Thunderstorm Recording Techniques

May 3, 2011

To kick off thunderstorm season here in North Idaho I want to share with you some new thunder and lightning recordings along with some from my Thunderstorm HD library released a couple years ago. I also want to share some of my tips and techniques I use when trying to record that elusive lightning strike. The audio clip below is thunder I’ve recorded over the last 2 years. The clip contains the raw recordings, no processing except crossfades and gain adjustments. What you hear is what you get. Now, some background information.

Up here in the Panhandle of Idaho as we call it, we experience some awesome thunder and lightning displays. When the cold air from the north collides with the warm air flowing up from the south west a situation is created that’s perfect for thunderstorms. Most of these storms have rain and hail associated with them but on occasion they are dry or cloud to cloud lightning. These are my favorite to record because there is very little wind and almost no rain.

Most of my thunder recordings are made with my Sanken CSS-5 microphone sitting right outside my front door. I sit in my kitchen with the recorder and a glass of single malt scotch and safely wait until the universe gives me a good one. I have an open field directly in front of my porch with the forest on one side and a huge open space that leads to the street on the other. Unless it’s really windy or raining heavy I get some very clean takes. On occasion there will be cars going by, birds, squirrels or people mowing their lawns and chainsawing. This is very rare but can be annoying and just part of life. The middle of the night is the best time here, it is very quiet… almost to quiet (spooky).

The thunderstorms usually start with the rain spigot turned off but the thunder is very far away. Some great sounds can be had during this time so I roll and hope there isn’t a distracting event like a car passing by. I tend to have my gain set higher than usual so I can get a clean recording. As the storm gets closer I turn down the input gain because at this point a loud thunder strike can occur. I’ve been caught off guard with my volume settings and have lost some great takes. If you count between when you see the light flash and here the boom you can get a sense of how far away the storm system is from you. I’ve developed a good feel for when to change my gain setting after years of distorted thunder and boring silence recorded.

I usually do not have a rain cover on the Sanken but I do use the full windjammer and blimp. The windjammer can soften any rain drops that hit the microphone but they really have to be light. I do have this contraption I built that has a 12 foot 1×1 pole with a window screen attached at the top and I lay a towel across the screen and this sometimes help during heavy rain when I put this over the mic. For the most part though, the overhang of my roof keeps the wet out.

I have recorded out in my field under a huge stand of fir trees that has worked but it’s tough to get set up for that when the storms roll in very fast and I have little time to get ready. I sit in my car and run some cables out to the microphone about 75 feet away. I don’t want the sound of the rain drops that hit the car to get in my recordings. Other times I have recorded just outside my garage with the door open which faces East. I stand inside my garage so I won’t freak out at the thought of being struck by lightning. Most of the storms come from the West so I tend to record from the front door which faces north.

When I have time to prep for thunder recording I follow the weather and radar maps online. You can get a good sense when and which way the storm is heading. I also check lightning tracker sites and they have proved somewhat useful. For me the best way to prep is to just realize that it’s a crap shoot and you are at the mercy of the Thunder Gods. Sometimes they give you good ones and sometimes they mess with your mind and you have a bunch of completely full Flash Cards to erase.

Here are some short form tips:

1. Always be ready. I have my gear set and ready during the thunderstorm season.

2. Be patient. Waiting is the hardest part. Don’t tear down to quickly after the storm passes, there might be the “good one” (Has happend to me one too many times)

3. DO NOT STAY OUTSIDE during the storm. Our body voltage is low, not a good idea to add more.

4. Protect the gear. If it’s raining and windy, cover and secure your precious stuff.

5. Drink Scotch if you want, it can help pass the time and your recordings actually sound better.

6. There will be a next time so don’t worry about getting crap for recordings.


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