The Macaulay Library is here to help you meet the challenges of recording birds and other animals in the wild. This page contains tips on how to maximize the quality of your recordings.
Know your gear
Check that your gear is functioning properly before taking it into the field. Be sure you know how it works and you feel comfortable setting it up and using it. This makes it more likely you can take advantage of great recording opportunities in the field. The more comfortable you are with your equipment, the more enjoyable your experience and the better your recordings will be. For information on choosing recording gear, check out our recording equipment pages, as well as our 2019 gear review.
Create uncompressed .WAV files
WAV is the standard audio format used at the Macaulay Library, the Library of Congress, and other sound archives dedicated to the long-term preservation of audio. WAV is an uncompressed audio format that provides an accurate copy of wildlife sounds, maximizing the usefulness of your recordings for research and conservation today and in the future. By contrast, compressed file types like MP3 and M4A are often the default on smartphones and other recorders, but discard audio information that can be important. Learn more about WAV files and compression.
If your recorder supports it, a sample rate of at least 48 kHz and a bit depth of 24 bits is recommended.
Get close to your subject
Getting closer dramatically increases the volume of your target compared to the background, resulting in a cleaner, more audible recording. Cutting your distance in half doubles the perceived loudness of the desired signal, and is a good goal to strive for when approaching a bird. Get closer, but try to move slowly and quietly, being careful not to disturb your subject.
Aim your microphone
Position the microphone to minimize obstructions between it and the vocalizing animal. When using a directional microphone, aim it directly at the subject. This is especially important when using a parabolic microphone system, given its extreme directionality. Keep your eye on your subject (if you can see it) so you can follow its movements and keep it "in focus." Consider adjusting your position to reduce interfering noise: put your back to unwanted noise if you are using a parabola and put the noise to the side if you are using a shotgun microphone. The proper aim will increase the quality of the recording while reducing the interference of background noise.
Set the record level to avoid distortion
If your recorded sound is louder than your recorder's maximum level (0 dB on the recorder's meter), you will introduce distortion into your recording. To avoid this, set your record level so that the loudest part of the target vocalization peaks at a safe level (such as -12 dB). Check the record level of your target species and adjust the level before you press record. Note that with 32-bit recorders like the Sound Devices MixPre-3 II, level-setting is much less important and distorted recordings can be recovered. Most recording devices still do not enjoy this benefit, however.
Peaking at a safe level (left); distortion occurring (right)
Don't adjust the record level during the recording
Set the record level at the start of each recording and, if possible, leave it unchanged for the remainder of the recording. Changing the record level during a recording results in an uneven sound that affects the quality of the recording. Try to only adjust the level if your subject becomes so loud that you risk distortion (see above.)
Make longer recordings
The most valuable recordings are ones that capture many calls or songs, or capture the variation of calls and songs. If you are in a good situation, it is worth recording for several minutes. However, also consider whether you have the opportunity to get closer or otherwise take action to obtain a better recording. If so, you may wish to end your first recording after a minute or two and try for a better opportunity. The better the quality of the recording, the more worthwhile it is to keep going. And the longer you record, the more likely it is that your subject will do something interesting!
Find quiet, be quiet
Microphones are sensitive and will pick up everything around them. Everyday sounds like traffic, airplanes, and moving water can be tuned out by our brains, but show up as unwanted background noise in recordings. If you can find an area where these noises are less prominent, it will be much easier to obtain a clean recording.
It is also important to remember that microphones pick up sounds close to them better than distant birds, and nothing is closer to the microphone than you. Be aware of the sounds you or your companions make. Try not to move, walk, talk, or otherwise make noise during a recording, and ask any companions with you ahead of time to do the same. Minimize handling noise by being careful about how you hold your microphone or recording device. A shock mount for a microphone is very useful for reducing unwanted bumps and clicks caused by your hand. A windscreen also reduces the impact gusts of wind have on your recordings. Finally, keeping yourself quiet is easier when you wear "quiet" clothing like fleece, wool, or cotton, rather than noisier clothing like a raincoat.
Make a voice announcement
It's easy to lose track of exactly what happened during a particular recording, especially if you're cataloging it days or weeks after it was made. Making a voice announcement at the end of each recording can help you and future listeners figure out what was going on and capture important contextual information that may be relevant to the sound the bird was making. Describe basic information such as the species, date, time, and location. Most importantly, describe the behavior of the bird. Where was it when you recorded it? What was it doing? Was it moving around or on a perch? Were there other individuals or species that made sounds in the recording or that may have influenced the vocalizations of your subject? Anything you can say about what was going on is valuable information and can be hard to figure out later on. Habitat, weather, and recording equipment can also be useful to mention, perhaps in your first recording of the morning.
Review, organize, edit, and upload your field recordings
You put in a lot of hard work to get your recordings, so don't waste your efforts, share them with the world! The sooner you can organize your files and get them archived, the less likely it is that any data will be lost. Try keeping them organized in folders by day, then follow our archival editing suggestions and upload them to your eBird checklist!