Making Music with Nature: Bernie Krause Samples Life




A virtuoso explains how to record and use the sounds of the Earth.

By Steve Oppenheimer

At 50, Bernie Krause has been immersed the field of electronic music for a quarter century. He appeared on the first commercial album to feature synthesizer (The Zodiac, 1967) and with his late partner, Paul Beaver, was instrumental in introducing the synthesizer to popular music through personal appearances and guest spots on over a hundred albums. He has done soundtrack work for more than 160 films and television shows. In 1981, he returned to college and gained a Ph.D. in bioacoustics. In addition, he is often called upon as a consultant and expert witness on recording and editing technology.Most recently, Krause collaborated on two “instrumental dance singles, “Fish Wrap” (with Matt Ward and Scott Singer) and “Jungle Shoes” (with Matt Ward, Tony Mills, Frank Martin, and Peter Michael Escovido), for the Rykodisc label. Both efforts used only sampled, biological sounds. These singles have brought Krause much media attention, helping him get his message across. That message is the driving force in his lift these days. In an effort to reach out to people-especially school children-who might not hear his environmentalist message or his other music, Krause decided, “If you can get them dancing in the aisles, it will break the ice, and you can hit them with all the environmental stuff you want.”

Making Nature Come Alive

Many of Krause’s pieces represent an artificial reconstruction of an original natural ambience. Having accumulated and processed a set of species-specific sounds, he constructs a “bed” on which to reposition and reconstruct his creatures in a way that creates the feeling that we are among the animals in their habitat. He does not simply lay down his recordings of local and regional ambient sound, however, but “assembles” them, taking into account two major factors: our ears and brains hear selectively, unlike the microphone; and Krause’s material has already been taken out of context by the recording process. He feels natural sound recordings tend to be static and two-dimensional, and he says, “Most people stick one or two microphones out there; environmental tapes generally haven’t been structured in a way that gives us the illusion that we’re actually present in that environment. You have to compensate for that at the mixing board.

“Paul Winter and I were talking about recording his group in the Grand Canyon to try to capture the spirit, if you will, of the p1ace through microphones. I have problems with that, because the minute you extract a quality from the environment and send it to tape, it’s no longer what it was. Even the best mic never picks up the true ambience of a place. So you have to use the studio to reposition the sounds in such a way that they come alive and acquire the dimension and lyricism that’s always present in nature.”

Recording natural sounds takes great patience. When Krause is recording ambient acoustic biospectra (see sidebar, “Acoustical Bio-What?”), he records five-minute samples every hour for 24 hours. He gets as much as time and conditions allow, always impeded by weather, moisture, and endless field problems. In one month of recording the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Africa (with photographer Nick Nichols), Krause recorded about twenty hours of material to get fifteen usable minutes. On most field projects, Krause works about twenty hours per day, but sometimes, as in Rwanda, he is limited to ten hours by the need to work with guides.

The equipment Krause uses falls into three categories: field equipment, his home studio (see sidebar, “The Wild Sanctuary”), and the gear he uses at Spark Studio in Oakland, California, where additional advanced tools are available. The studio gear, including the Emulator II and III samplers, is standard. His field “toys,” however, are the critical link without which Krause’s work would not be possible; they must resist all kinds of stress. Once, to avoid a charging gorilla, Krause had to dive into the Rwandan underbrush while carrying a full recording rig. Another time, his Nagra tape recorder fell 40 feet from a helicopter. The gear survived both incidents.

It’s In The Water

For underwater work, Krause records in monophonic. Sound travels much faster underwater than in air: at 2l degrees centigrade, approximately 4,987 ft/sec. in seawater, compared to approximately 1,128.6 ft/sec. in sea-level air at 50 percent humidity. This makes stereo recording pointless for Krause, who prefers to keep natural, reflected sounds when possible.

krause_cartoonUnderwater recording requires a specialized mic known as a hydrophone. “When we listen to sound underwater, there is an impedance mismatch, and we lose high frequencies, because our ears are meant to hear in air,” Krause observes. A hydrophone, designed for underwater work, records sounds much more accurately than we can hear them. If you put your ear to the hull of a boat when recording whales, you can hear them as the hydrophone does.”

There are many kinds of hydrophones, but Krause has found two that suit his purposes. He uses a B&K 8103 for work that doesn’t require a lot of sensitivity, i.e., recording loud sounds that travel far. Its frequency range extends from 0.5 Hz up to about 200 kHz. The cost is around $1,200, with the required B&K amplifier adding about $2,800. In Krause’s opinion, B&K builds the most durable, best quality equipment for sound measurement. Krause’s other hydrophone, which is more sensitive than the B&K but doesn’t have the high-frequency range, was custom-built for about $300 at the University of California-Santa Cruz. This hydrophone is more powerful and less noisy and, says Krause, “gives more texture and richness.”

A choice of hydrophones is important because of the wide frequency ranges and types of creature vocalization. Krause observes that “the blind Ganges dolphin has been tested for vocalization around 356 kHz, used for echo location in a muddy river, and the sound doesn’t travel far with that short a wavelength. The right whale can vocalize down to 3 Hz.” These vocalizations could, until the 20th century increase in noise pollution, actually travel around the globe.

One of Bernie Krause’s deepest concerns is human-induced noise pollution. “Go try to record in the Amazon in a place that ten years ago was relatively quiet, and you could get the material most of the time,” he states. ‘Now, you hear chainsaws twenty miles away!

“Sound doesn’t travel far in the ocean now because of oil-well drilling and boat noise,” Krause continues. “In Hawaii, we were recording humpback whales, and sub chasers were sending out sonar signals fourteen miles away that pinned our meters, they were so loud. You hope that “this too shall pass.”

For terrestrial sounds, Krause records in stereo. He places his microphones in an x/y coincident pattern (nose-to-nose at a 90-degree angle), which cuts down on phase problems. Some phase problems occur when recording high-frequency sounds such as birds, insects, and bats (which make sounds in the 14 to 16 kHz range), but most of the sounds Krause records (especially mammals) are between 500 Hz and 4 kHz, where phase is not a problem.

Krause’s favorite mics, though not the most useful, are the Schoeps 541 hypercardioid condensers (the CMC-5 body and preamp with the MJ-41 capsule), which he calls “the clearest, cleanest, snappiest-sounding compromises around.” Recently, he had them modified by Klaus Heine for improved low-frequency balance and clarity, making them more sensitive and functional in the field. Without the modification, the Schoeps cost about $800 per mic; additional attachments to fight wind and other field problems cost about $500 per mic. Krause had been using Cut One filters (inserted in series with the capsule), which cut down on low-frequency noise, but with the modification and some other specialized gear (see “The Wild Sanctuary” sidebar), he no longer needs them.

The biggest problem with using condenser microphones is their inability to withstand humidity. Krause tests his mics by filling his bathroom with steam, but even though the Schoeps didn’t fare well in the bathroom test, he took them to the mountain rainforest of Rwanda, hoping that by keeping them in a desiccant when not in use and “equalizing” them to the environment before using them, he could overcome the humidity problem. The Schoeps failed in three minutes, so Krause turned to his less expensive Beyer M700N(C) hypercardioid dynamic mics, which had survived 45 minutes of steam testing. The Beyers passed the test of sitting three to four hours in the rain.

Krause had the mics mounted atop his head so the wireswouldn’t entangle his body, allowing him to dispense with the shock mount and tripod and keep his hands free. He taped rubber Acoustafoam to the mic mounts, taped the mics to the headband of his earphones, and put the whole thing over a San Francisco Giants baseball cap so it wouldn’t slip. Krause found the Beyers weren’t as sensitive as the Schoeps; they were heavy and a bit noisier, but indestructible. These were the mics Krause was wearing when the gorilla attacked. That’s a rock and roll mic,” Krause laughs. “It takes a lot more than a gorilla to destroy them.”

The latest addition to Krause’s microphone arsenal is a $3,400 Neumann RSM 190i-S, a selectable-pattern condenser that offers the choice of shotgun, x/y stereo, or both. It features two capsules on the side and one on the end, along with a choice of sideband pickup patterns: 0, 6, or -6 dB. In x/y stereo, it provides a full cardioid or hypercardioid, and the mid-plus-side (MS) shotgun is very focused. Because it’s a condenser mic, the Neumann has humidity problems, but Krause finds it to be an excellent piece of equipment and appreciates its range of options, including a pistol grip that allows it to be either handheld or mounted. Krause puts a Rycote windscreen on the Neumann, which doesn’t affect the frequency but does affect the pickup pattern.

Nagra Falls

Krause has recorded in many places and under a variety of conditions, and the 2-track, reel-to-reel, Nagra IV-S recorder has been his closest companion. It weighs 25 pounds with tape supply, batteries, and mics and is awkward to handle in rough terrain, but it has been infallible: it worked admirably despite a plunge from a helicopter. “It’s one of those heavy-duty pieces of field equipment you can always manage to fix somehow.”

Krause has experimented with a Sony TCD-Dl0 R-DAT but found it unsatisfactory for field work. The R-DAT’s tiny, two-hour tapes are light and convenient, but the R-DAT machines don’t function reliably in humid conditions. Further, in places like the mountains of Rwanda, where there’s no electricity within thirty miles (not even a generator), there would have been no way to recharge an R-DAT power supply, which lasts less than an hour and a half and costs over forty dollars. “If you take an R-DAT in the field, where will you get it serviced?” Krause asks. So he continues to use a custom-made Nagra preamp, Ampex 457 audio tape (at 15 ips), and a Nagra Master noise-reduction unit. As a backup, Krause sometimes takes a Sony TCD5 cassette recorder.

Cleaning Up

Krause’s primary application of processing gear is to eliminate wind and other undesirable noise. His most powerful tool is a Macintosh Plus computer with Digidesign’s Sound Designer graphic sample-editing software. With creative associate Matt Ward, Krause samples his taped sounds on an E-mu Emulator II or III, then uses Sound Designer to edit out the noise on both sides of the signal.

“Sound Designer is brilliant,” Krause enthuses, “I rely on [Digidesign’s] software more than any other.” For sequencing, he uses Mark of the Unicorn’s Performer. Krause also uses analog filters (equalizers), though he recognizes they are limited in their ability to eliminate noise. In addition, he puts an Orban stereo synthesizer on the whale sounds to give them a sense of space and movement.

For some low-frequency applications, especially in his role as an expert audio analyst for legal cases (audio forensics), Krause uses time-based, lowpass, automatic digital filters. According to Krause, “they are designed to eliminate noise, yet leave voices intact without changes in timbre, intonation, prosody [time/meter patterns], or quality.” Their principle of operation is adaptive predictive deconvolution. The processor identifies constant and nonconstant sound impulses. Constant impulses represent background noise, and nonconstant impulses are the desired signal. It predicts, based on almost ten million operations per second, which impulses will be in what category. The filter then reduces the level of the constant signal relative to the nonconstant. In addition, it can eliminate noise from the desired signal within the same frequency band(s). However, because their frequency range does not exceed 7 kHz, automatic digital filters are useful mostly in relatively low-frequency applications.

The Urge To Merge

On their dance tunes, “Jungle Shoes” and Fish Wrap,” Krause and his partners organized the sounds in families of orchestral-type “instruments.” They also used Sound Designer to combine sounds, although most of the sounds on these recordings (such as the snapping shrimp hi-hat) are pure, sounding the way they do in nature. They wanted the fish and walrus to make up the percussion tracks, but found that their drumfish sound (one of a co1lection of sounds gleaned from old U.S. Navy recordings) lacked bottom. The solution was to use the drumfish for the attack of the sound and a sampled lion’s roar for the sustain portion of the sample.

For lead voices, the Krause team listened to some more melody-oriented sounds-a coyote, some whales, and some dolphins-but they still couldn’t find the right lead line. They decided to use Sound Designer to loop together certain dolphin sounds and the voice of Humphrey the Whale. (Humphrey is the famous California gray whale who became lost in San Francisco Bay and was eventually led to safety, partly by Krause playing sampled whale sounds.)

A Cornucopia Of Sounds

Wildlife sounds are not limited to the obvious vocalizations; for example, fish emit several different varieties of sound. Krause explains: “Some make noise with their swim bladders, fins, grinding teeth; some emit an electrical charge. They have remarkable ways of putting out vibrations. The motion of swimming, using the tail fin, creates a waveform that is picked up by all the other creatures around them. If a predator, such as a shark, picks up that vibration, and it is somehow funny or wrong, the predator will go after that fish, because it’s in trouble. Snapping shrimp sound mostly like bursts of static. They are a few inches long, and they snap their claws to stun prey with sound pressure. Underwater, they put out 200 dB SPL. Once in a while, it’s quiet, there’s a lull, and you hear individual snaps.” That’s when you record them.

What Will He Think Of Next?

After a long hiatus from doing advertising spots (he has done over 2,500), Krause recently did a Marine World commercial, although he now has reservations about the commercial market and is very selective.

The next albums he’ll do for The Nature Company will be Tropical Jungle and Gorilla. The latter is a result of Krause’s trek in Rwanda, as is his latest museum sound piece for the California Academy of Sciences, an ambient backdrop for Nick Nichols’s photographic exhibit about the mountain gorillas. Based on the success of “Jungle Shoes,” Rykodisc has picked up the option for a new album based entirely on biological sounds, to be released sometime in late summer 1989.

Other recent projects include eleven sound exhibits for the new education center at the St. Louis Zoo. One of these is an 8-channel, holophonic-type sound sculpture, done with octagonal rows of speakers. Whales appear to swim through the listener’s head, and birds fly over.

Krause even uses spatial placement to accurately portray which birds perch high in the trees and which perch lower. But the sound that Krause gets a kick from is the fly sample he obtained in a trade with Leslie Schatz, a crew member on the film The Fly II. “We trade sounds like baseball cards. You want a gorilla, I’ll trade you for a fly!” he laughs. The fly “moves” around a 70-foot room, “lands” on someone’s shoulder, then flies through the rafters and all around the room.

Next, Krause plans to spend three months recording from Costa Rica all the way to Alaska, working on land controlled by the Nature Conservancy. He expects the resulting album, Meridians, to be distributed by The Nature Company, 750 Hearst Ave., Berkeley, CA 94710; tel. (415) 644-1337.

Acoustical Bio-What?

By Steve Oppenheimer

According to Webster, bioacoustics is the branch of science that studies the relation of living beings and sound. Bernie Krause is a proponent of the theory that each location on Earth has a unique environmental aural ambience. He noticed that “every time I moved 100 yards from one location to another, even if there was virtually no change in the environment, the sounds were different. Each location on Earth has its own voice, just as we have our own voice.”

The spectrographic footprint of a location is its acoustical biospectrum. Krause theorizes that for a given time of year, time of day or night, weather, and other natural phenomena, these ambient sounds are constant. When one voice drops out, another will eventually take its place in the same area of the spectrum, i.e., a creature fills the available frequency window, keeping intact, overtime, the unique acoustical biospectrum of that place. This theory has been investigated with regard to bird songs, by other researchers.

Krause finds that insects create a constant din in one part of the spectrum, and the other creatures vocalize in different frequency ranges. In the light of natural-selection theory, this is logical. Krause’s spectrograms indicate there are regional patterns created by wide-spread species (such as insects) and local patterns caused by species that have a limited range. He tested these theories by recording over a period of several days, at approximately the same time of evening, in three locations 150 yards apart, with similar vegetation, at an altitude of 1,000 feet. The resulting spectrograms are compared to similarly recorded data in other parts of the world. So far, the results have been affirmative.

Krause speculates that changes in a particular acoustical biospectrum may indicate changes in the ecological balance of the location, and he hints at a tie to the Lovelock-Margolis “Gaia Hypothesis.” He also thinks that mobile, wide-ranging creatures may use ambient sound as a beacon to find their own special habitats. “There’s Earth orchestration and there’s human orchestration,” Krause states. “After all, composers have been trying to emulate nature ever since the beginning.” Krause notes that all musical instruments started from observations of nature-the sound of a taut skin led to drums, wind in the reeds led to flutes-and composers of more recent centuries, such as Vivaldi (Four Seasons), Debussey (La Mer), and Beethoven (Sixth Symphony), openly emulated natural sounds with the orchestra.


Bernie Krause Recordings

(Solo or with Paul Beaver)

Discography by Robert Carlberg

Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music,Nonesuch, 1968
Ragnarok, Limelight, 1969
In a Wild Sanctuary, Warner Bros., 1969
Gandharva, Warner Bros., 1971
All Good Men, Warner Bros., 1973
Citadels of Mystery, Mobile Fidelity, 1979
Revised Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music,Nonesuch, 1979
Equator, The Nature Co., 1986
Nature, The Nature Co., 1987
Gentle Ocean, The Nature Co., 1988
Distant Thunder, The Nature Co., 1988
Mountain Stream, The Nature Co., 1988
Morning Songbirds, The Nature Co., 1988
Summer’s Evening, The Nature Co., 1988
“Fish Wrap”/”Jungle Shoes” (CD-3), Rykodisc, 1988


The Wild Sanctuary

By Steve Oppenheimer

Wild Sanctuary Communications is the production company founded by Bernie Krause. The modest studio where much of Krause’s music is produced is located in his San Francisco home and is operated by Krause, assisted by intern James Reeve.

In addition to the field equipment and previously mentioned computer software, the Studio includes: an Apple Macintosh Plus and Mac II; a Bryston 370 power amp; Crown pressure-zone microphones (PZMs); a Digital Audio Corporation DAC-150 time-based digital filter; Dolby SR/SP series noise reduction (eight channels) and 363 SR/A noise reduction (two channels); E-mu Emulator II and Emulator III; a Furman PB-40 patch bay; a Klark-Teknik DN-300 graphic EQ; MacADIOS II spectrum- and waveform-analysis program; a Moog Model 12 modular synthesizer; a Nagra IV-S stereo recorder; an Orban 622B parametric EQ; Otari MX55 2-track and MX5050-ASR 8-track decks; a Sony TCD-5 cassette recorder and Sony TCD-D10 (R-DAT);a Soundcraft 200B mixer; a Symetrix compressor/limiter/expander/ducker; a Tascam 34 tape deck; and UREI 809 studio monitors.


Sounding Out the Environment

By Robert Carlberg

Interviewing a “living legend” is intimidating; besides, Krause has a reputation for being outspoken, and to him, nothing is more important than his relationship with the environment. Fortunately, he is also a warm, genuinely humble person who puts you instantly at ease. He recently achieved a great deal of success with works that combine music and sampled natural sounds, so that seemed like a logical place to begin the interview.

EM: How did you get into using sampled natural sounds, and why?

BK: We’ve always done that, clear back to In a Wild Sanctuary (1969). Paul [Beaver] and I had reached a point in the ‘6Os where we were bored with synthesizer sounds. It was important for us to find a voice for ourselves that established us in our own right. One day, Van Dyke Parks happened to come up with the idea of incorporating material from the environment with synthesizers. The idea clicked right away; it also gave us a launching pad to make some statements about the state of our world. My background is folk music [Krause was a member of the folk group The Weavers] and this music is an outgrowth of folk music, of concerns about our environment. Ecology was a new word then.

EM: What kind of equipment could you use for sequencing animal sounds back in 1969? Was it all cut-and-splice work?

BK: I copied little slices of tape, over and over again, and took a ruler and tried to cut the material exactly to the same length. Then I would create this large loop that would be looped all around the room, and hoped that I could match it up with other pieces of tape that length. This took hours.

EM: How did you get The Nature Company involved with releasing your recent recordings?

BK: That came about as a result of a recording I’d done called Equator. It started with a radio benefit I was doing for Greenpeace. Mike Cotton and Prairie Prince from The Tubes came over and were listening to some of the whale recordings I did for my Ph.D., and they said, “Let’s do some tape cutting and loop that stuff, and see if we can’t do a piece for the benefit.” So with Prairie Prince playing drums, we looped killer whale sounds and some humpback whale sounds and came up with a piece that was the forerunner of the material I’m doing today. I tried to sell it, but everyone thought it was just a novelty. Yet it wasn’t. I felt there was something more important there.

In 1983, I went to Africa for the California Academy of Sciences on a commission to record a variety of animal sounds. This material was to be produced in a seventeen-minute, day-night cycle for their African Hall waterhole exhibit, a diorama at the Academy. As it turned out, this was one of the most popular things they’ve ever done. I took some of that material to score my own soundscape, as one would score a film, and was very happy with the results. I tried to sell it to record companies-185 of them all over the world. Only one, Windham Hill, even bothered to send a rejection.

Finally, out of desperation, I went to The Nature Company in Berkeley and proposed to develop a whole repertoire of materials based on sound and visuals about the environment. I’d done a lot of work with whales and environmental recordings and had a fairly good library of materials [he’s modest: it is reported to be the largest library ever accumulated by an individual]. I was told they weren’t particularly interested, but fortunately I had left the first side of Equator there as an example of the stuff I wanted to do. A few days later I got a call and this guy said, ‘My name is Tom Wrubel, and I’m the president of The Nature Company. I just want you to know I was driving north up Highway 1 from Carmel, and I’m sitting on the side of the road right now, flying. I cannot believe that these sounds are on this tape! I’ll give you anything for this tape!’ So Equator ended up getting released, and they’ve sold well over a million dollars worth of product in two years. There are seven albums out now. I’ve just been commissioned for one more.

EM: Time is finally starting to catch up to 1968-69 when you came up with the concept.

BK: Yeah. What’s interesting is we were the first to talk about this, and we’ve never gotten credit for it.

EM: Of course, there are other people working on the same concept now. What do you think of Paul Winter’s efforts to do music to whale compositions and Incorporate natural sounds?

BK: Like so much music, Paul Winter’s stuff is a result of a lot of work that was done before him. Judy Collins, in 1971, did “Farewell to Tarwathie” using humpback whales. It’s part of an historical precedent that began a long, long time ago. I think his stuff is sometimes excellent. He doesn’t just use animal samples to write pop songs. His stuff works because you know there’s a spiritual connection there.

EM: I think you lose the spiritual component when you make animals sing your tune, as opposed to singing with the animals. A lot of people are using sampled natural sounds, but to me, Nature and Equator were the first to do this with any real sympathy for the sounds being used.

BK: In those records, the sounds from nature were actually used as scored elements, in a definite classical orchestral A-B-A form.

EM: Since you use sampling a lot, what do you think of the technology, per se?

BK: Some people consider digital sampling godlike in some way, but any kind of information storage-including recording on analog tape-is sampling. When Ussachevsky, Luening, Henri, and Stockhausen were sampling sounds of their urban environment in 1948 and cutting up pieces of tape and putting them together, they anticipated “samplers” by almost 40 years. It doesn’t matter to me how a sample is made: it only matters how it is used. With some art, technology takes over and begins to rule the artist instead of the reverse. Of course, sampling possibilities are unbelievable today, and there’s no way I could have done “Fish Wrap” or “Jungle Shoes” [1988] without an Emulator, Fairlight, or Synclavier. But the main question is, what’s the artist expressing with the medium? This is a moral and ethical, not technological, issue.

EM: What ethical and moral obligations do you think an artist has?

BK: Oh boy. I guess they have an obligation first of all to learn their craft very well, to have their own voice, and to be true to a vision they have of their work. Those are the ethical obligations.

EM: A lot of people who purport to be artists are chasing after much less lofty goals. Interestingly, there don’t seem to be many famous people doing wonderful work; on the other hand there aren’t too many people doing wonderful work who become well-known. There seems to be a tradeoff at some point in the middle. Do you feel you are too virtuous to become popular?

BK: [Quickly] No. Pete Seeger, with The Weavers, was once asked, “Do you want to make money or do you want to make issues?” He said, “I think that we can do both.” I really don’t hold much value in the idea of what constitutes popularity in America. I’ve never pursued it, and I don’t think that it has much value in my life. And I’m not being virtuous about that; I don’t want to put my energy into it because I have a lot of work to do before I die. I may have twenty years left, or fifteen years left. I don’t have a lot of time for People magazine. I do have time for Electronic Musician, though!


Steve Oppenheimer is attempting to work a 168-hour week. At press time, the experiment has neared, but not attained, success.

This article is reprinted from the May 1989 issue of Electronic Musician magazine with the permission of its publisher, Penton Media. For more from EM, please visit