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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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, or the Shure SM93 . The Primo EM-172 and 173 capsules also work well in this configuration.
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.
Contact mics are used to sense vibrations. These are usually piezoelectric transducers, the same kind used to amplify guitars and violins. They are pretty easy to construct from cheap Piezo disks, or they can be purchased online, made specifically for nature recording:
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.
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 or ASF-2, may run more than a thousand dollars, although the company 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.
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 CS-88, 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. Tascam makes the DR60D MKII, DR 701D and DR 70D recorders that sit between the camera and tripod, allowing synchronous high quality recording. The recently released Zoom F4 (and F8), and Sound Devices Mixpre-3 (and 6) are also designed to work in this capacity.
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.