Tamara Smith, Alex Chadwick
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
- 39.6500042 -120.4881763
- 2060 meters
Decoded MS stereo
Log of DAT #: 5
Date: June 4, 2001
My name is Tamara Smith and I'm doing a PHD in computer music at CCRMA, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. And that's at Stanford.
And where are you from?
Canada. Originally from northern Ontario but I call myself a Montrealer cause I've spent most of my time there.
And what's your undergraduate degree in?
It's in music, piano and performance.
From McGill in Montreal.
What is your doctorate in?
That's a good question. I do a lot of electrical engineering, computer science, signal processing and I'm studying right with Julia Smith who does physical modeling so I also have some acoustics and physics in there as well. And that's what we try to do, is model acoustic systems particularly those of acoustic instruments. It's certainly a multidisciplinary field, particularly when my basic undergraduate is primarily in performance so I've kind of had to pick up these pieces along the way. In my masters I took up a lot of computer programming and tried to fill in the gaps.
I am gonna wait for this truck to leave, for a moment. Tell me what brought you here. Why are you here?
Waiting for truck to pass
Okay, I'm sorry, so why did you come to the workshop?
Do you want the short story or the longer story? I'll try to . . Most of the people at our lab model acoustic instruments. What I'm interested in doing is taking other acoustic systems and modeling those and creating new musical instruments out of them. When I heard songs of the secada, particularly, I was pretty fascinated by it and I thought it had a lot of musical potential so I started studying the cicada, reading a lot of papers figuring out how the sound mechanism works.
I've come pretty close but I don't have an actual source with which to compare it, so I'm hoping to be able to apply for a grant next year to go to Australia and record the cicadas there because those are the ones that I've been reading about and trying to model When I saw this recording course, I thought if I learned how to do this then can go to Australia with the confidence that I can come back with some decent data.
What are you learning here?
We're learning different mic-ing techniques, or at least microphones so far, what type of microphones to use under different conditions. Which for me is good cause it's very different again from the studio. You would never see a shotgun or a parabolic reflector in the studio. We just learned a little bit how to avoid background noise from streams and wind. These are also things that you would never find in the studio, so it's actually quite useful. Again, it's only the second day so I hope I'll learn a little bit more. But also, I find just by practicing and going out there listening to your recordings you learn a lot just by doing that, trial and error.
Have you run across the name Rex Cocroft in any of the papers you've looked at. He's a insect communications person. We now he's at the University of Missouri now and he's done amazing recordings. We did a piece about him. Carolyn can get it for you if you like. Many insects actually communicate by vibrations in the substrate of the stem or branch that they are on. The can create very very loud vibrations in it, if you're listening with the right kind of transducer, an accelerometer to pick it up. It's just amazing signals that they send back and forth. They're just, you couldn't believe that these things come out of insects.
That was actually one of the things about the cicada that interested me. It all started by looking at a frog in a pond. And we were trying to figure out how such a small animal could produce such a loud and complex tambour. It didn't seem acoustically like that would be possible. And then when I found the cicada, an even smaller sound even producing a louder sound, this is another thing that's attracted me about it, in just trying to solve, to figure out how they do that was sort of what led me on this project.
How did you hear about this Cornell workshop?
Just on the web. Actually the next step for me, the next logical step would be to explore birds and I've been reading a little bit about how they produce sound as well. And of course that led me too the ornithology lab at Cornell. And then that page led me to this workshop.
What do you think bird song, the things that we're hearing here, how does that relate to your work? What is that going to become?
It seems to me that the bird songs is very similar to, I'm listening to it more in terms of its tambour quality, and it's very very much like a flute to me, or like an obo, or certain types of wind instruments which is very much like what we already use as musical instruments, but of course more natural because they weren't created by humans. I actually would like to spend sometime exploring he similarities, if I could get a good model of a bird and a good model of a flute, exactly how would they differ? What would be the differences between them? Just see exactly how they do relate and they're sound mechanisms, how they relate.
What is tambour?
Well, there's a whole PHD thesis on that actually, but basically it's everything that's not amplitude or frequency, but yet allows you to distinguish one sound from another. You could also define it as its spectral content, but there's a little bit more to it than that. But usually the spectral content of a sound is what defines its tambour.
I just wonder, as someone who is a music student and involved with acoustic theory, what it like for you to walk around in the forest here?
Well, I pay attention. I try to listen to detail. As a musician that's one thing that you are trained to do. Things that might for someone else you might just pass over them or think them insignificant, it's really the detail that matters. And so I try to listen to the sounds that are not so obvious. I would say, it's difficult to when you're walking through with all this gear and with the headphones, it kind of disrupts that, but I try to take that off as much as possible just to try to try and listen to the details of what's around me.
What kinds of details do you mean?
Sometimes I listen to rhythms. I list en to how a song might start here, is answered hear, and even though it might be softer you can get this dancing back. Sound that aren't loud necessarily but really interesting, but that you have to stop in your tracks to hear. When I was back there actually chasing the snow back to get the snowball, I found myself in a field and I just stopped there and listened and tried to get an idea of how the sound was working in space I don't necessarily just focus on one sound, but I like to hear how it all operates together in one sound space.
And what are the sources of those sounds what is it that you're actually listening to?
I guess now because of the nature of this workshop I'm trying to focus more on the birds because I'm around people who know a lot more about this sort of thing than I do. I'm trying to hear what they're talking about. They have mnemonics for certain things.. I've never even thought to do that. Again this is new to me. The bird watching as well as the recording, so I'm trying to get a grasp of what it is they're trying to listen to. See if I can hear it myself. See if I can create mnemonics that will help me recognize it again. But not just the birds. I have to say, the sounds that annoy people when they're trying to record, I have to say I like that when I sit in the forest and listen to everything. I love the brook the sound of the winds through the brush and the trees. For me that's part of the whole environment and the experience. But of course if you're trying to record bird sounds that's something to be avoided, but I guess I'm maybe different. Yesterday morning when we were at Dison Lane, every9one was annoyed by the cows ion the distance and I wanted to run up to them and get a closer. So things that might annoy someone will actually please me I think.
I'm Greg Budney and I 'm the curator of natural sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
And are you the director of this course?
Yes. I feel more like the course manager.
What is the actual name of the course, so that we get it right at least once?
The Natural Sound Recording Course. The 200 Natural Sound Recording Course.
So what's the goal of the course?
The primary goal is to teach people to properly use field equipment to accurately record wildlife sounds as scientific boucher(?) specimens. Is that technical enough?
Scientific . . .?
The goal of the course is to teach people how to make good sound recordings in the field that can be used as scientific specimens.
So a recording. You used this term last night in your lecture ¿ an acoustic specimen. What is an acoustic specimen?
I use the work acoustic to distinguish this type of data from the skin or skeletal data you might find in another museum collection. We have what would be referred to as a special collection. Our specimens or our samples, our data, are tape recordings, increasingly digital tape recordings.
An individual specimen might be what? One bird call?
An individual specimen typically represent an event in time that someone witnessed and happened t have a tape recorder in hand. It might be one bird call or it might be five minutes of displaying of a bird.
How long have people been collecting acoustic specimens. When did the idea occur that there is such a thing as an acoustic specimen?
The very first recordings were made early in the 21st Century. Ludwig Koch(?) was one of the pioneer's of natural sound recording and he worked in Europe. His collection became the basis of the BBC Natural History Collection. The BBC's thrust was to have sound recordings that they could use as sound effects in film and television programs. In the 1930's, specifically 1930, here in North America, Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg made the fist recordings of bird song in North America. And those from the outset were meant to be acoustic specimens, data that could be used for scientific research and also for educational purposes. They could play those sounds to the public and teach them what a warbling barrio sounded like or what a house wren sounded like.
In what way is this scientific data. I can understand a skeleton. I can understand a skin or something or maybe . . . What do you get out of an acoustic specimen.
You can use these data you can access these data at many different levels. At the most basic level a recording represents the presence of a particular creature at one particular location at one particular date and time. You can delve further in the information and you can look at the acoustic structure, the type of sound ¿ what frequency it is, how frequently the sound is given, the pitch is what I mean by frequency, the duration of an individual note. You can really go in and scrutinize the parameters of a sound that an animal has made. That would be the study of bioacoustic phenomenon or the study of animal sounds themselves.
Researchers tackle this even a step further and the sound that an animal makes are often a window into the genetic make-up of that creature. We know that in, say flycatchers that we're hearing around here, many of those songs are innate. So we're seeing, when we hear that sound we're actually looking into their genetic makeup-up because we know that all members of that particular species are going to sing that song. And they don't have the ability to acquire knew and different sound the way other species do, such as a mockingbird, which is an open-ended learner and learns throughout his life. So it's an insight into the structure of their brain, how they acquire sound, do they have the ability to learn throughout their life or not. And of course when you start studying things like that ¿ how sounds are acquired and develop[ed ¿ you're looking at brain structure brain organization, and that type of data is also compared with how humans learn sound. What one could go onto say is that in the animal kingdom there are all kinds of solutions to animals' needs as they evolve. In cultures, obviously our modern western culture doesn't have a monopoly on all the solutions. People who lived in the Andes mountains, the Inca, had phenomenal engineering abilities, which are now lost. Through technological advances we're looking at how animals behave, the structure of their brains, how they interrelate to nature and learning completely new things about the world around us by looking at creatures like this.
And sound is a big part of that?
Sound is a huge window that let's us in on their lives.
How many sounds do you have at the library?
We have over an hundred and fifty thousand individual recordings or acoustic specimens if you will. That represents just over 6,700 species of birds. And the we have a very large collection of mammals, of amphibians, representative material of insects. We hope to expand things like the mammal collection, reptiles, amphibians, insects, in the coming years. But right now our currency really is in birds.
Why do you run these workshops - because people asked you to or because you like to do it or because it makes a lot of money for Cornell?
All of the above except for the last one. This is definitely a break even proposition, at least looking at it on a monetary level. What we're trying to achieve is to build a core of citizen scientist volunteers who can help us in the process of building a huge resource of acoustic data that can be used for all kinds of purposes, not only for studying animal communication but conversation biology, museum exhibits ¿ anything that people are interested in using this material for. The reason I like to do these workshops is that seeing someone make a good recording for this first time is just absolutely mind-blowing for them. When they finally get the parabola pointed directly at the bird and they hear things in a way they've never heard them before, it changes their whole perception of how they view the world. The first thing being, they realize how noisy the world is; that it's full of humans and activities related to humans and coming out into nature becomes something that they seek out at every opportunity. They want to find that pristine acoustic environment where they can really listen to the warbling barrio in the solitude of nature.
You know, I recognize something on that first day that were out recording o the valley floor. There were more than a dozen people, all avid bird people out studying these birds, watching the birds, listening to the birds, in this great place to do it. Not a single one of them had a camera.
That's true. It's an endeavor that requires all of your attention and you really can't perform photography and sound recording. I think, well, I don't know what I think.
I thought, you know these people really are focused. They really are completely tuned into the aural world. You can't say that about very many groups of people.
That's really true, and I guess many of these people have a propensity for doing that from the get-go, but for many this is their first experience and it really does change them. You see people who have been bird watcher for years that take this class who suddenly are no longer interested in tracking down a rare bird. What they'd rather do is get a recording, and it may not be a recording of a rare bird. There was a fellow who visited the other day, Jeff Keller, who used to track down every rarity that showed up. He gave it up. He's more interested in getting a really good recording of a bird, it doesn't matter how common it is, he'd rather do that than track down a flame colored tanninger.
How long have you been, you've been doing this almost twenty years now ¿ been curator there and been at the library?
I've been at the library for over twenty years.
How have things changed in that time and how do you see them changes in the years to come, just ion terms of the acoustic environment and how people are interested in sound.
The interest in sound is growing dramatically in part because of technological changes. We're seeing portable gear getting smaller and smaller so something can be carried in a breast pocket or a bag around the waste; microphone systems that are very compact and yet quite directional. That's making it easier for people to go into the field. We use dot carry twenty pound nogger(?) reporters, which were beautiful machines but weighty. Really put a crease in your shoulder when you carried them, and parabolas were three feet across. Now people are carrying shotguns microphones that are eighteen inches long and a minidisk recorded or a small dat recorder that they've got in a small pants pocket. So that's involving more people in the process.
And at least in the birding world, more and more sound guides have become available to the public. People are, through those guides people are learning more bird songs, so they want to pursue that; go out and experience recording them themselves.
What about the, I think I've read something you'd written about getting acoustic records now of the world because it's, the acoustic record is of places that's changing.
That's true. There are places today that exist today that will not be around a decade right now. There are forest in this area, that unless we go and record them in the present they're won't be any records for the. Some of these places, like US Forest Service land are going to be able to regenerate. In other locations the changes in the habitat could be so significant that there is no recovery. There are certainly places in the world where, through deforestation, we've ended up with little more than virtual deserts. And it's not possible to go back to that forest that once stood there and record those animals. And unfortunately what we end up with today are records of what was. But on the hopeful side, recordings that are made in many remote locations that are threatened by deforestation, we have the ability to take those recordings train people to identify creatures of interest by voice, and go out into the field and determine what areas harbor the greatest bio-diversity or the greatest numbers of a particular species, so that good management decision can be made about what areas to preserve. Because as many people have said, many things that exist today will not exist 10 or 20 years form now, so we've got to target the areas that harbor the greatest biodiversity for preservation, conservation.