Making music from environmental sounds

Ward Pound Ridge Nature Preserve

I normally only post about my mosquito/medical entomology related activities but since World Listening Day 2013 is just around the corner, i thought I’d post about one of my hobbies, sound recording. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had the opportunity to turn my love of environmental sound recording into a (mostly) self supporting hobby through the release of records under the name Seaworthy.

I wish I had the time to devote to studying the more academic aspects of acoustic ecology. Perhaps in the years to come, when I have more spare time, I’ll be able to delve into this pursuit. I will have more spare time in the future right? For now, I thought I’d write a short piece on the background to a recently released album, “Wood, Winter, Hollow”. Although not a purely an album of field recording, many of the sound sources were recorded in the local environment.

I recently had the good fortune to visit Westchester County, New York. I had the opportunity to stay with a friend and fellow musician (not to mention a wonderful photographer), Taylor Deupree. This was intended as a quick visit while i was on my way to Atlantic City for the American Mosquito Control Association meeting. I’d never had the chance to visit New York City but it was nice to also get out of the city and into a part of the world I’d only ever read about before. It was also the first time I had visited a region of the world with endemic Lyme disease (but I wasn’t there to study ticks this time around).

I visited in February. Winter. The local countryside was a world away from the Australian summer. The woodlands of (mostly) leafless tree were sparse and silent. There was a healthy snow cover and the ponds and lakes dotted throughout the countryside were mostly frozen over. Very few animals to be seen besides a few birds and deer. Despite what may sound a little like desolation, it was really quite beautiful.

Taylor and I took the opportunity to do some recording while I was there. What started out as just being an opportunity for me to record some of the wintery environmental sounds of Westchester County, turned into a couple of days of rapid fire recording.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10eMuch of our time was spent in the nearby Ward Pound Ridge Nature Preserve/Reservation. The park covers over 3000 acres and, as well as containing a number of historic buildings, is a biodiversity reserve containing extensive woodland and grassland habitats dissected by creeks and wetlands. I have no doubt that these environments are alive with sound during the summer but during winter there really is an eerie silence.

The relatively silent ambiance can force you into listening to most subtle sounds. Tiny crackles of water flow beneath a frozen stream surface or the faint rustle of those last few leaves clinging to otherwise barren branches. The otherwise incidental sounds like these can take on much more significance during winter where they would otherwise be drowned out during the buzz of insects, birds and frogs during the summer.

In these circumstances, it is often impossible to actually sit and listen to these sounds. You can only really appreciate them when they’re amplified or captured with special microphones. In particular, much of my recording is done using hydrophones. These are underwater microphones most commonly associated with the recording of whale songs. These can also be useful in recording aquatic arthropods too. The real joy for me though is recording the crackle and rattle of small streams where water is rushing through debris and rocks and tiny bubbles fizz creating the most wonderful sound. These types of recordings are even more abstract when made beneath the frozen water surface.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10fI usually approach environmental recordings from two perspectives. Firstly, it is impossible to switch off my “science” brain from searching and analysing the recordings to identify the source of the sounds. What animal is making that sound? What species of bird is it? What type of call is it? (One of my first ever research projects required analysis of sound recordings to identify the diversity of frogs across Western Sydney) Even amongst the abstract sounds recorded with the hydrophone, I’m trying to determine what physical processes are underway beneath the water surface to create the changes in water direction or pressure waves.

Secondly, I’m very attracted to the abstract sounds. I rarely set out to record the pure sound of particular species as you may hear in audio field guides (e.g. birds, frogs). I tend to generally record the ambient soundscapes through a filter of recording hardware and the placement of the microphones. I particularly enjoy the sounds that aren’t immediately identifiable. These can often be “happy accidents” where the microphone has picked up my own movements or may be due to some technical short comings on my behalf on operating the equipment! While these sounds may not strictly be “environmental sounds”, there is no doubt that I would be unable to recreate them in the studio. These sounds can sometimes be the most inspiring, or at least can trigger other ideas to investigate at another time.

PoundRidge_WWHFB_June10Unlike many other sound artists who work purely with environmental recordings (some of my favourites are Jana Winderen, Tom Lawrence and Chris Watson), I tend to incorporate my recordings with more traditional instruments. There are many other artists that pursue this methodology, many incorporate electronics or process the original recordings to such an extent that they may no longer become recognisable. A few of my favourite artists that fall into this category are Lawrence English, Marcus Fisher, Simon Scott, Stephen Vitiello and Matt Rosner.

Back in Westchester County, once a collection of environmental recordings were made, it was back to the studio to compose a series of music pieces. These were generally built on top of a bed of sounds and textures recorded from the woodlands and creeks of Ward Pound Ridge. For the most part they were improvisational but certainly many of the seeds of ideas were planted out in the field and in direct response to the recorded sounds. Once various instruments were layered, additional environmental recordings were then interwoven throughout the pieces.

IMG_6973Overall, it was a great experience and this release will forever be a perfect reminder of my time in Westchester County. Working on a project like this is not dissimilar to working on a collaborative research project. The opportunity to work with other people, who each bring a difference perspective and skill set typically results in a better outcome than if working alone. I know that many of my scientific publications would have been much poorer if it hadn’t been for the statisticians or microbiologists that brought their skills, that I lack, to the table.

The release of a CD is a lot like finally getting your research project published too. Perhaps music reviews aren’t quite as critical as the reviews of a newly submitted manuscript but, at least at this stage, a couple of people have enjoyed the music (Folk Radio UK and Fluid Radio). If you’re interested in reading more about this release and listening to some sound samples, please visit the 12k website.

If you’re interested in reading more about acoustic ecology, field recording and soundscapes, there is an excellent series of recent posts by Caleb Kelly up on the Sound Thoughts blog. One of the most cited references on the topic is “The Soundscape: Tuning of the World” by R. Murray Schafer (originally published in 1977). There is also nice article on soundscape ecology here.

You can also visit the Environmental Sounds blog run by Matt Rosner and myself that contains a number of recordings from both the east and west coast of Australia. We’re both trying to dedicate some more time to keep that blog updated!

Can social media increase the exposure of newly published research?


What can we learn about the benefits of social media by comparing the popularity of research into seals and mosquitoes? (Photo: Andreas Trepte,

There are many proposed benefits associated with the use of social media by scientists. There have been a couple of excellent pieces recently published that provide an overview of social media and some of the potential benefits of its use. Last month I wrote about tracking the exposure and reach of my tweets to measure the potential impact of public health awareness activities. Twitter seems to work well in providing exposure for public health messages, could it be used to increase exposure of new publications?

The role of social media in the promotion of research and publications has already received some attention. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) measured the quantity of tweets linking to publications in JMIR. The authors found that 4208 tweets cited 286 distinct JMIR articles and concluded that “highly tweeted articles were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than less-tweeted articles”. Similarly, a study analysing access to and citation of pre-print publications posted to the arXiv database ( found that “the volume of Twitter mentions is statistically correlated with arXiv downloads and early citations just months after the publication of a preprint”.

There have also some interesting observations by Melissa Terras on her blog about the use of social media to increase exposure of publications. Melissa found that publications she blogged or tweeted about had at more than 10 times the number of downloads than her other publications. In particularly, Melissa posted a nice piece on increased access to one of her recently published open access papers after she had tweeted about it.

I’ve been planning to do something similar with my publications but just hadn’t had an opportunity to do it. One of the other issues is that I generally don’t publish in open access journals. I’ve been guilty of simply submitting articles to journals that I had previously published in or that were considered the key journals of mosquito research or were of regional importance (e.g. Australian Journal of Entomology, Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, Journal of Vector Ecology).

On 7 May 2013, a publication that I was co-author on was published online in the open access journal PLoS ONE (Gonsalves L, Law B, Webb C, Monamy V (2013) Foraging Ranges of Insectivorous Bats Shift Relative to Changes in Mosquito Abundance. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64081. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064081). I was looking forward to the publication of this paper. It presented some of the research from a very exciting project investigating the ecological role of mosquitoes in coastal environments. I was also excited about publishing in PLoS ONE and having some research more widely (and freely) available.

Since PLoS ONE provide metrics on each of their publications, I thought I’d take the opportunity to track some of the basic metrics to see if activity on social media may influence exposure of the publication. Each day, for almost four weeks, I made a record of the page views, downloads and “social shares” (Facebook and Twitter mentions). I made a conscience effort to split my “self-promotion” tweeting into three distinct periods, the first few days after publication, a week or so later and then an additional week later.

Rather than just track our paper, I thought I’d also track some other papers published on the same day. I choose two “mosquito-related” papers, one “general health” related paper and two “ecology” papers. In selecting these papers, I simply browsed the list of publications to see what else had been published that day, I didn’t give any consideration to what impact or “newsworthiness” these papers may inherently have.

 The five additional papers selected were:

Kim J-Y, Ji S-Y, Goo Y-K, Na B-K, Pyo H-J, et al. (2013) Comparison of Rapid Diagnostic Tests for the Detection of Plasmodium vivax Malaria in South Korea. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064353 [the “malaria” paper]

Villabona-Arenas CJ, Mondini A, Bosch I, Schimitt D, Calzavara-Silva CE, et al. (2013) Dengue Virus Type 3 Adaptive Changes during Epidemics in São Jose de Rio Preto, Brazil, 2006–2007. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63496. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063496 [the “dengue” paper]

Winkvist A, Bertz F, Ellegård L, Bosaeus I, Brekke HK (2013) Metabolic Risk Profile among Overweight and Obese Lactating Women in Sweden. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63629. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063629 [the “lactation” paper]

Jessopp M, Cronin M, Hart T (2013) Habitat-Mediated Dive Behavior in Free-Ranging Grey Seals. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63720. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063720 [the “seal” paper]

Moody EK, Sabo JL (2013) Crayfish Impact Desert River Ecosystem Function and Litter-Dwelling Invertebrate Communities through Association with Novel Detrital Resources. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63274. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063274 [the “crayfish” paper]

On the day of publication, as is usually the case with new publications, I tweeted about the paper and provided a link to PLoS ONE. I also sent an email around to my “mosquito research” colleagues. In addition, I wrote a blog post, the buzz of bat conservation, that put the paper into context with the broader research project. I tweeted about that too, in fact I probably tweeted links to the blogpost more than the paper directly during those first few days. The paper’s lead author, Leroy Gonsalves, tweeted about the paper and blog post too.

I think it is important to note that, much to my disappointment and notwithstanding media releases from both the Australian Catholic University and University of Sydney media offices, I am not aware of any substantial coverage of our paper in the online or traditional media. All the promotion for this paper seemed to come from social media.

 So, what happened?

 Firstly, how much exposure did our publication get via social media? The chart below shows the total daily blog post views and “social shares” of the publication itself. You can see the results of my tweeting about the blog post early on. I guess it is hard to say how many people who read the blog post then went on to view or download the paper. There were, however, also number of tweets linking to the paper directly over the first few days. The additional periods of active “tweet promotion” were between 15-17 May and 24-25 May and you can see the resulting increase in “social shares” during those periods. It is also interesting to note that “social shares” on the 19 May too that, from what I understand, was not prompted by any active tweeting on my behalf.

The total daily blog post views and social shares of our publication

The total daily blog post views and social shares of our publication

How did this change the exposure of the publication?

Looking at the chart of cumulative page views, you can see that, as expected, all the papers had a quick jump in the first couple of days following publication and then the number of page views remained the same for the rest of the week. A couple of interesting observations from that first week. Our paper, along with the “malaria” paper, had the most page views at around 400. While we had put our efforts into social media (with plenty of tweets and a total of 14 “social shares”), there were no “social shares” of the “malaria” paper. The paper with the most “social shares” was the “seal” paper with 28 but less than 200 page views had occurred in that first week.

Total daily page views of our publication along with five additional papers published on the same day.

Total daily page views of our publication along with five additional papers published on the same day.

After a week or so, I put some effort into tweeting about the paper, this time linking directly to the publication. I also tried tweeting at times when people in the US and UK may be more likely to be online. Over this time, there was approximately another 20 “social shares” of our paper. The chart shows the resulting boost in page views over that next week or so. While all the other papers maintained a relatively consistent number of page views, ours jumped substantially so that by the end of the second week we’d had almost twice as many page views. There was no substantial boost in social shares of the other five papers.

A week or so later (now about two weeks after publication), I repeated the same amount of tweets with links to our publication. This third burst of tweets failed to repeat the noteworthy increase of earlier efforts. Why? Perhaps by the time I got around to my third burst of tweeting, any of my followers who were interested in this work had already checked out the paper or had already retweeted my messages on earlier occasions.

There is also the possibility that the spike in page views of our article may not have been the result of that second batch of tweeting. Perhaps there was some kind of delay between people seeing the links and accessing the paper? Could you trace that spike in interest back to the initial “social media push”?

Clicking a link is one thing but was the paper downloaded?

It is interesting to compare the cumulative rates of page views to the cumulative rate of downloads. In the chart of cumulative daily downloads of our publication below, you can see that a very similar trend is followed. After an initial rise and plateau, there is a secondary jump in downloads. There is a similar increase in the number of downloads of all the papers but it is quite dramatic in ours. However, after two weeks or so, and despite additional tweets with links to the paper, downloads grow at a very slow rate. This trend is also shown in the download data of the other publications.

Total daily downloads of our publication compared to five other publications published on the same day

Total daily downloads of our publication compared to five other publications published on the same day

Putting aside the debate around the timing of tweets their resulting influence on metrics, at the end of the three week period, our paper had received almost twice as many “social shares” as any of the other papers, and subsequently, substantially more page views and downloads. Surely the social media effort assisted in this result? I don’t want to draw too much from this relatively simple analysis but I think the resulting increase in exposure of the publication has been worth the relatively small amount of time invested in spreading the word via Twitter.

Lastly, I think it is important to make a note about the importance of the “traditional” media. As I mentioned earlier, I was both surprised and disappointed at the lack of coverage the publication received. I thought a new study that contributes some answers to one of the most commonly asked questions I get, “are mosquitoes good for anything?”, would have generated more interested. I guess all researchers think their research will attract wider interest!

So what happens when a paper is picked up and widely publicised? It is interesting to look at another recently published paper in PLoS ONE. Smallegange RC, van Gemert G-J, van de Vegte-Bolmer M, Gezan S, Takken W, et al. (2013) Malaria Infected Mosquitoes Express Enhanced Attraction to Human Odor. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063602 was published a week or so after ours on the 15 May. It is a great study with an interesting story. The researchers found that mosquitoes infested with malaria parasites are more attracted to humans than non-infected mosquitoes. It was really no surprised that it has been picked up by media outlets across the globe. There have been around 60 news items online that reference the paper, 325 “social shares” and the paper has been downloaded over 700 times. Could these numbers have been generated by social media alone? I have a sneaking suspicion that traditional media played a significant role in the promotion of this publication but social media, and the spread of links to both news coverage and the paper directly, must have played a role as well.

 UPDATE [6 March 2014]

It has now been around 10 months since our paper was published so I thought I’d revisit the metrics for all these papers to see if the trend we observed over the first few weeks continued.

Cumulative page views and downloads of six scientific papers published in PLOS ONE and respective "social media" shares

Cumulative page views and downloads of six scientific papers published in PLOS ONE and respective “social media” shares

It is interesting to see that our “Bats” paper received the most page views (2,186) over that time while the others ranged from 715 through to 1312. However, there wasn’t such a dramatic difference in the number of downloads with our paper downloaded 342 times compared to the 298 of the “Malaria” and 252 of the “Dengue” papers.

There is no doubt that our paper received the most “social shares” but it is also worth noting that there were plenty of Facebook shares of the “Seal” paper but that didn’t result in a boost to either page views or downloads compared to the other papers. In fact, there wasn’t much difference compared to papers with minimal or no “social shares”.

What does this mean almost a year on from publication? With regard to our paper, “social shares”, particularly Twitter, seemed to boost the number of page views we received. Given the result with the “Seals” paper, it is tempted to suggest that Twitter shares are more important than Facebook shares but I suspect I may be drawing a long bow on that one.

I don’t see anything in this analysis that suggests it isn’t worth putting in a bit of effort to promote new publications via social media. It would have been interesting to see what these metrics were like had one of these six papers tracked had been picked up by traditional media outlets. I suspect that working closely with your institution’s media office will be just as important, probably more so, than just relying on send out a few tweets.