Gordon Hempton was 27 when he had the epiphany that would change his life. He was on a cross-country drive and, aiming to save the cost of a motel, stopped for the night to sleep between two rows of stalks in a desolate Iowa cornfield. He was lying on his back, just looking at the stars, when he heard a rumbling thunderstorm rolling in. He never got up to take cover from the hammering rain that eventually washed over him. The sound of it all—the thunderclaps, the raindrops hitting the earth beside his ears—was too riveting. That’s when he thought: How can I be 27 years old and never have really listened before?
Fast-forward three decades, and Hempton is now known as the Emmy Award-winning acoustic ecologist affectionately christened “the sound tracker.” His audio recordings, from waves crashing against giant driftwood logs in the Pacific Northwest to frog mating calls in remote stretches of the Amazon, have been used in computer games, phone apps, films, and musical scores. They’ve been sold on iTunes and curated in museums and zoos. His Emmy win for an “environmental sound portrait” called “Vanishing Dawn Chorus” captured the sound of the sunrise on six different continents.
It’s “natural quiet”—not the absence of sound, but the absence of noise—that calls to Hempton most. “In a naturally quiet place, the experience of listening is not just about the sound, it’s about the place. The longer that I’m in a quiet place, the more I feel a part of it.”
This kind of silence is an endangered species, Hempton says, and the constant din of the populated world is making us terrible listeners. We’re taught from an early age to filter out sound when our first teacher says, “Class, class, class. Listen.” Hempton says, “We learn that listening means not listening but filtering out all those things we determine to be unimportant and only hearing what is deemed important.”
But the world—what Hempton refers to as a “solar-powered jukebox”—is full of incredible and important sounds. “Not all animals have the ability to see. Sight is not a requirement to be an animal species on planet Earth. But hearing is. That’s essential to survival. Eyelids are common. We can turn off sight. But not once in the fossil record did any species begin to attempt to evolve flaps.” Sight, says Hempton, “is generally a luxury.”
So how do we become better listeners to truly hear it all? Well, technology helps. “If you hold a microphone in your hands and listen through headphones, you will hear everything with equal importance,” says Hempton. “The brain says, ‘This is important!’ and the brain will not filter it out.”
Digital audio recorder
Hempton does an experiment with all of his students, lecturing them with insights he’s gained over the years: how different stones in a creek offer distinct tones, no two alike, and how each species of tree makes a different sound in the wind. Needle leaf trees, for example: “The pitch they make in the wind is a function of needle length,” he says. The lesson never lands at first. That all changes once students break out the recorders.
“The first thing that happens when they turn on the device is that they can’t believe how real it is. Listening through the device is more real, they’re thinking, than real life. They’re hearing so much more going on around them than before they turned on the device.” The “magic show,” as Hempton calls it, is that once they turn off their recorders, they can still hear all of the new sounds the recorder revealed to them. “It should be a 10-minute exercise, but people want to play with it all day.”
And you don’t have to drop a tremendous amount of money to get a quality digital recorder—around $200 will do it. Hempton recommends recorders equipped with low-noise microphones. “Most recorders are designed to record human voice, and that’s a very loud signal, but you want a device that will be able to record faint sounds.”
When you go on a “sound safari,” experiment with where you place the recorder. “Holding your device really close to water moving around a stone in a stream, you can appreciate how by moving your hand in different positions, and how moving 1 inch one way or another, really makes a substantial difference in the sound. A close study reveals so much more information.”
Headphones or earbuds
You could use the earbuds that came with your iPhone, sure, but they don’t reproduce subtle, low sounds very well, says Hempton. They’re designed for voice. Earbuds or headphones that are designed for music are the way to go. Hempton prefers Etymotic earbuds and uses Etymotic when he’s out in the wilderness. “They’re very detailed, very accurate, and because they go inside the ear and with a good fit, you’ll be able to study the sounds much closer.”
One of the biggest technical problems in outdoor sound recording is wind. The ear is very sensitive, and so are the microphones—you can think of them as your ears, says Hempton. “They want to be able to register these rapid changes in pressure, and as soon as we throw the slightest breeze into the formula, it’s like the ocean wave just crushed the ripple.”
The answer? A windscreen will shield the hissing sound, and cover the microphone while still allowing you to control settings and levels on the recorder. But Hempton actually prefers a lower-tech solution: “A wool sock works great. And don’t worry about adjusting the settings. Once you get the sock in position, keep the settings the same, and move around and explore your environment—get close to the sounds you like.”
Mixcraft Studio, Pro Tools, Sound Forge—the list of audio mixing software goes on and on, and pretty much anything set up for mixing multiple tracks will do the job just fine. Hempton’s position is that it’s what you get in the wild that makes the best final product. And he has some counterintuitive advice for that. “It’s not necessarily about the sound; it’s about the feeling, it’s about the space. Once you get going, let your ears hear the sound, but pay attention to your feelings. Every sound has an emotion. If you find that it feels like work, you’re doing it wrong. Is your energy in your head like you’re taking a math test? Remind yourself: It’s about how certain sounds are beautiful and how we appreciate that beauty. Follow your instincts.”
Journalist Bryan Schatz writes about outcasts, miscreants, and society’s more unsavory fringes for Mother Jones magazine. He’s currently based in California.
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