Acoustic ecologist

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A guest post by Joe Campbell:

Gordon Hempton, aka SoundTracker, is amazing. Listen to this episode of On Point Radio, or watch this short YouTube clip:

Great natural sounds! Gordon made 25 years of field recordings. He's making binaural recordings ("sound portraits"). These probably sound great over headphones. Maybe surround sound next, although that's much more difficult to get right in both recording and playback.

Gordon is absolutely right about the search for silence. I've been attempting to record Great Horned Owls near my home. (I have them on both sides of my house and they call back and forth from about 1-2 am – it's amazing.) The noise-free interval at 1-2 am is unfortunately shorter than the duration of their half minute calls :-(. When we purchased our home, noise level was a major consideration (for music listening), yet a minute of silence is rare here in this fully developed region of Massachusetts.

I see an X-Y recording of bugs (it's nice not to have to wear headphones). Gee, with inexpensive hi-fi 4-channel digital audio recorders (e.g., Zoom H4n), I wonder why Gordon doesn't simultaneously record binaurally and in X-Y?

Check this out too. It looks like a movie called SOUNDTRACKER is coming out.

[(myl)The above is a guest post by Joe Campbell.  (Well, it was originally an email to me, which he kindly agreed to let me post.)

Hempton's "head on a stick" reminds of Jim West, who has been awarded the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering (with Gerard Sessler) for inventing the electret microphone. One of the many things that Jim West did with this invention was to build microphones into the ears of a head somewhat like the one shown in the video clip above.  The results were impressive, especially the sound of a baseball bat swung just over the crown of the head, which was impossible to hear over earphones without reflexively ducking.

I'm looking forward to the Sessler-West symposium to be held at Temple University on Wednesday morning.]


  1. Arjan said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:53 am

    This is a wonderful project, I"m looking forward to that upcoming Soundtracker movie. Nevertheless, I'd say there's nothing that compares to the real deal, which includes feeling the wind blow, smelling the air, and actually being somewhere outside. I guess I'll just have to accept some noise pollution…

  2. Pekka K. said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    This post reminded me of the various holophonic sound demonstrations I had seen and heard on Youtube, so I went looking for them. You can find them, too, with the search term holophonic. Headphones are recommended when listening to them.

    While I was looking for them, I also stumbled upon an interview of Dr. Jim West in four parts. It has the total length of just a little over half an hour. As it might interest other Language Log readers, I am posting the links here.

  3. Sili said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    I'm embarrassed that I've never heard of electrets till now.

    Thank you.

    [(myl) As you've probably seen already, the Wikipedia article on electrets is pretty good. I learned quite a few things from it, for example the fact that Heaviside invented the word.]

  4. Private Zydeco said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 9:07 pm


  5. Lauri said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    My father, who used to work in occupational health, once said that in conversations with public health officials from around Europe, they were all pretty much agreed that as soon as smoking was eradicated, noise pollution would sort of take its place on their agenda. This was some years ago, however. I don't know what they plan to do about it, and people are still smoking anyway.

    I have to take this opportunity, if I may, to mention (plug?) Lauri Hallikainen, a Finnish nature recorder, who is very good (and I am not he, by the way), although he doesn't work with an artificial head. He was blinded (and almost killed) in an accident in the army as a young man, and after recovering, he took up recording the sounds of nature as a kind of therapy which then became a job. I first heard him and his recordings when I was working for Finnish radio (YLE), on a nature programme special that listeners kept requesting again and again (we must have repeated it three times in one year). He's also religious about it, and even to a nonbeliever, it was very touching to hear him describe what he thinks and feels on his field trips.

    A holophonic recording of a bee buzzing around the head can be unnerving, if you're afraid of bugs. In the YLE radio archives, I also stumbled upon a holophonic recording of a concert, I think it was a Händel oratory, made in the eighties by a sound engineer who was interested in the technology. I suppose it didn't go down too well with listeners, since that was about the only time it was ever used for broadcasting here. It didn't quite work on speakers, it sounded kind of muffled.

  6. Pekka K. said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    I discovered that the Youtube clips don't work everywhere equally well. I tried to listen to one of them on a computer I don't use often, and while it had stereo-capable headphones, the effect didn't seem to work at all. The problem might have been with the Flash player version or its settings on that computer. So, if the sound clips seem rather underwhelming to you, well, I'm sorry–they could be better. The effect is striking when it does work.

    You can find these recordings in other formats, of course.

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