Les Gilbert, 1946 – 2021

Les Gilbert

Les in Spain by Gillian Chaplin

Les Gilbert – musician, composer, sound recordist and multimedia company director – has died on 17 August, aged 75.

Les was not formally a member of the AWSRG, focusing on his own extremely time-consuming work, however he has been an important figure in Australian nature recording. He attended the Rotamah Island gathering in the early pre-AWSRG days, and was a delegate at the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology conference in Melbourne in 2003, so many long-term AWSRG members will remember him. His 1990 Kakadu Billabong CD was a particular inspiration to myself.

This tribute to Les is offered by John Campbell, who did audio production and post-production work for him from 1992 to 2018.


Les didn’t receive a huge amount of publicity during his lifetime, as much of his later work was in the background, only known to insiders. As a young musician, and foundation member of The Wild Cherries, he was briefly in the public eye, but that was in the mid 1960s, and he quickly moved on from playing rock music to diversify his activities.

As his passion for wildlife sound recording developed, Les’ first recordings were done in the reel-to-reel magnetic tape era. He then switched to portable audio cassette machines. Next came digital media, initially using a Sony PCM-F1 recorder connected to a Betamax video machine, then progressing to the far more easily transported DAT recorders.

In the early 1980s, Les travelled around Australia collecting sounds, many of which he used in public sound installations. With the rapid development of sound and image technology in the 1980s, he set up a company that was at the forefront of presenting multimedia projects around the world. In the first few years of projects for museums, science centres, aquariums, zoos and other institutions, Les had time to make many recordings, travelling through every continent other than Antarctica during the 1990s and beyond.

As his multimedia company expanded, the role of company co-director increasingly resulted in there being less time for sound recording trips. He had however by this time created a significant archive of recordings, and was employing other people to continue adding to the collection.

Interested in the work of composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer (who passed away only a few days before Les), he borrowed Schafer’s term ‘soundscape’, and interpreted it as a way to intelligently present audio in public spaces. While the normal practice was (and often still is) to make a repeating sound loop, played through one or at most two highly visible loudspeakers, Les developed a way to create subtle immersive aural experiences. Multiple audio tracks from a set of CDs were played through multiple speakers, hidden from view if possible. Listeners received indirect sounds, reflecting off nearby surfaces, thus mimicking how sounds are frequently heard in natural environments.

A carefully compiled set of sounds relevant to an exhibit, usually derived from recordings made in the habitat or location specific to the exhibit, were programmed to be delivered randomly, so that visitors always heard a constantly changing soundscape. Motion sensors within an exhibit space enabled the controlling computer to increase or decrease the amplitudes of the the sounds, depending on visitor numbers. Thus creating a virtual reality, long before that term came into vogue.

As a recordist, Les will be best known for his CD, Kakadu Billabong, recorded in 1987, released in 1990. This was the first digitally recorded, commercially released Australian wildlife sound recording.

A transcript of part of a recorded interview with Les was published in AudioWings 2018 Vol.20 No.1. The complete recorded interview is available at the National Film and Sound Archive.

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