The Oregon Episode: Big Summit Prairie--Eclipse Fest, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, White River Wilderness

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Fri, 09/08/2017 - 10:00am to 10:15am
Waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge
Sounds can be endangered by human activity, too.


Welcome back to Threshold Shift, a Resident Sound Artist Series on KBOO 90.7 FM. The recordings on Threshold Shift are collected and contributed by sound professionals, scientists, and student-citizens in the field. We have attempted to leave these field recordings as raw and uninterrupted as possible. 

I am your host Nicole Martin and today I'm breaking my own series rule of "no human noise" to illustrate a small slice of how human activities can impact natural habitats. By many accounts there is less than 2% of the earth that is free from human-made noise and that area is shrinking rapidly. Human noise affects wildlife and us in many ways, but a small change in overall volume levels can create immediate impacts for animals in terms of hunting, communicating, and finding mates. The lowest perceptible volume change to humans (approximately 3 decibels) can shrink an average owl's range of hearing, and thus it's perceived habitat, by 50%. There are many examples of human noise to choose from:  transportation in the form of planes, trains, ships, and other vehicles; resource extraction like mining and fracking; and other industrial and commercial impacts, but I'm going to pick something closer to home and use my industry—the production and entertainment field. In the summer, people like to go out and enjoy nature, and who can blame them? People also have a tendency to want large events and productions that more often than not also end up outside because again, why not? It's summer! It's beautiful! It's not raining!*

8-22-2017, 5:55 PM Oregon Eclipse Festival, Big Summit Prairie, Ochoco National Forest, Southeastern Oregon

So for the sake of increased awareness of what we are doing when we are having a good time outside, the first clip will come from a colleague who recorded a camp at Big Summit Prairie during the Oregon Eclipse Festival ...on a quiet day. To fully appreciate what is going on, you may need to adjust the bass on your speakers as most car stereos and home radios will have a little trouble replicating this. I'm only going to give you a minute or two, but imagine this practically non-stop for about seven days. This particular camp was located near the large reservoir on the property. The recording notes included needing to move the mic while it was live to a more dust sheltered spot in the camp as there was a continual breeze coating the entire site with grit. My colleague was very kind in providing me with this recording and chose to remain anonymous due to the working relationship established with the event. The track was recorded with a Zoom H2 in its MS-stereo pattern. 

Date Unknown, 10:00 AM Lower White River Wilderness Area, Mt. Hood National Forest, Central Oregon

To contrast all the humans at Big Summit Prairie, I will provide you with segments of two other wilderness areas in Oregon, one of which, Vernal Pool's recording of the Lower White River Wilderness Area, is actually too quiet to broadcast so you'll find it on this episode page. I recommend using some nice headphones if you have them. Vernal is an avid outdoorsperson and professional sound engineer who spends most of his down time in the deep woods looking for quiet places. He managed to find a very special spot here, though you can still hear the intrusion of a couple of airplanes. You'll hear him leaving his tent and walking away, which I left to give you a sense of what the mic was actually picking up. To get it to a volume that could potentially transfer a little to computer speakers, I had to amplify it by over 20 logarithmically this track is now is 20 orders of magnitude louder than it was when it was recorded. It was truly that quiet! This track was also recorded with a Zoom H2 in its X-Y stereo configuration.

June 2013, Twilight Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Southeastern Oregon

The final piece on the episode is a selection of Dwight Porter's "Marsh After Dark" from the album "Soundscapes From Malheur: A Gem in the Oregon High Desert" recorded at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. This is a fantastic piece that illustrates just how busy nature actually is without us around. There's even a Black-crowned Night Heron! Keep in mind this was recorded around the same time of day that the Big Summit Prarie piece was and in June versus August. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge lies about 137 miles to the southeast of Big Summit as the crow flies, and Dwight Porter recorded extensively there between 2011-2016. Dwight is a Portland-based photographer and field recordist interested in recording soundscapes of unique or threatened natural habitats. He is also avid birder. His website is This track was recorded with Sennheiser MKH 30 and MHK 40 microphones into a Sound Devices 722. The mics were in a mid-side (MS) stereo configuration.

As an aside, I'm going to take a moment to really promote this album if you enjoy the Malheur selection. Dwight was kind enough to let me use his recording after finding us through a friend who listens to KBOO. Field recording is not an easy thing; it requires long hours in the cold and dark, usually when everyone else is asleep, along with difficult hikes carrying heavy sound gear. Because human noise has a tendency to spread a lot farther than we can see or range ourselves, finding locations and making recordings like this requires a great deal of dedication and standing around in the cold. Additionally, recordists co-exist with an unusual amount of biting insects all while trying their best to stay stoically quiet around a mic. Frequently, recording trips and the recordists' gear are completely self-funded by people that are truly passionate about the environment and its denizens. If you find yourself listening again and again, it's definitely worthwhile investing in the projects of the artists featured in this series. 

We will be taking a short break from the series for KBOO's Fall Membership Drive starting next week, but there will be streaming, additional information about the artists and their recordings, plus bonus tracks going up online throughout that time so stay tuned! Please rejoin us Friday, September 29 at 10 AM for another episode of Threshold Shift where we'll give the mic to nature and amplify earth. Threshold Shift is a Resident Sound Artist series on KBOO 90.7 FM. 


For those that like to indulge their shadow sides, you can read the other half of the "let's go play outside" festival production argument below. It's been a rough week for Oregon though so I wanted to give people the option. My heart is with all of those being affected by the fires. 

*The opposite side to this that I will admit as a producer, though it is certainly not the rule nor often a motivating factor for most, is the fact that being out in "pristine" environments means people will pay more to be there. I'm sorry, it's true. In our capitalist system, nature like water is starting to be seen by some as a luxury item and it's being priced and paid for accordingly. Debate the ethics of it as you will, but I've heard it factored in on an occasion or two. I once spoke with a Finnish soundscape artist who'd been courted by a fancy mall in Finland to supply the building with continuous soundscapes instead of music. He told me they wanted these specifically because it was nature, which the mall owners knew the Finns appreciated culturally, and they thought people would stay in the mall longer and buy more things if it was seen as a "sanctuary" from the city that could be trusted and soothing. Needless to say, it took a while for me to get my head around that at the time. Buyer beware, indeed. 


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