Martha Fisher with gray heron. Photo by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes.
A digital extra in the winter 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
If you’ve ever heard an audio recording in the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you’ve probably heard the voice of Martha Fischer as she slowly announces the catalog number at the beginning of a clip.
In Fischer’s 23 years as a sound archivist at the Macaulay Library (she retired in 2020), she cataloged nearly 50,000 audio recordings. Thousands of people hear her recite catalog numbers while searching for sounds in the online archive. Does Fischer realize that her voice is famous? “I know,” she says with a laugh and a touch of embarrassment.
Fischer began working as an archivist in 1997. “It was the pre-digital age,” she says when the Macaulay Library became known as the Library of Natural Sounds. Nowadays, processing and archiving digital records is a relatively painless process thanks to the simple transfer of data. But then working with sounds was a completely different world. Tapes arrived in the mail, or recordists came to the Cornell Lab to work with archivists for weeks or months.
Martha Fischer is also an accomplished field recordist who has added more than 500 of her own recordings to the archive. In this video, she records a recording expedition to Bathurst Island, Canada.
To archive the tapes, Fischer set up 10-inch reels on two audio recorders called Studers – top-notch playback and recording devices that are now considered antiques – one reel on each machine. Fischer then dropped the tape into a tape recorder and looked for the loudest passage in each recording. Finding this point was a tedious manual process, adjusting the sound levels over and over to ensure that every single recording in the archive was at a consistent volume. She then rewound the cassette and copied the recordings onto the 10-inch reel – the archiving standard of the time.
When the Studer starts up, the gears make a noise that is music to Fischer’s ears. “I love the sound of this machine,” says Fischer. Then she hit the record and gracefully announced the LNS catalog number. The whole process, Fisher said, depends on the quality of the recording, but if it was a good recording it would take five minutes to archive a one-minute recording. Most of the time, however, Fischer received a 60-minute tape with recordings of several species from several days in the field. Processing the recordings on a cassette often took two to three hours.
But that’s not the end of the archiving process. Fischer then had to insert each species song or call up a “species scroll” – a volume that compiles vocalizations of a single species. To do this, Fischer went back to the collection room, grabbed the species reel, queued it at the Studer, and spliced up the new audio with a razor and a foot of non-magnetic leader tape (to create silence between recordings). She repeated the process for each species on the 60-minute tape.
In the early 1990s, the cassette began to fade in favor of digital technology. In 2000, the Macaulay Library began the long process of converting each of the archived analog records in the archive to a digital record. After carefully archiving analog tapes, Fischer suddenly discovered that Studer rolls were being transferred to digital files on a hard drive.
“It quickly became clear how useful and easily accessible audio is when it’s digital,” says Fischer. “Instead of listening to an entire recording to find the loudest part, I suddenly had a visual image of the entire recording and could immediately see the loudest point and adjust the levels with the push of a button. It was so quick. “
Despite the lightness of digital audio, Fischer says there is still a need for archivists – the backbone of the Macaulay library. They make sure the archive is organized, keep the taxonomy up to date, check species identification, and comb hundreds of thousands of clips to get exceptional footage for Merlin, Birds of the World, the Birdsong Guide, and other collections. And, says Fischer, “to insist that the recordists not only give us recordings, but also meaningful data for each of their recordings – a complete audio sample.”