A sound signature: MSU compiling regional Acoustic Atlas

2013-11-19T00:00:00Z 2013-11-19T08:15:05Z A sound signature: MSU compiling regional Acoustic AtlasBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It may sound like the lead-in to a joke, but would a southern white-tailed deer have a different accent, maybe a drawl, from one that lives in Montana?

Yes, according to Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the Montana State University Library. No joking.

“If you get isolated populations different from each other, it’s not so crazy,” he said.

Arlitsch has helped launch a new website that the university is hosting, called Acoustic Atlas (acousticatlas.org). It offers free online access to a variety of sounds — from animals, people, nature — many of them recorded in the Greater Yellowstone area.

“We think this is important because sound is such an important communication mechanism for all creatures,” Arlitsch said.

He also noted that with increasing development, the soundscapes are constantly changing with the intrusion of noises like highway traffic or planes flying overhead.

“It’s getting difficult to find places without intrusions,” Arlitsch said, just as it’s hard to find night skies unadulterated by electric lights.

University host

The MSU site hosts a variety of sounds made by wildlife — including the kazoolike whine of a pika — as well as ambient sounds from nature such as a boiling geothermal feature in Yellowstone National Park.

It also contains interviews, such as the odd one with Howard Spangler explaining how he has learned to record ant sounds by holding the insects gently between his teeth.

“There are very few sound atlases,” Arlitsch said. “And most of them tend to be general in scope.”

He’s hoping the one based at MSU will be more specific to the Greater Yellowstone area. But that will take time. Right now, the site is pretty small, with a catalog of only 30 sounds. Hundreds of other recordings are in a queue waiting to be modified for the website.

The sound files are fairly short and contain a description of where the sound was recorded and the equipment used to make the recording, a map and a photograph.

Local sounds

Many of the sounds were recorded by Jeff Rice, director of the MSU program, as well as a sound recordist and primary content producer.

Arlitsch partnered with Rice to develop a similar audio archive at the University of Utah — the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Western Soundscape Archive.

With the help of a three-year federal grant, the Utah archive grew to about 2,500 sound files.

“We hope to attract funding for infrastructure and trips to add to the (MSU) library, too,” Arlitsch said.

Rice said the MSU program will involve a lot of different people in recording sounds, because some of them — especially mammal and reptile sounds — can be difficult to capture.

“If you’re going for a particularly rare species, you could spend a lot of time to try to get a 30-second clip,” Rice said.

The payoff for all that time spent in the field is that sometimes recordists will pick up sounds they never expected to hear, he added.

Even though the Utah project contained thousands of sounds, Rice said the MSU files will still be unique.

“Every place has its own sound signature,” Rice said. “Every place is worthy of its own study and sound collection. This will be sounds that are meaningful to people in Montana and the West.”

Other possibilities

The National Park Service has contributed some recordings to the Acoustic Atlas. MSU’s librarians and staff help by formatting the information and adding context to the website’s information. MSU maintains the website and provides the hardware and software needed to stream the audio across the Internet.

Arlitsch sees other possibilities for the audio archive.

“It’s not just about recording an elk,” Arlitsch said.

“You could record different seasons, different times of day and record ambient sounds as well, like the way a stream sounds.”

He said he’d like to see the library’s fly-fishing collection digitized and melded with the sounds of a particular stream and maybe even the sound of an angler casting, creating a virtual experience.

“So, there are a lot of possibilities for creating an archive of sound,” Arlitsch said.

Rice agreed.

“As far as sound recording goes, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg, especially online,” he said. “There are great resources out there, like Cornell’s bird sounds, but nobody can have a complete collection.

“Even birds will sing in dialects. So if you have a recording of a white-crowned sparrow, that species can have a different sound signature only a mile away. So even if you make one recording of a white-crowned sparrow, you’re not going to have all of the sounds it makes.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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