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Posted by on Feb 12, 2014 | 3 comments

(Mis)adventures in Cat Recording

2012-10-25 15.19.54

Stella demonstrates how cat recording NEVER happens.

About three years ago, on a whim, I adopted a 6 month old kitten. I had dealt with cats before at friends’ and family’s houses, but had never owned one, and Luna (short for “Lunatic”) was full of surprises. After her initial “moving in” period, in which she hid under the bed for nearly a week, I discovered that Luna was an exceedingly outspoken individual that needed to make sure everyone knew that she was here and ready to conquer the world (or at least the apartment):

Between her piercing meows and softer squeaks and purrs, this cat was just full of noises. Of course, being a sound person, I couldn’t let these sounds go un-recorded. Later, when Luna’s twin sister Stella came to live with us, I was introduced to yet another dynamic and unique voice, finally sending me off on an adventure to document all of the strange sounds these two little creatures made on a daily basis.

Stella and Luna

Stella (left) and Luna (right)

However, this was much easier said than done.

If you didn’t know, cats are very fickle creatures. They are very particular about everything, from how their food is presented to how you pay attention to them. If their food sits out for too long, they’ll refuse to eat and demand a re-fill. They won’t be ignored, making sure to insert themselves into any situation where your focus is on something else, but they will lose interest if too much attention is paid to them.

It was clear from the start that I would have to use mobile recording gear to follow the cats around, as sitting two precocious cats in front of a microphone for a recording session was out of the question. This meant that I would need to run around my noisy apartment, following fast-moving animals through various rooms and dealing with things like refrigerators, HVACs, and neighbor sounds. This would mean a lot of care would need to be taken while running around, and that there would be quite a lot to do come editing time. From the cats’ perspective, the microphones and recorders were frightening objects that had to be cautiously sniffed at, prodded, smacked, and thrown around.

After several patient months of failed recording attempts and keeping the gear out in the open for Stella and Luna to explore, the recording equipment became just more “human objects” to be ignored/knocked crashing to the floor every so often. Once the cats were mostly comfortable with the gear, things started to become marginally easier. Now I was free to place my small recorders (an old Zoom H4 and H2) near the cats, even right in front of their faces, and capture all kinds of noises. For the most part, this would work out well, but we did have a few humorous incidents:

Though I could now get the recorders close to the cats, getting them to actually make noise was another matter entirely. Generally, cats won’t “speak” on command, though I did find that they will sometimes meow in response to my voice, as if there was a conversation taking place. They also become very vocal around meal times, but those meows tended to have very little tonal variation, so using food as a way to coax sounds out of them wasn’t the way to go. I eventually settled on a mix of planting mics/recorders near the cats while they played/walked around/sat and following them with my H2 as they wandered around the apartment. By keeping the recorders ready and nearby, I was finally able to get some usable results.

There were Stella and Luna’s hungry meows that accompanied meal time:

Luna’s frustrated honks when she think that I’m sleeping too late:

The chattering at birds outside the window:

And the low purr of a contented cat curled up in a lap:

After a lot of experimentation and patience, I’ve finally been able to capture some great sounds, but there are still so many left to record. While I have a huge variety of recording featuring the always-talkative Luna, I don’t have a lot of Stella’s high-pitched chattering or meowed phrases:

There are also sounds that happen so rarely that capturing them has proven to be nearly impossible. The most notable sound is also one of the most haunting. One night, I was jolted awake at around 3 AM, sure I had heard a voice from the next room over. However, everyone was asleep and there were no sounds of movement to be heard. Laying awake in the dark, I sat wondering if it had just been a dream, when I heard it.

“Hello?”

The voice of a young child, wavering and unearthly, came echoing down the hallway. I sat there frozen for a few seconds, desperately hoping that I was still dreaming and that there had, in fact, NOT been a ghostly child-like call emanating from my living room, only to hear it once more. After what felt like an eternity, I shifted in the bed, and at that noise, the disembodied voice quickly shifted to an innocent “meow” as Luna came trotting down the hall, letting me know that the food dish was empty. I realized later that this sound was similar to the crying sounds she makes when going to the vet’s office, but thanks to my apartment’s acoustics and a half-asleep brain, it became one of the most haunting things I’ve ever heard.

Ghost stories aside, trying to record Stella and Luna has been a blast. After patiently trying and failing for so long, I’ve been able to capture some really strange and unique sounds that will be perfect for creature sound design. Trying to capture sounds from these little, domesticated pets has taught me a great deal about how much time, effort, and patience goes into animal recording, leaving me with a great deal of respect for those that go out to record animals in the wild. While I’ve mostly focused on the cats’ vocalizations, I’ve also ended up with a variety of great non-vocal sounds, from Stella’s claws skidding on the wood floor and Luna scratching her neck to the destructive force unleashed by two hungry cats upon a plate of tuna:

Who knew that such small animals could make so much sound?

Long Day Mixing

Luna tries to help by being distracting.

3 Comments

  1. wow, that one of Luna chattering is pretty great. Cats NEVER do that for a mic. nice work!

  2. I make attempts to record my cat from time to time. It’s really hard as she only makes any sound when she feels ignored and pointing a mic towards her doesn’t help that :)

  3. I loved this. I’ve attempted to record my cats from time to time, and it seems like whenever I do they just want to brush their face on the mic. This gives me some ideas on how to actually pull things off.

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