Capturing sound worth listening to

On a recent episode of National Public Radio’s Radiolab, Anne Fernald, a psychology professor at Stanford, described sound as touch at a distance. You hear it because vibrations from sound waves hit the tiny hair cells in your inner ear, and you feel it, or feel something, when you really listen.
That feeling is one reason Jennifer Jerrett said she dedicated her life to sound as the science editor and media producer through Montana State University in Yellowstone National Park.
The sound professional spoke at OWAA’s annual conference held this year in July in Billings, Montana. She talked about sound’s intimacy, the importance of using the proper recording equipment and advice for recording in the field.
Don’t worry if you missed her presentation. Here are some of her top tips to keep in mind when you head into the field:

  • Signal-to-noise
    This tip is as straightforward as they come. Make sure your recorder is close to your subject.
  • Composition
    Think like a photographer and pay attention to your foreground and background. Think about what sound is in front of and behind your subject. When recording in the field, try and get multiple kinds of recordings. Go in close and get that specific bird call, then pull back and record the sounds of the entire ecosystem. This will add variety and context to your piece.
  • Ambience
    Record the sounds of your space. If you go from an outside setting to an interview indoors, record a few seconds of the room before your interview begins. The ambient noise of a computer buzzing, or the air conditioning blowing, create a sense of place and a new scene. It will smooth out your transitions and it is easier on the ears.
  • Fashion
    Wear quiet clothing and stand as still as possible. A recorder can pick up everything from your jacket fluttering in the wind, to the sound of your pants rubbing together. In order to have a clear, solid recording, minimize the extra noise and be aware of what you are wearing. Be wary of others’ fashion choices as well.
  • Grit
    It can be easy to be discouraged in this field. You will have to make a lot of recordings that you hate, before you finally get one that you love.
  • Luck
    Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. Other times not so much. Try setting up a recorder on a timer in active areas to increase your chances of recording something new and exciting.
  • Action
    Record sound that tells a story. Try and capture interaction between animals, different species and the movement of entire ecosystems.
  • Safety
    Recording in the field can bring you to remote places during times when predators are most active. Plus, you need to be quiet in order to get the best recordings. So be careful. Try to bring a partner with you into the field, carry bear spray and if it’s a dangerous situation, set up a recorder and record remotely.
    Check out the National Park Service sound library ( to hear some of Jerrett’s recordings. ♦

— Taylor Wyllie was an OWAA intern and is a student at the University of Montana, studying journalism and environmental studies. She’s worked for the independent student newspaper, The Montana Kaimin and her work has appeared on Montana PBS, Montana Public Radio and in the Missoulian.

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