Acoustic Agriculturist

Whether he’s in a state-of-the-art studio with floating floors and soundproof walls or a soggy field in the swamp, Colby Leider, director of the Music Engineering Technology Program, hears music.

Traci Ardren

Leider, a Frost School of Music associate professor and trained organist with advanced music degrees from Dartmouth and Princeton, is consumed with exploring ways to use technology to manipulate and capture sounds of all kinds, particularly elements of nature. He has invented instruments ranging from the “elBo,” which resembles the bent elbow part of plumbing tubing and allows a musician to move sound around in space with a wave of the hand, to the “squeezeVox,” a gadget made from an accordion that can control various singing voice synthesis models.

In Leider’s research laboratory and classes, funding from the National Science Foundation CreativeIT program is enabling his students to integrate technology, computers, lasers, and musical composition to create new applications with potential commercial or medical uses. One project, for example, employs music and movement-sensing lasers to help Parkinson’s sufferers in physical therapy.

Another device in his lab, known as an autonomous long-term field recorder, is poised for a job in the southernmost reaches of the state. It will capture audio from a remote part of the Everglades only reachable by helicopter. While Leider records the audio, collaborating biologists study other markers.

“We’ll be gathering long-term sound recordings, along with continuous measurements of temperature, rainfall, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, barometric pressure, and ambient light levels,” explains Leider. “It will take a supercomputer to find useful information in a six-terabyte file that contains all of this information over a year’s duration.”

The Everglades is not just a research site for Leider, who hails from Austin, Texas. His one-acre home in Redland, Florida, is surrounded by it. There, he raises his two children as well as goats, ducks, chickens, dogs, and a rescued horse that his kids sometimes take to school on show-and-tell days.

He also launched the nonprofit experimental Everglade record label with his academician wife. They focus on producing electronica and sounds in danger of extinction.

Their distance from city life is good for recording in the studio and outside. On audio-gathering walks around his rural neighborhood, Leider uses portable digital equipment to collect sounds from the abundant nature and coexisting farm culture that he says could soon be silenced by encroaching development.

“Sprinkler,” a recent composition of Leider’s, does just that, sampling the powerful irrigation machinery at his next-door neighbor’s avocado grove.

Dina Weinstein

To hear a stereo downmix of Colby Leider’s original recording “Sprinkler,” visit