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Field Recording On An Uninhabited Island

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

At the end of August 2021, I had the opportunity to record on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, at the very northern tip of Scotland. The island is 6km in circumference, has no permanent residents, and is a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' (SSSI). What this designation means, is that Handa Island is protected by law to ensure that its unique wildlife is undisturbed. Throughout the summer season, rangers and volunteers stay on the island to monitor and record wildlife activity, and keep track of the seabirds and other animals that use Handa as a breeding ground.

One of the rangers who has been stationed there for the last 6 months invited me to visit the island, to make field recordings of the natural soundscapes, and to record one species in particular, the Great Skua.

The above recording was inland pointing towards the interior of the island rather than out to sea to try and minimise the volume of the ocean waves, and to capture mainly the natural ambience of the environment, and the calls of the Great Skua fledglings flying overhead. This is an extract from a much longer recording, which includes some lovely vocalisations from the bird. I think it nicely captures the natural environment, and gives a depth and a perspective to the Great Skua calls.

When mastering this recording, I decided to leave it fairly unprocessed to allow for more flexibility down the line. Usually, I would edit down the file to include just the best bits of the recording, and aim for a length somewhere between 8-12 minutes. In this case however, to make sure I wasn't removing anything valuable, I opted to leave everything in, including the voice notes I make myself at the beginning of recordings to provide information about the setting and the context. One thing I did do to make the process quicker when editing to picture, was to use markers to give a bit more info on the species of bird present in the recording (placed in iZotope RX, but that can also be seen in Soundminer and Reaper).

The above recording was made with a pair of microphones in an ORTF configuration, my favourite for ambiences due to its pleasing stereo image, and ability to place the listener in the space.

Another technique I used on the island to record direct calls from the birds was to use a 'drop-rig' consisting of a small lavalier microphone and a handheld recorder. Due to its small size, I was able to place it very close to the nesting site of one of the breeding pairs, and capture some amazingly close-up calls from one of the chicks. During the mating season, it wouldn't be possible to get this close as it would severely disrupt the animals, however as the fledgling was more or less independent by this point in the season, the ranger allowed me to get close into their territory. Initially the bird was disturbed enough to fly off and leave the site, but quickly returned and started vocalising to its parents within around ten minutes of me leaving.

In contrast to the ambience recording, with the smaller set-up that I left in the location, I processed the recording much further to isolate the close perspective calls of the fledgling Great Skua. Extract below:

Trying to capture clean natural ambiences and isolated bird calls is a real challenge no matter where you are recording. However, the near-silent natural environment on Handa, devoid of any human activity which usually plagues nature recordings with the sounds of aircraft and distant traffic, made it possible to capture some truly unique recordings. Recording in such a quiet and peaceful place was something I have never experienced before, and the detail that can be heard when you are away from civilisation and all the noise that comes with it is remarkable.

The silent landscape didn't always provide the best sonic environment for recording however. Whilst on the mainland, before getting the ferry to Handa, We stayed the night in a lay-by in the middle of the highlands. There where a few small farm houses in the distance and a singletrack road cutting through it, but aside from that, there was nothing. A desolate marsh with few birds and very little else besides midges. The soundscape here was extraordinarily quiet, to the point where turning up the preamp gain on my recorder to full, still registered only the smallest amount of signal. I use high quality recording equipment, with very low 'self-noise' (13dBa for each microphone) so the inherent noise floor is usually extremely quiet and rarely an issue compared with the volume of the sound source being recorded. The fact that in this recording, all that can be heard is the thermal noise from the equipment demonstrates how quiet the environment was.

I thought I'd include this recording in my blog post to depict how quiet this place can be, and to show that amongst all the successful and useable recordings on a trip, there are sometimes some 'experiments' that don't work out!

When deciding on microphone placement in the field, a technique that works for me is to consider the distance from whatever the source is as if I am mixing the different elements at a console. What i mean by this is that orienting the microphones differently, and moving further or closer to certain sources, or turning the array to reject more or less of one element changes the balance between them much like panning, or moving faders on a desk will.

For beach recordings, I usually prefer to place the mics a little further back from the sea, to give some perspective, and balance the sound of the waves with the environment, which gives space to the other environmental sounds rather than hearing just the water crashing loudly on the beach. The waves here where so gentle however, and the wildlife so expressive and varied, that I moved everything closer to the sea a little, until I liked the balance between everything I could hear. I love the stereo image that the ORTF configuration can give, and the way the microphones captured the spread of the waves crashing from left to right and back again is very pleasing. The birds sound natural, and the way you can hear their calls echo off the rocks really places the listener 'in the space'.




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