Today we are very fortunate to learn from sound recordist and engineer, Dan Dugan. Dan is a member of the Nature Sounds Society and serves on their Board of Directors. The Nature Sounds Society is based in northern California. Dan and other Society members travel to natural areas to record nature’s sounds.
Please welcome Dan Dugan!
ARTPLANTAE: Tell us about the Nature Sounds Society. How did it begin?
DAN DUGAN: The Nature Sounds Society (NSS) was founded in 1983 by Paul Matzner, then curator for the California Library of Natural Sounds at the Oakland Museum of California, and Marie Mans, retired from her first scientific career and actively pioneering nature sound recording to augment her photography and to assist natural scientists (such as Dr. Luis Baptista at San Francisco State University) to obtain data for their research. From their organizing work and interest in the conservation of natural quiet, they reached out to others to create an organization which would become a nexus for similarly interested professionals and amateurs in the scientific, educational, arts, and environmental arenas. The organizing committee that evolved decided that the principal purpose of NSS is to encourage the preservation, appreciation and creative use of natural sounds. The organization has been active and viable for almost 30 years and has members from all corners of the globe.
AP: How did you become involved with the Society?
DD: Paul Matzner brought the museum’s Nagra tape recorder to me for service 23 years ago. He invited me to join the Nature Sounds Society at their annual workshop at Yuba Pass in the Sierras. Technology and nature together? Sounded like a great idea. I’ve volunteered as a technical advisor ever since and more recently, as a Board member.
AP: How are recordings of nature’s sounds usually put to use?
DD: There are pure soundscape recordings that are appreciated by lovers of nature’s music in the raw. Species recordings that are used to help with species identification for scientists and birders. Smooth mixes used for relaxation by therapists and individuals. Many musicians like to mix nature sounds into their compositions. Radio producers, podcasters, and YouTubers use natural sounds to enhance their stories. National Public Radio (NPR) often features natural sounds in radio reports. The national parks need volunteer recordists to inventory and monitor their soundscapes. Visual artists — sculptors, painters, multimedia artists — use sound more and more in their installed works. Museums and teachers want nature sounds for their exhibits and demonstrations. Nature films depend on recordists to capture the sounds that go with their fabulous visuals.
AP: The theme for EE Week is Ocean Connections. When I think about the word “ocean,” I see and hear waves along a rocky coastline. I also hear seagulls and imagine a cool, damp, salty breeze. This scene is the default imagery in my head when it comes to any type of coastal scene. Drawing upon your experience as a sound recordist, what am I missing? What am I not hearing?
DD: OK, add a shreaking killdeer to your mix. How about a sea-lion barking in the distance? The hiss the sand and pebbles make as the edge of a wave recedes. The sounds of buoys or foghorns when the fog closes in. The changing rhythm of the waves as the tides turn over a 12-hour period. This very subject was the focus of a recent installation by Golden Gate National Recreation Area resident artist, Aaron Ximm.
AP: When you meet someone who is new to the discipline of sound recording or the practice of “listening,” how do you encourage them to open their ears?
DD: The most transformative experience for someone new to sound recording is to put on the headphones to a live recorder hooked up to a microphone array to experience what one of our members and educator, Arlyn Christopherson, calls “bionic ears.” Just as a field guide of birds magnifies each individual bird, the act of listening with bionic ears magnifies the soundscape elements. You suddenly become aware of things you’ve heard before, but never really listened to: birds, wind, water, and the intrusiveness of man-made noise. Putting on bionic ears is a bit like the aural equivalent of the moment the “Wizard of Oz” goes from black and white to color in film — a whole new world opens up.
Learning to listen to nature sounds requires a specific skill that takes some practice but is not hard to do. In our lecture-demonstration, we start by asking people to close their eyes and make an inventory of everything that they can hear in the (hopefully) quiet room. Then I play a brief rain forest recording several times over, each time pointing out a different element of the complex biophony, and how they fit together like the instruments of an orchestra. From there, we demonstrate the differences between mono, stereo and surround sound and begin a very general discussion about equipment and how to obtain the results that you are interested in hearing.
AP: One day in the eastern Sierra, I came upon an area possessing the purest and loudest silence I have ever experienced. It was different than simply a quiet spot along a trail. It was a startling experience. Paul Matzner, the founder of the Nature Sounds Society, writes about the value of quietude – “a state or situation where natural sounds can be heard uninterrupted” by the “technological sounds of humans.” He also writes that quiet places “are some of our most endangered habitats.” How does the Nature Sounds Society advocate for quietude?
DD: Paul’s description of the value of quietude — or natural quiet, the current terminology for quietude — is at the heart of the conservation efforts of NSS. Right now is a critical time for preserving natural soundscapes in our national parks. Federal regulations promulgated in 1999 defined soundscapes as a resource which requires preservation and management on an equal footing with other park resources. The parks are currently drafting soundscape management plans and putting them out for public comment. Recently, Zion National Park rushed through a plan that we objected to as compromising wilderness values too much in favor of the air travel industry. There is a draft environmental impact report open for comment right now regarding air tours in the Grand Canyon. If there can be no-fly zones over military reservations, why not have no-fly zones over national parks?
Members of NSS provide commentary individually and under the NSS umbrella regarding these plans and other topics related to natural quiet. They have also provided volunteer assistance to gather and present observational data for baseline studies and have provided opinion pieces. NSS provides a forum through its listening parties, lectures, technical discussions, workshops, listserve and partner with the Bay Area Sound Ecology (BaseBOT) group, the local chapter of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology (WAFE), for discussions of these topics to take place.
Independent work includes a compelling short documentary “Hush” directed and produced by Stanford film school graduate, Mike Seely, featuring Paul Matzner narrating the importance of quiet places. A more recent documentary, “Soundtracker” (2010) by Nick Sherman, follows Gordon Hempton’s efforts to find quiet places to record. Bernie Krause, in his book Wild Soundscapes (which is also an excellent beginner’s guide to sound recording) describes the depredations to the natural soundscape over the arc of his career as an acoustic ecologist.
AP: You mentioned in an earlier conversation, you make regular trips to the Muir Woods. Your recordings indicate that old-growth forests are very quiet places. I don’t know how long you have been recording in the same location, but it seems to me that what you do not hear in your recordings speaks volumes. Your recordings provide valuable presence and absence data. Have old growth forests changed since you began recording data? If so, how?
DD: I haven’t been recording long enough to notice a major difference (about 5 years in this environment). Ask Bernie Krause, he’s been documenting soundscapes for forty years. Both Bernie and Gordon Hempton have noticed the increasing intrusion of man-made sound on even the most pristine landscapes and they have recorded all over the world as their life’s work.
AP: You are currently documenting the sequoia groves at Yosemite National Park. How do you go into the field to collect sound data? Do you have a structured approach and take samples for a specific amount of time? Or is your approach more relaxed? Briefly describe what a day in the field looks like.
DD: I do have a routine. I hike in to the location carrying between 30 to 50 pounds of equipment depending on the difficulty of the terrain. To avoid problems with bears, I carry only water. Not even a snack bar. I mount mics on my pack wired to a recorder on my belt, so if I hear something interesting on the trail I can catch it. I take pictures too. Everything is date- and time-stamped, and I slate my recordings extensively, describing the date, time, type of equipment being used, weather conditions, terrain, etc.
If it’s a new location, I go early so I can explore and find a good spot. I set up a four-channel surround array and a “cowboy camp” (no tent). I’ll record anytime something interesting happens, but I always start 90 minutes before nautical twilight and record the evening sounds till then.
Through the night I keep my recorder on standby. It has a ten-second prerecord buffer, so if I hear an owl, coyotes, or a tree falling, I hit record and I’ve already got it.
I set a timer to start recording at nautical twilight, in case I’m asleep. I’ll record the dawn chorus for 90 minutes. If there’s action and I don’t want to be somewhere else, I’ll continue beyond that. Then it’s pack up, hump the gear out and go for breakfast.
The most amount of time is spent in post-production back in the studio, which is never quite as much fun as collecting the recordings. I’ve developed, and stick to, a rigorous protocol documenting (in the field and in the studio) and transferring the recordings. I provide “raw” recordings to the National Park Service (NPS), but I put a lot of time in reviewing the recordings to mark events and will consult with experts on birds and animals to accurately identify what is recorded. I write a report following the NPS format which accompanies my submission along with the other written documentation.
AP: The Nature Sounds Society hosts listening parties. What happens at a listening party? Who attends these gatherings?
DD: Our members and friends. People bring their favorite recordings from the year to share. People out-of-town wire contributions, too. The mix is always lively — the rain forests and lemurs of Madagascar, ice breaking up, spiders dropping from a ceiling, thunderstorms, coyotes — and there’s always a great personal story to go with the sound. Oh, and the food’s pretty good, too.
AP: What recommendations do you have for teachers who may be interested in recording nature sounds for use in their classrooms?
DD: The NPS recently published a revised updated activity card for classroom use that was originally authored by educators and NSS members, Arlyn Christopherson and Mele Wheaton. They can get this card by contacting the NPS or the NSS.
Upcoming events for NSS include our Saturday May 14 Tech Talk and our annual Workshop at San Francisco State University’s Field Station at Yuba Pass, June 24-26. More information is on our website at http://www.naturesounds.org.
Anyone can subscribe to the Yahoo! group for questions and information.
Teachers can also subscribe to the Naturerecordists Yahoo! group and ask for advice there. This group is heavily technical and much of the discussion is about gear, but its members are always willing to help a newbie.
AP: Thank you, Dan, for making us better listeners.
DD: You’re welcome.
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