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[BEHIND THE SCENES] Recording Birds Of Prey

birds of prey thumb

BOOM sound designer David Osternacher shares his experiences about the field recording session for our upcoming BIRDS OF PREY library...

Animal recordings can be hit-and-miss, so I decided to spend a considerable amount of time preparing the sessions. I wrote, called and talked back and forth with different zoos, falconers, breeders and anybody who might know where to find some birds. Taking long trips and returning with very few usable recordings wouldn’t have been profitable. Therefore, I ended up waiting around for the confirmation of one particularly promising locations for quite a while. Unfortunately, they ended up denying my request because of their winter break, which I had actually expected to facilitate the recordings, rather than prevent them from happening. So there I was, back at square one, with winter (and thus quiet) melting away. Recording birds with the BOOM-Standard 50kHz Stereo setup gets tough when spring comes around and every bird but the one you want starts blaring into your microphones. Although a spring or summer session is often worth considering, depending on the mating season of the animals you’re going to record.

Still, I had to take a hit and travel a little farther than I had wanted, to the falconry center Waldreichs in Lower Austria. They have a large amount of birds of prey, and they keep them all in aviaries outdoors, which of course is a lot less reverberant than indoor solutions. The falconry center also has a small subsidiary at the beautiful Hohenwerfen Fortress, which is reasonably close to my office. While I did go there to record with the tremendously helpful resident falconers, the session didn’t yield a lot of usable files for the library. To be fair, I only scheduled a session there because of its proximity, since the fortress is located very close to a highway. Some of Hohenwerfern’s birds are kept within the strong fortress walls, which eliminates the highway problem. The tradeoff, obviously, are reverb issues in some of the rooms. The third and most trivial reason for the lack of success in Hohenwerfen was the unwillingness of a fair amount of animals to open their mouths. That’s of course a common problem with animal recordings, which is why I had initially tried to only book large sessions. Despite all this, my favorite out of all my bird recordings was made at Hohenwerfen fortress: a low, throaty begging call of a Saker Falcon, which has a certain emotional quality to it. Plainly speaking, that bird seemed genuinely pissed off.

saker falcon

We’ve already established that animals often don’t perform the way we would like them to. But there are ways to tilt the odds in our favor. In my experience with domesticated animals, the most important thing is to have a handler/trainer/owner, who knows his or her critters well. Animals often have a more or less eccentric personality and might react in unforeseen ways to certain situations. So always try to check with your contacts before going out in the field. They might suggest a particular time of day or something else you’ll have to account for. I’ve also had people tell me that their animals don’t make sounds at all. Worst case, a call upfront saves you an unnecessary trip.
Not all animals can be manipulated equally well, though. For our Horses library, I witnessed some outright hilarious deceptions (not abuse, mind you) to get our “actors” to whinny. Think playing peek-a-boo with a baby. Birds of prey, on the other hand, are often extremely intelligent, which can make it difficult to get them to do your bidding (the ever playful and obedient dog comes to mind as an exception to that rule, some races being similarly intelligent).

Still, always talk to the owner before you do anything. In the Waldreichs falconry center, I was advised to first make the rounds by myself, so I could record the birds’ initial reaction to me. This approach proved really successful, as a good portion of the birds became more or less vocal when I came close to their aviaries (particularly every Saker Falcon I encountered). Some of them remained completely indifferent to my presence though, and two or three tried to attack me on sight. This illustrates once more, that every animal is different. And this is where the falconers come in.

Some birds respond to food, some to humans’ or other birds’ calls. And some also react enthusiastically to just seeing their favorite trainer. A few of them also reacted quite vividly to seeing their least favorite human, which can be rather useful from a sound designer’s perspective.

Some of these methods can also work without a trainer present, as evidenced by me being attacked without provocation. More useful than the “least favorite human” method in this case, was the “human calling” approach. I had seen falconers imitate birds in early recording sessions, so I adopted that in my initial pass through the aviaries in Waldreichs. Again, the responses varied from enthusiastic to non-existent, but by and large I was very successful with my amateurish mockings.

bird of prey

The initial delays caused by my timid planning probably ended up hurting me more than if I had travelled greater distances right away. Due to the unseasonably warm winter, there already were a huge number of local birds in the area when I arrived in Waldreichs. This made the postproduction process relatively difficult and time-consuming, as our library sounds have to be able to absolutely withstand a considerable amount of processing without losing quality. I had to spend a lot of time editing and choosing the right takes, which might have been alleviated if I had taken more risks in the recording process early on.
On the upside, the mating season had already started for some eagles, which got us several cool recordings from a breeding station near Waldreichs, a trip I wouldn’t have taken for these alone.

As I mentioned before, several birds remained entirely quiet. In many cases that was simply their personality, but sometimes animals (not just birds) give the best performance when they’re not aware of you. Even if you have time to hide and wait, the common grey fur of windjammers seems to be extraordinarily distracting. With the birds of prey, this has been a considerable annoyance, which is why I have been looking into workarounds. Some recordists use camouflage windjammers to conceal microphones in video/film productions. I’ve also heard about people using them specifically for animal recordings, which is why I got one for my regular BOOM setup. We’ll be sure to let you know if it works, once another animal project comes up.
carmouflage windshield rycote

Since the camouflage windjammer's primary objetive is, well, camouflage, Rycote only offers it with shorter fur. You'll have to assess on location, if you can use slightly inferior wind protection. In situations like this though, a difficult recording of something is usually better than a pristine recording of nothing.

After all, the hassle was worth it, both for the great new experiences and for recording some really impressive bird sounds that you can check out in our BIRDS OF PREY library that will be released in early May.

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