-style parabolic mic would work way better than a shotgun mic). I’ve used my recording setup to “turn up the volume” for a friend of mine who is somewhat hearing impaired over some frequency ranges, and I even brought it along on a two week field course I helped teach a couple of winters ago down in the Carribean. While recording conditions were horrible during the course, I did get a few “ok” recordings of species that were the subject of student field projects, which they were then able to use in their presentations at the end of the course.

Listen to the sounds of a Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima) that Paul recorded in Punta Caña, Dominican Republic, in January 2008.  The recording is faithful to both the bird and its slightly noisy surroundings:

And here’s another nice recording of Paul’s, of a Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) in Pueblo Mountain Park, Pueblo County, Colorado, on 31 May 2006:

You can contact Paul through his website if you have any questions for him about recording!