Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World ($19.95) is a guide to field recording by esteemed naturalist, composer, and bioacoustician
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Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World ($19.95) is a guide to field recording by esteemed naturalist, composer, and bioacoustician

Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World ($19.95) is a guide to field recording by esteemed naturalist, composer, and bioacoustician Bernie Krause. The book is intended for anyone interested in the outdoors — not just people with a background in music or recording.

Wild Soundscapes is written in a casual, conversational way that makes the book easy and pleasant to read. A CD of audio examples from Krause's vast archive accompanies the book and illustrates both the beauty and the fragility of the subject.

All Creatures Great and Small

To begin, Krause introduces the concepts of acoustic ecology and bioacoustics by sharing anecdotes from the field in which he details how listening to and analyzing natural soundscapes is an excellent way to measure the health of an ecosystem. Early on, he introduces musical concepts useful in describing sound and addresses the lack of terms that are aurally based, pointing out how we use metaphors from the visual arts when discussing music.

From there, Krause offers exercises for improving the reader's listening ability. He notes that using microphones and headphones to listen to an environment is akin to using a microscope or binoculars: it allows you to focus on aspects of a habitat that your unaided ears cannot immediately hear.

Krause's concept of a biophony is an important contribution. It suggests that the listener try to hear a soundscape as a blend of voices, similar to the way we listen to symphonic music. This stands in contrast to the way scientists have previously approached listening in the wild, where the focus was on a single type of animal (such as birds or frogs). Krause notes that each creature has a unique sonic niche in a biophony, just as instruments have a particular tessitura and special place in the orchestral mix. By examining a biophony, Krause has learned to differentiate between healthy and damaged ecosystems, and he includes spectrograms of his recordings to illustrate his point.

Recording 101

Although Wild Soundscapes was written for people unfamiliar with recording technology, I was surprised at the gear-related topics Krause delves into, such as microphone pickup patterns, differences between stereo recording techniques (XY, binaural, and M-S), and differences between portable digital recorders. Krause does a nice job of making the important details easy to understand without overwhelming the reader with jargon.

Enough information is presented to get someone new to recording up and running quickly and cheaply. Krause's recommendations lean toward inexpensive and easy-to-use items, beginning with products available at Radio Shack. I was hoping to read about every available product for nature recording, but such a gear roundup is beyond the scope of this book: only a couple of items are presented as examples.

Krause is more concerned with the art of recording, and he deftly tackles the aesthetics of presenting recorded soundscapes. Krause dispels the myth of the “pure” nature recording, arguing that anyone who records a natural setting is, in fact, editing the work by determining what and when to record, mic placement, and the kind of microphone to use. He also notes that, because the recorded version of a soundscape is not the same as hearing it in person, the recordist should work to create “an illusion that conveys an honest sense of place” when presenting his or her work. He also discusses archiving and troubleshooting.

Krause describes a number of projects for the reader to explore. His suggestions of unusual audio phenomenon — singing sand dunes and the movement of glaciers, for example — are intriguing and made me consider vacationing in a remote place so I could have my own aural safari. Advanced projects are suggested for several unique environments (such as deserts, rain forests, and islands), and Krause describes the challenges and rewards in each for the recordist.

The audio examples (which include descriptions by the author) include singing ants, aquatic insect larvae, a meadow before and after logging, and an absolutely amazing Amazonian jaguar. My only regret is that the CD is too brief; I wish it included some of the other sounds described in the book, such as calving glaciers.

Natural Selection

Wild Soundscapes is a wonderful, thought-provoking book that will appeal to musicians and naturalists alike. Krause's enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and even the casual reader will be inspired to do some recording. If you have ever considered recording outdoors, Wild Soundscapes is worth exploring.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 5
Wilderness Press; tel. (800) 433-7227 or (510) 558-1666; e-mail jones@wildernesspress.com; Web www.wildernesspress.com