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Entries in Animals (12)

Sunday
Mar172013

Recording Capuchin Monkeys

I love to travel. I look forward to encountering the unexpected because it opens my eyes to things in this world that I had no idea existed. When I travel I love the trip as much as the destination - driving through unknown territory in a far-off country is when I stumble upon the most memorable experiences of any trip. In my opinion, the less you plan in advance, the better off you are. The culture you've dropped into will sweep you away, like a twig on a river, into its best and worst.

Sadly, this kind of travel, which I've grown accustomed to, is not an option right now.  My wife, who is also the best travel partner in the world, is currently 7 months pregnant and she isn't really up for the more adventurous mode of traveling right now. We wanted to go on one last trip before we get pinned down by parenthood so we decided to take a kind of trip we've never tried before - an all-inclusive resort holiday!? 

Normally the idea of travelling to a far-flung destination and then just staying in one spot for 7 days would feel like a total waste of time.  But given our circumstances and the fact the there were 8 inches of snow on the ground outside our house in Toronto, this all-inclusive idea didn't sound so bad. The decision was made and we booked a last minute trip to warmer temperatures.

Main hub of activity at the resort in Costa Rica we traveled to.

So off to Costa Rica we went. I had read that the area we would be staying in was home to a large population of capuchin monkeys.  I was not sure if these impossibly cute little guys would make much noise, or how hard it would be to get close to them but I figured I might not be around a capuchin again any time soon so I might as well try to record any sounds they might make. As we headed for the airport I had my regular suitcase full of clothes as well as a second one full of recording gear.

One of the capuchins up close.

Bringing a shotgun microphone onto a plane is always a bit of a pain. There is no way I am going to check a $2000+ microphone, so I take it as carry-on.  The interest of security staff is always piqued when the mic goes through the x-ray machine.  A long skinny metal tube sends up a red flag in these days of heightened airport security.  So I am always pulled aside and made to jump through a couple of hoops to prove I am not carrying a pipe bomb or something equally dangerous. After I explain what they are looking at I am always waved through.

Once we arrived at the resort I became aware of what a different environment I was entering compared to my other travels.  It turns out that enjoying quiet is the last possible thing you can do at an all-inclusive resort. Recording the capuchins, or anything at all besides maybe 'obnoxious resort ambience' would be tricky.  Noise was coming from many sources:

  • music in the bar and around the pool
  • waves rolling in from the ocean
  • wound-up guests living it up all around the resort
  • cooking and eating sounds from the buffet restaurant
  • diesel engines from the shuttle vans that transport patrons around the area
  • constant bird song
  • announcers on the P.A. calling bingo/aquafit/dance classes, etc.

Some of the bird life walking on the beach.

At various times, some or all of these noises were present and inescapable. With some trial and error I narrowed down when the quietest time could be to record the monkeys.  Afternoons and evenings were out because of the pumping reggae and dance music audible all over the resort, but before 9 AM the music was only playing inside the buffet restaurant area.  Also in the morning most guests were still groggy and relatively quiet as they recovered from the previous evening's adventures. The waves were quite light in the mornings as the tide was 50 meters further out than it was in the afternoon and the shuttle vans ran less frequently while most guests were still sleeping. On the negative side though was that the buffet was in full swing with lots of dish rattling and people chatting. All the birds in the area were also engaged in their morning conversations.

The monkeys come in towards the resort from deeper in the forest around 8 AM so from then until around 9 AM when the music really kicked in with the bass thumping pop remixes seemed to be my window.  Not a huge amount of time, but enough to get something.

Whether I'd be able to get close enough to the capuchins to record them was my next unknown.  This turned out to be no problem at all. These monkeys have been around the resort all their lives and were not afraid of people at all.  All it took to attract their attention was a bit of fruit.

One of the Capuchins munching away at a chunk of fruit.

I woke up nice and early, got my gear all ready, and headed down to a spot near the beach where the monkeys like to hang out. I guess I don't really think like a monkey because I made a faux pas right off the bat. With a nice chunk of fruit in one hand and my microphone in a rycote windshield covered with a furry windjammer in the other, I moved in on a monkey. The poor little guy took one look at me and backed off and started barking at the mic in a fairly aggressive manner.  I had no idea a monkey could bark like this. This was not a sound I was expecting at all.  It took a minute to dawn on me that the monkeys were alarmed by the furry cover on my microphone  - it was convincingly imitating a threatening predator. I took the furry off and put it out of sight and they were immediately comfy and playful again. Here is a clip of the monkey barks:

These may not sound too menacing. Keep in mind that these capuchin monkeys are very small animals, so their barks sound more like a chihuahua then a big roar like you hear in Hollywood movies like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  

I made another pass at recording once the the furry was off and the monkeys were more than willing to come right up to the rycote.  They patted it down and tried to figure out what it was. One of the monkeys even tried to bite into the rycote to see if it was some new kind of fruit.  

Still from video, blown up, showing a capuchin inspecting the rycote windshield.

Here is what they sounded like as they contentedly wandered about in the trees and ate fruit while overlooking tourists setting up their towels on the beach.

Well, I have to admit that these little guys were possibly the cutest things I have ever been around. The sounds they make sound very very close to human vocalizations.  I imagine it would even be fairly easy to replicate these types of noises with an actor.  Like willing interview subjects, they were very good about camping out in front of the microphone for a while and just squeaking away. Then they would get bored and scamper off to another tree branch along the beach.  Aside from the birdsong in the background I was able to get fairly clean recordings of capuchin chatter. It worked out pretty well.

Here is a video I captured with the capuchins in Costa Rica. This video is of them running around in the trees and grabbing fruit. The video and audio were not shot together so they are not in sync, but it will give you an idea of the environment.  All the recordings were made with a Sanken CSS5 feeding a Sound Devices 702.

Here are a bunch of photos taken by my wife while I was recording the capuchins.

This final picture is of an animal called a Coati. It's in the same family as the racoon.  These guys rest in the trees and the monkeys mess with them and generally annoy them.

Wednesday
Oct242012

Recording Wild Animals

NOTE: This is the script from a feature story that appears on the Tonebenders Sound Design podcast I co-host with Rene Coronado and Dustin Camillari. This story appears in Episode 2: Getting Out & Recording. To hear the produced audio version as well as a follow up Q&A and discussion please go to www.tonebenders.net to download the full podcast.  This story starts at the 26 minutes mark of the podcast.

WC Fields once laid forth the famous chestnut “Never work with children or animals.” He was of course referring to acting and performing, but the statement also stands as good advice when it comes to field recording. I guess children are not that bad but recording animals is one of the most challenging projects out there. It can be dangerous, time-consuming, frustrating, technically difficult, and even boring.... and all at the same time in many cases. Different animals require very different approaches. Most large animals are recorded in captivity out of necessity. Getting a microphone nice and close to a roaring lion is, I imagine, a suicide mission. I do not have much experience with recording large captive animals. I am sure there are lots of unique difficulties surrounding this type of recording session, with simply getting permission to get near the animals being near the top of the list.

Recording animals in the wild is especially difficult. It's a big world out there and being in the right place at the right time sometimes means just sitting down and waiting. The recordist has to hunker down and become a part of the surroundings before any animal will venture close enough to be recorded. Normally this waiting includes being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I really hate that part.

When you first think of recording wild creatures, I'm sure lions, tigers, and bears (or some other large animals on 4 legs) are what come to mind. But the sound design world also needs lots of small creatures that are not so obvious. I have recorded lots of wildlife over the years and the sound I have used the most is easily this recording of a single cricket chirping away:

It took hours to get this recording. At first, the whole area was alive with a chorus of what seemed like hundreds or thousands of crickets. But as the night wore on, the massive chorus slowly died down, getting smaller and smaller, until this one little guy was the only one left within earshot still chirping away. Luckily he was nearby to where I was set up and I got this pristine recording of a single cricket. I have used it as an element to build ambiences in lots of projects since.

I recorded the cricket, but the reason I was camped out with my gear in the middle of the night was actually to record loons. The cricket was just a happy accident. The loons I was after have a call that is an iconic nature sound in the area of Canada where I live, but they are fairly hard to record cleanly. The lakes that loons call home are actually quite loud environments, with the breeze rustling through the trees, waves lapping against the shore, the aforementioned crickets chirping. So recording a bird out in the middle of a lake as a stand-alone sound is tricky. You have to wait until the perfect day arrives - no breeze, and calm waters to minimize the sound of waves - and then you have to hope that the loons are talkative that night. There is not much you can do to entice them other then trying out fake loon calls (which in my case end up being pretty pathetic.) As you can hear in the following clip I was lucky that I found pretty good conditions one night and I was able to get some good recordings. This was the third night in a row I was out trying to catch the loons, with the first two nights turning up nothing at all that was useable. But then on the third night, for reasons unknown, they just started calling out:

There are some creatures that you can lure towards a microphone with food. This is a great technique... as long as the animals don’t mistake the furry windscreen on the microphone for another animal. I have had really good luck with this technique - recording birds, insects, rodents and even fish. Using a piece of bread as bait I was able to record the tiny sounds of hundreds of minnows feverishly swimming around a hydrophone. It took about an hour for a few brave fish to go near the hydrophone but once one or two came close and found conditions favorable, it only took a few minutes until there were hundreds of little fish nibbling away at the bread.

Rodents are especially easy to lure with food. I imagine that because they are around humans more often than most wild creatures, they are less afraid of approaching a stack of food beside a microphone. I have grabbed recordings of squirrels and mice, but by far the best performers in front of the mic in my neck of the woods are chipmunks. They will just walk right up to the proffered food, sniff the mic up close and then start chirping and chattering away.

I was even able to do an impromptu foley session with the chipmunks by putting a contact mic on the deck where they were running around.

Chipmunks are easier to work with then many actors I have encountered over the years!

Every once in a while you'll get lucky and come across a creature that seeks you out. Some animals will come after you when you enter their territory. In the case of bears this is a very, very bad thing, but for aggressive birds it is a fantastic, if alarming, recording opportunity. I was recording in Iceland when I stumbled upon the breeding ground of a colony of arctic terns. These little birds attacked in waves, dive-bombing my head. I found that if I used the microphone windshield for defense and held it high over my head they would attack the mic - instead of my face. As a result I got some absolutely fantastic aggressive bird vocalizations. Like good professional voice-over actors they were very diligent in getting right up tight on the mic when they cawed.

A staple of the Hollywood feel-good comedy is the family pet - frequently used as cinematic shorthand for "the good life." When a film starts by showing you a family with a couple of kids and a dog or cat running around, you are probably being told the family is happy and stable. And of course, the inexorable Hollywood arc will soon have this idyllic scene disrupted. So a sound editor will need a good range of barks and meows to cover the spectrum - from when the animals are happy and content all the way to when they are miserable and angry as the plot thickens around their owners.

Recording domestic animals is both easy-peasy and really tricky. Unlike wild animals, dogs and cats are easy to wrangle, will let you approach while holding a microphone and, to an extent, will be patient with you. On the other hand, being around humans is so second nature to them that they are just as likely to go to sleep as they are to “perform”. If you have a budget you can book a trained “talking” animal to get some great results, but if you are working with a run-of-the-mill amateur dog or cat you are in for a few challenging moments. Some good techniques are to try to get them going in a game of call and response. Having lots of treats nearby is a must, both as a reward and to taunt them into barking or meowing.

Here is the real trick though: domestic animals can not be faked in post production. If you have a movie with a roaring bobcat, you can build roars out of sounds from similar animals, adding in human vocalizations, even some organic non-animal sounds to build a frightful character. But dogs and cats play such a large role in our day to day lives that average audiences are very aware of what each breed should sound like. So a faked or overly manipulated effect will stick out like a sore thumb. This makes the recording phase especially important. You could put the animal in a studio; this is great in terms of getting a clean sound in an acoustically treated environment. The downside is that most animals behave unpredictably in unfamiliar surroundings. I have had better luck bringing the gear to the animal's home turf. I recently worked on an animated series that had a cat as a regular character, so I went out to record some cat vocalizations at the home of my friend and his surly cat. I was able to get a lot of great performances from the cat by simply following it around the house. The cat quickly got used to having a microphone a few inches away and with some creative prompting the two of us ended up having a conversation lasting a few minutes, producing a whole bunch of clips that were used in the sound edits for the series.

In terms of gear, mic selection is key. In the wild, extremely directional microphones can help separate the animal sounds from the surrounding natural noise. Parabolic microphones have long been put to great use in wildlife recordings, although I personally have no experience with them in this context. Sometimes the only way to get a certain sound is to use a mic that is physically very small. I was able to record the inside of a wasps' nest by using a DPA 4060 miniature condenser.

If that mic was not so small I would never have been able to get that sound. Although mic selection is important, I find having options that I can adjust on the fly, so to speak, to be most important. I have used shotguns, hydrophones, contact mics, portable recorders, small condensers, and boundary mics for animal recordings, and I am sure I would have found uses for other mics if I had had access to them.

When it comes to recording animals big and small, really the main thing you need is time. Because any session with animal subject matter is most likely going to try your patience.

Note: No animals were harmed is the making of this blog post. Although some were annoyed slightly.

 

 

Monday
Jun112012

Recording Hummingbird Wings (with Free Download)

Hummingbirds are amazing.  They are so tiny and their little wings flutter so fast. Fun facts: hummingbirds can hover in the air without moving in any direction.  They are also the only bird that can fly backwards!  Hummingbirds pump their little wings up and down so fast that they don't even flap... they buzz - or hum, I guess. They sound like big bugs.

I'm always thinking about capturing the interesting sounds that surround me... I've been familiar with the little hummingbird my whole life; it's about time I tried to record one in action. I headed up north to a family cabin one weekend this May and made it my mission to record some hummingbirds.   Now, before you get the idea that I was about to crawl through the mosquito-infested woods with my recorder and boom pole in pursuit of a bird no bigger than a cherry tomato... there is an easier way: to attract a hummingbird all you need is a hummingbird feeder filled up with a mix of sugar and water.  I set the feeder up outside the cabin and  rigged up my Sony D-50 with gaffer tape to the same porch brace the the feeder was hanging from, hit record and left the recorder running.  Hummingbirds can be a little shy about getting too close to humans, and since I don’t have a way to trigger record on the D-50 from a distance, I had to simply let it roll for a few hours in hopes that a few hummingbirds would come to take a drink.

The D-50 Lies in wait for the hummingbird to arrive.

Maybe they didn't like the look of that fuzzy thing hanging off the beam. After 2 hours of recording the feeder I ended up with only about 30 seconds of hummingbird action, but it was a glorious 30 seconds.  Take a listen:

The next morning I decided to take another run at recording the elusive hummingbird, but with a revised plan. This time I decided to use a shotgun mic going into my Sound Devices 702.  This way I would not need to be in record for hours on end since I could run a mic cable a few meters, take a seat and manually trigger record whenever a hummingbird made a move on the feeder.  The 702 has a pre-roll of 2 seconds in record mode, and this turned out to be enough to catch them on approach, since the birds swoop in with lightning speed.  

Rode NTG3 with a wind foam and furry ready to record hummingbirds

So I spent the next 3 or 4 hours sitting in a lawn chair with my headphones on and my finger ready on the record button. Sitting quietly in a comfy chair may not sound like a heroic enterprise to you but let me tell you, it was damn near a suicide mission.  This is northern Ontario, the month is May: the absolute peak time and place for murderous bloodsucking mosquitoes and blackflies.  I was almost eaten alive while sitting and waiting for the hummingbirds to come take a sip, and those little guys made me wait and wait.

While I was quietly waiting for hummingbirds I had other forest creatures come to visit and hang out, like that chipmunk only a few inches from my head.

For all my suffering I got quite a few good recordings of the hummingbirds.  I would have gotten more if it were not for the busy boat traffic on the river nearby and the construction of a new cabin down the road a bit.  A few hummingbird fly-bys were ruined by the noisy surroundings, but luckily a lot of the recordings happened to slip in between the cutting saws and speeding boats.  Here are a few of the birds recorded on day two:


I was fairly satisfied with the recordings I was able to get, and the weekend was over so I headed home.  The following week I was off to another cabin on a lake nearly 400 km (240 miles) away from the previous weekend's destination.  I got out my gear again and set up to record some hummingbirds at this new location. Jackpot!  This place was Hummingbird Central.  In a couple of hours I had recorded more of the little birds than I had in two full days the weekend before.  The downside was that it was much windier in this second location.  This made the leaves rustling in the trees much louder and since this cabin was on a lake rather than a river I had to contend with waves rolling in on the shore as well.  These things added up to a much louder ambient noise level in the recordings.  Despite those obstacles I was able to get a lot of great hummingbird wing-flutter.  Take a listen:

One of the challenges of this undertaking was setting proper levels.  Hummingbird wings are a fairly subtle sound, so I set the gain on my recorders fairly high.  To illustrate how quiet the birds are, here is a video taken with the camera about 5 feet away from the hummingbirds.  For the first few seconds of the clip you will hear the camera mic, then the audio will switch over to the Sony D-50’s mics.  

As you can hear, the hummingbird's wings are not even registering on the camera mic just a few feet away.  Yet the Sony was able to really zone-in on the flutter amid all the ambient noise in the surrounding environment.

I will keep trying to record these amazing little birds in future trips out into the wilderness; hopefully one day I will come across perfect conditions with no wind and calm waters so I can capture a pristine recording of the hummingbird's wings.  Until then, these will be the next best thing.

If you want to add some selected free hummingbird wing sounds to your sound effects library, please go to the Downloads page on this site and pull down the Hummingbird Wings SFX pack.  While you're at it, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed on this site and catch any new fx I offer through this site. 

As a bonus, also included in the free download is this recording of an unknown insect (it was blue, and was huge!) bouncing its body off the plastic hummingbird feeder trying to get at the sugar water inside.  It sounds amazing!

Here are some more photos of the hummingbirds feeding. They don't stay still for long so getting these pictures was even trickier than getting the sounds:

Just off the right side of the feeder's dish, a hummingbird gets ready for a drink.

If you look closely at the top right corner of this picture you can spot a hummingbird approaching the feeder.


This little guy decided to take a load off and land on the feeder while it drank the sugar water.


Here is another creature that came to visit while I was waiting for the hummingbirds. It is a baby Red Squirrel. The are insanely cute but eat the wiring inside the cabin if they find a way in.

Tuesday
Apr032012

3am Raccoon Attack!!

It’s Saturday night at 3am.  Since I am an old man now I am of course sound asleep.  I am awoken by a sound I have never heard before, almost like a distant siren, except it is not distant.  Then there was a very familiar sound in my neighborhood, Raccoons!!!  I jumped out of bed because these raccoons suddenly sounded like they were in the room with me.  After a moment I woke up a bit and realized that there was no way a raccoon could be in the house with me even if it sounded so close.  At this point I looked out the window to realize that 3 raccoons were fighting in the tree just a few feet from where I was sleeping.  I ran downstairs and grabbed my Sony PCM-D50 and flicked on the power switch.  I did not want to turn on the lights in the bedroom for fear of making the raccoons scatter.  So I hit record and pointed the microphone out the window.  


The raccoons were not hurting each other, at least at this point.  Two of them had chased a third out to the end of a branch and they were in a stand off now.   They stared each other down with hisses and barks and occasional swipes of their sharp clawed paws.  Raccoons basically run my neighborhood.  On first blush they are cute little dudes but they terrorize local dogs, force residents into endless garbage can security upgrades, and generally rule the roost.  We have an uneasy understanding that allows our two species to live side by side in a city of 4 million people and an estimated One hundred thousand raccoons.  Unlike most urban animals, raccoons ignore the parks and live in populated areas, a simple stroll to the corner store in the evening will reveal many raccoon sightings.

On this night the stand off continued and I was able to get a few minutes of raccoon vs raccoon intimidation vocalizations.  The mystery is still the high pitched alarm type sound one of them was making.  A friend suggested that it was the sound of an injured raccoon?  

Eventually the two raccoons that were working as a team simply gave up and marched down the trunk of the tree and across the street into the darkness.  The night turned quiet again and I went back to bed. 

In the morning I listened back to the recording and found I had the levels really hot for the recording and had the D50’s limiters kicking in.  In the darkness without my glasses while half asleep I had not monitored the levels like I should have.  But still you can get a good sense of the action taking place just outside my window in the middle of the night.

 

Take a listen:

Sunday
Oct162011

Mystery Animal Test

Once again I have found myself a little bit too busy to be updating the blog weekly.  But I have been recording lots of things that will make for interesting blog posts in the future.

For this week I have a little test for you all.  Here are two recordings I have captured of wild animals recently.  Take a listen and see if you can figure out what animals these are.  A couple hints:  They are both animals that are not considered at all exotic, at least not in my part of Canada.  Both of them are fairly small animals, one friendly and one very unfriendly.  Final hint: Neither is a bird.

In an upcoming post I wil reveal the true identities of the creatures behind these sounds, but in the mean time feel free to leave a comment with your guess or hit me up on twitter (@goaliedrummer) with a stab at their identities.

 

Here is the first animal:

Mystery Animal 1 by azimuthaudio

 

And the second:

Mystery Animal 2 by azimuthaudio