Archive for the 'Field recording' Category


Inductor Pickups 2 – An outdoor pickup

In the first post in this series, I tested some pickups using various inductors, which picked up electrical noises from my laptop.

One of my long-term projects is field recording, which I began by using a Marantz PMD-660 solid-state recorder.  This track is based on the first series of recordings I made, at a nearby lock – although much of the track uses these recordings altered by Karlheinz Essl’s application fLOW, which I have discussed before:

I improved later recordings with some good quality microphones which I bought from a guy connected with the Wildlife Recording Society who makes them himself.

I decided after a while to expand the range of field recordings I could make, by creating stereo hydrophone and contact mics.  I’ve described these in use here, and written about constructing them earlier in the blog.

Finally, I decided to add a fourth type of recording, using inductors of the type I had experimented with earlier.

I used the same transistor-based preamp I had experimented with – the one I originally made for the electret elements.

As with the hydrophone and contact mics, I put the preamp in a small plastic case with appropriate in and out connectors, and a 3.5mm socket and velcro patch for the external 9v battery.

I wanted the inductor pickups to be a little more robust for outdoor use, so I used two of the ‘telephone pickup’ coils I described in the first post, without removing them from their plastic cases.

I attached them to a shielded stereo phono lead and for a holder, I chose a folder plastic ruler.  The idea of this was that the two coils could be moved closer together or further apart to maximise the stereo effect of any electrical sounds they picked up.

With the help of some epoxy adhesive and superglue I attached the telephone coils to the plastic ruler.  As they were still inside their plastic containers, they would be sufficiently robust and weatherproof for outdoor use.

I went out recording by the river the other day and came across a lamp post and a large electrical box, connected with some flood gates.  The inductor recorder picked up these sounds:

This device may have a limited application in comparison to standard microphones or the other recording devices I’ve made recently – the hydrophone and contact mics referred to above – but it has a place in my collection and I’m sure in time I’ll find plenty of interesting sources of electrical noise to record on my travels.



Piezos 8 – Hydrophones and contact mics used outdoors

Finally this summer I was able to try out my hydrophones and contact mics outdoors, in making some field recordings in and beside a nearby river.

I began with the hydrophones, which I described in the last post in this series.  My experience with the 50mm piezo discs was that there was too much pickup from the cables and the wooden float structure in the bath, so I took the mics made from the 35mm discs.

These worked fine in absolutely still water, but whenever there was the slightest wind or wave – which was virtually all the time – there was too much noise from the wind or water hitting the cables and the wooden float, so the wooden structure had to be discarded.

I was rather restricted then in only being able to record where I could reach and dangle the mics in the water, but the recordings were much better, and even worked well with the discs lying on the river bed.  I believe the sound at the end of this recording is a water snail munching on a reed stem: I saw the snail, which was quite large, an inch or two in length, and dangled the microphone close to it; this is what I heard:


I then turned to recording with the contact mics.  The basic format of these, and the preamp I used, are described in this post, Pt 2 of this series.

Experimenting beforehand with the sturdy clips and clamps I had bought for outdoor use – pictured in Pt 3 of this series, here – I found that pressure on the ‘crystal’ side of the disc, where the leads are attached, had a tendency to cause distortion, so I decided for the outdoor version of the contact mics I would use the same ‘sandwich’-style construction as for the hydrophones, with 2 discs mounted back-to-back (or front-to-front – that is, with the crystal side inside), but kept apart by a ring of silicone sealant around the edge:

The difference in this case, though, was that the leads were attached to only one of the discs – I removed the leads from the other one as I had not experienced the same noise problems as I had with the hydrophones, and it wouldn’t therefore be necessary to have the double leads from each mic and the 4 channel balanced preamp which the hydrophone required.

The preamp was not the same one I had used for the experiments in the posts referred to above – although it was similar.  This time I used a standard inverting op amp amplifier.  The resistor on the input was 1M and the resistor between the input and output was 10M, providing amplification of up to 10 times, but the output volume was controlled by a dual-gang 10k log potentiometer.   I was intending to use my usual TL072 dual op amp, which is pretty low-noise and would have worked fine, but in the end used an NE5532 as I had just bought some of these and they are known for being especially low-noise.  They are also a pin-for-pin replacement for the TL072.

I enclosed the circuit in a small plastic box, very similar in appearance to the hydrophone preamp.  This design was easy to hold in the hand and manipulate the volume control while monitoring with headphones.

As previously mentioned, it was quite a windy day when I went out, so I attached the contact mics to tree branches to test them out – one mic would be near the end of the branch, the other one closer to the trunk.  One disc would be held tight to the branch (the side to which the leads were attached), and the clamps pressed firmly onto the disc without leads.  This side, of course, needn’t have been a piezo disc at all, but I used them because they were exactly the same size as the discs with the leads, and these particular discs were very inexpensive, so I didn’t feel it was too much of a waste of resources.  If you didn’t want to use up piezo discs like this, you could use any fairly rigid substance – plastic or glass, for example – as long as it was roughly the size of the disc and wouldn’t deform when clipped or clamped.

As I hoped, there was no distortion caused by pressure on the crystal layer, and the recordings came out well, capturing the movement of the trees in the wind.

In my next post in this series, I’ll try out some improved methods of recording closer to where I want to in the water.


Piezos Pt 7 – Hydrophones

While making the piezo contact microphones described earlier in this series, I decided to adapt a couple of them for the specific purpose of recording sound underwater in rivers and ponds.

In this case, I wanted them to be compatible with my Marantz PD660 recorder, which records in stereo via two XLR external microphone sockets.

For my first attempt, I began by using 3m twin shielded cables, which had two 6.35mm mono jacks on one end – what was on the other end didn’t matter, as these connectors were cut off and the ends attached to piezo elements.  As with the others, the shields were attached to the brass outsides, the cores to the centres, and they were given two coats of Plasti-Dip.

In this way I was able to record in stereo, but my attempts were bedevilled by extraneous noise.  I also realised that underwater recording required much greater amplification than I was getting from the simple preamp I had used  for the simple percussion instruments I had been making.

Looking around the internet to see what others had done, I came across the idea on this site of using two piezos back-to-back for each channel.  Actually, this is probably more accurately described as front-to-front, as it requires the two piezos to be sandwiched together with flexible silicone sealant.

Having read somewhere else that the air gap behind a piezo affects what it picks up, I decided it would better if there was some air between the two piezos, rather than completely filling the space between them with the sealant.  Hence, I just put a ring of sealant round the edges before sticking the discs together.

The main thing is to keep the centres of the two discs from touching.

To connect the discs to the recorder, I used a 3m twin XLR cable.  Each channel used two discs: the black leads from the discs were connected together, and the two red leads were connected to the left and right connectors of the XLR lead.

In fact, I made two sets, to see if there would be a difference between 35mm discs and 50mm discs; the 35mm discs are shown above.  The 50mm discs came with no wires attached, so I had to solder the wires on myself – a bit of a tricky job, to make sure they attached firmly, but without damaging the delicate central area of the disc with the crystals in it.  When I had done the soldering and checked the strength of the joint, I superglued the wires to the outer edge of the discs to make sure there would be no stress on the soldered joints which might cause the wires to become detached while in use.

In the case of the 50mm discs, where there was more space, I stuck a small lead weight on the edge of one disc in each pair before putting them together.  This, I hoped, would make them more stable in the water.  Once again, I used the same principle of putting the sealant round the edges of the discs only, and then putting them together like a sandwich.

I connected the wires to a twin XLR cable as before, and gave the discs two coats of Plasti-Dip.


In yet another place I had read that underwater signals might require up to 100 times amplification, so I put together a TL072-based buffer amp somewhat similar to the preamp I had used for the piezo-based percussion instruments, but with two major differences:

Firstly, it was designed to amplify the input signal by a factor of 100, with a volume control to reduce the output if necessary; secondly, it was in the form of a ‘differential’ amplifier, so that the signals on the left and right leads of each channel were amplified and added together, producing a simple two-channel stereo output from the four inputs.

Each channel looked like this:

After checking the prototype (pictured above) was working satisfactorily, I improved the connections with 2 core shielded cable and put the circuit into a small box.  I changed the output from the 3.5mm socket shown to a 5 pin XLR socket because this matched the professionally made apparatus I use for field recording with conventional microphones.  There was no room for a battery in the box, so I used the 3.5mm socket for a power socket.

For absolute minimal noise, the closer the preamp is to the piezos the better, and I have seen designs where the circuit was contained in a waterproof housing in the water.  However, mine is designed so the preamp box is well away from the water, and the output volume control can be used while it’s in operation, as well as the input volume control on the recorder.


The first problem when it came to testing the hydrophones was how to ensure that they floated in the correct place; and the second was how to maintain a consistent stereo image.

Clearly, the hydrophones would require some sort of framework to which they could be attached, and from which their depth underwater could be adjusted.  The framework would need to be buoyant and, as I discovered, potentially very wide.  The speed of sound in air is about 750mph or 350 metres per second, and a distance between the microphones of about 9-12 inches or 25-30cm is usually enough to get a satisfactory stereo image.  However, underwater, the speed of sound is more like 1,500 metres a second, getting on for four and a half times as fast!

This meant that the hydrophones would need to be spaced up to four and a half times the distance apart to get the same stereo effect as two conventional microphones recording in the open air.

I thought about different methods of creating a frame 3 – 4 feet or 1 – 1.5 meters long, and easily foldable for transportation, and came up with the idea of using a folding wooden ruler.  I found one which was a metre long, about the minimum necessary length, which folded on brass hinges into 5 sections of 20cm each.  This would easily fit into a bag and could be carried to the recording site before being opened out and placed in the water.  It cost about £2 (although postage was £3!).

The first thing I did with the ruler was cut a number of slots in it:

The purpose of these slots was so that the hydrophone leads could be threaded through them, stay in position, and allow the piezo elements to stay at the right depth in the water beneath the framework.

I tested that the slots were suitable for this purpose:

and then – since I had the tin in the workroom – gave the framework a coating of Plasti-Dip.  I’m sure it would have been fine without it, but the Plasti-Dip will hopefully give the wood a little extra protection, make it easier to dry and increase its life.

Later, because of using a wider construction with two piezos sandwiched together, I cut narrower channels to connect the slots to the edge of the framework, so the wires could fit in and the piezos wouldn’t need to pass through the slots.


The yellow balls in the above picture need an explanation!  Although the wood would be quite buoyant, the framework would need to be supported in the water.  I looked to see what anglers might use, and came across these small ‘bubble floats’:

These are hollow plastic and have a small bung in them so they can be partly filled with water.  This gives them a little weight so they can be cast into an ideal position in the water, but will still float.  I thought these would ensure the wooden framework would remain on the surface and the hydrophones could be positioned at an appropriate depth beneath.

In the end, I used them without any water in them; empty, they were able to support the framework slightly under the surface.  As can be seen in the picture, in a restricted space such as a bath or small pond, the end sections of the framework can be folded in.


Having fitted the floats, it was time to test the device, for which purpose I filled my bath, floated the framework with the piezos attached, and ran the tap.  The sound was pretty good, and the noise minimal:

I’ll post again when I’ve had a chance to try it out in the field!


September 2018
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