Pristine soundscapes are so important that the National Park Service works to preserve wilderness sounds in many natural parks. There's even federal legislation in the US, like the 1987 National Park Overflights Act, that aims to keep noise from airplanes out of the lands below. Of course, it's impossible to escape noise where I live in New York City, but recently I've been inspired to look for quieter pastures.
After reading Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra, I took the first chance I had to get out of the city for the weekend and head up to my hometown in Connecticut to listen and record soundscapes from a less industrialized environment. As an audio engineer I was well-prepared for these kind of projects, since I have to record outside frequently.
But you don't have to be an audio engineer to capture your own favorite natural soundscapes. Here are some basic gadgets, tools, and tips for recording soundscapes in your own backyard. I’m a big fan of recording in stereo and I think you get a fuller and more immersive sound this way so here’s some ways you can do that.
Using your phone:
Shure’s MV88 for iOS is a great, cheap tool for recording in stereo. This plugs right into an iPhone, and using an app you can control your levels, monitor the sound, and adjust polar patterns for directionality. Zoom also makes a product like this. As for Android users, there are a lot of USB audio interfaces that connect to a mini USB port, but I haven't seen any that attach directly onto the phone like the MV88.
Here’s a recording I did walking through Bryant Park in New York City using the MV88
Using a separate audio recorder:
If you want to step out of the smartphone realm (which I highly recommend!) a great starter would be a handheld audio recorder capable of multitrack recording with external mics at +48V phantom power. Some recorders I use day-to-day are Zoom’s H4n, Tascam’s DR-40, or Roland’s R-44. This way you can plug in any mic you want or use their own built-in stereo mics to record in stereo. The H4n doubles as an audio interface to connect to your computer or an Android device (dongle not included).
The best type of microphones to get traditionally for this practice are small-diaphragm condenser mics that have a cardioid polar pattern. Positioning two microphones in a stereo array such as the XY or ORTF technique will get you a wide, full sound in stereo and make the listener feel like they are out in the woods with you. You can also get a binaural setup, with two mics set up similarly to human ears.
Make sure you get some isolating headphones
Of course, you don’t need to use two microphones. Using a single shotgun microphone is a great way to record very specific parts of a soundscape, like a bird up in a tree, rain drops onto leaves, or animal footsteps. Try buying or making your own parabola if you're trying to catch something super specific from farther away.
And make sure you get a good set of isolating headphones. Sennheiser's HD280 Pro and Sony's MDR-7506 are great for monitoring and recording. Crank up the monitor volume and listen to all the sounds you wouldn’t pick up usually on a walk in the woods. It’ll be like putting glasses on your ears.
Everyone’s area sounds different, like a sonic footprint. So take a walk around, listen for a great spot to mount your setup, and hit record.