Many microphones

Microphones for nature recording II.: different microphones for different situations

Here I present some examples of microphones and related equipment to use for different recording situations. This is not an endorsement of any products, but rather examples to give you an idea of where to start your research. Note that I have only included microphones suitable for field recording, and I have not included USB mics, as most are designed for studio recording.  For a background on microphone types and arrays, click here.

  1. Single species recording.

For recording single species, you generally want to limit the sounds to the side and rear of the microphone. This is what shotgun mics are made for, but as mentioned previously, shotguns are not zooms, but allow better focus. If you need to zoom in on a sound, you need a parabolic dish (see below). Shotgun mics tend to be very sensitive to wind, so they will need some form of wind protection.

Examples of shotgun mics commonly used by field recordists include Rode NTG-1, Rode NTG-2, Rode NTG4+, Sennheiser ME66/K6, Sennheiser MKH416, Sennheiser MKH8060:

The most common commercially-available parabolic microphones are made by Telinga and Wildtronics. Telinga parabolas are made in Sweden and feature several kinds of microphones (omni, cardioid, and M-S), or can be fitted with your own shotgun mics. In addition, the mics can be removed from the parabola and used as a regular field mic. Wildtronics parabolas are made in the USA, and come with mics built in, available either in supercardioid mono or M-S stereo.  Dodotronics has just released a parabolic microphone, available in mono or stereo.

It is also possible to make your own parabola, and instructions are available on the internet. A couple of things to keep in mind: frequency enhancement by the parabola depends on the diameter of the dish – lower frequency sounds require a larger dish. For a 1 kHz sound, you need a dish at least 1 foot in diameter; for a 500 Hz sound, it needs to be 2 feet or more. Using an omni mic within the parabola allows for a lower frequency response than using a shotgun mic. Lastly, the material the dish is made out of may “color” the recording. They will also need wind protection.

  1. Soundscape recording

Soundscape recording is typically done in stereo. As mentioned in the previous section on microphone arrays, there are many ways of setting up microphones to capture a stereo image. Things to note here are the polar patterns, the self-noise of the microphone, and making sure the microphone is sturdy enough for outdoor use.

XY, or coincident mics, include Audio Technica AT2022, Audio Technica BP4025, Audio Technica AT8022, and Rode NT-4:

In general, a 90 degree XY configuration is a little narrow for soundscape recording.  Some XY mics can be adjusted up to 120 degrees, which creates a more spacious feel.

Any matched pair of cardioid condenser mics can be rigged in an XY configuration; some good possibilities are include Audio Technica AT4021, Rode M5, Sennheiser ME64, Sennheiser MKH40, Sennheiser MKH8040:

 

Mid-Side (M-S) recording includes two different microphones, a cardioid or hypercardioid and a figure 8. A couple microphones include both in one package, such as the Audio Technica AT 4050ST, Sennheiser MKH 418S, Schoeps CMIT Double M/S set, and the Sony ECM 680S:

 

Although commonly recordists will piggyback a shotgun with a figure 8. Some of the most popular combinations include pairing the Sennheiser MKH 30 figure 8 with the Sennheiser MKH 40, MKH 60 or MKH 70:

Omni mics can be configured in a variety of spaced pair arrays to record some great stereo effects, with some of the more popular being variations of the “Olsen wing” and partially baffled boundary (also known as Stereo Ambient Sampling System, or SASS). For Olsen wing arrays, the Audio Technica AT4022 has been very successful. Partially baffled boundary arrays have done well with both Sennheiser omni mics, such as the ME62/K6 MKH 20, or MKH 8020 and inexpensive EM172 electret capsules, which need to be wired before use.

 

 Sound samples using different mics and arrays

AT2022 (XY) fed into a Sony PCM-M10 (see section on recorders here) with a Felmicamps SK3.5 preamp:

 

AT4022s (omnis) in Olsen wing configuration, fed into Fostex FR2LE:

 

Sennheiser MKH20s (omnis) in partially baffled boundary array, fed into a Sound Designs 722:

 

omni arrays

Simplified graphical depictions of two different stereo arrays for omni mics.  Each could be made from wood or foam, and would be mounted on a tripod and covered with a windscreen.

Bernie Krause has successfully used omni lavaliers placed on either side of trees to simulate a binaural recording. In order to get a stereo signal this way, you would either need lavs that use phantom power and a recorder with two phantom ports, or you would need to run the mics into a mixer before sending the signal to the recorder. Examples of lavs that might be used this way include the Audio Technica 803b, the Sennheiser MKE-2-PC, the Shure SM93 or the Tram TR-50.  The Primo EM-172 and 172 capsules also work well in this configuration.

  1. Ultrasonic recording

Ultrasonic recording (above 20 kHz) often requires special gear, usually referred to as bat detectors. But there are full spectrum recorders available; in addition, some professional recorders can record up to almost 100 kHz. I cover the details in Options for recording ultrasounds.

  1. Contact mics

Contact mics are used to sense vibrations. These are usually piezoelectric transducers, the same kind used to amplify guitars and violins. Some specialty manufacturers make contact mics specifically for nature recording:

http://contactmicrophones.com

http://hydrophones.blogspot.com/

Contact instrument microphones (guitar or violin pick-ups) can also be used to detect outside vibrations, but it should be noted that their housing is not made to stand up to the elements, and they come with a ¼” plug and may need an adapter for some field recording equipment.

  1. Hydrophones

Hydrophones are used to sense sounds underwater, which are transmitted via vibrations, so they are, in essence, contact microphones. Specialty hydrophones used in research on whales and dolphins, such as the Ambient Recording ASF-1, may run more than a thousand dollars, although the companies listed above carry hydrophones for much less cost.

If you’re adventurous, there are a number of YouTube videos on how to make DIY hydrophones for under $50, but they won’t be as sensitive as the ones listed above.

  1. Videography

Getting decent location sound to go with nature videos can be difficult, and may be why so many documentaries rely on music for audio tracks. But adding a shotgun mic, a stereo mic, or lavaliers can greatly enhance the quality of audio for a video production.

Because the videographer (or producer) usually wants to capture sound in front of the camera, shotgun mics are the standard, either camera mounted or handled separately on a boom pole. Rode, Audio Technica, and Sennheiser make mics that attach to a cameras hot shoe and plug straight into the cameras audio jack (if it has one) – be sure to check the type of connector your camera has.  Examples of some video mics include Rode stereo video mic pro, Rode video mic compact, Sennheiser MKE 400, Senal MS-77 and Shure VP83F:

Note that the Sennheiser and Rode video mics are not stereo mics, although they are a major improvement over the camera’s own microphones.

Using microphones away from the camera, fed into a separate recorder is more complex but also allows for higher quality microphones and more flexibility in microphone placement, although syncing audio and video may be tricky. Fostex makes the DCR302, and Tascam makes the DR60D MKII, DR 701D and DR 70D recorders that sit between the camera and tripod, allowing synchronous high quality recording.

 

Commonly used shotgun mics for videography include the Audio Technica AT875R and AT897, the Rode NTG-1, and the Sennheiser MKE600, MKH 416, and MKH 70:

For a greater sense of ambiance, a stereo mic can be added separately, or a stereo shotgun mic can be used. See the examples under “Mid-side” above.

Adding microphones for dialog can be done using shotguns or lavs (which also allow wireless options). But that technically isn’t nature recording and there are already plenty of references on that topic.

Why do microphones vary so much in price?

Some of it is, of course, the name.  But with microphones, paying more generally means less noise from the mic itself, a higher dynamic range, a better build quality, and perhaps a better warranty.  I know of people who have been using expensive Sennheisers in the field regularly for decades.   Different mics of the same class sound a little different to different people – like cameras, some seem warmer, some cooler.  If possible, listen to various microphones and talk to people who have used them before investing.

I hope this material has been helpful in describing the different types of microphones and their uses.


Last modified June 2016.

22 thoughts on “Microphones for nature recording II.: different microphones for different situations

  1. Dear Christine,
    Thanks very much for keep this nice page. It has a lot of very good and helpful information. I’m a Brazilian ornithologist and have been recording bird voices for more than 10 years with directional mic. Last week I came back to a place I visited 5 years ago and the forest was gone. I don’t know why I never though before about recording soundscapes, but after that moment I realize that I really wish to have a sound record of that place saved forever. Today I just bough a Zoom H6 to start making soundscapes records of the places I go birding. I don’t have much money now to buy microphones so I was thinking to start using the mics that came with the recorder. You think thats possible? You have any experience with zoom H6? Should I record with the XYH mic (120) or MSH mic? Any advice related to the recording setup? I will be really grateful if you can help me with any of these questions. Thank you so much. Best wishes. Luciano

    • Hi Luciano, that’s so sad to hear about the forest disappearing! For recording on a budget, the H6 should do pretty well. X-y at 120 should do well. I have not recorded in MS, but know a lot of people like it. It does take special processing to get a satisfactory recording, often specialized software. If you haven’t recorded MS before, I would start with x-y. One thing to watch for is wind protection. X-y mics can be difficult to protect from the wind. Sounds like your off to a good start.

  2. Hi Christine, this paper really helps me. I’m about to do the nature recording but have no idea regarding equipments and how to capture sound while avoiding wind disruption. You made a very detailed introduction on this! But as a student, the budget is limited. Do you have any recommendations on less costly equipments? Thanks!

    • Hi Kaile, I’m glad you found the post useful. In microphones, quality is closely tied to price. So cheaper mics often are noisier, or may have restricted frequency ranges. They also may not hold up to outdoor recording environments well. That said, there are a couple of options: first, rent microphones from a music rental place; second, make your own mics. Also, look into the mics that can attach to your smartphone. It’s hard to give more advice without knowing what kind of recording you want to do (single species, like birds; soundscapes; video recording, etc.). Some of the smaller recorders also have pretty good mics built in. I have found that cheaper mics add more noise to the recordings, so you spend a lot of time trying to edit the noise out. My favorite mics right now are a homemade version of the Clippy mics available from Felmicamps. Hope that helps!

  3. Hi! I have a question. I will film wild animals (such as mostly bears but also wolverines and wolfs) from a bear hide in Finland. The animals will probably be on a range from 30-50 meters but possibly as close as 5 meters. If I want to achieve great noiseless sound when filming and recording these animals, what would you recommend? I have tried a videomic röde pro but was heavily disappointed as it could not quite pick up the sounds of the animal which required me to amp up the sound so much that it all became very noise. Thanks, hope you can help me, I really want to achieve good sound!

    • Hi Henrik, thank you for your question. I’m probably not the best source of information about sound for video – there are lots of websites with good information. But here’s my 2 cents anyway: it depends somewhat on your camera and what kind of mic it will take. A quieter mic will probably be a higher quality shotgun (the MKH 416 by Sennheiser is very popular for this), but requires XLR inputs. If your camera doesn’t have XLR ports and provide XLR power, you can use another recorder that has XLR power as an interface (Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-701, etc), or record separately and join audio and video in post. Something else to try might be a parabolic dish, which helps amplify the sound. Parabolic dishes tend to be bulky and would require an extra tripod and might not work well in a blind. Hopefully those suggestions will get you started, and good luck!

  4. Hi,
    I have purchased one of the AT2022 microphones and see that you have used a preamp with this microphone. Is this the preamp you use Felmicamps SK3.5 SX3? Where do you purchase this preamp? I could only find a place in Europe. Do you use this instead of the cord that came with the mic? I live in the US. Any help you can give me, would be greatly appreciated.
    thanks so much,
    tom

    • Hi, yes, the preamp I used was the Felmicamps SK3.5; I ordered it from the company in Great Britain. I don’t know anything similar available in the states. The AT2022 is a bit noisy for quiet nature recording. The preamp helps, but it still requires quite a bit of editing to get rid of mic noise. I’m currently using some homemade mics made from Primo EM-172 capsules. They are much quieter and don’t need a preamp, but because they are omnis, they are a bit trickier to set up to get the same stereo feel you get from the AT2022. What recorder are you using? That also affects mic and preamp choice.

      • Thanks so much. Right now I have an Olympus LS-12 recorder. I saw that you had been using the Sony PCM-M10 and have considered switching to it. I don’t know that I have the technical abilities to build the mic setup you have with the Primo EM-172. How hard is it to build. Any thoughts on the preamp to use with the AT2022. If I got one, would it me reduce the noise. Thanks so much.
        tom

        • I don’t think there’s enough difference between the Olympus and the Sony to warrant switching. In this case, the mic is noisier than the recorder preamps.
          I describe how to make the mics here: http://wp.me/P2LZOq-GI (the page is under Equipment – DIY microphones from EM-172 capsules).
          That’s probably the cheapest, quiet option. The Felmicamps preamp would be the easiest to work with that mic/recorder combo (and the folks at FEL communications are easy to work with). Another mic to try would be the Rode NT-4; it’s more expensive that the AT2022 and only has a 90 degree spread instead of adjustable, but it is quieter. Yet another option, if money is no object, is to add a phantom preamp, like the Sound Devices Mix-pre, to which you can add quiet professional mics, and use a line-in to the recorder (I think the Olympus allows you to do that).
          Basically, quiet recordings either cost you time in editing or money for good equipment. And good technique and luck. If you decide to make your own mics, contact me. I’ve been working on some other designs that haven’t made the page yet.

          • thanks so much for your help. Maybe I will try getting the preamp from FEL and see how it goes. I was hoping to get a good directional microphone for bird calls and might want to spend on that rather than upgrading too much here. I have a lot to learn, thanks for sharing all you have. I saw that you were able to find kits for the mic you built. I might look more into that too. I really appreciate all your help. tom

            • That’s a good strategy if you want a variety of mics. Before you order a preamp, you might do a lot of testing with the recorder and mic to find the best settings, and see if that’s an amount of noise you can live with. You’ll want to use those settings anyway if you get a
              preamp.

        • Alternatively, if you want a really quiet, not outrageously expensive setup, look into a Fostex FR2-LE with Audio-technica AT4022 mics. I’ve heard some amazing recordings with this setup.

          • Thanks for your help. I will let you know how I make out. I want to keep things light if I can so I can backpack into wilderness with it too. I will do as you suggest and play with what I have now to see what I can produce and then look into the preamp some more. Loved the Chiricahua sounds you posted today. Just wonderful night sounds and funny you mentioned on the guy in is trailer.

  5. Hello Christine, good year for field recording

    We exchanged technical mails in November

    I heard the bear on your record: You’re lucky to have a wilderness to save! In France the shepherds do not appreciate the presence of wolves and bears ….

    I bought the Fel Communication Kit with 2 sleeve holder. I will add 2 drip tip ce2 (electronic cigarettes) to dress the capsules. ….

    Prices declined in Germany:
    – Sony pcm m10 € 174 ($ 202 20% tax included)
    – Sony pcm d100 € 666 ($ 774 20% tax included)

    Think consistent buying a Sony D 100 rather than Sony Pcm M10 for use only Primo capsules and not professional microphones (price is four times higher)?

    This is to save the concert choir and sounds of the city and nature. Previously I had heavy and bulky equipment (Revox A77 Uher Report 4200 Monitor + electrostatic microphones Sennheiser MKH 435) Times have changed ….

    Do you have other projects to save?

    I look forward to hearing from you

    Christian Bihr
    France

    • Hi Christian,

      I look forward to hearing how your self-built capsules work. I know what you mean about the price of the d100. Because you record choirs and nature, have you looked into the new Zoom recorders (H5 and H6)? They are supposed to be much quieter (although I still haven’t able to get numbers on the pre-amps, or know anyone who uses them for nature recording). But with the modular mics that come with them, plus the omni EM172s, you would have lots of recording options. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as quiet as the d100, but the flexibility may make up for it. Keep us posted with what you decide,

      Chris

  6. Thank you for your help. It is true that manufacturers are sometimes approximate. Hence the interest to share our experiences. see you soon

  7. Yes thank you for your message. I am not speaking of the 48-volt phantom power! Maybe we did not understand: the preamp receives the 2.5 volt plug in power: ok. But if you keep the battery in the micro -1.5 volts – it can be too much and can damage the micro, How did you do?
    Thank you for your reply
    Christian

    PS it is 1 hour 15 am in France

    • The battery in the mic is on, and it is plugged into the 3.5 PIP. My guess (not being an audio engineer) is that the 4v is not too much for the mic. Many mics (including the Primo capsules) do better around 5v than the 2.5v the PIP supplies. The instructions for the mic say to use a battery and plug in to PIP, but avoid phantom power. I was also confused when I saw the instructions. Does that help?

  8. I listened to your recording San Pedro River 130412. The result is very good. How do you: micro AT 2022 works with a battery, the fait sk 3.5 preamp is powered by the power jack plug in the Sony! Is the microphone does not receive too much power or have you removed the battery? Would you be kind enough to tell me that?

    • Hi Christian, Did you get the email I sent? Basically, the recorder provides 2.5v and the battery in the mic 1.5v, so only 4v. Not much. The manufacturer says 48v phantom power will damage the mic though. Hope that helps.

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