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The Burbling Stream On Your Nature CD Might Be a Toilet

July 19, 1995

For his first album of nature sounds, Bernie Krause spent weeks wandering the wilderness with a tape recorder, seeking the perfect burbling stream. The search ended in his bathroom. ``I wound up using a stereo recording of my toilet bowl filling up,″ he says. ``It sounded more like a stream than the streams did.″

That sort of trickery horrifies Jonathan Storm, a nature recordist obsessed with authenticity. ``I’m not going to compete with the people putting out garbage,″ Mr. Storm huffs.

A squall has broken out among the creators of wilderness-sound recordings that millions of Americans buy for relaxation. At issue: just how natural nature should sound. To longstanding purists such as Mr. Storm and Gordon Hempton _ two Seattle-area recordists who will spend weeks in the wild to capture, say, the hoot of a spotted owl _ fakery of any sort is unthinkable.

``What would we think today if somebody broke the story that Ansel Adams added the full moon to his photograph of Yosemite because he didn’t want to wait up all night?″ Mr. Hempton asks. ``We’d feel cheated, duped, ripped off.″

But many recordists who do the sonic equivalent of adding that moon make no apologies. ``If you went out and taped an hour of the true sound of the forest, half the time you’d hear nothing at all,″ says Richard Greener, managing partner at Essex Entertainment Inc., in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., which sells budget nature tapes through discount stores. ``Sound is sound _ I can’t see any reason why the average consumer needs to know exactly where or how it was recorded.″

The difference of opinion might seem academic were it not for the fact that nature recordings, once a New Age cottage industry, have hit it big. Americans can’t seem to get enough, spending more than $100 million a year for recordings of whales, waterfalls, howler monkeys and thunderstorms.

Unfortunately for purists, many of the biggest sellers are concocted more in the studio than in the woods. While Mr. Storm’s recordings have sold 30,000 copies in the past decade, Mr. Greener’s have sold millions. Mr. Hempton, whose sales are on a par with Mr. Storm’s, says producers are always aghast when he refuses to allow any studio alterations to his tapes of surf, wind, birds and frogs _ no mixing, dubbing, equalizing or snipping out the quiet parts.

``What I get from recording executives is that my work is too esoteric,″ says Mr. Hempton. ``They want the Hollywood version″ _ recordings that have been digitally altered or synthesized, mixed from a dozen different sources, spliced, diced, layered and looped, with single snippets of wolf howl or loon call repeated time and again.

To judge from sales, which have exceeded 100,000 for some titles, most listeners don’t seem to mind if an ocean sound is more synthesizer than surf. Michael Whelan, a Seattle carpenter, says the budget nature-sound compact disks he bought recently ``obviously have way too much going on to be real.″ But who cares, he adds: ``It’s just for unwinding.″

Even critics sometimes recommend the phony stuff. Jim Cummings, who reviews albums for several publications, says the recordings of Messrs. Hempton and Storm ``are way more real _ but they’re not as riveting, not as dramatic.″

Some recordists say Mother Nature might even benefit from impersonations by synthesizers and toilets. ``The point is to get people interested in going outdoors and protecting the environment,″ says Dan Gibson, of Toronto, who pioneered the nature-recording genre nearly 40 years ago. And though Mr. Gibson denies rumors that he is full of tricks _ such as hosing down backyard pine trees to tape the drip of rain or crouching in elevator shafts to catch the howl of wind _ he says flatly that ``it’s show business _ you have to make the public want to come back for more.″

The purists say that principle is paramount. ``My world is built around preserving these natural spaces on tape, not fabricating some place that doesn’t exist on planet Earth,″ says Mr. Hempton, leaning over a mossy stream in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

But that sort of moral superiority doesn’t sit well with the likes of Mr. Krause, who lives in Glen Ellen, Calif. He says he, too, abhors cutting corners to churn out poor recordings. And he says he has long since forsaken toilet trickery. But he concedes that his actual outdoor recordings are enhanced by studio effects _ and that is as it should be.

``This idea that you can go out in the field to a very quiet place, record 30 minutes of sound, put it on a CD and it’s `pure’ _ that’s a myth,″ he says. ``You have to manipulate the material.″ Heavy studio editing _ shrinking and rearranging _ is ``part of the art, part of the magic,″ Mr. Krause says.

Mr. Hempton’s response: ``Bernie is the guy who told me you can’t record fire. He crumples cellophane instead.″

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