DONNA GOSS: Hello, and welcome to this edition of staff notes. I'm Donna Goss, and I'm here today with Greg Budney, who is the curator of audio at the laboratory of Ornithology. Hi, Greg.
GREG BUDNEY: Hi, Donna.
DONNA GOSS: Thanks for joining us today.
GREG BUDNEY: My pleasure welcome to the Macaulay library.
DONNA GOSS: And where are we standing? In the middle of, it looks like, a library of some sort.
GREG BUDNEY: This is our central area where we keep our original data records, our extensive collection of audio guides, and a very nice display of reel to reel onto cassette audio recording technology. Actually, the last couple of machines are early DAT recorders, digital audio tape machines.
DONNA GOSS: So what happens with the recordings that are on these old reel to reel tapes? I mean, we don't do much reel to reel playing anymore, do we?
GREG BUDNEY: We don't. And the library is, right now, in the throes of converting all of those reel to reel analog recordings to a digital format.
DONNA GOSS: OK, can you show me how we do that?
GREG BUDNEY: If you'd come with me, I'd be happy to.
DONNA GOSS: Great
GREG BUDNEY: So have you been here before?
DONNA GOSS: I've only been here once before.
GREG BUDNEY: We're going to go right in there. So welcome to our collection storage area.
DONNA GOSS: Wow, OK. So what do we have in this area.
GREG BUDNEY: This is our climate controlled storage area where we keep our original analog recordings, both audio and video. Around the perimeter of this room our video tapes, both analog originals and digitally based videotapes. The video collection has about 60,000 individual clips. Audio about 185,000 clips.
DONNA GOSS: So tell me what these clips are used for. What kinds of applications do we have for these?
GREG BUDNEY: A whole host of uses for this material. The video clips are fantastic resources for people who study animal behavior. You might be looking at how birds fly. It could be visual signals, such as colorful patches, wing bars, iridescent throat patches. It allows researchers to look at the behaviors associated with those particular feather patterns.
The audio collection is used for similar purposes. You might look at vocalizations associated with a particular type of behavior. Many birds, what we call suboscines, things like flycatchers that you can find right around here in Ithaca, have genetically based songs. And if you have two birds that look very similar, perhaps almost identical in the hand, one way to separate them is by their vocalizations. So sound can be a window into the genetic makeup of some species.
Other species learn their songs. So researchers who were interested in how the brain functions might be looking at song learning, which has relevance to human speech. The neurobiology associated with birdsong learning is very, very similar to the human endocrine system. And so many people who are embarking upon research in endocrinology will also look at the neural system of birds because so much work has been done. There's a tremendous amount of knowledge which can be applicable to these other studies.
DONNA GOSS: So some bird songs are innate. In other words, it's just part of their makeup. And then other bird songs are learned as they listen to other birds. Is that the way I am understanding it?
GREG BUDNEY: That's right. Well done. And some of the birds around here that learn songs are things like chickadees, American robin, a mockingbird. And of course a mockingbird is an open ended learner. A male mockingbird continues to learn or acquire new sounds throughout its life.
And one of the theories as to why the mockingbird does this is to demonstrate its fitness to a potential mate. The larger the repertoire, the longer this bird has been around. And a young male is going to have a very limited repertoire. And therefore when it sings, it's pretty obvious to a potential mate that this kid might not have the stuff.
DONNA GOSS: So Greg, what are these stats that are in front of us here?
GREG BUDNEY: Our compactor system is used to house all of the fully archived analog recordings, reel to reel recordings. And then off to the right in the compactor are source recordings that have come in over the last 40 or 50 years from a variety of contributors.
DONNA GOSS: So there are recordings here, let me understand, that they are at least 50 years old?
GREG BUDNEY: Yes.
DONNA GOSS: Wow. And how does the tape hold? Have they started to disintegrate? Has that been a problem?
GREG BUDNEY: Reel to reel media it is actually remarkably robust. Some of the older recordings are in very playable condition. The trick is keeping them stored under climate controlled conditions.
When tapes are stored in conditions other than climate control, they go through mechanical stretching, flexing, and the oxide can fall off. With more modern tape stocks, there's actually a problem across the whole spectrum of manufacturers where the tape can become sticky. And to restore it to a playable condition, one actually has to bake it in a convection oven.
DONNA GOSS: So in these archives do you have bird sounds that are not available anywhere else? Is this like the only place on Earth we might be able to hear a particular bird?
GREG BUDNEY: There are unique ones. There are recordings that don't exist anywhere else, including recordings of extinct species.
DONNA GOSS: Can toy find one for us?
GREG BUDNEY: Absolutely, absolutely. So this species, Moho braccatus, which is the scientific name, is the Kaua'i O'o. All of the major islands in Hawaii used to have an O'o, And the only one that survived into the 20th century was the Kaua'i O'o. And this recording, actually several recordings, were made in 1975 by some of our collaborators, various institutions. Unfortunately, the last Kaua'i O'o was heard in the mid-1980s.
DONNA GOSS: Oh my goodness.
GREG BUDNEY: And this is a voice that one can no longer hear other than through a recording.
DONNA GOSS: So are we considering this bird now extinct? How long do we not hear from a bird before we consider?
GREG BUDNEY: This bird is considered extinct. And it has a stunningly beautiful voice. In fact, members of a pair would duet. What you hear in one of these last recordings is the song of one member of a pair singing in anticipation of a response from a mate.
DONNA GOSS: And there's no response?
GREG BUDNEY: It's not forthcoming.
DONNA GOSS: That's just too sad.
DONNA GOSS: So Greg, we have this big collection here in this room of audio and video. And tell me, how is it cataloged? How are you able to find these reel to reels and different clips that you have?
GREG BUDNEY: Well, you saw the analog, the white 7 inch reel boxes. So in the analog days we would physically cut up copies that have been made. So we would produce a copy from an original field tape and it might have, in random order, a blue jay a cardinal, a black-capped chickadee. And then we'd physically cut the blue jay recording off and add it to a white reel box like we just pulled off the shelf. So that all the blue jays are in the same location.
We're in the process right now of digitizing the entire collection. And in that process, we take those reel to reel tapes and convert the audio into a digital stream, which archivists then parse out. They actually cut up a digital waveform using computer-based sound editing tools.
And the blue jay is stored as a separate blue jay recording. And they no longer have to be stored in one place. They can be spread across a variety of hard drives, a range of hard drives, and yet they're all instantly accessible. In the old days we were trying to get everything physically in one spot, so then we had to go get all the blue jay recordings out of the collection storage, you just went to one place.
DONNA GOSS: So can you tell me or can you show us where some of this editing takes place?
GREG BUDNEY: Sure, happy to do so. This is Tom Bigliato, one of the video staff. He's the collections manager. And Tom is right now parsing up some birds of paradise. Really spectacular birds from New Guinea.
DONNA GOSS: So I see he two screens going there. He's got a bunch of data on one of the screens. Can you tell me what that represents?
GREG BUDNEY: What Tom has is a stream of original video. And he's now taking that video stream and cutting it up into the individual specimens that a researcher or an educator could then access through our web based system or by ordering selected cuts.
Along with every video and audio recording, we keep metadata which tells you the name of the species, the behavior that's observed during the recording, the location where it was made, the type of equipment used. All of the basic information that can help a researcher in the investigation of animal behavior, or taxonomic relationships, or if you're an educator and you want to present material from a particular area.
DONNA GOSS: Great.
GREG BUDNEY: There are two studios dedicated to video archival. And then we have six audio studios that handle incoming material. The audio collection has a somewhat longer history. Video has been running for about eight, nine years now. Audio goes back to about 1930.
DONNA GOSS: You were telling me about some of the original recordings that were done on records. There's a patron that was way back in the early 1900s who was instrumental in that. Can you tell us about that?
GREG BUDNEY: Right. Albert Brand. Albert Brand had pursued a career as a stockbroker. And I think it was about age 34 sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange in May of 1929 and came to Cornell to pursue a PhD. And we all know what happened in November.
DONNA GOSS: Interesting time, Yes.
GREG BUDNEY: And it was Albert Brand's financial wherewithal that made it possible for Allen and Kellogg, founders the lab of Ornithology, to pursue the desire to document the sounds of birds. And they did so with sound recording equipment. And used the soundtrack of film, and it was a recent development. It had just come out in about 1929. That's when the talkies came out.
And it was with Albert Brand's assistance and through his studious work that they began to make recordings of bird sounds in North America. So Albert Brand is a superb example of a man coming to an institution where anyone can study any subject.
DONNA GOSS: So Greg, what else happens down this hallway? I know there's a lot of archiving and cataloging that goes on for both the video and audio.
GREG BUDNEY: Well, this is really the heart of the operation. This is where it takes place. In the audio archival studios people are taking raw material, which is stored in the collection area adjacent to the reel to reel archive material you saw. They bring the raw material in here and they can play back a wide variety of formats-- analog, cassette, reel to reel. A whole host of reel to reel formats. Digital tapes, and also now digitally born material that may come in through an FTP server. They log the material in and then begin the process of actually cutting up digital streams that they either generate from the analog source material or from digitally born material that comes in.
DONNA GOSS: Now I know you have a lot of volunteers here at the lab. So how do they record their sounds and then submit them to you for the library and ultimately to archive?
GREG BUDNEY: There's a long history of volunteer contributions to the Macaulay library. It's really, since its beginnings, has been a collaboration between the scientific community and the volunteer community. In fact, some of the finest material we have has actually been recorded by volunteers. They're not up against the same timetable as a researcher who has to get as many samples as possible.
And a volunteer will stay with an individual bird until everything coalesces. And then they get that perfect one minute of song. Or if the bird continues to sing, we may end up with 30, 40, 50 minutes of really superb fidelity material. The material comes in in a variety of formats. It can be through the mail, but now quite frequently by FTP server.
So that's fantastic for us because we're able to swing the doors open on a collection in this digital world that we live in now. Not only in terms of access. Someone can go to the web and listen to the recordings. But the same is true for obtaining material. And that's allowing us to much more effectively interact with people in Africa, and South America, Southeast Asia, where we have a host of volunteer contributors.
DONNA GOSS: So can we walk down the hall a little bit to see what else is going on?
GREG BUDNEY: Sure.
DONNA GOSS: Great. So what happens. Martha is an audio archivist of the natural sounds, and tell us what?
GREG BUDNEY: So Martha, you're one of the individuals who take source recordings, creates a digital stream, and then actually generates the digital specimens, right?
MARTHA: That's right. And I transfer either from the Studer here, from analog tapes which I've been doing quite a bit of lately, and digitizing them into our sound editing software, which I'm bringing up here.
DONNA GOSS: Thank you so much for showing us.
MARTHA: Oh, sure. And so a typical day includes taking material and creating digital specimens of each one. And then editing them in a way that takes out clicks and bumps, but doesn't interrupt the time interval between songs and meaningful vocalizations.
DONNA GOSS: So just to try to get the purest sound that you can.
MARTHA: To get as close to what happened in the field as possible. Getting a filtering and so on is the purview of the production and media services, media output people.
GREG BUDNEY: What you should probably just say is you keep it as close to the source recording as possible.
MARTHA: Exactly. And then also at the same time I'm doing this part. Then I come over here and either create data or fill in a data form that says who the recordist was, date, time, location, behavior and so on. And then that becomes available to the public in this form. So they're also able to get to the audio.
DONNA GOSS: So is this archive available to anyone online that goes to this website?
DONNA GOSS: So it's free and able to be used by everyone?
MARTHA: We've got thousands and thousands of recordings that people can check now.
DONNA GOSS: That's great.
MARTHA: Yeah. It's really neat because it used to be we had one person who needed to walk back to the collection room, you were in there, and she'd by hand pick off reels, put them on a Studer, copy them to a cassette, send them through snail mail, and now it's just at your hands, at your fingertips.
DONNA GOSS: Technology has really made a difference.
MARTHA: Yeah, it's really neat.
DONNA GOSS: Martha, thank you so much.
DONNA GOSS: So, Greg we're here in what I think we could safely call the brains of the library system where everything is stored here on these servers. Can you explain some of this system to me?
GREG BUDNEY: This is our RAID 5 storage area network. So this is an array of redundant drives that we store our high resolution audio, video, and then CD quality audio MP3 files on. And the RAID 5 will allow a drive to fail, and the system is basically checking the data integrity all the time, and it can reconstruct.
So it's protection against loss of this valuable information. And on here, as I said, we have the high resolution files, which we consider the deep archive, the most important files. And from those one can generate other types of lower resolution copies. We actually generate them simultaneously to the high resolution files.
This amounts to the output from the archival studios, be they video or audio studios. And the general public can access MP3 files and CD quality files. It would, as my mother would say, take a month of Sundays to get a 9624 high resolution file over the internet. They're just massive files.
And the archived video files are even larger. They take a vast amount of space. Out of the 65 terabytes of storage here, the entire audio collection as it stands now, 110,000 out of 185,000 recordings. But 110,000 recordings occupies 8 and 1/2 terabytes. And then video, a much larger quantity because of the large size of those files.
DONNA GOSS: So with the important data that's stored here, you must have offsite backup that is available so that we don't lose any of this.
GREG BUDNEY: We do, both in terms of independent drives, but we also archive audio files to DVD-ROM which are stored offsite outside of the area. So should anything happen, recordings of extinct species like the Kaua'i O'o and ivory-billed woodpecker, there's another copy. We're can begin again.
DONNA GOSS: Good to know.
So Greg, you've had quite a career here at the lab of Ornithology. When did you first join the lab and Cornell?
GREG BUDNEY: October of 1980.
DONNA GOSS: 1980. So in that course of time, as we think about the years that have gone by, what sort of changes have you seen here? I mean we have this beautiful building now. It was built about 10 years ago, and that must have been a wonderful addition for the folks at the lab to have new facilities.
GREG BUDNEY: It was. The lab had done a phenomenal job under John Fitzpatrick's leadership, Charlie Walker before him. And building the programs to the point where the serious limiting factor was physical space. And the building allowed the lab to really reach potential, at least for year 2010. And now we're in another growth phase.
DONNA GOSS: Right, you've got all of these great spaces that allow you to do editing. We're here in the sound lab and we've talked a little bit. Actually, we focused mostly on the bird sounds and video clips that we have in the library. But there are other animal sounds that you collect as well, is that right?
GREG BUDNEY: There are. I'm glad you mentioned that. Because not obvious to people is that we have one of the larger collections of marine sounds, which include not only marine mammals-- humpback whales, bowhead whales, red whales, minkes, but also many other marine sounds. Most marine fish make sound, so we have a wonderful collection of marine fish sounds.
There are great underwater sounds from seals. What else? Seal underneath the Antarctic ice, bearded seals from underneath the Arctic ice cap. Really spectacular, otherworldly material.
DONNA GOSS: So it's not only research that these sounds are used for, but there are other applications as well. I know that you deal with some folks in Hollywood.
GREG BUDNEY: We do. George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch team. Many of the major sound designers in today's film industry are habitual users of the Macaulay library. We've provided sound for a number of notable films such as Harry Potter, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Poets Society, a whole host of films.
DONNA GOSS: Yeah, I know you were trying to find a dragon noise. What did you come up with for a dragon noise?
GREG BUDNEY: We have a few potential sounds. Randy Tom was the sound designer for How to Train Your Dragon. And Randy called just a few weeks ago. Apparently at work on the next installment in the dragon films, looking for potential dragon sounds. So so far we've pulled up giant anteater, black vulture.
We will probably use some great low frequency sounds. We have some new Asian elephant recordings just made within the last month in Sri Lanka. All of those will be sent off for preview by Randy, and he's looking for more. That won't that won't be enough for Randy.
DONNA GOSS: So Greg, your specific role here at the lab as curator of I/O. Tell me what it is that you actually do.
GREG BUDNEY: I work with the archival team to set priorities. As you saw, there's a wealth of material in there, and each year we're adding between 4,000 and 5,000 new audio specimens. So that requires that we constantly review what our priorities are, because there's more than enough work in any one year.
Looking at what the usage trends are, water priority areas of the world to be working in, if we know there are conservation initiatives underway in a particular part of the world, we want to absolutely be available to support on the ground work by biologists by making sounds available to them. If you've ever spent any time in a tropical forest, one of the things you realize is it's very difficult to see things. But if you know the sounds that tropical wildlife make, you can much more effectively conduct a biological inventory.
That's one of the great things about the collection. We have 80 years worth of collective knowledge from some of the finest field biologists in the world sitting there. And now we have to make it accessible for people who need it, either from pure research or for conservation biologists working on the ground. We need to make the resources of the library, those sound recordings, available to biologists who are trying to train their staff or themselves to identify species by sound so that they can rapidly inventory an area. And make it a very difficult decision in many cases about why preserve one area over another? You're generally looking for the area that harbors the greatest biodiversity.
DONNA GOSS: So with the advances in technology, where do you see the future of the lab going? And how will that influence researchers in the studies that they're pursuing?
GREG BUDNEY: One of the things the lab has done very effectively is harness the volunteer community to become involved in research. They've done that through projects like eBird, Yardbird, a lot of citizen science based projects, Cerulean Warbler project, the Tanager project that it conducted a number of years ago. Those rely in fundamental ways upon volunteers gathering the field data on a scale that really isn't possible by any individual researcher, or even a team of researchers.
So we begin to look at large scale questions and come up with solutions on a landscape basis for dealing effectively with those issues that are identified. On the audio side of things, our specimens are fundamental in training people. Not only here in the US, but also in countries where science is just beginning to grab hold.
In a lot of developing countries they don't have the established scientific community that we have here. And through some of the training that the lab does and that we do specifically in the Macaulay library, we can jump start the process of scientific investigation, biological monitoring. Making the audio recordings that we have from Guatemala available to anyone in Central America-- El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Honduras.
That material can jumpstart, rapidly increase the rate at which people can learn sounds in the field, which is otherwise a really hard fought bit of knowledge. It can take you years and years, and you may not have years to wait.
DONNA GOSS: So Greg, the last question that we always ask in our staff notes interview is what would you do if you were president at Cornell for a day?
GREG BUDNEY: And turning and running isn't accepted.
DONNA GOSS: I don't think that's allowed, no.
GREG BUDNEY: I would proclaim a day of listening. Most people don't really listen to the natural world. And once you do, it's a pretty remarkable experience. It can really enrich your life.
DONNA GOSS: What a wonderful idea. Greg, thank you so much for sharing that.
GREG BUDNEY: My pleasure.
DONNA GOSS: And thank you all for joining us here on staff notes. We'll see you next time.
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Join host Donna Goss at the Laboratory of Ornithology and meet Greg Budney, Curator of Audio at the Macaulay Library. The unique collection of bird and animal sounds is one of the largest in the world and receives a variety of requests for sound clips from researchers as well as those in the entertainment industry.
New episodes of Staff Notes premiere Thursdays.