Behind the Scenes: Field Effects Recording Part 2
Not unlike the home theater industry, there exist manufacturer and consumer perpetuated "equipment envy" in the world of pro audio for music or film. Shiny boxes with fancy specs, fancy wiring and very fancy price tags. I have avoided many expensive preamps and portable hard disk recording units as a result. Not because they aren't good, but for me, they are not necessary. The bottom line is perception: does it sound good? This is always the desired result. My approach to sound is simple, and while much of the tech talk and geek speak has merit on paper, the bottom line is what comes out of the speakers. The flawless reproduction or capture of sound does not always equal the most pleasing playback. A lot of FX recordists have even used cassette tape to capture sound effects. Citing it's lack of quality as a "quality"; giving gunshots or explosions a dirty crunch or saturation that could not be achieved with a pristine digital recording.
My recording "rig" is a simple one if not slightly antiquated. An old Tascam Portable DAT (digital audio tape) recorder and an array of some pretty standard microphones. The workhorse being an AKG Stereo Microphone with mic capsules not much different than the ones you can pick up at Radio Shack. It's not the best rig on paper (as in the aforementioned 'specs'), but it has yielded me great results. It's packed in a hard-shell case not unlike what divers put their scuba gear in; and along with a pocket knife, duct tape, and zip ties for rigging cables, this is what I head into the field with.
The day of Hurricane Irene's scheduled arrival had come. It was a gray and wet Saturday morning and we headed to Cocoa Beach to meet her and hear what she had to say. While I don't recall the name of the street, as we approached the beach we had to cross the Merrit Island Bridge and waterway first. With the roads deserted and free of cars, we figured this would be an ideal place to capture water and wind in a unique environment. We had not planned it, but upon looking at the bridge, we figured we could capture many of the elements and sounds we had on our "want" list in one place. Wind on it's own carries no sound until it blows through or against something, so with the salt corroded bridge and steel communication towers overhead, the wind would be creating plenty of "noise". At the very least the bridge would provide us shelter should things get really bad.
One of the studio's interns came along to help. He was equipped with the same recording rig as me. His untrained ears would not yield the best judgement in terms of proper recording, but in this environment, a back up recording was a good idea. He and I pulled off on the road's shoulder as the bridge started it's climb over the raging Atlantic waterway. Not unlike pulling in front of your house with no umbrella during a downpour, we paused for a few seconds to figure out how we were going to carry $10,000 of recording equipment out of the car and under the bridge without standing in one place for too long. We decided to just throw caution to the wind and bolt.
Lugging our equipment clumsily and hurriedly, the sand below our feet whipped up into our mouths and eyes. It was hard to scream expletives with gloppy dirt clods being blasted into our throats. Once under the bridge we looked at each other and laughed at the insanity of what we were doing. We popped our cases open and took out our recording gear which was shrouded in garbage bags and duct tape so as to prevent damage to the equipment. The DAT recorders, garbage bags and all, then had to be placed into a backpack so the noise of rain and wind-whipped plastic didn't make it onto the recording. This made reaching the essential buttons on our equipment a little tricky, so we really had to get everything right before we committed the equipment to their knapsack coffins.
At this point we were under the bridge and getting shelter at least from above. I decided we should stand behind one of the pillars holding up the bridge. We'd get some protection there and we would be able to huddle down around our knapsacks and adjust our recording levels once we got settled. Since every recording environment is different, doing this before we got to our destination was not possible. We crouched low and pulled our mics out and put our headphones on. The wind was so loud outside, it was hard to hear what it sounded like in the headphones. We really had to crank up the output to hear what we were recording and how it sounded going to tape. It's important to remember that our ears hear things differently than microphones do. Headphones are essential when recording. I have a good habit of hitting the record button while I adjust my levels and mic positioning as you never know when something cool might happen, so you want to begin recording immediately. Even if you weren't ready for it, your machine will have captured it.
Recording wind was the first thing on the checklist and I came prepared. I brought along a cheap air conditioning filter with me as well. You've seen these before, a poly fiber filter framed in flimsy cardboard sold for 99 cents next to the extensions cords and Korean made pliers at your local hardware store. The idea was that wind would travel through it relatively unhindered as it does in an ac unit, but would protect the mics from sand, rocks and the rain which was not falling, but travelling horizontally at this point. Unfortunately, this idea worked a lot better on paper, because the minute I pulled the filter out, it literally disintegrated before our very eyes. The sand and water just ground this thing into a pulp of frayed blue plastic fibers and cardboard gruel. Great.
After tossing that to the side, and with a little trial and error, I found an ideal mic position to begin recording some hard wind gusts. It was the perfect blend of a desirable location to pick up a cool sound, as well as maintaining shelter and safety for us and the equipment. The machine was recording, the levels were good, and now came the waiting game. 10 or so minutes of uninterrupted recording and motionlessness. The mic does not move at this point. Body shifts, mouth noises and even breathing can all be picked up and interfere with a good recording (that's right, you have to hold your breath for 10 miutes - practice makes perfect). You want to go back to the studio with good sounds - and lots of them. A general rule of thumb is that once you've found something good, take the time to record lots of it.
Another important aspect of field recording is "coverage". Recording all possible angles from all possible distances. Obviously this does not apply in instances where different angles sound identical, but rather to those moments where the sonic quality is very different depending on where you stand. When watching a film, the camera angles are constantly changing, so the perceived location of the audio needs to as well. Something as simple as aiming the microphone towards a subject versus away from the subject can make a huge difference in the tonal qualities of the recording.
With that said, my partner and I moved closer to the churning water. We wanted to "color" the wind noise with some water elements. As we got closer to the ocean however we began to realize that it wasn't working as imagined. The wind was so brutal and loud, adding water to the recording just sounded like pure noise. It was near impossible to discern the water from the wind elements. After several failed attempts at different angles, we nixed the idea entirely….it just didn't sound the way it looked. It's ironic that the actual water activity depicted in the film was unfolding before our eyes, but the sound used in the film was most likely recorded from a body of water a lot less active and tame: containing more detailed and recognizable water elements. The churning white wash in front of us had none of the detail and discernable quality we needed.
As I said before, coverage is the key to a good field recording session, so we made sure to track everything we could from every angle. The water was something that was out of the question at this location, but there were some other very interesting water elements happening several yards away. There, water was sloshing up on to the shore in blanket sized waves and washing over the pebbles and rocks, creating an incredible gurgling sound. It sounded like a bear emitting a long watery burp. This was cool stuff we made sure to capture.
As the recording went on, we were plagued with many problems. Most specifically, debris hitting the microphones. Our shelter was enough to prevent the debris from damaging the mics, but not enough to prevent debris from striking the mics and ruining the quality sound we were getting. We'd hear this steady pinging noise in our headphones as the micro flecks of sand cracked up against the metal and plastic body of the microphone. The A/C filter was my attempt to protect the mics from this happening, but as mentioned earlier, it was useless in this weather.
By this point, an hour into recording, we were soaked to the bone. The wet clothes clung to our bodies like cold saran wrap. The sand and broken beach glass that the wind was whipping up made things even worse. Our discomfort only served to galvanize what a very risky and very moronic thing we were doing. The wind began to pick up and we knew we had to get moving as well. One more hour in this and we knew that we were going to get blown into the water or our mics would most likely be wrecked - if they hadn't been already. We climbed up the grass covered embankment from under the bridge to where it met the railings on the side of the road. We immediately spotted two police officers who had wisely used their cruisers as barricades preventing anyone from going over the bridge. We ducked and ran for cover immediately. If the police were to see us, we would surely be asked to leave if not forced to. Without even conferring, my partner and I knew that turning away at this point would be crazy. We had come this far and risked this much, we were not going back without capturing everything we could.
We lay there with our faces planted in the mud wondering if the cops had spotted us. Neither of us wanted to stand up to check. Soon however the rain and wind blasting against our backs outweighed our patience. We stood up to check and saw that the police had thankfully sought the shelter of their cruisers. In all the fear and commotion of having our session ended prematurely, we had not even noticed the sound that was coming from above us. Several massive communication towers easily over 150' tall were standing tall and strong, slicing the wind in half as mother nature pushed her hardest to knock them down. The vibration of these massive steel structures resonated like a thousand wolves howling. It's tones shifted and changed with each shift of the wind. We decided then and there that if we could capture something as cool as this and have it end up sounding as good as it was sounding now, we'd be more than happy. We aimed our mics and began. After about a half hour of recording the wind and the towers we called it a day. Our numb and soaked hands stuffed the equipment back into the trunk with slightly less meticulousness than when it was removed. We didn't care. We wanted out of there. We waved to the police as we left who seemed puzzled as to where we came from. After stuffing our faces with a well deserved lunch, we dropped the equipment off at the studio and decided we would not even listen to the material until the following Monday. A hot shower that night never felt so good.
The weekend was over and Monday had come. After unpacking the equipment and cleaning it off, I retired to my studio and locked the door. This was judgement time. Anyone who has ever done a field recording anticipates with part fear and part euphoria, the moment he checks his work. It comes long after the repetition of hearing the subject material for hours on end has left your brain. Your ears are fresh, unbiased, and ready to hear what you've done. The tray of the DAT player slid open and I carefully popped in the tape in and hit 'play'. To say these moments are anxious is an understatement. To come back from something like this empty-handed would be a major embarrassment. To come out with something useable, or even better, amazing , would make you a hero to the film's Sound Supervisor.
While I won't bore you with the details of everything I heard, I will say that I was disappointed. 2 hrs of solid recording time yielded what I believed was only about 3-5 minutes tops of useable material. Now, 2 hrs of useable material would be better, but several minutes is not a disaster either. A typical Hollywood feature can blow through 25 hrs of film to simply capture 2 hrs of quality stuff. This was a disappointment, but an acceptable one. In hindsight, I realized the problem was the monitoring in the field. The actual noise of the event was so loud, it drowned out what was in my headphones even though they were almost cranked to ten. My perception of the sound that was going to tape was an inaccurate one.
Regardless, I loaded all my material into my computer. I began the process of digitally editing and cleaning up the material. Whittling it down to all the useable elements; cutting out the sections where I cursed my bosses' name, removing noise and so forth. When I was finished, I placed all the final elements on another DAT, wrapped it in bubble wrap and dropped it in a FedEx envelope headed to Hollywood.
The call came in from the film's sound supervisor several days later. He liked the stuff and said it was very usable. In retrospect, it hardly was the ticker tape parade I was hoping for, but realistically speaking, the desired result was achieved. Being on the other side of the US, far from the mixing stages and edit rooms where the film is assembled, it is hard to know or place where my material ended up in the film. Unless it is something completely discerning and recognizable, finding a specific ambient sound (specifically the sound of wind and rain in a movie that is 90% wind and rain) could be like finding a needle in a haystack. After watching the movie on the big screen, I wasn't sure if it was even used at all. I should have called the Sound Supervisor afterwards to find out, but maybe deep down I didn't even want to know. I think I'd have rather imagined it was used and I just didn't catch it.
The next time you are watching a film, a cool exercise is to start mentally stripping away layers sounds you hear. Regardless of how believable and natural they seem and sound on screen, it's a pretty safe bet to say that they were added artificially after the filming was done. All of these sounds had to be captured. All of these sounds had to be created or in the case of a field FX recordist, found . It's an unfortunate irony and at the same time a great tribute that when a sound FX recordist does his job well, the audience is hypnotized into never noticing it.
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Part one of this article by Toby D. takes you behind the scenes into the work of a Field Effects Recordist and fills you in on some of the work that goes into making the feature films we all love to watch (and listen to). For much of Hollywood, the more unique the film, the greater the effort that is put into coming up with authentic and effective sounds that bring out the realism Producers, Directors, and Supervisors are looking for.
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