SoundField ST350 Records Life On Earth
Chris Watson, wildlife sound recordist par excellence, has purchased a SoundField ST350 Portable Microphone System for location recording.
Watson, whose career began as a founder member of UK electronic and musique concrete experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire before he became a location sound engineer, has worked closely with respected broadcaster Sir David Attenborough ever since work began on BBC series The Life Of Birds in 1996. In recent years, he has worked as a location recording engineer and sound consultant on feature films such as The Meerkats (Paul Newman's last film), and National Geographic's Galapagos, which required his recordings to be made in surround. After years of experimenting with multi-microphone arrays, he began working with SoundField microphones late last year.
Chris Watson and his ST350 in Antarctica
SoundField's multi-capsule microphone systems capture the entire soundscape around the mic in three dimensions as a proprietary four-channel signal. SoundField B-Format, which may be decoded to mono, stereo or many forms of surround (including 4.0 quadrophonic, 5.1 and 7.1). Phase-coherent stereo and surround can be generated simultaneously from a single SoundField microphone if required, depending on how the mic's output is decoded. This has made SoundField's systems ideal for broadcasters that need to be able to generate surround audio for high-definition transmission or use in cinema sound, but who also require a phase-coherent stereo version for broadcast on standard-definition TV networks.
Inside one of the original 20th-century polar huts
Watson was introduced to the SoundField SPS200 Software Controlled microphone last year by Tony Myatt of York University's Music Department, who demonstrated the mic's abilities to capture audio in three dimensions (including height information, or periphony) with the aid of a custom 20-channel Ambisonics speaker array in the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings, Suffolk. "One of the things I like about SoundField's mics is that you can capture all of this information with one microphone, with one cable," comments Watson. "In the jungles of Madagascar, you have to carry all of your kit yourself - you can't put it in a car, because there aren't many roads - so the smaller and lighter your rig is, the better. I was using a three-microphone double Mid & Side array to record in surround, and then I was introduced to the SoundField.
"Ken Giles at SoundField very kindly lent me an SPS200 to experiment with, and I made some wildlife surround recordings on the Wash in Norfolk with it which turned out well. I've now bought the ST350, as it's really robust. Some of the locations I record in can be very demanding places for microphones...!"
As David Attenborough's sound man, Watson is frequently to be found in inhospitable parts of the globe, gamely capturing the sound of monsoon downpours in tropical rainforests, or recording the sounds of activity inside termite mounds in the stifling deserts of Namibia. His first project with his new ST350, however, is a trial not by fire, but by ice: he's spending early 2010 recording David Attenborough in Antarctica for his next BBC series, The Frozen Planet.
Lightweight and 12V battery-operable, the ST350 was designed by SoundField for use in remote locations, and it doesn't come much more remote than Cape Royds, almost 78 degrees South, near the hut used by polar explorer Shackleton, where Watson is currently working. The ST350's built-in capsule heating system has also proved useful, as Watson has been recording in temperatures of -20 degrees C.
"I'm getting some great recordings down here with my ST350," he comments via email from Antarctica. "It takes a bit to warm up, but so do I! Yesterday I was out at an Adelie penguin colony, where I got some really good, close-up tracks in stereo and B-Format. I've also had the mic out on the sea ice recording the shifting and groaning of icebergs. Last night, I was out in the midnight sun, standing on just two metres of frozen sea ice, 12 kilometres from land, with 750m of ocean beneath my feet, recording pods of killer whales surfacing to breathe in a narrow crack in the sea ice, just three metres away. I could steer the capsules of my ST350 to create a wonderful stereo balance as groups of these predators appeared from out of the depths - astonishing sounds from a really spectacular place!" The Frozen Planet will be screened on BBC One in 2011.