The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Posts Tagged ‘Field Recording’

(Yet More) Microphone Tests

Posted by Tom Benedict on 19/12/2016

Since writing my last post Homero Leal pointed out that I could mitigate some of the harshness of the Alice microphone (for field recording, mind you) by adding a capacitor across the 2.2k drain resistor. I didn’t have the size I needed (6.8nF), but I had everything to make a similar modification by adding an 8.2nF capacitor in series with a 750 ohm resistor, both across the 2.2k drain resistor. All of this is spelled out in Ricardo Lee’s ChinaMod+U87.doc file on the micbuilder forum.

Alice with ChinaMod U87

I walked out into the park behind my work, recorded for about five minutes, and headed back inside to modify the microphone. After adding the HF EQ mod I walked back out into the park and recorded again.

Prior to the mod my recording had a background hiss that sounded like microphone self-noise. I knew from testing the mic inside my car that it’s not, and is actually a sound from the environment. While testing the mic with a 22″ parabolic dish a couple of weeks ago I panned around to try to identify the source. I’m almost certain the hiss comes from the sounds of tree leaves rattling against each other in the wind. It only takes a breath of wind to make the leaves rattle, so the sound is almost always there. After the mod, that background hiss was reduced quite a bit. Enough so that I wanted to try it more rigorously out in the field.

Last night conditions were almost perfect. We had a storm system rolling in, the air was still, and the sky was overcast. Perfect conditions for people to stay home, get off the road, and let people like me lurk in the shadows with headphones on. I packed both my Alice microphones along with my SASS and Olson Wing, and headed out to an old cane haul road to record coqui frogs and insects. I was rained out in the end, but even that worked to my favor.

The tests!

Alice with HF EQ vs. Stock Alice

This is an A-B test between the Alice with Ricardo Lee’s HF EQ mod (thanks for the pointer, Homero!) and an unmodified Alice. The mics alternate every ten seconds, with a two-second cross-fade. That’s probably excessive on the cross-fade, but c’est la vie. Keep in mind there was very little wind during the test, so the difference is subtle. But it’s there.

SASS vs Olson Wing

While I was there I also tested the SASS against the Olson Wing. In this case both were populated with Primo EM-172 capsules. After I got home I realized I had wind protection on the SASS, but none on the Olson Wing. So this isn’t a fair test of frequency response, but it should be a fair test of the depth of stereo imaging, and to some degree, sound localization. (The frogs really don’t move around that much.)

I was content to let this setup run for a while, but it started to rain. Without any rain protection on either array, I knew the rain would eventually soak the mics. So I packed it all in and pulled out my rain gear.

Rain Gear

I’m still trying to get a good, clean recording of rain. A while back I took a tip from Gordon Hempton and built a microphone rain shelter. It’s a hard aluminum plate covered with two inches of non-woven air filter material. The aluminum plate keeps the mics dry, and the filter material diffuses the rain drops to a soft “fuff” sound. I also added a layer of carpet foam underneath to cut down on the residual “fuff” sound. It’s set up to take my DIY shock isolator, a small ball head, and my ORTF bar. (Sorry, no pictures of the whole setup just yet.) With the whole mess set up on a tripod or c-stand, it protects the mics from rain while minimizing the sound of the drops hitting the rig.

Finally finally I had a chance to use it in the field. And it worked! It worked great!

Only problem is that I managed to damage one of my EM-184 cardioids while testing the Alice mics. It barely responded at all, and produced a deep wumping noise in the recording instead. So the stereo recording is rubbish, unfortunately. I thought the wump sound was the mic picking up rain drops hitting the tripod legs, so I switched to a c-stand, re-arranged, tied up cables, did all sorts of things. None of it helped. After about half an hour I finally admitted to myself that the mic wasn’t working, and packed it all in.

But the rain gear worked! It worked great!

And once I dried the EM-184 mics out they worked great again, too. (Lesson learned:Don’t let it rain on your mics. DOH!)

All in all it was a good night of testing. I have one other test I’d like to do with the two Alice mics (ocean waves!), and I’d like to do one more side-by-side of the SASS and the Olson Wing to see if I can shorten the length of the Olson Wing and still get a good boundary effect out of it. But I’m pleased as punch with the rain gear.


P.S. I also learned that I need to finish this project before watching another season of Stranger Things. There’s something about driving way the hell out on some abandoned road to some spot in the woods in the middle of nowhere with fog and rain and nothing but the buzz of the insects and the calls of the frogs to… WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!

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Whales, Waves, and Unexpected Urination

Posted by Tom Benedict on 12/12/2016

“See any whales?”

I’d been recording at Kiholo Bay for several hours before the man spoke to me, but the first hour had been plagued by technical issues. For some reason my DR-70D kept reporting a write timeout error – something usually attributed to using a slow memory card – but I knew the card was good. Helicopters and airplanes had ruined the rest of the first hour.

At that point I was almost done with my first completely clean hour of waves on my SASS and Mid-Side setup. My other recorder, a DR-05, was positioned at a small beach to the south of me, recording waves receding off of loose pebbles.

I turned around to see who’d spoken to me. He was an older man who’d been hiking along the coast and had stopped to talk. I knew his words would show up on the recording, so I figured if I’m editing I’m editing. I might as well be civil about it.

“No, not from here.”

He nodded and walked on. I turned back to my gear, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn and head down to the little pebble beach.

People here are, on the whole, really nice about other people’s stuff. At one point years ago I left some kites at Hapuna Beach, one of the busiest beaches on the Big Island. It wasn’t until I was unloading my car at home that I realized my kite bag was missing. I jumped back into my car, headed back to the beach, and found that someone had brought my kites up off of the sand and left them for me at the showers. People here really are great.

But still… Strange guy hiking down to a beach where I’d left gear… I didn’t want him knocking my gear over inadvertently or anything. So I kept an eye on him as he made his way down to the beach and… proceeded to relieve himself not four feet from where I’d left my gear. Recording sound. All sound. Beach sound. And now his sound. His very personal sound. He kept glancing up at me like I was being rude. I did turn away while he was occupied with his… task. But eventually I knew he’d finish and realize I’d been recording him. Which he eventually did.

One of my more awkward sessions.

(But I got a lot of really good winter wave on rock sounds!)

Anyway, I think I’ve finally answered some open-ended questions about microphones. The Alice microphones I’ve been building are beautiful, crisp, and punchy, but not all that great for recording outdoor sounds. They’re very bright, which works great for a number of subjects. Waves, streams, and wind in the trees just don’t happen to be any of those subjects. Unfortunately those are the subjects I’m interested in.

I also don’t think I’m a huge fan of mid-side recording for creating big spacious soundscapes. No matter how much I play with the balance of mid to side, I just can’t get as much of a sense of space as I do with the SASS. I find myself firmly in the camp of the partially baffled microphone array. So for now I’ll save the mid-side and LDC Alice mics for indoor recording and go back to my Primo-based mics for nature. (Though I still intend to convert my Behringer C-2 mics to surface-mount Alice electronics. They’ll make good instrument mics, if nothing else.)

There’s one last test I want to repeat, though. Early on I built an Olson Wing – a baffled double-boundary array invented by Curt Olson. This pre-dated my SASS. I remember I liked the sound, but that I liked the sound of my SASS better. Now that I’ve had a chance to try a number of other stereo recording techniques (X-Y, A-B, ORTF, M-S, and SASS), I’d like to resurrect my Olson Wing and try it and the SASS side-by-side. I’ve still got all the bits, so it’s just a matter of rigging everything back up and getting out with the gear.

It’s something of a pressing question because of something else that happened. Earlier today my wife bought me an early present: a pair of ammo boxes.

I joked with the kids that they’re for the Zombie Apocalypse. They just rolled their eyes. They know me too well. She got me the ammo boxes for a recording project.

One of the problems with unattended recording is that conditions change, weather turns, and gear gets rained on. My first unattended overnight session wound up that way. I set up to record the dawn chorus in the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve on International Dawn Chorus Day, but during the night the clouds came in and rained on my gear. The evening chorus was spectacular, but with the rain on the leaf mast making a staccato drumming sound, the dawn chorus part of the recording was practically useless.

My gear survived, but the weather proofing was tentative at best. I’ve been looking for a good way to build a completely watertight, rain proof recording setup. Enter the ammo box.

Ammo boxes are made out of steel. They’re tough. And they have a rubber weather seal that’ll keep out a hurricane. Perfect for cramming recording gear into! My plan is to use the larger of the two boxes to house my gear, and either build an Olson Wing or an SASS around the box, depending on which one I like better. The microphones would be the only thing poking out. Everything else goes inside the box, which can then be latched shut. The whole unit can then be left overnight without any chance of rain getting inside and killing my gear.

Or pee, for that matter.

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Building New Mics

Posted by Tom Benedict on 17/09/2016

When you’re faced with a dilemma like choosing the next step to improve your recording gear, instead of finding the right answer to the question, sometimes it’s more fun to dodge the issue completely and go off on a tangent.

So I went off on a tangent! Building new microphones!

I’ve currently got two projects in the works. A parabolic mic and a self-contained mid-side mic.

The Parabolic

I’m basing my parabolic mic off of the family of parabolic mics  from  Telinga Microphones. The mics from Telinga offer all kinds of neat options. One contains a cardioid mic facing the parabola and an omni facing away from the parabola. This lets you record a distant sound and the ambient sound field at the same time on two different channels. Another contains two omnis on either side of a baffle plate so you can record a distant sound in stereo.

But at its simplest, a parabolic microphone uses a parabolic reflector to direct pressure waves at a single microphone located at or near its focus. That’s where I’m starting.

I picked up a 22″ parabolic dish from sdill471 on Ebay. He sells them for around 50USD and ships all over the place, including Hawaii (yay!), using USPS shipping.

The microphone for this project is the first EM-172 lavalier mic I built back when I started building external mics for my DR-05. It’s since been converted to XLR and received the full shielded treatment the rest of my EM-172 mics got when I did that conversion.

The rest of the project will be to make all the mechanical bits to place the EM-172 mic at the focus of the dish. I’m drawing a good bit of inspiration from WW Knapp’s Homemade Parabolic Mic page, though I’m making two big departures Knapp’s design: The first is to think more in terms of parts I can make in a machine shop rather than what I can find at the hardware store. (This departure is called “needlessly complicating a good, simple design”.) The other is to take a tip from Klas Strandberg at Telinga: You don’t always want the mic to be at the exact focus of the paraboloid. Having the ability to rack the microphone through focus gives you some much needed flexibility in the field to widen or narrow the pickup pattern of the mic, or even to tune which frequencies are focused on the mic by the dish.

I’ll post the design and build articles once I’ve finished the mic.

Mid-Side Microphone

The entire idea for the self-contained mid-side microphone comes from an Instructables article written by Jules Ryckebusch. Jules took a BM-800 mic – about ~20USD off of Ebay depending on the seller – gutted it, and replaced its innards with two Pimped Alice amplifier boards and three TSB-165 capsules. The really clever part is how he did it, but for any of that to make sense it helps to understand how mid-side microphones work.

The easiest way to understand mid-side recording is to read a really good article about it. What I wrote below won’t be nearly as good, so I urge you to follow that link. That being said, here’s my take on mid-side:

Back when recording was in its infancy no one even thought in terms of stereo recordings, quadrophonic, 5.1, 7.1, or any of the other immersive formats we’ve since come up with. Mid-side was one of the earliest stereo techniques, patented by Alan Blumlein in 1933.

Mid-side uses two microphones: one to pick up the center part of the sound field (the “mid” mic) and another to pick up the sound on either side (the “side” mic). In most cases the mid microphone is a cardioid, which preferentially picks up sound in front of the mic. In all cases the “side” mic is a figure-eight – a microphone that picks up sound in two opposite directions, but nowhere else.

To create what we consider a conventional Left-Right stereo image from a Mid-Side (M/S) recording requires a little math. The equations look like this:

Left = Mid + (+Side)

Right = Mid + (-Side)

In the equations the Mid channel is taken as-is. The Side channel is used twice: first it’s used as-is (+Side) and the second time it’s used inverted (-Side).

As wonky as that sounds, and as convoluted as the post-processing sounds, it offers some distinct advantages when mixing the tracks afterward. Want a wider stereo sound? Mix in a little more of the Side channel and a little less Mid. Want to focus the listener’s attention on the bird in front of the mic and down-play the forest full of frogs chirping in the background? Bump up the Mid and turn down the Side. Want to mix a mono track to go with an accompanying video on Youtube? Use only the Mid channel for clean mono without any phasing issues. The real strength of mid-side is the flexibility and versatility it offers after the fact.

The one catch with mid-side, as with all stereo techniques, is that it requires two distinct microphones. ORTF requires two cardioid mics and a bar to mount them on. A/B requires two widely spaced omnis. Even my SASS consists of two omni mics mounted in an admittedly rather large baffle. M/S is no different, requiring a cardioid and a figure-eight.

What makes M/S special is that you want the microphones to be as close to each other as you can get them. By its very design it’s inherently physically compact. (Side note: This is true of X/Y as well, which uses two cardioids pointing 90 degrees to each other, and of the Blumlein arrangement, which replaces the cardioids with figure-eights.)

Which leads us back to Jules’s M/S microphone, which takes “compact” to a new level by cramming multiple microphones into just one mic body. That makes for a light, portable recording kit that’s quick to set up and tear down; perfect for traveling, or for recording subjects that require substantial hiking to reach.

So why three capsules instead of two? Jules realized that if he took two of the TSB-165 cardioid capsules, faced them in opposite directions, and wired them 180 degrees out of phase with each other in series, they act like a single microphone with a figure-eight pickup pattern. Add a third TSB-165 capsule in the center and you have all the makings of a well matched mid-side microphone.

Where Things Stand Now

My parabolic reflector arrived last week. The mic for the parabolic project is already in-hand, though I may have to (yet again) cut it out of its housing and install it in a new one. I’m in the process of designing the mechanical bits, and should be able to start making them in the next couple of weeks.

I ordered the BM-800 donor mic for my mid-side mic just this morning. Jules posted a link to download the Pimped Alice PCB files that Homero Leal designed based off of Scott Helmke’s original Alice design. Once I have the board mounting hole pattern off of the BM-800 microphone, I’ll add those to Homero’s PCB layout and send the files off to OSH Park for fab.

Work on both of these is contingent on my getting a number of other gotta-do’s off my plate, but I hope to make some progress on both in the next couple of weeks.


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Microphone Self-Noise vs. Recorder Equivalent Input Noise

Posted by Tom Benedict on 25/08/2016

Yet another attempt at combining math and sound recording… Ye have been warned!

A number of threads on a number of field recording forums revolve around a simple question: I have X amount of money. Where do I throw it to improve my recording?

An obvious and common answer is, “upgrade your pre-amps!” This can be done a couple of different ways: The first is to trade out your recorder for one with better pre-amps. The second is to send your recorder to a shop to have the pre-amps changed out for better ones. The third is to buy an external pre-amp like the Sound Devices MicPre or MicPre-D, and plug it into the Line-In jack on your existing recorder.

But is that always the right approach?

A bunch of head-scratching, web-searching, and number-crunching led me to the conclusion that it’s not as obvious as it might appear. A number of factors come into play: noise level, sound quality, build quality, ergonomics and convenience, useful features of the gear, battery life, etc. Of these, the easiest to tackle from a quantitative standpoint is noise, so that’s where I’m starting.

Most of the calculations I’m doing are spelled out in an article on the RANE web site titled, Selecting Mic Preamps. The first set of calculations help you determine the maximum pressure levels a particular mic/pre-amp combination can handle. Since the field recording I’m doing involves quiet sources I skipped that bit and went to the second set of calculations. These help you determine the level of self-noise a given combination of mic and pre-amp will have.  To run the calculations you need information about the mics as well as the pre-amps.

(If you’re recording loud sources that first set of calculations may be of use to you! You don’t have to skip them just because I did.)

Right now all of the mics I own are based off of Primo capsules: BT-EM172, BT-EM158, and BT-EM184. The data I used for the mics all comes entirely from the Primo datasheets.

I currently own two recorders: a Tascam DR-05 and a Tascam DR-70D. In the spirit of this question I’m looking at two competing solutions: one is to buy a new recorder, a Tascam DR-680 MkII, and the other is to buy a used Sound Devices MicPre to use as an external pre-amp. The data I used for the recorders comes from a mix of sources, the most important being the Avisoft Bioacoustics Microphone Input Noise Comparison website. The rest came from the manufacturer’s datasheets.

The RANE calculations require the self-noise and sensitivity of the mics in question. From these you can use Table 3 in their article to calculate the mic output noise. For all of these I’m using A-weighted noise values for the mics and recorders. A-weighted noise levels are scaled for the auditory response of a normal human. They tend to be about 5dB more optimistic than their non-weighted counterparts. So long as I stick to A-weighted for both, I’m comparing apples to apples. The numbers for my mics and for the DPA 4060 omni by way of comparison are:

  • DPA 4060
    • Self Noise 23dBA
    • Sensitivity -34dB
    • Mic Output Noise -105dBu A-weighted
  • EM172
    • Self Noise 14dBA
    • Sensitivity -28dB
    • Mic Output Noise -108dBu A-weighted
  • EM158
    • Self Noise 20dBA
    • Sensitivity -32dB
    • Mic Output Noise -106dBu A-weighted
  • EM184 Cardioid
    • Self Noise 22dBA
    • Sensitivity -39dB
    • Mic Output Noise -110dBu A-weighted

The RANE article says that when you compare the output noise of the mic to the equivalent input noise of the pre-amp, you really want to see a factor of -10dB lower noise in the pre-amp or better. A -10dB lower noise in the pre-amp means it’s only contributing 0.4dB of noise to the final signal. Looking at the recorders I’m using, along with the two I’m considering, their EIN levels are:

  • Tascam DR-05 EIN -109dB A-weighted
  • Tascam DR-70D EIN -120dB A-weighted
  • Tascam DR-680 MkII EIN -127dB A-weighted
  • Sound Devices MixPre -126dB A-weighted

Here’s how I’m reading this:

If I plug any of these mics into my DR-05, the noise from the recorder’s pre-amps will be the limiting factor. Getting a better mic won’t improve my sound with that recorder.

My DR-70D is -12dB lower noise than the EM172 that my go-to mics are built around. In this case the mic’s own self-noise is the limiting factor. Switching to a DPA 4060 won’t help from the standpoint of noise, either. (I’m not mentioning any improvements in the character of the sound, mind you.) This does imply that I’m coming up on the limits of my pre-amps with the EM184 cardioid mics.

Switching to either a DR-680 MkII or a MixPre certainly wouldn’t hurt, and the higher quality amplifiers on either device may improve the sound in other ways, but it probably wouldn’t help the noise much overall because the mics would still be the limiting factor. At most I could improve my noise levels by a tenth of a dB.


Unfortunately what this means is that to make any substantial improvement in the noise level of my recordings, I need to upgrade both my recorder and my microphones. Upgrading either one without the other really won’t buy me that much.

The Real Conclusion:

This leads to the next obvious question: Have I reached a point from which the only way to improve my gear is to throw orders of magnitude more money at it than I already have? (Or to word that only slightly differently, more money than I have at all?)

In short, is this it?

(Or is this the excuse I need to stop improving the gear I’m using and start building parabolic mics?)


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SASS and ORTF Side-by-Side

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/08/2016

Or top and bottom, rather.

I had the opportunity to stick my SASS rig and my newly minted ORTF bar on the same mount, one right over the other, and use them to record coqui frogs in a eucalyptus forest on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Of course whenever you record in a forest here you also get insects.

And if you happen to be within a hundred yards of a bunch of… dinosaurs? You also get them.

And the rain.

Ok, just a bunch of stuff. Anyway, here’s the recording. It’s an A-B test, switching between SASS and ORTF at thirty second intervals with a two second cross-fade.

My take: The two are different. (Well duh!) They provide different sounds. Neither one is “right” to my ear, just… different. But I’ll let you decide for yourself.


P.S. No I didn’t say which is which in the recording. What would be the fun of that?

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Clippy EM184 Cardioid Mics and ORTF

Posted by Tom Benedict on 05/08/2016

I’d planned to write an article describing my trip to Edinburgh for SPIE 2016, but I got side-tracked. That article is yet to come.

I did some audio recording while I was there, but not nearly as much as I’d have liked. I wound up packing all of my sound gear, including my SASS, but the few times I pulled it out it rained. The one time I thought I’d get to use it for sure – poking it out of my hotel room window to record traffic sounds – I found it was too big to fit through the window. I wound up using spaced omnis to record traffic sounds, but the SASS didn’t get used even once. I found myself wishing I had other options.

A number of common stereo techniques require the use of cardioid microphones. Up until my trip to Scotland I only had omni microphones in my bag. There are still some stereo techniques that use omnis that I haven’t tried, but I’ve been wanting to play with cardioid mics for some time. Step one was to buy or make some cardioids.

The same circuit I used to make my EM172 omni mics can be used with other FET-enabled Primo capsules, including the EM184 cardioid capsule. FEL Communications (micboosters) sells these on their site either as individual caps or as matched pairs. I picked up a matched pair along with a pair of Clippy mic bodies, clips, and windscreens. I still had some Mogami cable and Neutrik connectors on hand, so I just drew from that stock to build out the new mics.

The Clippy mic bodies work nicely with the cardioid capsules, and the resulting mics have very little pickup at the back. It’s not zero, though, so you do have to be aware of everything that’s not directly in front of the mic. I’d been warned that cardioids are more sensitive to wind than omnis, and these mics bear that out. They’re stupid sensitive to wind. Even with the foam windscreens and some furries I got from Cat Ears, the slightest bit of wind kills them. I need to figure out some other solution for wind protection.

Step two was to come up with a way to hold the mics so they record a clean, well separated stereo image. There are plenty of choices for this, but the one I chose was ORTF, a technique designed around 1960 by Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF) at Radio France. (See? Astronomers aren’t the only ones to recycle their acronyms!)

ORTF requires the microphones to be separated by 170mm and angled away from each other at a 110 degree angle. It’s a bit of a pain to set up in the field without some way to gauge the angle, so many people favor other setups such as NOS (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting) in which the mics are separated by 300mm and are angled out by 90 degrees. I wanted to play with ORTF, though, so I decided to solve the setup problems with a fixture.

Clippy ORTF Bar

Since the Clippy mic bodies register nicely with their lapel clips, I used the clips to orient the mics both in location and rotation. The clips have a tab on top that’s just over 6.2mm wide. I made 6.5mm wide slots at either end of a bar to receive the clips.

Clippy ORTF Bar With Mics

I wanted to keep things simple so I didn’t have to fuss with stuff in the field, and this lets me do that. With the clips fully seated in the slots the mics are angled out at a 110 degree angle and are 170mm apart. It takes more time to unroll the cables than it does to install the mics on the fixture. And the flat bar packs down a lot smaller than my SASS.

Clippy ORTF Bar Slot Detail

The bar I used was just over 4mm thick. I cut the slots to leave 2mm of material for the mic to clip to. This wound up being a little thin, but it made for a nice, deep slot to register the clip in.

Clippy ORTF Bar Velcro

The bare metal of the bar was too slick for the clip to get any real grip, so I put a tab of Industrial Velcro on the bottom of the bar under each of the slots so the clips would have something to grab onto.

I’m pleased with how easy it is to use this setup, and it’s tough to beat how compact it is. But I’m not 100% satisfied with how it works in the field just yet. I already mentioned the wind issue. Even with double protection the mics saturate when almost any amount of wind touches them. They’ll probably fare better inside  a Rycote or a Rode blimp, but for now I’ll have to save them for wind-free environments.

The sound is also significantly different from that of my SASS. (Sorry, no side-by-side comparisons yet.) The SASS picks up more reverberation than the ORTF setup, so there’s more of a sense of the space with the SASS than with the ORTF. But you don’t always want that sense of space. During an earlier test I had one of my omnis and one of the cardioids in a car. The omni picked up so much of the car noise, it was difficult to hear the people in the car speaking. The recording from the cardioids was much cleaner.

Needless to say there’s still plenty of testing to be done. Once I learn the strengths and weaknesses of this setup and have a better handle on wind protection, I’m sure it’ll see plenty of use.


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A Self-Contained Stereo Field Recording Setup

Posted by Tom Benedict on 16/06/2016

A project I’ve been working on more or less led me by the nose toward a type of field recording I really enjoy doing. The project requires relatively long recordings of an ambient soundscape – an hour or longer. The recordings must be in stereo, and ideally serve to put the listener in the soundscape as completely as possible.

Because I can never really stop making noise, especially now that I’ve developed some rather energetic motor and vocal tics, the only way I’ve been able to pull this off is to set up my gear, leave it for an extended period, and recover it later. This drop and recover technique works great for these extended soundscape recordings. But because I often have to hike in for an hour or more to reach the locations I record in I’ve tried to shrink the setup as much as possible, resulting in a relatively compact arrangement. Here’s what I’m using at the moment:

Self Contained Stereo Recording - Front

It’s a self-built pseudo-SASS microphone array sitting on top of a vibration isolator that was made for attaching cameras to multirotors, which is then attached to my Tascam DR-70D recorder.

The vibration isolator took some modification to make it work for this application. I added a plate to the bottom that has a 1/4″-20 threaded hole in it. This lets it mount to practically any tripod or light stand, or to the top of my DR-70D using the camera attachment that came with it. The top of the mount had a 1/4″ through hole in it, but I had to make a big aluminum thumbscrew so I could thread it onto my DIY-SASS. It’s barely visible between the rubber balls on the shock mount in the photo above.

Self Contained Stereo Recording - Rear Quarter
In order for the shock isolator to work well I needed to use very flexible XLR cables to connect the mics to the recorder. And to keep things compact I needed them to be short. These are two things that make for some really hard to find cables. So like most of my gear I rolled my own.

The connectors are all from Neutrik and the cable is some leftover Mogami cable I had from building other sound bits. I really like the right angle female Neutrik connectors. They’re just as easy to use as the straight variety, and you can set the angle at which the cable comes out of the plug when you build the cable. I set mine to come out 45 degrees to the right to make the cable run a little cleaner and to clear the controls on my recorder.

Self Contained Stereo Recording - Back

The whole thing acts like a big wooden bobble-head doll. There’s not a lot of damping in the isolator, just a lot of spring, so once you thwack it it bounces around for a while. I’ll have to see how that works out in the field. Just testing indoors, though, the isolator does a good job of minimizing coupling between the tripod legs and the microphones. This should help minimize noise from grass, twigs, and branches that tap against the tripod legs during a recording. (This naturally occurring handling noise has ruined several recordings I’ve made in the past.)

The one obvious problem with this setup is that there’s no real way to monitor while recording. But since I’m leaving my gear in the field and walking away from it, it’s not really an issue for me.

I’m still working on wind protection. For light wind I have a lycra slip cover that goes over the pseudo-SASS. But for stronger wind I’ll need something more involved. (Hey, more problems to solve! My favorite!)


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IDCD 2016 – Part 2

Posted by Tom Benedict on 02/05/2016

Cloud Forest

As it turns out it did rain, but my gear survived!

Unfortunately the sound of the raindrops falling on the koa leaves that lined the forest floor dominated the soundscape during the dawn chorus. Koa leaves are very flat, and provide no loft to the forest floor to absorb the shock of a raindrop hitting. It has all the acoustic properties of water drops hitting wet cardboard. Even more unfortunate, the low-slung arrangement of my SASS meant that the microphones were only about 12″ from the forest floor. I basically close-mic’ed the raindrops, and left the birds in the diffuse soundfield. That’s the opposite of what I wanted!

But I’ll let you judge for yourself. Here’s the dawn chorus from the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve in its entirety:

(I still haven’t figured out how to make a nice, neat link to Soundcloud files.)

Despite the rain I’m taking it as a win. The gear setup works, I can leave it deployed overnight, and it can survive rain. YAY! But it places the mics too close to the ground for it to ever work well with rain. I’ll have to come up with another arrangement for recording rainfall, preferably something that lets me position the mics a good deal higher up in the air. (More R&D!)

In case you’re wondering what the birds sound like when it’s not raining, this is a sample from the evening before International Dawn Chorus Day, before the birds went to bed and well before the rain started.

Unfortunately, despite being over a mile from the highway some traffic noise is still audible in parts of the full-length track. The next time I do this I need to find a more secluded spot to set my gear.


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Mistakes Were Made

Posted by Tom Benedict on 01/04/2016

If I ever write an autobiography I’m calling it “Mistakes Were Made”. It’s an accurate statement that can be interpreted with a straight face or with a smile, and it does a good job of summing up the parts of my life that make decent stories. Let’s face it: It’s fun to read about other people’s mistakes!

Last Friday a storm system rolled through that brought with it real thunder and lightning. As strange as it sounds the weather in Hawaii doesn’t lend itself to thunderstorms, so I knew this was a rare and wonderful event, and a unique chance for me to record thunder rolling across the sky. As broken as I was (and am!) as the day darkened I grabbed my SASS and stand, slung my sound bag over my shoulder, shoved two trash bags in my pocket, and headed out.

I live across the highway from a ranch, so getting away from intruding sounds is as straightforward as crossing the highway and walking until I can’t hear anything any more. Time was of the essence, so I walked as quickly as my neck and back would let me. All the while the thunder was coming from every part of the sky, rolling from horizon to horizon, and stirring up echoes from the nearby mountains. It was perfect! When I deemed I’d gone far enough I set up the stand, took off my backpack and found…

You know when you see a school kid with their book bag, and it’s unzipped and stuff is hanging out and you tell them, “Zip up your bag! You’ll lose something!” and they, one way or another, flip you off?

I found that my backpack was unzipped, and had been from the moment I left home. In the dark I hadn’t checked, and hadn’t seen. By then I had crossed a stream, walked at least a mile through tall grass, and stepped around countless cow patties. With a sinking heart I checked to see what was missing. To my intense relief the only things unaccounted for were my three contact mics – stuff I’d built myself. I was lucky! But I still kicked myself for losing gear.

I had to set those thoughts aside and get busy if I wanted to record thunder, though. So I pulled out my recorder and cables, and started hooking everything up. Just as I finished plugging everything in, the first of the rain hit.

What I’d assumed was a lighter patch of cloud upwind of me turned out to be a rain line. I pulled the cables back out of my recorder, zipped everything up in my bag, and pulled a trash bag over it and over the SASS. I’ll just wait this out, I thought, It can’t be that much rain!

It was that much rain, and it just kept getting harder. I couldn’t even hear the thunder any more because of how loud the rain was against the grass and rocks. Without having hit the record button even once, I picked up my gear and started the long, slow, wet slog back home.

Good news is I found one of my contact mics along the way! The next day I went back and found a second. The only one missing is the one I made with an alligator clip for clipping onto fences and the like, which only took me an hour or so to make. As dumb as my mistake was, the cost in the end wasn’t all that high. Lesson learned.

But I still wish I’d recorded some of that thunder!


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DIY Microphone: EM172 Capsule and XLR Plug

Posted by Tom Benedict on 05/03/2016

This is the last in a four part series about powering the Primo EM172 microphone capsule. Part 1 outlined the problem of how to provide 5-10v to the capsule and predicted some results. Part 2 shared some results and pointed out that the gain differences between inputs on my recorder invalidated my predictions. Part 3 discussed my reasons for going with XLR connectors on all my microphones, and some of the details of that. This last part puts it all together into a step-by-step DIY for building microphones with Primo EM172 capsules, powered by 48v phantom power on an XLR plug.

If you need to build a microphone based around the EM172 capsule that plugs into the 1/8″ mic jack on your recorder, or a laptop, tablet, whatever, there are already several excellent tutorials out there. Rather than adapt this one to your needs, refer to one of the existing tutorials. The two I used when I first started building EM172 microphones were the ones on Zach Poff’s page and the one on Wild Mountain Echoes.

In this DIY I’m going to assume you already have a plan for making a mic body. I made mine out of Delrin bar stock on a lathe. Others have used Sharpie pen caps, which also provide a nice clip for clipping the mic to things (see the tutorial on Wild Mountain Echoes), PVC pipe, brass tubing, etc. When mounting the mic in the mic body, make sure the front of the capsule is flush with or slightly proud of the mic body. Don’t recess it. I made that mistake with my first set of mics and wound up with mics that sounded like they were inside a sewer pipe. If in doubt experiment by wiring up the mic completely, plugging it in, and listening to it as you slide it in and out of the mic body you plan to use. After all, this is DIY. Experimentation is part of the deal.

Primo BT-EM172 to P48 XLR Wiring

Credit for the circuit goes entirely to David McGriffy, and credit for the component choice goes entirely to David McGriffy and Ricardo Lee. Ricardo Lee’s writeup, SimpleP48wm61, goes into the theory of the circuit and the reasons for the component choices in depth. It’s the real reference for this. (In order to use that link to download Ricardo’s file, you may need to be a member of the micbuilders group on Yahoo!. If you’re doing this DIY you’re a mic builder, so it’s not a stretch.)

EDIT: A couple of weeks ago Akira So brought to my attention that I had the capacitor poloarity reversed from how David McGriffy and Ricardo Lee have it in SimpleP48. I’ve since corrected the schematic here. Credit where credit’s due.

EDIT: Akira also pointed out that my value for R (120k) resulted in something like 1.3-1.5V at the capsule. I experimented with a number of resistors to see what value of R would produce 7.5V at the capsule on my recorder, and for a Tascam DR-70D, R=40k produces just over 7.5V. When you do this build, you will have to find what works best for your equipment.

EDIT: I also swapped the supplier for the EM172 from Frogloggers to Micbooster (FEL Communications). I haven’t heard from Gene at Frogloggers in a while. Hoping he’s doing ok.

For my build I used the following:

I also used some metal tape (copper in my case, from the local gardening center), heat shrink of various sizes, and the solder I found on the bench in the lab. (My Alphametals solder I’ve been using for the past 20 years isn’t ROHS certified, so I can’t say “use this stuff, it’s great!”)

Not including the tools necessary to fabricate the mic bodies, you’ll also need:

  • Soldering iron (temperature regulated if possible)
  • Source of heat for heat shrink (heat gun, lighter, etc.)
  • Assortment of wire cutters, strippers, fine tip pliers, etc.

Since most of the bodies people use for these require the mic to slide in  from the front end of the housing, we’ll start with the mic capsule.

EM172 Back End

The first step is to strip one end of the cable, trim back the red and white wires to a workable length, and still leave plenty of shield exposed. The red and white wires are then soldered onto the appropriate pads on the capsule.

Warning: The EM172 capsule is sensitive to heat. These two photos were made with a capsule I’d killed using an unregulated soldering iron, which is why the capsule looks a little ugly. If you have access to a regulated iron set your iron no higher than 735C and don’t hold the iron on a pad for more than a few seconds. If you don’t have access to a regulated soldering iron, be sure to get EM172 capsules with stub leads already soldered in place. The tutorial on Wild Mountain Echoes uses capsules with stub leads, so you can see how she did it. Do all your work on the stub leads. Don’t fry your microphones!

EM172 With Wires

Now we build the shielding around the capsule itself. Insulate the sides and back of the capsule with some heat shrink.

Capsule Isolated

Be sure to account for every strand in the shield as you bring it up and over the heat shrink. Wrap with foil tape and trim back the shield so no wires protrude. Be sure no wires cross over the heat shrink and touch the front of the capsule.

Making a Shield

Apply a second layer of heat shrink over the foil tape. I like to apply a short length of colored heat shrink to help me identify which mic is which when I’m running wires and plugging things in out in the field.

Heat Shrunk Ready To Go

At this point go ahead and run the mic cable through your mic body, but don’t mount the capsule just yet. Once you’ve soldered the connector end of the cable, it’s a good idea to test everything to make sure you didn’t make any soldering mistakes, and to make sure the capsule didn’t get damaged during soldering. Strip the other end of the cable, leaving a little more wire to work with than on the capsule end. Thread the wire through the end cap for the XLR connector and set it aside. Since the XLR connector provides its own shield you don’t have to do any metal tape trickery on this end. Gather the wires from the cable’s shield, twist into a bundle, and cover with heat shrink tubing. This is also a good time to apply a length of colored heat shrink to match the capsule end of the cable.

Cable Prepped With Shell

Grab the XLR connector body in a vise or some other holding fixture. If you don’t have a vise, a set of vise-grip pliers with tape over the serrated part of the jaw works well. Just don’t grab it so hard that the connector body is damaged or distorted. Another way to hold these connectors that works great is to have the mating connector screwed into a board. Plug the connector you’re working on into its counterpart and solder to your heart’s content. (I used a vise.)

Trim back the leads on the capacitor and resistor to something reasonable that’ll fit inside the XLR connector. Save the snipped off bits of the leads. One of these works well to bridge from pin 1 to the ground tab.

Resistor and Capacitor

Solder a leftover component lead from pin 1 to the ground tab. Next, solder one end of the resistor to the ground tab as well. Next, solder the (-) end of the capacitor to pin 2. Finally, tie the two free ends of the capacitor and resistor together.

XLR Plug with McGriffy Components

All that’s left is to solder the cable onto the plug. Red goes to pin 3, white goes to the (+) lead of the capacitor as well as the free end of the resistor, and the cable’s shield is soldered to the ground tab. (In this photo the connector is rotated 180 degrees from how it’s drawn in the schematic, but that’s how the solder cups are oriented. Flip it around in your mind and it’ll make sense.)

XLR Plug with Cable

At this point your microphone’s electronics are finished. Put the connector together and screw things tight.

This is a good time to test the mic to make sure nothing went wrong. Plug it into your recorder, turn on phantom 48v power, and dial up the gain. If all went well you should have a low noise microphone ready to be installed in its mic body. If not, go back and check each step to find out what went wrong.

Finished Mic

Have fun recording!


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