Catbird Night Song Reborn
Catbird silhouetted against the full moon – art representation by Lang Elliott
The night unfolds, the bullfrogs boom
Bellows, croaks, bestir the pond
Then midnight strikes, and none too soon
The catbird clears his wakened throat
And pipes a chant that quells the gloom
And thrills the shadows of the moon …
Catbird Night Song – The Birth
I well remember that night, even though it was 30 years ago. It was the 29th of May, 1991, here in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. At dusk, with a full moon rising, I drove to nearby Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area and soon homed-in on a marshy area at the edge the forest. It was warm and sultry, and the resident bullfrogs and green frogs were croaking and bellowing in good form.
Excited at the prospects, I spent several hours gathering closeup stereo recordings of individual frogs as well moving farther away to capture the whole. By midnight, I had pretty much exhausted possibilities, so I headed back to my car. I quickly loaded my gear and was almost ready to depart when I heard a bird singing … melodic whistled phrases, barely audible, coming from several hundred feet down the road.
Hoping to get a close and clean recording of the mystery night-singer, I grabbed my parabolic microphone and scurried down the moonlit road. As I drew closer I realized that the musician was a Gray Catbird, a species I had never heard singing at night. I crept slowly forward until I was very close to the bird, which was sounding off from a thick patch of sumac, his form silhouetted by the moonlight. I aimed my parabola and hit the record button. Ah … the sweetness of success …
I was enraptured by the male’s song, which had a pleasing, melancholic quality, enlivened by the chorus of frogs in the background. I stood motionless, transfixed. The scene, the sounds … so wondrous and sublime. I felt a rush of emotion, fully aware of how special this moment was and how lucky I was to be there, experiencing and documenting it.
But there was a problem, a BIG problem for me as a professional nature recordist … I was capturing an extraordinary, spacious soundscape with a “monaural”, single-microphone parabola, which would not, could not capture the multi-dimensional magic of the moment. The pain of that realization swept over me, but I kept recording nonetheless. What else was I to do?
My recording of the catbird night song is featured below. As you will note, the parabola functioned exactly as it was meant to, amplifying the song and isolating it to a great degree from its surroundings. The result is close, clean and sharp, but devoid of the immersive realism of dimensional space. Listen for yourself, but be sure to use headphones; otherwise you won’t hear what I’m talking about:
Such a disappointment! I remember being impressed by the wide sound-stage, and muttering silently to myself: “Lang, why on earth didn’t you grab your stereo mic instead?” I actually considered running back to my car, but moments later the catbird quit singing and vanished into the night. I waited around for another hour or so, hoping for another chance, but the catbird didn’t sound off again. So I wearily headed home, glad that I captured the event, but unhappy and frustrated about my choice of microphones.
For thirty years now, I’ve kept my ears tuned for another night-singing catbird, hoping for another chance to capture the magic, but recorded more appropriately as a spacious 3D soundscape. I’ve heard a few, sounding off in the distance, but upon approach they invariably quit singing. And now, at age 73, I’m acutely aware that my time is running out and I may not get another chance!
Woe is me, BUT ALL IS NOT LOST, because, remarkably, I am now able to recover that long-ago moment in full binaural sound, with the help of none other than … modern technology! And that, my friend, is the point of the title of this post … Catbird Night Song “Reborn”. So here is the rest of the story …
Catbird Night Song – The Rebirth
Such good news! Technology now allows me to take a monaural, single-channel parabolic recording of a bird’s song, such as that of the catbird, and then eliminate the background noise and isolate the song from its surroundings. What’s more, with the help of modern spatialization software, I can then add the “extracted” song to an appropriate ambient binaural background and “spatialize” it so that it blends naturally with the ambience and sounds like it’s really out there in nature. Carefully executed, the results can be extraordinary.
So I’ve now done this with my catbird recording, in an attempt to recreate and share the magic of my experience thirty years ago. To accomplish this, I had to find an appropriate background. Unfortunately, the stereo recordings of frogs that I made on that same night were all too close and too loud to use … I needed a background that was more ambient and distant. Searching my collection, I soon discovered a pleasing binaural recording of a similar marshy area that I captured in the same region several years later. It sounds a lot like the frog chorus in my original catbird recording, certainly close enough to produce an acceptable result, more-or-less faithful to the original sound event.
So here it is folks … the night-singing catbird I recorded in 1991, brought to life in spacious 3D binaural sound. I’ve produced two versions. In the first one, I’ve placed the catbird front and center and very close-by, much the same as it is in my original recording. In the second example, I’ve moved the catbird farther away, to produce a gentler and perhaps more pleasing and enchanting listening experience. Which one do you like best? Be sure to listen using headphones!
So there you have it … Catbird Night Song Reborn. I hope you appreciate my attempt to re-birth my experience from thirty years ago, and share the magic of that special moment.
Let me know what you think about my reborn recordings and your feelings about the whole idea in general … meaning that of “re-birthing” old monaural recordings in an attempt to transform them into spacious binaural listening experiences that have stronger aesthetic appeal and are better able to draw the listener into the miracle of the natural world.
As always, I truly appreciate your feedback, so I encourage you to leave a comment below.
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