by Ben Englander
Learn how recordist Jason Strawley and videographer Andrew Garraway traversed the country in search of the most authentic nature sounds.
Listening through Biophony – the latest nature sound effects library available exclusively from Pro Sound Effects – is likely to elicit feelings of peace and tranquility.
In one recording, a secluded marsh comes to life as the wildlife awakens and a symphonic dawn chorus of croaks and chirps gradually unfurls. Vibrant swamps, lush valleys, and wild prairies characterize Biophony as a taste of nature at its most serene. So it may be surprising to learn that the process of capturing these sounds was no soothing endeavor.
From warding off packs of coyotes to escaping the destructive force of climate change, Jason Strawley and Andrew Garraway overcame many obstacles to capture this collection. In this interview, Strawley recounts the journey of Biophony and the trials and tribulations that came with it.
Can you describe your experience recording this library?
Jason Strawley: In a word...tough. To elaborate, animals don't necessarily want to cooperate. There were times that we'd travel to a location and the birds, or frogs or whatever would be going wild. So we're like "Wow! Let's set up the mic!" Unpack, set up, hit record and...nothing. They either flew away, got scared by an airplane, smelled us or whatever. Patience is the key in scenarios like this. You just pack it up, keep hiking, and keep your ears open for another opportunity.
Many of these recordings required being up before dawn. Most people have heard the term "dawn chorus". A ton of animals, primarily birds, but also deer and other mammals are very active at dawn. We are not morning people. I can tell you it hurts - physically hurts - to unzip the tent and roll out when it is 3:30AM and 40 degrees outside. Other recordings meant being out in the middle of the night. In Florida, where we live, the frogs are going nuts at dusk so if you want just crickets you have to wait for the frogs to go to sleep. This led to some seriously spooky moments being out in the middle of the Everglades with nothing but a headlamp to light the way. In total blackness I started imagining all the escaped Burmese pythons and massive bull alligators sneaking towards me. Good crickets though!
Even when the critters weren't cooperating we had a blast exploring some pretty wilderly locations. We saw black bears, coyote, deer, elk, snakes, gators, river otters and tons more critters - most don't make any reliable sound but we had pretty cool experiences none the less! Some deer tried to eat my sound bag in China Camp, CA so that was pretty cool. I was hidden like ten feet away and I just held my breath and hoped they didn't get the urge to trample my gear! Did I mention I got hunted by a pack of coyotes in California? They did the same move as the raptors in Jurassic Park right before they kill Muldoon. Fortunately, coyotes scare a lot easier than super smart dinosaurs so I chased them off.
"We should all be advocating to preserve more wild lands, but it's not just about the land - we need to preserve the soundscape and darkscape as well."
What went into deciding the locations of your recordings?
A lot went into deciding the locations. Most importantly, they had to be extremely remote since we aimed to keep human interference to an absolute minimum. I was reading bird watching blogs to see when and where birds would be active, looking at flight radar to pick locations away from consistent air traffic, and carefully mapping out locations to maximize the dawn/day/dusk/night cycle I hit on previously. Despite all of this research, certain locations turned out to be a complete bust, which is pretty frustrating. Other times, luck would intervene and we'd be able to snag a great recording when we weren't even planning to! All told there are recordings in this library from Maine, California, Florida, and Mississippi. Florida in particular proved to be a goldmine, which was to be expected because our wildlife doesn't mess around!
Were you trying to capture specific animals, or more general atmospheres?
The goal with this library was to capture entire environments or ecosystems as opposed to specific animals. I've read a lot of Bernie Krause's writing in regard to animals carving out their own spectral or temporal niche in a given environment. I found this very interesting and aimed to capture this as realistically as possible. This means that on some (but not all) of the recordings, birds, crickets, and frogs might all be blended together, but it will accurately reflect the biome. By focusing on environments, this library fits in well with other animal libraries that Pro Sound Effects has been putting out recently from Ann Kroeber (Ann's Animals, Stallion, Beautiful Bugs) and Chris Diebold (Wildlife Collection: Bengal Tiger, Wildlife Collection: Leopards).
Any lasting thoughts?
Working on this library was a humbling experience. It was so much more difficult than we imagined when we first pitched the idea to PSE! We definitely gained a new appreciation for animal behavior and the natural beauty all around us. We also got to experience firsthand some of the main issues facing the natural world today.
Climate change hit us pretty hard when we got chased out of Yosemite National Park two days early by record setting rains and flooding made worse by the crazy wildfires California has experienced recently. The mudslides in the mountains were made so much more dangerous because all of the plant biomass had been stripped away in the fires. We also spent some time in Sonoma, a location called Sugarloaf State Park, because Bernie Krause had recorded there. Bernie had been documenting the loss of natural biophony in the area since 2004 and we arrived in 2018 to find it nearly totally silenced. It had been completely obliterated by the 2017 wildfires.
Climate change has also forced many animals to abandon their traditional migration patterns and an entire trip to California was hindered because the migratory birds were late to arrive. Of course we burned a ton of carbon flying across the country to try and capture these precious animals so we are directly to blame for this situation. We have a new appreciation for the impact we have on nature, even with the best of intentions. It's such a confusing time for all of us, human and animal. Big thank you to PSE for contributing to 1% For The Planet. Also huge thanks to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. They allowed us to record there and they are doing such important work preserving some of the most iconic and charismatic animals we've ever encountered. If you are in the Bay area definitely stop in for a visit and be sure to donate generously!
Beyond climate change, human-made noise pollution obviously foiled many a recording, forcing us to travel to more and more remote locations. Urban light pollution was even an issue because we extensively photograph and video every location and it was SO hard to find dark places at night. We should all be advocating to preserve more wild lands, but it's not just about the land - we need to preserve the soundscape and darkscape as well. Some national parks are doing a great job with this and I hope we can contribute to awareness in some tiny way.
Pro Sound Effects is a proud member of 1% for the Planet.