My first commercial sound effects library Woodland Atmosphere has been out for almost a month, and so far the feedback is quite encouraging. Shortly after release I wrote a Q&A for A Sound Effect, but I feel there's a lot more I can share about recording and mastering the library.
First of all it was never my intention to put together and release Woodland Atmosphere. I had several excellent nature libraries (the Quiet Planet series comes to mind), and this took care of my requirements for nature ambiences for a while. The situation changed as soon as I had to recreate a typical UK woodland ambience however. Everything sounded exotic and out of place, so the only way to fix this was to go out and record my own ambiences.
Fortunately I live in Edinburgh, so I have to drive for less than an hour before I can reach quiet areas of dense woodland that are teeming with wildlife. On top of that I'm familiar with the surroundings as we're out hiking quite often so I didn't have to waste time scouting locations.
The first time I went out to record the dawn chorus was in February this year, when the birds had barely started to sing. I was not going into this blind, as I had attended this Wildeye course in which Chris Watson and Jez Riley French covered the basics excellently, and other recordists and ornithologists shared invaluable insight and experiences with me. I had also read several books and countless blog posts on nature recording so I thought I'd be somewhat prepared for what lay ahead.
I was soon going to find out that no amount of discussion can replace first-hand experience. My first mistake was going out at 3 am, as I had noticed the birds in the trees beside my bedroom started to sing as early as 4 am. My plan was to go out even earlier so that I could record the full dawn chorus. Imagine my surprise when I got there on time and I could only hear the wind and a very distant owl hooting. I had to wait until about half past 5 before the first birds started to make themselves heard.
All this seemed peculiar enough, but I was enjoying the experience of being there too much to give it more thought. Only when I got home I remembered a discussion I had with other recordists from whom I learned about the influence of artificial lighting over birdsong. Birds in well lit areas such as cities will start singing much earlier than their rural cousins who see longer and darker nights. At any rate, from then on I would check the exact time of sunrise and time my recording trips so that I'd be on site half an hour earlier.
Once I got to the site, a nice and dense woodland area far away from traffic and settlements, I would park the car and start laying cables. This was an excellent opportunity for me to make mistake #2, i.e. not checking if the XLR connector I had in hand was male or female. This is usually not a problem with short cables, but I was laying down 50 metres of cable in dense and muddy brush. The flies, spiders and other insects made things worse, not to mention I was scaring away the birds. Fortunately it only happened a couple of times before I learned my lesson.
When the microphones were in place and connected to the recorder in the car I went out and placed my Sony PCM D100 about 500m further, with the input levels set at about 50%. This got me a different perspective on what I was recording, and occasionally a close-up of a few crows or Robins. I once made the mistake of setting the levels too hot (about 70%), and a pesky wren came too close and ruined an otherwise perfect recording. Setting them too low didn't work either, but once I'd done it a few times I learned to roughly predict how loud the dawn chorus would get based on location, weather conditions, time of the year or simply by listening.
Speaking of weather, the BBC Weather app was an excellent companion before and on recording trips. On top of providing accurate weather info (at least for the following day), it also displays daily sunrise/sunset time and wind speed and direction. If I didn't want to specifically record wind I wouldn't even bother going out if the wind was over 5 mph. Even if the Rycote fluffies that I use can easily block 10 to 15 mph wind, the sound of it blowing through leaves and the wood creaks would make the recordings unusable.
Another element that made more than 80% of my recordings unusable was also far less easy to control, predict or avoid. I'm talking of course about the ubiquitous sheep, but I'll leave this along with equipment and mastering details for Part 2. Until then enjoy this bit I dug up from the archives, recorded in March with the DPA 4060s into the Sound Devices 633. Follow the Soundcloud link if you want to download and use it royalty-free: