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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Hi Lang! I just happened to stumble on your post while searching for something else, and being a lover of catbirds, I was drawn in to what you were developing. I have several bird feeders set up specifically to attract catbirds to my yard because I love to hear their seldom heard song. Most birders I know think the catbird only makes the sound for which it is named, the raspy, mewing sound, similar to the sound made by a cat. Of course, as you and at least some of your readers know, this bird is capable of making beautiful… Read more »
Alan: Glad that you like it. It represents an earnest attempt to re-construct and share the magic of that night, in 3D sound. Modern editing technology is really quite amazing and I’m excited by the potential of breathing new life into many of my old monaural recordings, gathered during the early days of my nature recording career (when I crept around with a small parabola, working hard to sneak up on sound-makers).
Super article Lang! What’s interesting here is had you not explained the story behind the revisited version, and just shared those as a binaural soundscape, I don’t think anyone would have realised this is in fact a montage of different recordings, taken years apart and at different locations. So all credit to you for your mixing skills!
As for my preference, the 2nd version seems a better match in terms of the overall space and mix.
Thanks Colin. The technology for spatializing monaural “sound object” recordings is really quite amazing and will allow me to create educational productions in ways I only could dream of in the past, when all that was feasible was to crossfade from one recording to another (or to employ layering, which muddies the ambience). Now I can cleanly extract particular nature sound objects (like a singing bird) and then orchestrate an experience where the background ambience remains constant. I’m not too worried about the ethics involved, simply because I wouldn’t claim that the audio is a “real time-based recording”. Rather, it… Read more »
That was quite interesting. Thanks for all your time and dedication to bring it to our ears! I enjoyed both the close and distant, but think the close one did exactly that, brought it closer to my ears as though I was in the thick of that night listening live right there with you.
Thanks for your comment Diana. It seems to be a tossup, some preferring the close example and others the more distant and reverberant one.
Great recordings, Lang. I prefer the more distant one which amplifies the frogs and
attenuates a tad the sometimes harsh catbird. A marvelous acoustic experience!
By the by, what camera and settings did you use for the catbird-moon shot?
Michael: Glad you like it! I too prefer the more distant version. As for the “art representation” image, the catbird silhouette is from a video I made featuring a catbird singing at dawn (from which I fashioned the silhouette). The full moon and clouds background is not my own; it’s from a Shutterstock image I purchased many years ago.
I just want to let you know how grateful I am for all that you do! Really enjoy listening and reading your blog.
Thank you Michele!
The first one, “close” is lovely and had there not been an alternative, I would’ve been happy with it. But, the second one with more of the weird grinding, surging, frogs(?) in it is spectacular!
The idea of mixing monaural tracks to make symphonic soundscapes for art is wonderful, please mix a bunch of them, make wild mixes–just don’t call them science. They’re not documentary, so don’t have that value. The mixes would be your music, your art, for our enjoyment, entertainment, inspiration–all good stuff to have in addition to the science.
Steve: I view this work as an instructive intersection of science, natural history, education, art, aesthetics, and the human emotional experience of nature. I don’t see it as a black-and-white science/art dichotomy. Interestingly, the catbird’s song in all cases is the actual bird I recorded at that time and place. I’m only fiddling with spatialization of that song, plus replacing the background with another, similar one. All the nature sounds are “real recordings,” none being synthesized. My main purpose for this kind of work has more to do with education and human emotions that anything else. My desire is to… Read more »
I like the 2nd one best. I like both but #2 is the best.
I can definitely hear the difference with headphones, each one is distinctive. Of the two new versions, I prefer the first with the bird ‘closer’ …the second, more ‘distant’ one sounds like it is in a room, not outdoors. Tech is amazing!
Eliza: This is so funny. A close friend (who is a topnotch birder and sound recordist) suggested I add reverb to the second one … which I did, even though I didn’t think it necessary. I’ve closely studied many of my binaural soundscapes recordings and find that reverberation varies considerably, depending on surroundings. The more trees, the more reflections. Distant hills create echoes with a noticeable delay. In all cases, even with close singers, one can discern the taile-end “smudge” on a sonogram, the smudge being reverberance. Recording with a parabola from within thirty feet will depress natural reverb due… Read more »
Eliza: I re-did the version where the catbird is further away, reducing the reverb somewhat. I do believe it sounds better, more natural. What do you think?
Much improved to my ear. The frogs make a nice accompaniment.
I prefer the second one, thanks for sharing.
It’s the Marsh Symphony Orchestra playing the Catbird Concerto! Aka the reborn close version. Or I can hear the more distant version played by a string ensemble of basses and cellos, with violin soloist. Amazing! I attended a chamber concert yesterday which included a very modern piece, quite exciting and new to my more traditional classical music ear, and it was amazing how this marsh recording immediately evoked yesterday’s music. Do you know of anyone who has transcribed into musical notation any of your recordings? Is this a wacko idea, heretical? Anyway, it’s always a great joy to listen to… Read more »
Judy: An old book by F. Schuyler Mathews immediately comes to mind: Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music. It’s a classic and is chock-full of musical nomenclature for bird song.
Amazing! Can’t wait to check it out. Thanks so much
Just ordered it through interlibrary loan from Massachusetts Commonwealth Catalog–another reason to love public libraries.
ps. Nobody has transformed my particular recordings, although it is easy to generate spectrograms using modern software. The problem with musical nomenclature is that it cannot faithfully capture song aspects that are not tonal or melodic or that are super-complex in frequency structure.
Of course, and really why would you want to transform them, other than a curiosity or academic exercise when the real music is so thrilling. I was so taken by the symphonic nature of this recording my brain veered into the “I wonder” land. Thanks for joining me there 🙂
Hello Lang. Thanks for posting this recording, Catbird night song. It is interesting what you have done with it. I listened to all three versions with headphones. The mono file sounds almost stereo to me with the frogs sounding far left in my headphones, not sure why. I am not a fan of heavy processing of recordings and mixing, the reason is that it creates a sort of fiction, having said that the results are really good. On phones the bird in the stereo mixes sound a bit ‘bitten’ into, like it was processed, which in a way it was. The second mix sounds a little bit… Read more »
The page design is definitely reminiscent of Evening in Sapsucker Woods! As for your comments, I fully appreciate and understand them. It would be interesting sometime to do a test to see if listeners can distinguish actual from simulated binaural. If one is biased at the outset and told which ones are simulations, one is more likely to hear something wrong (I know this from experience). Also note that in binaural soundscapes, harmonics are much more subdued than they are in parabolic recordings (why … well because the parabola itself boosts high frequencies much more than lower frequencies, thereby boosting… Read more »
Brilliant, Lang, for patiently communing with Nature and Technology!
Fabulous … I like the more-distant one better but would add a touch of slighter longer reverb to it (a mono-to-stereo one, ideally) to add richness to the relatively short reverb time in the original recording. It also looks like the levels could be re-normalized to, say -6dB again after applying the reverb. Happy to send you a sample snippet of what I have in my mind’s ear, if you like! (:–})
One other friend suggested more reverb on the distant one, so I boosted it a bit before publishing. So maybe I’ll add even more. I was trying to be careful not to overdo it. Low-pitched vocalizations such as owl hoots tend to have a lot of reverb because the low pitched don’t attenuate much with distance. Higher pitched bird songs have a little less reverb overall when distant, but often quite a bit more than one might anticipate.
p.s. yes, please send me a sample. When you say normalized, you just mean the second recording should maybe be boosted in volume a bit? I tried to balance all three recordings volume-wise, so that listeners wouldn’t be tempted to change playback volumes.
Yes, I’m emailing you an example now.
I prefer the second one…loved it!
Yes, me too … the second one (of the two transformed versions) is the most pleasing, I think, although a birder friend of mine seemed to prefer the first one.
Your work is amazing, as usual. All three recordings have their own charm, but my favorite is the third, partly because I think the various sounds balance the best and I love hearing the frogs more clearly.
The magic of that night, the magic of the 30 years older Lang, and the 30 years older technology. Beside the artistic rendering of those photos, did you write that Poem?
Yes, my poem.
This is wonderful–so immediate!
But did you compare the original with the spatialize versions, using headphones? The original monaural recording is actually the most immediate in terms of sounding very close. But there’s no inherent spaciousness, which is where the “life” resides.
Great job, Lang. I like the distant recording a teeny bit better. Both are truly lovely.
I too like the more distant one and may even create another where the bird is even further away. As you’e already aware, I’m quite thrilled to be able to take an old monaural recording and breath multidimensional life into it. Imagine all the lovely things one can do with the technology … such as constructing “bird walks” and having lots of control over both the birds (exactly when one sings and whether or not it is close or far) and the backgrounds (such as keeping a background more or less consistent throughout a portion of the bird walk).
What magic you have accomplished! The new sound is so much more complete. When I was a little girl I slept on a sleeping porch on hot summer nights. I was shielded from the early morning sun by lilac bushes — which the catbirds loved. I’m sure you can you imagine waking up to catbirds singing!
They are definitely an early singer, one of the first species to pipe up around first light (though usually preceded by robins). They also sing at dusk. Night-singing is much more rare, unfortunately, but there is mention of it in the scientific literature (though no scientist has actually studied it).
Love it — and wonder what that Catbird is saying, to whom!
Hi Mary. Glad that you like it, but I’m wondering what “it” refers to? Were you able to listen with headphones and compare my original monaural recording with my two “binauralized” examples? And if you did, which of the two transformed recordings did you like the best? And why?
p.s. The biological explanation is that unmated males are more likely to sing at night, especially early in the breeding season (late May being rather late in this respect). Mockingbird males do the same when unmated. Is this explanation proven? I doubt it, but it seems logical, I suppose.