Magazine article Science News

Save Our Sounds: In Some Libraries, Noise Is Good

Magazine article Science News

Save Our Sounds: In Some Libraries, Noise Is Good

Article excerpt

"I'm a bad person to go to a movie with," says Greg Budney, curator of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University. He sometimes reacts to details that other people miss. He now rustles around his desk for a list he keeps of moments in movies that have disturbed him. "In Black Hawk Down, that scene where Delta Force is leaving Mogadishu and a soldier tries to call his wife," Budney says, "you hear a chiffchaff in the background!" In real life, the little birds called chiffchaffs live in Europe.

"There were Pacific tree frogs in The Hunt for Red October--in a Maine estuary," he says. "It was horrible."

Not that he can't take a joke. Early in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the long, raucous call of an Australian kookaburra rings out in the Americas, but Budney appreciates it as homage to the corny roots of jungle-adventure movies. "It's one of my favorite sounds in the whole movie," he says. "Early Tarzan movies all had a kookaburra."

Not everyone hears the sounds of nature with the mixed blessing of Budney's highly tuned ears. Yet he contends that the sounds of birds, frogs, crickets, or whatever creatures are out there make a powerful part of the experience of nature for most people, regardless of whether they're knowledgeable about chiffchaffs' whereabouts. "Well-recorded sound has a remarkable ability to transport people," he says.

The library where Budney works is now the largest in the world devoted to preserving and archiving nature's sounds, with 150,000 recordings of 6,700 species and counting. In the United States, Ohio State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History also have substantial collections, and a worldwide tally includes about 14 sound libraries. Even patrons of the British Library in London can take a break from poring over Shakespearean first folios to hear a crested gibbon recorded in Vietnam, a screaming piha from Peru, or some 130,000 other sounds.

The recordings come from some of the great names in field biology, as well as from people taking a break from other professions. The fruits of these efforts draw scientists, conservation activists, merchandisers, and moviemakers. Sound librarians have even dug up recordings to be transmogrified into unnatural sounds, such as special effects in science fiction movies.

EARLY BIRDS Now libraries record creatures ranging from insects to reptiles, but what inspired many of the pioneers in nature recording were bird songs. In the British Library, the earliest surviving recording of a natural song, made by sound-collecting enthusiast Ludwig Koch, still preserves on a wax cylinder the sound of a thrush singing in 1889.

The possibility that modern technology might capture the songs of birds came to intrigue the first ornithology professor in the United States, Arthur Allen. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1915, and during the 1920s, he and his students were experimenting with catching bird songs on film used for the sound in the new motion pictures. It remained the medium of choice for recording animal sounds until the mid 1930s, even though the equipment was portable only in the sense that it could fit in a truck.

The mid-1930s brought a new technology: equipment that could be lugged into the field to cut grooves into 12-inch, 78-rpm disks. Allen's team embraced the change, as did Koch, despite various drawbacks. Koch's memoirs recount the complications on one of his recording jaunts when he gave a lift to a soldier, who lit up a cigarette. An ash ignited the flammable disc parings that had collected in the car seat.

Magnetic tape, developed in Germany during World War II, opened the era of reel-to-reel recordings, and all but the youngest libraries still have shelves of them. Today, sound collectors are moving to digital equipment, says Budney. In the corner of the 800-square-foot climate-controlled chamber that houses his library's magnetic tapes now stand two of what he calls DVD jukeboxes. …

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