The Macaulay Archivist Whose Career Spanned Analog and Digital Eras

By Kathi Borgmann
December 22, 2020
Martha Fisher. Photo by Diane Tessaglia-HymesMartha Fisher with Great Blue Heron. Photo by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes.

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If you’ve ever listened to an audio recording in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, chances are you’ve heard the voice of Martha Fischer as she slowly announces the catalog number at the start of a clip.

In Fischer’s 23 years as a Macaulay Library sound archivist (she retired in 2020) she catalogued nearly 50,000 audio recordings. Thousands of people hear her reciting catalog numbers as they browse sounds in the online archive. Does Fischer realize that her voice is famous? “I know,” she says, with a laugh and a hint of embarrassment.

Fischer started working as an archivist in 1997. “It was the pre-digital era,” she says, when the Macaulay Library was known as the Library of Natural Sounds. Nowadays, processing and archiving digital recordings is a relatively painless process, thanks to the ease of data transfer. But back then, working with sounds was a whole different world. Cassette tapes would arrive in the mail, or recordists would come to the Cornell Lab to spend weeks or months working with archivists.

Martha Fischer is also an accomplished field recordist, having contributed more than 500 of her own recordings to the archive. In this video she chronicles a recording expedition to remote Bathurst Island, Canada.

To archive the tapes, Fischer would set up 10-inch reels on two audio recorders called Studers—top of the line playback and recording machines now considered antiques—one reel on each machine. Fischer would then drop the cassette into a cassette player and listen for the spot in every recording that was the loudest. Finding that point was a painstaking manual process, adjusting the sound levels over and over to make sure that every single recording in the archive had a consistent volume. She’d then rewind the cassette tape and copy the recordings to the 10-inch reel—the archival standard at the time.

As the Studer starts up the gears make a sound that is music to Fischer’s ears, “I love the sound of that machine,” Fischer says. Then she’d hit record and gracefully announce the LNS catalog number. The whole process, Fisher said, depends on the quality of recording, but if it’s a good recording, a one-minute recording would take five minutes to archive. Most of the time though, Fischer would get a 60-minute cassette tape filled with recordings of several species from several days out in the field. Processing a cassette tape’s worth of recordings would often take two to three hours.

But that’s not the end of the archival process, Fischer then had to put each species song or call on a “species reel”—a tape that compiles vocalizations from a single species. To do that Fischer walked back to the collection room, grabbed the species reel, queued it up on the Studer and then spliced on the new audio using a razor and a foot of non-magnetic leader tape (to add silence between the recordings). She’d repeat the process for every species on the 60-minute cassette.

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By the early 1990s, the cassette tape started to fade away in favor of digital technology. In 2000, the Macaulay Library started the long process of converting each of the archived analog recordings in the archive to a digital recording. After painstakingly archiving analog tapes, Fischer suddenly found herself transferring Studer reels to digital files on a hard drive.

“It quickly became obvious how useful and easily accessible audio is when it’s digital,” Fischer says. “All of the sudden instead of listening to an entire recording to find the loudest part, I had a visual image of the whole recording and I could instantly see the loudest point and adjust the levels with a push of a button. It was so fast.”

Even with the ease of digital audio Fischer says there is still a need for archivists—the backbone of the Macaulay Library. They ensure the archive is organized, keep the taxonomy up to date, verify species identifications, and comb hundreds of thousands of clips for exceptional recordings to feature in Merlin, Birds of the World, the Guide to Bird Sounds, and other collections. And, says Fischer, to “insist that recordists supply us not only with recordings but also with meaningful data for each of their recordings—a complete audio specimen.”

 

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