"Earth is a solar-powered jukebox"
The above phrase is the title of a book by Gordon Hempton. The book is a guide to field recording in nature, but in its pages Gordon shares insights into the different layers of each natural soundscape, how their habitats and the landscape influence it, and the emotional connection that he feels with nature that motivates him to get into the field and record. It is a fantastically educational book, filled with great tips and tricks on technique and preparation.
The reason I am starting this post about recording the dawn chorus by quoting Gordon's book is simply to reflect on what that phrase actually means, and how its meaning can be experienced by you or I.
As a friend pointed out, every day of the year seems to have a special significance to someone or other, and for the large majority of people, last Sunday came and went like any other. For nature enthusiasts however, it was International Dawn Chorus Day. The dawn chorus is at its most awe-inspiring from late April until early May. I am no ornithologist, so wouldn't like to speculate as to why the birdsong is especially powerful at this time of year, but as the sun starts to creep over the horizon on a clear spring day, the resulting soundscape is magical.
This year, to capture the dawn chorus, I was in a small valley in the shadow of the Black Mountains in rural Wales. The setting was a great spot to record, due to it being sheltered from the wind, with steep fields climbing on either side blocking out the distant traffic that is all but inescapable in the western world. there was a small stream in the crux of the valley, abundant with lush trees and vegetation. The surrounding landscape has a huge impact on the acoustics of the natural soundscape wherever you record. In dense woodland, you can hear the layers of birdsong from close nearby trees that have been chosen as a song post, to the distant songs of birds further away that echo beautifully off the tree trunks before they reach your ears. In open fields, the sounds that you hear are distant and diffuse as they reach you from hedgerows on the perimeter.
The spot I had chosen for this recording was halfway up one of the sides of the valley, facing a steep field on the other side of the stream that acted like a sound mirror or natural amphitheatre for the sound to bounce off. I think that this provides a nice sense of space, and gives the ear natural cues to allow your brain to decipher the distance and the breadth of the soundstage where the birds were about to start their performance.
After hitting record and making sure everything was running, I went for a walk up into one of the fields above the spot where I was recording, to set up a handheld recorder next to a small pond I'd noticed the day before. The pond was lined by a few trees on the top of a secluded field in a very different sounding spot to the valley. Where the valley was steep on either side and the distant echoes of birdsong provided an expansive feel, the secluded pond in the top field felt closer and more intimate, with lots of activity close to the microphones.
The technique I used to record in this location has been coined by others as 'tree-ears'. The idea is similar to that of a Jecklin or Schneider disk - where two omni-directional microphones are placed around 20cm apart, with a baffle in-between to simulate the filtering effect of a human head. In this case, the baffle takes the shape of a tree trunk. In a way, the listener is hearing the soundscape through the perspective of the tree.
Naturalistic musings aside, this technique has real practical benefits. The tree trunk provides separation between the left and right channels, which gives a very pleasing stereo soundscape.
I feel that Gordon Hempton's book title conjures up a beautiful image of how nature responds to its surroundings. Although perhaps he wasn't specifically referring to the dawn chorus with this phrase, in my opinion, there isn't a better time of day to experience its meaning.