Richard T. Mills

I was delighted recently to see the new site setup by Seán Ronayne for Irish sound recording. With the huge advances in technical wizardry over the years it is now far easier to record the sounds of nature.

Richard T. Mills sound-recording. We are lucky nowadays to have recorders that can fit in our pockets! Photo: Richard T. Mills

Many years ago, way back in the late 60s, I developed an interest in bird sounds recording, partly for the use of playback to help with photography and also bird ringing, for which the BTO could supply endless loop tapes, either in cassette form or in a special 5″ spool, but mainly for the sheer pleasure in capturing birdsong. There is nothing like being out at dawn on a quiet spring morning listening to the dawn chorus and picking out individual birds before humanity arises, or out at night following corncrakes in a field down in West Cork.

After much research, not easy in the pre internet days, and browsing through various magazines and catalogues, I invested in a battery powered Sony TC800B 5″ reel to reel tape recorder, a large green Grampian aluminium parabolic reflector matched with with a suitable microphone and a set of Sony headphones. I probably got my inspiration from my ‘bible’ at the time, the excellent booklet Recording Natural History Sounds by Richard Margoschis. Heaven forbid, I even took the lot on honeymoon down by car via the UK and on to Spain and Portugal! I can’t remember if I got many recordings on that occasion, or what my explanation was!

Recording Natural History Sounds by Richard Margoschis – the sound-recording bible,
back in the day, and one of Richard’s inspirations. Photo: Richard T. Mills

It was a fine setup and worked well, and I spent many happy hours in the field recording anything that sang, so I built up quite a collection of various bird songs. Unfortunately over the years of being out in the open, the poor old recorder suffered from wear and tear, the heads wore out and and the variable speed controller packed up meaning that I can’t play the tapes anymore at the correct speed, unless I want chipmunks! I did inherit a fine Uher tape recorder, but that is a stereo quarter track, again of little use, as all my original tapes are half track mono.

I did switch to a stereo cassette recorder for a while, which was certainly easier to carry, but eventually gave up as photography was taking up more time and you literally had something to see at the end of the day. Also there was a limit to what you carry around in the field. Using the latter recorder I was recording nightingales in the south of France in 1971 when a low flying military jet flew past and gave me a sonic boom on tape. After the echoing subsided, there was dead silence for a few minutes afterwards as the birds and myself recovered from the loud bang. Recording the chorus of frogs in the Camargue at night was also fun. I would frantically set up the recorder and mike at the edge of a pond under a cloud of starving blood thirsty mosquitoes, run back into the tent, zip it up and conduct a mozzie swatting session, wait for the 45 minute tape to end, dash out to collect the gear and repeat the operation before settling down for the night. Happy days!

Richard’s old setup: a battery powered Sony TC800B 5″ reel to reel tape recorder and a large green Grampian aluminium parabolic reflector. Photo: Richard T. Mills

On another occasion back in Ireland, I was in a hide opposite Glouthaune village, waiting for the incoming tide to gradually push up the various waders to their favourite roosting spit, camera at the ready, and with a long cable connected to a microphone on the ground to record the birds in close up, when eventually things went silent with an ominous gurgle in the headphones and I realised that the microphone was now under water. What do do? Rush out and hopefully save the mike but flush all the birds or stay put and get some nice roosting close ups? Having already waited patiently for a couple of hours, I voted for the latter. Eventually the birds got too close, flew off and I baled out. I’m not sure if the microphone survived or not.

I would certainly recommend using a parabolic reflector as the difference when you have the bird ‘in focus’ is amazing. Nowadays lightweight clear plastic are available. Any slight movement off beam and the bird is lost. I used it mainly in the hand despite the weight but sometimes on a tripod. When handheld I found that it would also pick up any noise such as wrist movements. I never realised how much my bones creaked! To solve that I simply wrapped up the handle and also the microphone in wads of rubber foam. One of the things to be beware of is that anything in line with your songster will also be picked up, such as that tractor miles away in the background.

Whilst technology has improved vastly, and recording devices have shrunk, parabolas have stood the test of time and are an excellent tool for wildlife sound-recordists. Photo: Richard T. Mills.

Nowadays, if you are a purist, it is becoming more and more difficult to get a clean recording free of human noise, traffic, planes, people talking, dogs barking, etc., let alone wind noise. I live just off the main Cork to Killarney road, and the traffic never stops, day and night. It has definitely become worse during the current pandemic lockdown, for some strange reason.

The peace and serenity exuded in this photo, taken by Richard in the Alpilles – Southern France, May 1971, is more difficult to find these days!

I have tried some nogmigging with a gun mike on a tripod outside the house connected to my PC via a slightly open window, but had to give up due to the incessant traffic, and the mike has now failed for some reason, If only I could find that original microphone. My best ‘would be’ recording was a passing barn owl when I was setting up the gear and hadn’t yet connected it. Vixens screaming behind the house were nice too, with a background of distant sheep and cattle in between the passing traffic, and I suspect the local yowling tom cat is practicing for his recording debut.