The Birth of Wildlife Sound Recording
research by Cheryl Tipp
The sole function of the earliest published wildlife recordings was to entertain and amaze the listener and this general purpose was sustained until the early 1930s when the first identification guides came onto the market. The role of the identification guide was to aid both the amateur and professional ornithologist in learning to recognise the songs and calls of commonly heard species. The first collection of wild bird recordings to be brought together on one disc was ‘Bird Songs Recorded from Nature’ by Albert. R. Brand and M. Peter Keane, released in the USA in 1931. Brand came to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1929 after leaving his job as a broker on the New York Stock Exchange. Studying ornithology under the lab’s founder, Dr Arthur Allen, allowed Brand to pursue his interest in sound recording and together with undergraduate Peter Keane, they began to build up a collection of American bird voices. Cornell would go on to produce notable North American field guides such as the six disc set ‘American Bird Songs’ which was released in 1942.
Another pioneer field recordist was the self-taught Danish ornithologist Carl Weismann. During his lifetime, Weismann recorded a wealth of material and published a number of recordings, many through his own record label. In the early 1930s, Weismann approached the recently founded Dansk Stats Radiofonien (Danish State Radio) and enquired as to whether they possessed equipment that would be suitable for recording wildlife in the field. As wildlife sound recording was still largely unexplored at the time, Weismann must have put forward a convincing argument because the following spring saw him setting up dynamic microphones in the Danish countryside. Microphone signals were transmitted to a radio studio via telegraph wires which ran alongside a railway line and cut into wax discs which would later be used to create permanent records of Weismann’s efforts. The Thrush Nightingale was the first species to be immortalised using this method and many more birds were to follow over the coming years.
Five discs were published as an untitled set at the end of 1934 and distributed to schools across Denmark. Weismann would go on to compile an impressive collection of wildlife recordings, many of which were published on the Carl Weismann record label. ‘Voice Recordings of Danish Birds’ was a collection of eleven discs released from 1939-1955, which featured 66 species and introduced the concept of geographical variation within the songs of birds such as the Yellowhammer and Chaffinch.
Weismann produced other identification guides that covered a range of birds, mammals and amphibians as well as discs specifically aimed at children. Weismann’s singing dog orchestra is perhaps his best known achievement outside of the ornithological community, with ‘The Singing Dogs’ making it to number 22 on the Billboard chart in 1955.
Ludwig Koch had begun his wildlife recording career in Germany, working with Berlin Zoological Gardens Director, Lutz Heck, on ‘Schrei der Steppe’ (1933) and ‘Der Wald Erschallt’ (1934). In 1935 Koch worked with ornithologist Dr Oskar Heinroth on ‘Gefiederte Meistersänger’, which comprised three double-sided discs featuring the songs and, in several cases, the calls of twenty five German birds. The discs were accompanied by a ninety-six page illustrated book which provided in depth information on each species. A second three disc volume was released by Heinroth in 1937, at which point Koch had fled Nazi Germany and taken up residence in the UK.
Shortly after his arrival, Koch was introduced to the well known publisher Harry Witherby, and alongside ornithologist Max Nicholson, the trio began work on a sound guide to the voices of common British birds. ‘Songs of Wild Birds’ was released in 1936 (Figure 3) and was the first of several notable identification guides to be championed by Koch. ‘More Songs of Wild Birds’ was released in 1937 and the four disc set ‘Songs of British Birds’ appeared in 1953. This guide, produced in collaboration with the BBC, was the first to group species according to habitat.
The Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (Radiojanst, then Sveriges Radio), began a programme of natural history location recording at the beginning of 1925. The aim was to compile a collection of Swedish bird recordings for broadcasts and publication that would encourage a greater appreciation and interest in the natural world. The first publications to be compiled were a series of five double-sided discs that featured twenty three common bird species including the Skylark, Blackbird and Cuckoo. The discs were prepared specifically for Swedish schools and were available by December 1937. A Marconi steel tape recorder was used to make these initial recordings as it allowed up to thirty minutes of uninterrupted recording. Useful segments from that thirty minute window of sound could then be copied on to disc.
In 1938, Radiojanst obtained its first mobile recording van and this signalled the beginning of an immense recording programme undertaken by Gunnar Lekander and Sture Palmér which resulted in no less than sixty five discs containing the voices of one hundred eighty three species being released from 1938 to 1956.
Tsuruhiko Kabaya and Kasuke Hoshino were responsible for the first published collection of bird sounds from the Palearctic region to be recorded outside Europe. ‘Japanese Bird Songs’ was published in 1954 by the Japanese Victor Company and comprised nine discs of vocalisations and general bird choruses.
Witherby’s Sound-Guide to British Birds was the greatest achievement in avian identification guides when it was published in 1958. The compilation consisted of thirteen double-sided discs featuring one hundred ninety four species (over three hundred individual recordings) and became the first comprehensive guide to British bird vocalisations. Myles North and Eric Simms (the then Director of wildlife sound recording projects at the BBC) co-authored the set and together produced one of the finest natural history publications ever released. Broadcaster and naturalist James Fisher described the collection as being “a milestone on the golden road of ornithology” and represented “the most important instrument for the advance of our art, sport and science that has been made since the Handbook of British Birds appeared in 1938-41.”
The Demise of the 78
After a life span of around fifty years, the 78 rpm disc was gradually replaced by newer formats that offered features such as improved signal to noise ratio, wider frequency and dynamic range, longer playing times and increased substrate flexibility. By 1960 the gramophone record was largely out of production and the era of the 78 had come to an end.
Commercial wildlife recordings have their place in the history of recorded sound and are as valid as any other genre when it comes to documenting technological developments, expressing the change in popular tastes and demonstrating the continued evolution of an audio field.