In the Beginning.
The notion of using a parabolic reflector to pick up sounds from afar has been around for many years.
With the advent of aerial warfare in the First World War, the British military started developing acoustical devices to provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft. The first ‘sound mirror’ was erected in Maidstone in April 1915. During the 1930s, in the run-up to World War 2, a number of these enormous concrete parabolic reflectors appeared along the South coast of England and at other strategic locations. The largest of these structures could detect aircraft at a distance of 25 miles. However, the whole project was abruptly abandoned in 1938 with the invention of Radar!
The listening ‘trumpet’ seen on this dish could be rotated to find the strongest signal. This would enable the listener in the control room beneath the dish to calculate the direction of the incoming aircraft. The information could then be relayed to anti-aircraft batteries.
A ‘stereo’ device like this could be used to pick up activity in enemy positions and provide early warning of attack. (That is if you could hear anything above the sound of your mates laughing their heads off!)
The Parabolic Microphone
In the post war years with the rise of television and the increasing popularity natural history broadcasts on both wireless and TV, sound recordists were quick to adopt the parabolic microphone i.e. an omni or a cardioid microphone, mounted facing inwards, at the central focal point of a portable parabolic dish.
A parabolic reflector has one significant advantage over other sound pick-up devices: it is a noiseless acoustic amplifier. The frequency response and polar pattern are a function of the size of the dish used. The enormous concrete military dishes of the 1930’s were often 30ft in diameter or more, enabling them to detect the lowest frequencies of an aircraft engine over huge distances. For the modern wildlife recordist a somewhat smaller portable dish is something of a compromise! For a narrow forward beam of 10 degrees a 60cm diameter dish gives around 14db (x5) gain to frequencies above 500Hz. A 1m dish will give 20db (x10) gain to frequencies above 300Hz. The forward gain of a reflector is defined as the difference in output level between a microphone which is reflector-mounted compared to the same microphone unmounted. Even with a modest sized reflector, the on-axis sound of the chosen subject is greatly magnified without adding any of the hiss and hum associated with electronic amplification. However, given the narrow beam characteristics of the dish, one thing that the recordist should bear in mind is that if the subject moves off axis the tonal quality of the sound will change. This can be difficult if for instance the subject is moving around in a group of birds. For that reason I would suggest that the parabolic dish is at its best when recording an isolated single subject.
Using an unmounted microphone there are many wildlife recording situations in which it is simply not possible for the sound recordist to get close enough to achieve a good signal to noise ratio. As you creep up with your microphone the subject simply flies off or runs away! ……..Or in the case of dangerous wild animals it may be the sound recordist who does the running! The parabolic dish enables the sound recordist to record from a safe distance without risk of disturbing the subject or getting eaten!
One of the most common problems with wildlife recording is that quite often the perfect recording opportunity comes up without warning. Animals and birds are not predictable. Hence, my minimalist, rapid response kit, illustrated below is light, portable and very fast to set up. I can be in record in a matter of seconds!
- Extremely light weight, flexible, 50cm plastic parabolic dish available from new UK company innercore
- Aluminium handle on the back which can also be screwed on to a tripod
- Simple microphone mount marked at the focal point.
- HMN Sound MicroLav. N.B. to prevent wind noise a Rycote Furry windshield is recommended. (Not pictured.)
- M-Audio MicroTrack II set to record in mono at 96kHz 24bit.
- M-Audio in-ear headphones with industrial ear defenders over the top for isolation.
Walking by a local lake the other day I came across a small flock of Canada geese about 40ft away quietly pottering about on the grassy bank. Suddenly one of them started squawking/honking. I started recording and within a few seconds it flew high into the air and passed straight over my head. On the recording the strange creaking sound of the bird’s wings and the movement of air can be clearly heard. It sounds close up, even though the bird is at least 30ft above me. It then flies round the lake and lands back with the others and carries on honking very loudly. Definitely not a bird you would want to get close to! Would probably make a good guard dog! CLICK HERE to take a listen.
Other Uses for the Parabolic Microphone.
When listening to sporting coverage on radio or TV you may have enjoyed the additional excitement of hearing the ball striking the bat or the racket. You may hear the close-up thunder of the horse’s hooves in a race or the grunts and shouts of a rugby scrum and…… Not a microphone in sight!
My purpose in writing this post has not been to advertise the merits of a particular set of equipment but merely to suggest some of the possibilities and fun to be had recording sound using a parabolic dish.
P.S. (Nov 2019) I have just come across this fascinating patent by British Acoustic Films Ltd from 1931 ( !! ) for a Parabolic Microphone for use in film production, recording and broadcasting. Parabolic Microphone B.A.F Ltd 1931 It even includes a setup whereby sound can be recorded (and mixed) from 3 independent reflectors aimed at 3 different sound sources simultaneously using a single microphone! Wow!