In the stillness of lockdown, our world cheerfully comes to life with other sounds… a chorus always present but rarely heard for the motions of a busy world. Sound engineers have a long regard for the lush melodies and exotic notes of the natural world, relying on its ambience to bring film and other media to life. For science, studying the sounds of an ecosystem can provide crucial data about species diversity, behaviour, and range. However, capturing the nuances of natural environments can be tricky without the right equipment. Discovering it is possible to collect professional-grade audio with minimal kit, makes this enjoyable pastime and acoustic field research accessible to us all…

Earth Endeavours invited Kai Lange, Senior Product Manager at Sennheiser, to reflect on the potential of mobile microphones as an accurate and versatile tool to capture the sounds of nature. Exploring both creative and conservation use of their MKH microphones in challenging outdoor environments.

Photo: Free To Use Sounds / Unsplash

What is your advice on equipment/settings for capturing sounds in marine environments? 

There are certainly a few precautions I would recommend taking when you’re planning to capture sounds outdoors and particularly in marine environments. Naturally, these precautions have to do with the elements. 

You will need the best wind protection you can get. Open marine environments are almost always really windy, and your recordings may just end up with a lot of wind noise and only a bit of useful sound and commentary. It is best to use a hairy cover on a basket windshield. The long fleece stops the wind and enables the mic—which sits safely inside the basket windshield—to record your voice and the soundscape of the sea. 

This basket windshield/hairy cover set-up also protects your microphone against spray, foam and rain. However, if you expect the microphone to get soaking wet, you can play it safe by covering it up with a tight plastic bag as you see this in so many interviews now with COVID-19. Such a cover will alter the sound of course—you will lose some high frequencies and the sparkle associated with them—but this is far better than getting your microphone soaking wet with the next breaker then carefully drying it for the next few days, hoping that the electronics have survived. 

If you want to record underwater, you will need a hydrophone. This is a special microphone with a piezoelectric transducer designed to match the acoustic impedance of water.

What do you recommend listening out for (which sounds make marvellous stories)?

As simple as it may sound, just sit down and listen for a while with your eyes closed. Take in the place’s beauty. Relax. You will hear sounds you hadn’t paid attention to before, and your ears and brain will discover all sonic elements and acoustic events around you. You will hear a full symphony of sound, especially when you’re in nature. It’s magic!

If you want to single out a particular sound for your audience, use a shotgun microphone with high directivity and point it directly at the sound source—a bird singing, for example. Again, be sure to use wind protection on your microphone. 

Photo: Free To Use Sounds / Unsplash

Can you share any examples of inspiration from real world research or documentary?

We have had the pleasure to work with many inspiring videographers and dedicated sound recordists across the globe, such as Martin Edström, who explored the Son Doong cave and did a 360 panorama which impressed me deeply, or Thomas Rex Beverly, who has created a superb library of nature sounds and recently recorded soundscapes in the Eastern Cascades. 

Many of these professional sound recordists use Sennheiser MKH microphones. Let me take your tech-savvy readers on a brief excursion here… These mics work on a quite rare operating principle called “RF condenser”, which distinguishes them from standard condenser microphones and creates their exceptional properties. Unlike a standard condenser microphone, for example, these mics have an outstanding immunity against humidity, which is why outdoor recording is an important domain of MKH microphones, especially of the so-called shotgun models like the MKH 8060 which additionally feature increased directivity and good suppression of unwanted ambient noise. 

Sennheiser’s mics offer a level of quality and versatility for novice and professional audio capture, making them an exciting asset for filmmaking, podcasting, environmental research, and other audio-visual fields. Coupled with frontiers in AI exploration and production, the use of sound for scientific discovery and storytelling is both varied and scalable, accommodating a myriad of applications and budgets.

Earth Endeavours have partnered with Sennheiser Australia to offer storyteller’s for conservation an opportunity to win their latest micro-model MKE 200. Our aim with this initiative is to elevate diverse voices by showcasing their unique knowledge, love, and relationship with nature. With three special categories for youth, female and indigenous writers to share a short story highlighting a conservation, nature project, or species they care about. To enter submit your story here!

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.