Cloud Lifts Sounds of the Sonoran Desert
Starting in grad school at the University of Arizona in the late 1960s, and then at Cornell in the 1970s, Thomas Wiewandt has been observing and documenting wildlife in the Sonoran Desert & elsewhere, mostly for film projects sponsored by the BBC and National Geographic.
Written by Thomas Wiewandt
Edited by Samantha Salazar
In October 2018, I met Rodger Cloud in passing while having dinner at a Thai restaurant with a friend in Tucson––pure serendipity. Chance occurrences like this aren’t uncommon in Tucson. We finally got together at his modest studio-workshop after the holiday season, and even though Rodger was unfamiliar with recording natural sounds in the field, he generously offered to help with our project aurally capturing the Sonoran desert. Little did I know at the time, his company is a world leader in the design and manufacture of high-quality ribbon microphones and microphone activators. Cloud Microphones even forged a partnership with the Navajo Nation to manufacture and assemble circuit boards for these products in the Southwest and had won the President’s E (for Excellence) Award for exports in 2016!
Rodger introduced me to the company’s award-winning Cloudlifter Microphone Activator, a compact device that’s widely used by audio professionals in recording studios, on concert stages, in broadcast booths, and for podcasts. Rodger was convinced that a Cloudlifter inserted between our recorder and microphone would enhance my ability to record distant animal sounds. So, relying on Rodger’s expert advice and assistance, I gave it a try. The whole system was small enough to fit into a medium-sized backpack for fieldwork. And it worked better with my little Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder than I had expected. Even without a parabola to focus sound on my stereo mic, I was able to achieve a far greater reach and recording quality than was ever possible with the system I had been using as illustrated by the two side-by-side comparisons of sound signatures with and without the Cloudlifter below.
[Stereo recording of wind, recorded on 6Mar2021 with Zoom H4n Pro outfitted with a Telinga Stereo Pro mic with deadcat windscreen (no parabola); No Cloudlifter (see TAW-6155a for comparison). Recording level set at 100. Location: Wiewandt's home in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson Mtns., AZ]
[Stereo recording of wind, recorded on 6Mar2021 with Zoom H4n Pro outfitted with a Telinga Stereo Pro mic with deadcat windscreen (no parabola); With Cloudlifter (see TAW-6154a for comparison). Recording level set at 70. Location: Wiewandt's home in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson Mtns., AZ]
For the next three years, I used the Cloudlifter in difficult recording situations. I had success in many situations, for example animals that stop vocalizing when approached too closely, natural sounds that need boosting to be heard clearly—such as bats returning to a cave at dawn—and sounds like wind or rain that can be troublesome to record accurately, even with the aid of a blimp windshield and a dead cat muff.
[Wiewandt's digital field recording setup]
Early on, much of our audio was captured with professional reel-to-reel Nagra and Uher tape recorders. Several years before meeting Rodger, I began delving into digital sound recording while independently producing DESERT DREAMS: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert, a film with only music and natural sounds that has aired as a fund-raising program on national Public Television for the past eight years.
I've continued fortifying my archive with digital field recordings while working towards the completion of a 2-CD set SOUNDS OF THE SONORAN DESERT: A Dusk until Dawn Listening Experience (2021). After sorting through hundreds of recordings, my intern/Editor Jeff Cravath ended up with 195 “layers” of sound that we used to make Disc 1, an immersive 41-minute designed audio experience. Without music or narration, this production features a rich and diverse blend of natural sounds from Sonoran Desert lowlands in Arizona and northern Mexico—ranging from crickets and coyotes to nighthawks and toads (https://wildhorizons.com/sounds-of-the-sonoran-desert-cd-set/).
[The production was converted to 5.1 surround-sound for presentation with atmospheric video at the Fox Tucson Theatre on May 9, 2023. To keep the senses focused on listening, only atmospheric visuals appeared on-screen, e.g. an afternoon skyscape followed by sunset fading to darkness, moonrise, arrival of a monsoon thunder/lightning storm, etc. Members of the Cloud crew were present to enjoy.]
For mastering Disc 1 of SOUNDS OF THE SONORAN DESERT, Jeff and I needed expert help from audio specialists— Rodger and his editing team (especially Jason Rivera and Kevin Fleming) were eager to assist us. Rodger’s enthusiasm for his gear and our creative process was infectious. He and his team never cut corners and were adaptable to our project, which required an approach that was outside the realm of their normal work in standard music production. In traditional mixing, the producer attempts to bring the levels of the individual instruments equally to the front (like simulating a concert experience). In contrast, we were looking to re-create a realistic experience found in natural soundscapes, with spatial depth. The coming and going of a summer thunderstorm, for example, is an outdoor drama that requires special attention to sound levels. Rodger and his team were eager to work with us to achieve this dynamic range. It was a learning experience for all of us and an example of creative synergy at its best!
[Jason Rivera editing at Cloud Studios]
Creature voices have always been our window to the wild, and being a visual species, we don’t often think about vanishing natural sounds. It would be a great tragedy if this program were to be the last experience of its kind that most people will ever know.
For more information visit http://wildhorizons.com.