Sound Effects Recording, April 1997The world is full of sounds that are too often taken for granted. Those of us who spend huge chunks of our lives in studios and listening rooms, analyzing 5/17/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
The world is full of sounds that are too often taken for granted. Those of us who spend huge chunks of our lives in studios and listening rooms, analyzing the soundstages and wet and dry properties of a particular musical recordings, rarely take the time to focus our awareness and appreciation of the natural sonic richness that surrounds us every day.
Field recording for film and television and for ambient augmentation in musical settings requires much more than a mere documentary approach. An essential understanding of the gestalt of the cinematic or musical moment in which the ambient recording is to be applied is essential for conveying the proper tone. For example, if a scene is melancholy, then the audio environment around it should enhance or otherwise respond to that mood.
In the following sections, four sound designers/field recordists offer a variety of perspectives on their craft. All these professionals have spent significant amounts of time in the field, alone with their DAT machines, Nagras and mics, capturing sounds in every place imaginable.
Christopher Boyes wanted to be a part of movie-making since his early teens. For years, he thought that his calling was in camera work before he finally plunged into the realm of sound field recording, editing and mixing. Wearing the various hats of sound designer, re-recording/Foley/ADR and effects mixer, Boyes has amassed an impressive list of credits, including The Rock, Mission Impossible, The Lost World, Volcano, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jurassic Park, James and the Giant Peach and many more. Boyes won the 1995 Cinema Audio Society Award for Best Re-recording Mixer for his work on the television special Indiana Jones and His Hollywood Follies. He also won the Motion Picture Society of Film Editors 1994 Best Field Recordist and Best Foley Mixer for Jurassic Park. His bonzai dedication to field recording inspired renowned sound designer and mentor Gary Rydstrom to call him “the Indiana Jones of effects recordists.”
“Jurassic Park II [The Lost World, due out this summer] was a big challenge, only because I made it that way. Basically, we knew it was going to be more dinosaurs and more action, and it was going to take place, to a certain extent, in a tropical atmosphere. I flew down to Costa Rica, hired two guides for five days each, and went into jungles, both in the mountainous regions and down on the coastal areas. I recorded 25 DATs worth of tropical ambiences and everything that you can imagine, including volcanoes and alligators. It was a good trip.
“Whenever I go off recording on that kind of scale, I like to capture every time of the day. Audiowise, Costa Rica is really graphic. There is something different happening at every time of the day and night. In the morning, you get these incredible crickets that sound like a burst of a shower nozzle, but with articulation and brightness. They come in right as the sun is coming up. Sometimes you get them at sunset. You only get a three- or four-minute period where this happens. It is the most incredible sound, and anybody hearing it would feel like they are in the most prehistoric place on Earth.
“To get a really clean articulate ambience is difficult. It taxes you creatively and physically, because one, you have to find a place that can give you a beautiful natural ambience; two, you have to get there at a time when you are not going to be adulterated by either motor sounds on the ground or planes in the air; and three, you have to have absolutely superb equipment to get a clean ambience. Everything comes to bear in that.
“The second hardest thing would be animal vocalizations because, unlike humans, they do not perform well. Typically, if they see a microphone, they will think it is a gun. As a result, they clam up, so you have to have an amazing amount of patience. Tame animals are worse than wild ones. At one point, I wanted to record a hippopotamus, and I think I sat there for four hours before it gave one vocalization, but it was worth the wait.
“I have invested a lot of money in microphones and equipment. I bought a Neumann RSM191. On the first night out in Costa Rica we were trying to record owls, and we somehow managed to pull a little bit on the cables going into the mic, and it came apart. We took it apart, and it was like jewelry inside, and you breathed on the cables and it looked like they could come apart. Luckily, I was able to fix it with my Swiss army knife and gaffers tape. I think it sounds great, but I think it’s not robust enough for the kind of stuff that we do. For field recording, the most durable mic that I have used is the sister mic to that Neumann RSM191, the KMR81.
“Granted, not everyone tromps into the jungle like I do, but from my point of view every film should have a significant amount of new, fresh sounds that nobody has ever heard before. If someone is doing major sound effects for major films and not doing things like that, then you have to wonder if they are recycling effects. I am a really strong advocate of recording effects for the purposes of sound design for each film that are fresh and new.
“I don’t really like the idea of a broad mic for some ambiences. In the jungle, it’s amazing. You move your mic 180 degrees—especially if it’s a slightly directional mic—and the sound you hear is absolutely different than the sound you heard in the previous position. I would rather get the ambience in one location from two or three perspectives, as opposed to getting that whole ambience from a 360-degree perspective. Then I can mix it as I like. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t use a nice set of omnidirectionals for some ambiences. Certainly, some ambiences aren’t that directionally sensitive, in terms of the quality of the sound. But when you are deep in the jungle, there is all different sorts of wildlife.
“By and large, 90 percent of the stuff we do is done with DAT. [Boyes uses an HHB PortaDat, or a Sony D8; but he only uses the Sony for laying down numbers, and then only in conjunction with a Luna-tech preamp and Apogee AD1000 A/D converter.] I would hesitate to use a Nagra for ambiences. That is an area where DAT really shines. DAT has totally revolutionized effects recording because of its portability and also its economics. On the other hand, the Nagra is, by all means, a viable player. I wouldn’t want to work on a production where there wasn’t access to one. I do love them. For Volcano, we recorded a lot of loud explosions. I had some guys out at a rock quarry, dumping dynamite down 30-foot holes, for base effects for lava bursting up through the Earth. We sent out a DAT and a Nagra, and, without any doubt, the Nagra was much better in terms of low-end response and dynamic range, and in terms of forgiveness if there was any sort of apparent distortion. It was sort of sucked up in the analog medium, whereas the DAT would have a problem.
“At one point in Costa Rica, while I was waiting around to record any given ambience, I noticed that the mud I was standing in, which was around six to 12 inches deep, made a very powerful sound. I started recording that. That turned out great and is going to make its way into Lost World and Volcano in separate entities, for things like dinosaurs eating and for lava glops. You can be anywhere in the world looking for one thing out in the field, and if you stumble across something else, you never know what you’ll use it for.”
Roger Pardee grew up in the Midwest with a desire to get into the movie business. Getting into the industry via the academic route seemed to make the most sense, so Pardee studied film in graduate school at the University of Southern California, where he discovered that recording sound held the greatest appeal. Pardee hooked up with supervising sound editors Jay Wilkinson and John Larsen to work at John Glascock’s Location Sound Services in the early ’80s. It was the beginning of what has been a successful, ongoing relationship.
Pardee’s film credits include Waterworld, Tombstone, Geronimo, Last Action Hero, Trespass, Raising Cain, The Doctor, Red Heat, Rambo III and To Live and Die in L.A., among many others. When he isn’t working on productions, Pardee teaches courses in film sound recording to undergrads and grad-school candidates at USC.
“Sometimes the logistics of field recording can get difficult. For Men in Black [currently in post-production at C5 in New York], Hamilton Sterling somehow tracked down a gentleman who owned a small jet engine and could trailer it out to Mirage dry lake and tow it back and forth, while Hamilton and I recorded it. It was worth it. To record a real jet screaming past a few feet from your face could make you nervous—you might spill your coffee and hurt someone.
“I have recorded an awful lot of vehicles. It seems to be a kind of a specialty. The first time I had to record cars was for To Live and Die in L.A. . I filled up tape after tape, teaching myself how to do it. There is no big trick to recording a car starting and driving away, or a car driving by. The trick is for the shots where you are tracking alongside the car. It is not an interior sound. It’s more of a mixture of the sound that comes from the engine compartment, and also the exhaust, and a little bit of tire work. That kind of sound doesn’t always play well in a movie.
“Basically, what I ended up doing was putting a mic under the engine compartment and another mic back by the tailpipe and mixed the two together. I used the term ‘onboard’ to distinguish that from an ‘interior’ sound. An ‘interior’ sound is distinctive, too, but it’s not real exciting, in terms of drama, if you are just driving along in a car, with the windows rolled up. You don’t really hear a lot of engine, yet that’s an element that you would like to have, when you have a shot of the good guy driving along inside the car. So what I do is record a simultaneous onboard track and a stereo interior track, using two synched DATs. That way, when you are inside of the car, you could play the interior and sweeten it with the onboard engine sound. We have used that technique with quite a bit of success. For onboards, I tend to use dynamic mics, like RE-15s, because they are very sturdy and can take a little bit of heat. You could put a condenser mic in the engine compartment, but it’s not the best treatment for an expensive condenser mic.
“Miking the engine compartment isn’t hard, but miking the tailpipe gets tricky because of the wind noise when the car is in motion. After some extensive R&D, we designed some special wind-noise attenuators. It’s true that they look like old coffee cans, lined with carpet, but that is only because we never got around to painting them! I tend to use an RE-15 or a Shure dynamic back by the tailpipe. We tend to have those pretty rigged.
“I use a Sony TCD-D10 Pro DAT recorder with Schoeps hypercardiod mics, typically. For more rugged stuff, we have some EV RE-15s that go back many years; they’re practically indestructible. And I have some other mics I’ve accumulated. But rattling off equipment lists isn’t that revealing. What’s more important is decent mic placement and a sound source with character. I’ve recorded some really nice effects using analog cassette decks and $40 mics; I just happened to be standing in a good spot during a good sound. You don’t have to be an audiophile. After all, you can take Madonna’s voice and run it through some Art Deco preamp the size of a cinder block, but it’s still going to come out sounding like Madonna. Personally, I’d rather hear some low-fi recording of Billie Holiday.
“There are guys waxing enthusiastic over certain mic preamps now, like they are some kind of fine wine. The gimmick is to have huge knobs and dials on everything. It’s like a fad. I’m sure they sound fine, but it sometimes strikes me as absurd and trendy. It’s like ‘Here is my Rack-O-Gear.’ Yeah, I’ve got a rack-o-gear, but how interesting is it to rattle on and on about what’s in the rack. If having a rack full of the latest shiny gear gives you goosebumps, then go ahead. It’s harmless fun. But I’m not sure it’s that important. I’d rather hear sophisticated dialog out of a crude sound system than the reverse. Isn’t it what you do with it that matters?
“When I teach intro film sound classes, I like to reassure the students that they do not have to be engineering or computer wizards to do creative sound work. In a sense, you need to become just comfortable enough with the technology so that you can ignore it, because if you’re busy thinking about SCSI drives and file management, then you’re not thinking about the story and the feel of the sounds.
“I like to start by playing a series of sound effects and getting people to discuss the feelings they evoke. Then you can start to analyze the causes of the feelings. Some sounds have subjective memories and associations linked to them: The clickety whir of a Lionel train set can trigger intense nostalgia in some baby boomers. Or you can look at the objective character of the sound—maybe one reason that gentle surf is so soothing is because it’s analogous to the heavy, regular breathing of someone sound asleep. Once you start thinking in those terms you begin to appreciate how even fairly mundane sounds like air conditioning can have character. In the end you ask yourself, is the sound interesting? Is it involving? Does it do any good?”
With over 30 features to his credit, Ben Cheah’s sound effects and field recording work have graced films like Fargo, Big Night, Casino, Lone Star and Get Shorty. Cheah currently works in New York at C5 Inc., one of the East Coast’s premier post houses. Prior to his job at C5, Cheah spent the last half of the ’80s in Australia working as a sound engineer.
“Part of making quality sound effects is recording the live, organic elements of those sounds. Without good original sounds, it’s difficult to make original sound effects. It doesn’t matter how simple or complex the sound is going to be, it all depends on the source sound that you have. It’s important to have original source material in every soundtrack for making things sound like they don’t just come from a [sound library] CD. Otherwise, you find different sound editors from every sound house using the same sets of CDs, and that really limits the amount of fresh material that’s coming in. When you are doing location recording, you are able to fine-tune perspectives, whereas the people who are limited to just using libraries are usually stuck to the one perspective that has been offered.
“There’s a lot to be said for recording with Nagras, especially for percussive sounds—gun shots and explosions. Generally, I record to Sony TCD-D10 Pro II DAT and [usually] use two mic setups: a Schoeps MS pair, and a Neumann XY pair. I also use a high-quality French mic preamp called an EEA. I think the Sony is a very hardy machine, and it’s at a good price. If I get another machine, I might get the HHB. I like the fact that it has a flexible sampling rate. “Our job is highlighting drama in a scene, be it a very subtle moment or a very violent moment. We are trying to create more interesting elements and dimension through the use of sound. You are often overacting the drama with sound, but that is the way that you can translate things into telling the story. It adds a whole extra dimension to the scene. The emphasis is on drama, and recording it in the correct situation.
“For instance, when you are recording vehicles, the real thing usually doesn’t sound big enough. If you find the right vehicle, and you drive it in and follow the action, it doesn’t sound dramatic enough, so you have to screech the car in and out to make it sound right. Otherwise, the difference between reality and filmmaking falls apart.”
Dennis Hysom has enjoyed substantial success wearing the hats of producer, composer, musician and field recordist for numerous environmentally inspired audio CDs that feature his extensive field recording work and evocative compositions. Of particular note is his series of releases for The Nature Company, inspired by the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places program to protect wilderness habitats of rare and endangered species. The titles include Cloud Forest, Glacier Bay, Caribbean, Bayou and Badlands. Hysom (currently a recording artist for the BMG Kidz label) has also recorded six children’s albums, including the Parent’s Choice Gold Award-winning Song Play Hooray! He resides in Sonoma County, Calif., north of San Francisco, but for his environmental recordings, Hysom has traveled from Alaska to Costa Rica and points in between to capture desired sounds.
“Most of the problems that you find in field recording can be solved if you are patient and persistent and if you plan carefully enough. If you have done your research and know where your species are and have talked to all of the various park rangers involved in managing the wilderness areas, then you can pretty much locate what you want to record. So most of the problems can be avoided.
“For my very first Nature Company project, the one that I did in the Costa Rican rainforest, I took a Nagra. You get these little reels that will last a total of about seven minutes, which in the field is just nothing. It’s also very heavy. After I got back, I bought a Sony TCD-D10 Pro portable field recorder. I also bought a Sanken CMS-7. It has a front microphone, as well as two side microphones that are configured in a figure-eight pattern, so that you can move the stereo sound around to be as wide as you want. It is really a wonderfully versatile and durable microphone. I have had it in rainstorms, in steamy, hot weather, and I’ve never had it fail. I also have a backup machine, which is a Tascam DA-P1. It’s a nice, quiet machine, but I don’t think it’s built as durably as the Sony, which is a real solid workhorse.
“It is getting to be a very crowded world, and it’s very difficult to get truly natural sounds for any length of time at all. With its sensitivity, the gear can pick up a lot of human sounds like machines, boats, saws and airplane noises. Consequently, I have to do a lot of editing. For every hour I record, I may come up with a minute of sound that is not only quiet but also interesting. You can sit out there in the field for eight hours at a time and not get anything until something special takes place. In North Dakota, for example, I sat out most of the night trying to record coyotes. Then, finally, there may be two or three cries right near you.
“While we were in Alaska, we went out for a couple of days to record stellar sea lions. There were these small little islands all over the area where they gathered. The boat captain actually took me out on the bow of the boat, and he pulled up fairly close to the two colonies. Each colony of sea lions is looked after by an alpha bull, and both of them were warning me away with these really low belching sounds. I had this really great stereo recording of a bull on the right and a bull on the left warning me away from their harems. We were floating in a rough sea, and we were going extremely up and down, and I was up there trying to balance myself, holding the microphone. It was frightening because the rail of the boat wasn’t very high, and it would’ve been very easy to lose equipment or fall over into the freezing water. We were within 12 to 15 feet of rock outcroppings, and the boat captain was constantly having to backpedal because the water was pushing the boat toward the rocks. It was pretty wild.
“My favorite part of an entire production, from the concept planning stage to the final mastering and duplication process, is scouting out a location and going in and recording. Most of the time, there is something so peaceful about doing it. It’s pretty serene, even though it can get a little hairy once in a while.”