Hear Bird Calls at BTG Brown Bag

Nature recordist Lang Elliott captured an album of sounds in the Peruvian rainforest, and his work attire traditionally favors waders over slacks as he combs ponds for duck calls. But when he was diagnosed with throat cancer a year and a half ago, he decided to stay home in upstate New York.

Elliott still found nature amid radiation and surgery, and then more radiation. It was like an addiction, he said, venturing forth at 4 a.m. to hear the first bird songs ring out, still dark outside and few, if any, people awake.

“It’s so rejuvenating,” Elliott said. “Yeah, I’m missing sleep, but I’m having this experience that’s so utterly sublime and fantastic that it’s hard to describe the effect it has on me spiritually and physically.”

After “a hell of a year,” Elliott has recovered, although he said eating isn’t quite the same, and his voice isn’t what it used to be. Still, he plans to make a trip out west within the year to gather more recordings.

At 12:15 p.m. Tuesday in Smith Wilkes Hall, Elliott will share some of his work in a Brown Bag lecture, sponsored by the Bird, Tree & Garden Club.

Like many kids, young Elliott liked nature, and once as a child he brought home a jar of crawly critters that quickly revealed themselves as mosquito larva. In college, pre-med aspirations lapsed to field biology and an eventual master’s degree in animal behavior and ecology. By the ’80s, Elliott found himself working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology photographing birds.

Recording nature sounds was just a hobby until he was awarded a Library of Congress grant to produce a birdsong guide for the visually handicapped. If people could identify a particular bird, the thinking went, they would glean more information about the bird’s habitat and surroundings. Basically, if you hear a croaking toucan, you’d know you’re in the tropics. If you hear a howling loon, you’d know you were on a lake.

That gig led to others, and, in 1990, Elliott was making enough money off nature recordings to support himself.

There’s a photo of Elliott from 1989 wearing khaki shorts and brandishing his equipment to look something like a Ghostbuster. His right hand holds a shotgun microphone, the left a parabolic microphone. A satchel rests on his hip to hold the analog reel-to-reel recorder — the same type used for the Nixon tapes.

He said his equipment remains largely the same today, although things are generally smaller and all digital. The various microphones allow him to isolate particular bird songs and nature sounds, even at a distance.

More recently, Elliott has ventured into soundscape recording to better replicate nature. Traditional, directional microphones allow him to isolate individual bird songs, which is great for spotting guides, but that divorces the bird from the larger mosaic of insects chirping and frogs croaking and other aspects of the ambient roar.

To create more faithful sounds, Elliott now employs a special mic designed to replicate the human head, with two microphones separated by the same 7 inches between a person’s ears. That setup captures the idiosyncrasies of sound waves arriving at each ear at slightly different times and at slightly different amplitudes.

For listeners, that means experiencing the scene as if they were actually there alongside Elliott when he captured the recording. Elliott has also started capturing high-definition video of those scenes, which he said adds to the immersive feeling.

Yet that perception of reality is sometimes an illusion. Post-production fiddling with sound levels and dubbing one bird’s song over another of the same species is routine, although Elliott said he almost never fabricates ambient sounds.

Despite said studio magic, Elliott still ventures into the field to gather his material. He’s had beavers and muskrats chew through his audio cables, floated microphones in intertubes across ponds and slept in canoes. One of Elliott’s publicity photos has him neck deep in water lilies.

That action may have paused for a bit, but Elliott could be in the water again soon enough.

“It could be worse,” he said. “I’m 68, and I’m grateful to be here doing this.”

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.