Having been an "analogue person" for all my past nature recording experiences learning digital was a bit weird at first, but I soon got into it.
My first recording instrument was a Sony Hi-MD MZ-RH910 mini-disc recorder - a present from my family. I used my old hissy AT 9400 cardioid mic with this mounted in my old Sony PBR-330 plastic parabola. Suddenly with none of the old cassette tape noise I discovered what a noisy microphone meant !
Through the Yahoo Nature Recordists group (see below) which I had found thanks to Google I began to learn a little jargon and became a microphone student. My main interest was focal species and clear detail and so I knew I wanted a parabolic microphone and was not about to start making my own. The best advice I read likened a microphone to a camera lens - if that first bit is not good then the rest of the apparatus will not make it better ! I stretched my budget and on a work visit to Sweden I took a couple of day's leave and visited Klas Strandberg at his Telinga business and bought a Telinga Pro 5W stereo microphone and parabola.
This has been an excellent choice, as a mic it is very sensitive, very quiet and easy to use. The 57 cm diameter parabola, although large is light to carry and gives improved directionality and mechanical amplification - picking up unwanted noise like my stomach rumbling or the tendons in my elbow creaking is the biggest drawback ! I am a "hunter-gatherer" recordist, walking and listening and chasing down sounds, and the usability of the Telinga is excellent. I have also used it on occasions mounted on a tripod if I am in a "sit and wait" situation.
The Sony minidisc was great to use and gave excellent results (there are those who the say that the pre-amplifiers in the Sony minidiscs are among the best in the market). However downloading to my computer meant using the proprietary Sony "Sonic Stage" software. Some people have no problems with that, but for me it was a constant headache with repeated failures and occasional losses, despite seeking technical help and upgrading to new versions I never really got satisfaction. One day I lost a whole morning recordings and decided it was time to move on.
I then moved to a Fostex FR2-LE - the small brother of more expensive professional machines. This had been getting great reviews among nature recordists and so I took the plunge. Another good choice. With pre-amps almost as quiet as the Sony minidisc, it uses Compact Flash solid state memory and offers a variety of recording options. At first I used it at 22.05 Hz / 16 bit, but now routinely use 44.1 Hz / 24 bit. I still only have a 2Gb memory card in it but for my routine use this is still plenty. My computer recognises it as an external drive and so transfers are hassle-free. A rechargeable battery proved essential but Fostex designed it to take the type used by model cars - often named after a popular brand called "Tamiya" - not the brand I bought but it certainly came from a model shop. One battery gives me plenty for a day out in the field and recharges overnight. The drawback with the FR2-LE is that it is the casing is only plastic and does not give confidence for a field machine, and it does not come with a protective carry bag.You can buy a professional bag from "Porta-brace" but this is both bulky and expensive (in Europe). I got a local artisan to work with me and designed my own double-layer leather case which fastens to a webbing belt and can hang at my waist where the buttons are rapidly accessed. Without batteries it weighs 800g, and the rechargeable battery nearly doubles this, so every few hours on a long hike I need to take it off my hip and stretch a bit. But on the whole this system works well for me.
The bulk and weight of the Fostex is a handicap when travelling and at times I find myself in interesting places with no recorder in pocket. To remedy this I have recently bought a Sony PCM-M10. This and the Olympus LS10/ LS11 are the two pocket recorders on the market that give best results. I have not fully tested the machine yet but I can confirm it works wonderfully with the Telinga, and although the built-in mics are the best currently available in these small machines, I do find them a bit "hissy" in the quietest of locations (see here for initial field trials). However it has opened new horizons for me: recording at 44.1/24 two AA batteries give 41 hours of recording time (really!), I also bought a 16Gb micro-SD memory card to complement the 4Gb built-in memory and the machine switches to other memory when one is filled, this gives a total of about 16 hours recording time - so long overnight recordings for owls and such-like now become a reality. This is how I know that the built-in mics are a bit too hissy for a distant owl at 0400h, sensitivity is good however.
I use a variety of software for different purposes. My main editing programme is Adobe Audition (v3) which is heavy and complex but gives great options for all sorts of uses, I only know how to use a fraction of it right now. To filter out unwanted background noise the Audition parametric equaliser is great, but takes a little bit of learning to use it. Prior to using that I routinely run a file through a programme called Spectrogram by Visualization Software - it has a great frequency analyser in it which displays clearly on screen and allows you to pin-point the sounds you want and those you do not. It will make spectrograms for you, but I prefer "Raven Light" from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology - it is light to use and allows spectrograms to be adjusted for maximum clarity - all the ones you see on the site are using this. Those spectrogram movies I capture using "Camtasia Studio" which will then convert them to a flash .swf file for uploading to the site. I find Camtasia not perfect - generally good visually but the sound quality is poor. The sound player on the site is better and I convert the .wav files to 128 Kbps mp3 files for ease of downloading on slow connections. Meta-data on the files is added using a programme called "InfoEdit", which although meant for radio work adapts well for my purposes to add notes and details to each sound file.
FOR FURTHER ADVICE
Most of the above I have learned by following the folks who talk to each other on the excellent nature recordists group: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/naturerecordists/ here you can get advice from professionals and amateurs alike. Messages are kept in a great archive: http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/naturerecordists which can be searched using any key words.
Of course I also learned the best way - from making millions of my own mistakes !