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After travelling more than 30,000 miles, sound engineer and producer Clive Williamson recounts his experiences recording Natural Sounds in New Zealand for the BBC's Sound Archives, going digital all the way from DAT recorder to the final CD.

There can't be many places in the world that offer the huge range of climates and natural environments to be found in New Zealand. Snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rolling plains, dense forests and hundreds of miles of coastline have all been crammed into two islands only a little larger than the British Isles.

New Zealand is thinly populated so - theoretically - it makes an ideal place to record sound effects. You can escape the sounds of traffic and aircraft with relative ease, and quite apart from the stunning scenery, it's a captivating place to record because of the wealth of bird-life and its unusual range of geo-thermal activity like boiling mud pools and hot-water streams and geysers. Given all these attractions, and the fact that I was in the area anyway, a stop in New Zealand for an 'out-of-pollution experience' with a DAT recorder and a box-full of tapes seemed like the next logical step!

Clive Williamson with Dolphins in Napier MarinelandMy recordings had two potential uses. I discovered that the BBC's Sound Archives in London had nothing from New Zealand, and would be interested if I brought back good material of the right sound quality. I also liked the idea of creating a CD of natural sounds from NZ for release by my group Symbiosis. So the project seemed viable, and I began to put together what I hoped would be the right equipment for the journey.

I anticipated days spent tramping in the bush, and taking some photos too, so I tried to find the smallest, lightest, and most reliable equipment for the trip. Here's what I took, and why:
* Sony DTC-D7 DAT recorder: which offers good quality digital recordings from a very small device. Runs on standard batteries, not rechargeable ones.
* Sony ECM 959 stereo microphone, giving an excellent frequency response for its price (was the standard issue with the D10 recorder). Adapted by HHB with 3.5 mm jack for use with the D7 and fitted with a...
* Rycote 'Softie' Windshield and pistol-grip (25 mm for ECM 959) to prevent handling and wind noise.
* Sennheiser K6 microphone module with ME67 rifle mic capsule to capture individual sounds in difficult situations (supplied with MZW67 PRO velour windshield and RY/SP/67 Rycote suspension and pistol-grip).
* Sony Walkman WM-D6 as operational spare for the D7 (in the event this was never needed!)
* A plentiful supply of HHB 122 minute DAT tapes.
One factor in choosing the equipment was that it all used AA batteries and had compatible connections. Each item was as light as possible: Sennheiser's K6 + ME67 combination weighed only 130 grams, and the DAT recorder just over 1lb. To cover every eventuality, I took a pair of old Sony ECM 150 lapel mics, and I was already travelling with a pair of Shure Beta 58s for P.A. use.

One other piece of equipment wasn't available when I left England, but was later to prove to be the ace in the pack! Clarity Systems, a relatively new company based in Southampton, promised to ship one of their new high-gain microphone pre-amps out to me in Auckland so that I could try it out 'in the field'. The plan was to use it with the ECM 959 to overcome the inherent noise in the D7's built-in mic pre-amp, which is fine with loud sources, but becomes problematic when the gain control has to be set between about 8 and 10. The Clarity pre-amp gives 50 to 60 dB of gain, depending on the source resistance of the microphones, and feeds directly into the line input of the tape machine. It is specially designed to work with dynamic mics like the AKG D202 and the Beyer M201, but can also be adapted to work with higher output electret mics by adding in-line pads. That was how I hoped to use it once I collected the equipment in New Zealand. In the event, the increase in noise performance seemed marginal with the ECM 959 (probably because the source impedance was wrong) but was stunning when I tried connecting the pair of Shure mics directly to the pre-amp. The two mics were more cumbersome, and extra weight to carry, but the results certainly justified the added inconvenience. Besides, the pre-amp was only the size of a cigarette-packet, so that was hardly a burden!

Weka, Sennheiser K6 + ME67 rifle mic.THE GRAND TOUR
So I was off: into the bush and climbing steep forest trails to hear the strange calls of New Zealand's indigenous birds like the tui, saddleback and bellbird; clambering over rocks to record the Pacific ocean; through trenches to see yellow-eyed penguins; and getting sea-sick in pursuit of Sperm Whales. The first difficulty I encountered was battery life in the D7, which only ran for about an hour on four long-life AA cells when monitoring through headphones whilst recording. Mercifully this was cured by another Clarity systems add-on: an external battery box which acts like an AC adapter, and easily powers the D7 for about 20 hours on one set of four type D cells.

Predictably with the range of outdoor environments and locations, wind noise presented the biggest problem, but the Rycote Softie with its 'hairy covering' did an incredible job of shielding the ECM 959, damping all but the strongest sea breezes. The Softie's pistol grip was comfortable to hold, and did a good job of cushioning the mic from any handling noise too. The unprotected Shure Beta 58s often had to be positioned at ground level to reduce the chance of wind noise, and sometimes I made recordings in the knowledge that heavy editing would be needed later to remove unwanted effects. Fortunately the Shure mics / Clarity pre-amp combination suited recording in the bush, where there was usually less wind to worry about.

Sennheiser's rifle mic generally performed very well, giving a tight pick-up of the sounds of individual NZ parrots like the kaka and kea, and having a high output which got round the pre-amp noise in the recorder without the need for any extra gear. The ME67 capsule added some brightness, which suited some effects and could still be filtered from others. I soon found myself wishing for a second Sennheiser to gather stereo effects at a distance. A pair of 'shot-guns' would have been very useful for some of the bush recordings of birds, and much of the geo-thermal activity, which is difficult to get close to without falling in to something hot and wet, or getting a facefull of sulphurous fumes! The Sennheiser's 'pro' velour windshield proved too refined for many of New Zealand's winds, and I wished I'd invested in a full basket shield with a hairy cover for the one mic I had!

Travelling light - and on a budget - you don't always have the right equipment for every eventuality and, needless to say, nature isn't always on your side either! My first encounter with dolphins at Paihia, in NZ's beautiful northern Bay of Islands, was less than successful. The pod of these mammals that I tried to record there was sleepy and inactive, and noise from the aluminium hull of the boat swamped any sounds they were making. A more controlled attempt at Marineland in Napier was better, but I think the dolphins were frightened by the furry Softie, and would only make underwater echo-locating sounds, which I recorded by way of an ECM 150 mic dropped into their pool in a dentist's rubber glove, and weighed down with a spoon borrowed from the motel.

The height of my inventiveness came when I had to tie the ECM 959 to a hotel's broom handle to get close enough to record a pool of bubbling mud in Rotorua: the heart of NZ's thermal activity. The sound quality was really good, and later I was able to edit out my muffled choking on the 'bad eggs' whenever the wind changed (and pick the dried mud out of the Softie's fur: yech!). But nothing could protect me from the shower of guano from some juvenile bellbirds I was recording in the trees overhead on Tiritiri Matangi Island. So it goes.

Over a period of two months, I gathered some 40 hours of recordings in New Zealand. The equipment held up well, and I was especially pleased that neither the Sony D7 nor the HHB tapes showed any problems. Back in the UK, I set about the enormous task of logging the recordings and choosing the best sequences to edit for the final BBC Sound Effect CDs. To keep the sound quality as high as possible, the selections were digitally transferred at the original 48kHz sampling rate from a Sony DTC-A8 DAT machine to my Apple PowerPC 8100/80 using Digidesign's AudioMedia II and Pro Tools 442 hardware, then edited on the computer using Sound Designer software.

The use of the Clarity pre-amp had unexpected consequences. Because the gain was so great, it was like having super-hearing! A soundscape that had sounded fine in real life - or in my Sony MDR-V4 headphones at normal volume - often revealed the drone of a distant crop-spraying plane or a motorboat at higher listening levels. Naturally the DAT machine, with its very low noise-floor, had recorded all this in perfect fidelity. Fortunately, many of the intrusions could be dealt with by careful editing on the Mac, especially as I was able to use special software plug-ins for Sound Designer by both Digidesign and Waves, which allow complex sound processing in the digital domain.

The most useful Waves plug-ins were the Q10 and S1 modules, which add 10-band parametric EQ and advanced stereo image manipulation respectively. The Q10 was superb for removing excessive low frequencies and notching out distant engine noise, while the S1 can alter - and if necessary, enhance - the width and balance of a stereo recording. Digidesign's DINR module (Digidesign Intelligent Noise Reduction™) proved surprisingly effective in reducing the noise of wind in the trees from the bubbling mud-pool recording. Using DINR, it was possible to 'search and destroy' the background by 6dB without producing any audible artefacts in the sound of the mud itself. DINR's success depends largely on the nature of the sounds it has to deal with, but this software is pretty stunning when it works well!

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The large volume of sound files generated by all this digital editing was backed up onto pairs of ADAT tracks via an Alesis AI-1 Digital interface, and archived on Mac-format CD-Rs using Toast's excellent new CD-ROM Pro 3 CD authoring software and a Yamaha CDE100 CD writer. When all the 48k files were ready, sample rate conversion to the 44.1kHz CD rate was done through the AI-1, and the files were assembled on two 1 Gigabyte drives on the Mac, ready for the final stages. The Yamaha CDE100 was used again to make the final masters for the BBC CDs, but this time running Toast's CD-DA software Version 2, which offers easily editable pauses and Index points as well as Red Book standard P & Q coding on the discs it writes. The finished discs were burned on HHB CDR74 blank discs (with a gold dye layer which seems to have a low error rate on playback) and listened through carefully once before being sent to the factory for Glass Mastering and production.

Digidesign's DINR Plug-in

Recording in New Zealand was a voyage of discovery about both the equipment and myself! You have to devote a lot of time, energy and patience to field recording to bring home good results. Luck plays its part, of course. I drove on miles of unmade road and climbed through thick brambles hoping to record one of New Zealand's loveliest-sounding birds - the Kokako - only to get caught in a thunderstorm. I never heard a Kokako, but the storm recording sounds great!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Three Sound Effects CDs of Clive Williamson's recordings are available for use within the BBC from Sound Archives:

ECD117 New Zealand - The Natural World 1; ECD118 New Zealand - The Natural World 2; and ECD134 Snapshots of Sydney and Urban New Zealand.

An album of relaxing natural sounds and bird song titled Aotearoa: Nature Sounds of New Zealand is available from Symbiosis Music. Click here for full details.

Price from Symbiosis in the UK: £9.95 (plus £1.50 UK postage and packing)

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Credits: Thanks to Clarity Systems, Digidesign, HHB, Natural Audio, Sennheiser UK Ltd, and Waves for their help with this project. Photography by Clive Williamson and Emily Sinclair. All images captured on Kodak film and transferred to the PhotoCD system by Laserbureau for editing in Adobe Photoshop prior to publication (except 'Aotearoa' cover photo by Craig Potton).

Clive Williamson's Top Ten Field Recording Essentials

Clarity Systems (as of December 1996):
SP Services, PO Box 456, Southampton. SO17 1LP.
Ph: +44 (0)1703 550037
Fax: +44 (0)1703 322416

Rycote Microphone Windshields Ltd:
Libby's Drive, Slad Road, Stroud, Gloucestershire. GL1RN.
Ph: +44 (0)1453 759338
Fax: +44 (0)1453 764249

Sennheiser UK Ltd:
3 Century Point, Halifax Road, High Wycombe, Bucks. HP12 3SL
Ph: 01494 551551
Fax: 01494 551550

Waves plug-in for Sound Designer and Pro Tools TDM system:

Clive Williamson's New Zealand recordings on ECD117 and 118 include:
Bellbirds and Saddlebacks - Dawn Chorus on the Wattle Path, Tiritiri Matangi Island.
Hot streams and Geysers, Waimangu Thermal Reserve.
Thermal Pool, Wai-O-Tapu.
Boiling Mud Pool, Rotorua.
Several Tui and Bellbirds feeding in Rata trees, Kapiti Island Nature Reserve.
Thunderstorm with light rain, cicadas and birds, Mapara Reserve.
Dawn Chorus with Tui and Peacocks, Dannevirke.
Pacific ocean on pebble beach, Kaikoura.
Little Blue Penguin Colony, Oamaru.
Cicadas at night with hissing possum.

LineUP magazine logo(First published:as: "New Zealand Walkabout - Spattered by bellbirds, Snubbed by dolphins..." in LINE UP Magazine - The Journal of the Institute of Broadcast Sound, December 1996 / January 1997

Discover more about Clive's NZ recording odyssey

NZ Bird Sounds to download:

Hear EXTRACTS FROM AOTEAROA CD (2.7 MB mp3 file) introduced by Clive Williamson or watch on YouTUBE...

Order CD, or listen and download from

 Sponsored by Clive Williamson's acclaimed UK ambient group SYMBIOSIS:
"A treat for Head, Heart and Ears!"

Find out about their gentle albums of music and nature sounds

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