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Review: Wild Soundscapes, Discovering the Voice of the Natural World

Author : Bernie Krause
Published : 2002-05

As it relates to Leave No Trace, you've probably heard this one before, "leave only footprints, take only memories." For a lot of park visitors, memories are preserved in photos, but I bought a handy device within the last year that makes audio recording really easy, and provides another engaging way to capture a park visit.

Having used this recorder with some mixed results, I was eager to get my hands on the book "Wild Soundscapes : Discovering the Voice of the Natural World" written by Bernie Krause, which includes a 52 minute audio CD. The book is split into two distinct sections; developing an appreciation for the natural soundscape, and production techniques and ideas for recording and editing the natural soundscape.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed and learned from the first section. I had wanted to skim quickly ahead to the recording section, but the more I read of the first few chapters, the more I was hooked. Krause makes an excellent argument of the importance of preserving the natural soundscape as we would any other element of the natural world.

Perhaps the best example of what the intrusion of man-made sound can do to an environment comes in chapter 3, 'Biophony', when Krause uses sound wave charts from a recording expedition at Mono Lake in California to illustrate his point. He was recording the late night frog chorus (illustrated as a heavy squiggles), when a military jet roars overhead. After the jet intrusion, the sound squiggles nearly disappear. It took more than 4 hours before the frog chorus was back to that heavy squiggly pre-jet line chart. That series of charts surprised me, and gave me a new appreciation for the snowmobile noise debates in Yellowstone.

I had been most eager to read the second half of the book. I really wanted to improve my field recording technique. Unfortunately, the material fell far short of my expectations. The book was published in 2002, with a second printing in 2004. As this is nearly 2008, you can imagine a lot has changed technologically since this book was written. I bought my solid-state sound recorder (solid-state - meaning there is no tape drive, it's all recorded to a small flash card) earlier this year for under $300, and I know there are other models closer to $200 - quite reasonable considering the high technology of the device. The book however makes no mention of solid state recorders. The book covers Digital Audio Tape devices (DAT), Mini-Disc recorders, and even mentions good 'ol analog tape. That's the problem with technology, as soon as you write about it, the state-of-the-art has changed. There are pages and pages of this book covering topics like preventing mold from collecting on the tape or recording heads, which feels quite dated.

I was also disappointed because there wasn't as much "technique" as I had been hoping. If you were to buy an book about photography, you might expect a technical discussion about the relationship between shutter speed, iso settings (film speed), and aperture size. I had wanted the author to tell me about the relationships that exist between microphone quality, signal to noise, pre-amps, etc. This is the stuff I don't know enough about, and it has burned me in the field before. I wanted this book to help me out, so I could make the same cool recordings he includes on the CD of coyotes in New Mexico, and elks bugling in Yellowstone National Park.

The included CD may actually be the best part of this entire book. If there is technique to be learned, it is in the examples he gives on the CD which typically include some voice instruction before each track. The first three tracks of the CD have given me an exercise to try the very next time I'm out in a park. Krause records the ocean, something I've tried before, but his results are better because he recorded the ocean twice. He set up his microphones close to the crashing waves near the shore (near-field), and then later, set up his microphones much further away (far-field). At home, using an audio editor, he then mixed the two tracks together, the results of which sound far better than either of the individual tracks on their own.

While I did have some disappointments with this book, I did enjoy it overall, especially the content on the CD. If the author wanted to provide his readers with the tools to discover the voice of the natural world, he succeeded. I'd love to see a sequel though, titled perhaps, "Now That You've Got a Microphone, Learn The Field Recording Secrets Of The Experts." I bet there is a lot more detail Krause could provide.

I'd like to mention that this book was a gift. I am a member of the WildeBeat, a non-profit organization which produces a weekly audio production about getting into the wilderness. As an individual member, I was allowed to select 1 of 5 books as a "thank you." I probably wouldn't have discovered this book without the WildeBeat, so I'd like to return the 'thanks' to Steve Sergeant and Jean Higham, the producers of the show.


The recording and processing end of the audio technology certainly has changed rapidly. But what hasn't changed nearly as fast are microphones, and those are the most important tools. Just as lenses didn't make much if any technological change between film and digital cameras, microphones have made little if any changes in the transition from analog tape to digital flash card.

The trouble is, teaching microphone technique is pretty difficult. You can teach someone a lot about the physics of microphones, but that might not help them intuitively to make the best use of a microphone. Likewise, you can teach someone about the physics and mechanics of lenses, but that doesn't teach them to take a great picture. Ultimately, and in either case, it's a process of experience, trial and error, and developing an appreciation for what's good art within the medium.

A student once asked me, "What's the best placement of a microphone to record a piano?" I answered, "What's the best placement of a camera to photograph a mountain?"

Thanks again for recognizing our work.
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