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Tuesday
Mar112014

New York Times Op-Doc

Last year I mixed a 40 minute film by a local film maker named Kelly O'Brien called Softening.  It was a really powerful film about how a family learns to live with a son born with severe cerebral palsy.  The film is a roller coaster of emotion that breaks your heart at times, while also making you laugh out loud at others.  

The sound mix for the film was sometimes a challenge for me because Kelly wanted it to be a really sparse soundtrack.  Long stretches of the film were supported with only multi-layered ambiences, and music was left for only special select sequences.  My first pass at the sound edit was much busier then what we ended up with.  But after some trial and error we pulled everything way back.  In the end this approach was exactly what the film needed.  The quiet sequences allow a lot of the heavy content to settle over the audience.

The film made the rounds in the festival circut and was really well recieved where ever it played.  As a result it found its way to the editors of the New York Times Op-Docs series.  At their request Kelly re-cut parts of the film down to make a 5 minute version of the film that focues on the perspective of the 6 year sister in the family.  After remixing this new version, it is now up on the Times site for all to see.

If you have a spare 5 minutes please take the time to watch this touching short film.  I don't think you will regret it.

 

Saturday
Oct192013

The Peculiarities of Audio Shop Talk

This world of professional audio requires us to have a handle on of a lot of different makes and model numbers for all the many items of gear we use to make great sounds.  Most manufacturers will have different versions of the same basic product, so with each new release announcement, you have one more little detail to file away in your brain - often it's something like the difference between the 6032 and the 6042 or some other seemingly random sequence of numbers.  Recalling specific model numbers is not one of my strengths - I can rhyme off the differences between different models fairly easily, but I'm not so good at keeping the numbers straight. And you might think proper names would be better, but anyone who's needed to consult Google to remind themselves which species of cat they are currently running as an OS will know that it's not really a more intuitive solution.  

This whole make and model thing can be problematic because this is a business where normal educational milestones are sometimes not as important as one's fluency in shop-talk.  I imagine that a job interview in the standard business world might involve at least an acknowledgment of one's degrees and diplomas and some school name-dropping.  Not in this game though.  I have never been asked what degree I have or where I went to college - it's just not nearly as important as what projects I have worked on and who I know.  A familiar job interview scenario involves a studio owner throwing gear names around to see if the prospective hire can follow along or, better yet, has their own opinions on which model/version of "widget X" they prefer.  This is something I have been tripped up by in the past, getting confused over which version is which during a conversation.  Given a minute or two, I usually manage to prove that it is my memory for names that's a bit weak and not my overall knowledge of the gear in question. The industry seems to thrive on building up it's own language that outsiders don't really understand and that distinguishes the old pros from the newbies.

I'm sure everyone's experienced this embarrassing moment before: the mispronounced product name. There are a number of audio brands that are pronounced differently in different countries.  For instance: when I was in college we recorded all the sync sound for our student films on Nagra reel-to-reel recorders.  I loved those wonderful workhorses and had great fun learning to use them.  They are built like tanks and can be relied on to get the job done.  The malfunctions came later when I graduated and started interacting with the international audio community.  Here in Toronto we pronounce it "NA-gra" with an "a" like "apple" - but in other cities and countries, particularly in the US, it is pronounced "NAW-gruh".  Not different enough to cause confusion, but evidently different enough to raise some eyebrows.  Same goes for the "mogue" vs "mooo-g" pronounciation of the synth manufacturer Moog.  I've been pronouncing it wrong since the 80s.  I found out that I was incorrect because I heard straight from Bob Moog himself how it should be pronounced:

My excuse? When I was a kid, I was an avid fan of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team and they had a goalie named Andy Moog; the play by play announcers always called him out as "Mooo-g" and I'm sure that's why I latched on to saying the name that way as well. I later learned that Andy also prefers the "mogue" way of saying it.  

I also suspect that living in close proximity to Niagara Falls has influenced people in this area to say Nagra in a similar way, with a "na" instead of "naw". How they pronounce it at the Kudelski HQ in Switzerland? No idea, but I'm almost positive it's neither of the above.

Another name that's tripped up almost every North American english-speaking audio pro is Schoeps.  This German microphone manufacturer's handle is unusual enough that I'm not sure anyone on this side of the Atlantic is really getting it right, though a lot of audio geek one-upmanship has pivoted on this one little word. I'd been very familiar with the brand and its products for many years before I ever actually said the name out loud.  In my head that whole time I had been saying "show-ps" but I have since learned that the consensus seems to be "sheps". To settle the argument, I have confirmed this by snooping around the videos on the brand's website.  Although the employees who say it onscreen have thick German accents, I think "sheps" is close enough to pass muster. 

To complicate matters, I went and picked a name for my own company, Azimuth, that is is pronounced very differently from how it looks.  Those unfamiliar with the word might say it: "as-eye-mooth" but it's actually "as-a-myth". Old habits die hard though, and many people in my family still regularly mispronounce my company's name, even after eleven years in business!

At least my first name is phonetically no fuss, no muss.  It's pretty hard to say "Tim" incorrectly, right?  

Beyond the confusion caused by pronunciation, audio companies also like naming things with acronyms, often confoundingly missing key letters.  For instance Protools' first de-noising plugin was called DINR.  I have heard it pronouced "diner", "dinner" or simply spelled out as "dee-eye-en-are".  I actually still don't know what the proper way is, but luckily I use newer, much better, and more straightforwardly-named plugins, like RX* , and don't give much thought anymore to DINR. One less thing to remember! 

(Although I have heard RX's manufacturer pronounced as both Eye-zo-tope and ice-i-tope)

I am sure as I get older I will have more and more trouble with all the model and version numbers out there.  For now at least I have "play," "record" and "save" all figured out, and really how much more do you need?!

Have I missed any obvious pronunciation trip-ups that you've fallen victim to?  Please pass them along in the comments or through Twitter.  Catch me @azimuthaudio.

Wednesday
Jul032013

Going for a Skate..... with Microphones!

Canadian-ness is often an underlying theme of my blog posts. Any international readers out there will have had the chance to learn a little something about Canadian wildlife, our winter weather, even local politics... hey, you name it. The sounds I've collected and write about are often things that are specific to this part of the world, and for that reason, aren't well represented in commercial sound effects libraries that are designed to sell in the U.S.A. or in the world market. I go and record new sounds because I can't find what I need in my library, but also because I like to get out and explore and document in sound the spaces I live in. 

Now, I bet if you took a poll, either inside this country or out of it, people would say that the most Canadian space of all is an ice-rink or a hockey arena. And because hockey and skating are such a big part of our culture, there's often a call for skating effects for TV shows and films produced here. With that in mind, and because I've actually spent a lot of my non-working time on the ice playing hockey, I decided I really ought to get around to recording some good new skating sounds - bringing together two of my big interests into one, hopefully fun, project. 

Ice rinks can be loud places.  It's rare to have access to a quiet indoor sheet of ice.  The buildings have loud vents pumping in cold air and compressors are running to keep the ice frozen.  Arenas are often not built with acoustics in mind so they are big echoey open spaces.  Then you normally have lots of people skating around making noise while others mill about in the corridors and dressing rooms just off the ice.  So recording the detailed sounds of ice skating was going to require some kind of strategy to get myself alone on the ice.

My first idea was to get some time in an arena when no one else would be around.  Rink-time at an arena is certainly available for rent, but it's not cheap. An hour of ice time would put me in the hole about $300 - definitely not in my budget (which was closer to $0.) So I tried to find a time when I could get on the ice for free during a quiet time.  I figured that a good time might be first thing in the morning when an arena first opens for the day. In Canada it's pretty common for kids and adults to play hockey early in the morning prior to going to school or work.  The arenas open a bit in advance of the first game to let everyone get their gear on and settle in before anyone actually takes the ice, so my plan was to be there right when the rink opened, throw on a pair of skates super fast and hit the ice with my recording gear before anyone else arrived.

My plan worked pretty well actually. I picked an arena that I knew would be amenable, and I was alone on the ice for about 20 minutes skating around with my shotgun mic pointed at my feet. Turns out it's kind of tricky to skate really fast while hunched over pointing a mic at your feet. I was actually surprised at how clean these recordings turned out.  You can hear natural reverb from the space but it is actually not too imposing.  The buzzing of the rink compressors is pretty muted too. Take a listen: 

Still, I was looking for a really tight detailed sound of the skates cutting into the ice as they propelled forward.  The best way to cut down on the environmental sounds of an arena was to avoid arenas entirely.  Since I live in a cold weather country it's possible to skate outdoors on rivers and lakes for about 3 months a year.  Skating on a river would eliminate the machine noise and echo of an enclosed building, but would introduce nature sounds into the equation.  After a few tests, I found that natural ice was not a good option because of the rough texture of the ice surface.  When a river freezes on its own it has lots of cracks and bumps along the surface and these imperfections created lots of excess noise when the blade of a skate slides across the top. Impossible to record clean skating strides in those circumstances.

Here I am testing out the natural ice by going for a New Years day skate

Now, luckily, Toronto has a few locations that are a bit of a hybrid of the smooth clean ice of a traditional arena and the outdoor quieter surroundings of a frozen lake. They are called "skating paths" and they're maintained and kept artificially frozen, providing pleasure skaters with smooth and perfect artificial ice in a quieter setting.  Skating paths are a relatively new addition to the parks in the region, and they have quickly become popular attractions during the winter months.  Imagine a roller rink that's outdoors on ice and you get an idea. So I found a perfect surface to skate on, but the rest of the environment didn't seem ideal for recording the clean specific skating sounds I was looking for. The problem is that the skating paths I'd found are mostly located in very busy public parks and they normally have music playing for people to listen to as they leisurely skate with their friends and family.     

There was one path that looked more promising though.  Colonel Sam Smith Skating Trail is located in suburban Toronto, a little off the beaten path, near the shore of Lake Ontario, far away from any major traffic zones.  The other major plus for this location was that although it was officially closed after midnight, all that meant was that the lights were turned off.  There was no fence to keep skaters away in the wee hours of the night.  This meant I could go for a skate at 3 AM and avoid the crowds, canned music, and ambient noise that fill the air in the daytime.

Here is a quick video that was shot when some friends and I went to the Colonel Sam Smith Skating Trail during the day for a few laps around the ice.  It will give you an indea of the surroundings and the noise if the trail during the day time, and why I decided to record at night.

So I packed my gear up and stayed awake awhile before heading out for a late, late night skate.  I was surprised to find I was not the only person lacing up by the trail at that hour, but luckily the ice path is long enough that I had a large portion of it all to myself. The night was extremely chilly so the ice was nice and crisp and not many people had been on the ice since it was last flooded at midnight leaving it smooth. Perfect conditions. It was just up to the skills of the recordist to take advantage of them!

Since I found it so hard to skate with a regular stride and get any real speed while also holding a shotgun mic aimed carefully at my feet, I decided to take a different approach with this recording session. Instead of a shotgun held above my skates I used a pair of miniature condenser mics and taped them to the inside of my skates so they were only a couple of inches above the ice surface.  This obviously made wind noise a concern as the mics would be exposed to rushing air as I glided around on the ice.  After some trial and error, I found that the small foam covers that came with these mics with a Bumblebee wind bubble miniature windscreen over top did the trick.  Although the wind bubble is intended for lavalier microphones, it worked great in this situation.  Since I only own one of the Bumblebee windscreens, I had to get creative for wind protection on the other mic.  I made my own little windscreen with some fun-fur, a rubber band, and some gaffer's tape.  My McGyver technique ended up working just fine.

Skates mic'ed up with the fun-fur homemade windscreen on the left skate.

After going for a quick spin around the ice I listened back and found that I had the microphones mounted much too close to the ice. The sound of skates cutting into the ice was much louder than I anticipated and positioning the mics about an inch and a half off the ice was overloading them.  In addition to clipping the signal, I was also hearing hits on the mics from ice debris and snow kicking up on stops and hard, tight turns.  So I started over and re-taped the mics higher up the boot of my skates, and both problems seemed to be solved. The last thing needing adjustment was all the cables that were hanging off my body, connecting all the gear I was carrying. More gaffer tape was employed to tape the cables around my legs to make sure I didn't trip myself or accidentally slice cables by skating over them. 

On the left is my original mic placement, while the photo on the right shows the final set-up.

Here is a short video of what it all sounded like once I had all the kinks all worked out.  Please excuse the grainy footage as there were no lights on and it was the middle of the night:

As you can hear in the video this set-up worked really well.  There's almost zero environmental noise in the background and the sound of the blades working is crisp and clean.  Here's a compilation of some of the stops, hard turns, and general skating strides I captured that night.

I found that simply skating the way I normally do did not generate the best sounds. The faster I skated the less interesting the sounds got.  At high speeds the blades glided more and got quieter. The sounds were best when I was getting up to speed and really digging into the ice with all my weight. So getting these sounds ended up being exhausting as it was constant stops and starts, and digging in hard on every turn. These skating paths were designed for leisure skating but this recording session was anything but leisurely. In the end, the effort was worth it for the cool sounds I got to add to my library.

The picture above is evidence of some of the scars I left on the ice while I was recording.

Friday
Jun282013

Tonebenders Homework Assignment 

The latest episode of the Tonebenders Podcast is live.  In this episode we answer some listener questions and then listen in as co-host Rene Coronado builds a sci-fi cannon from scratch by layering sounds, both sampled and synthesized.  While he creates, Dustin Camillari and myself grill Rene on his creative process and we all throw in our two cents.  It was a fun one to be a part of.

We also announced our first homework assignment for the listeners of the podcast - to watch (or re-watch) the film "Marcy Mary May Marlene" in the next week or so.  In our next episode we will have a special guest on the show, Coll Anderson, who was the sound designer and re-recording engineer on this film.  Coll has agreed to take part in a discussion about his work on the film.  Mr. Anderson is a very accomplished sound pro with a lot of fantastic films on his resume and we are really excited to have him on the show.

So your assignment after watching "Marcy Mary May Marlene" is to please send us in questions that we can pass on to Coll as we discuss the film over the coarse of the next podcast episode.  You can send in your questions through email to info-at-tonebenders-dot-net.  If you are feeling really enthusiastic it would be fantastic if you could record yourself asking the question and then send us in an MP3, that way we can play it to Coll straight from the horses mouth.  You can also send in short questions via twitter to @thetonebenders

It would be great to have as much community involvement as possible, so please if you are interested in sound jump in on this discussion.  In order to get the questions in before we record the next episode it would be great to have the questions in by July 5th.

If you have not yet seen the film "Marcy Mary May Marlene" you are in for something new, unique and great.  The film is available via Netflix, the iTunes store for rent, and was a big enough release that you should be able to find it in most any video rental store too.   To entice a bit more here the films theatrical trailer and a couple other resources you can read.

First up is Coll Anderson's own blog post that he wrote immediately after finishing the mix.

Mr. Anderson's IMDB Page

Designing sound also recently did a post on the the use of sound to highlight time shifts in the film.

 

 

 So please take part and send in questions, hopefully this can be the start of many case studies to be featured on the podcast.  Also if you know of another film you think we should disect in the future let us know.

Now go out and enjoy the film!

Friday
Jun212013

Break Over

It has been a while since I lasted posted anything new to this blog.  Time has slipped away from me over the last two months.  I have been supser busy with work , while getting two animated series up and running in my role as supervising sound editor.  So far, so good though, as the projects and the people I am working with on these shows have been really great so far.  In particular, one of the series had a need for a lot of recurring, plot significant, signature sounds that were a lot of fun to design.  After a few rounds back and forth with the director, we seem to be settling into a really great sounding world for these characters to inhabit.

In addition to the intense work load, my wife also gave birth to our first baby.  So it has been a crazy couple months since my last blog post......  to put it mildly.  I seem to be getting my feet back under me now though.  So hopefully this blog will start winding back up to feature regular new content once again.

For obvious reasons I have been listening to a lot of baby noises and screams, frequently in the middle of the night.  It has lead me to do a lot of thinking on baby vocalizations and their use in sound design.  Baby screams can be incredibly useful sounds in SFX editing.  Obviously they are needed in scenes with an actual baby up on the  screen but I have found them to be really effective when used to fill out ambiences in public spaces.  Inserting a distant baby crying can add a subtle level of tension to a scene, even when no baby appears on the screen.  When a baby is really losing its cool, these screams are really handy in creature vocal design too, throw some pitch shifting and modulation on these and you will have a terrifying space creature in no time.  

I was going to post some of the crazier sounds my kid makes as free download for everyone to grab.  Then I thought twice.  I earned the great sounds I have recorded from this little SFX machine of child, by losing lots of sleep and basically all my free time.  So I am keeping these sounds all to my self this time.  Sorry.....

This is what my brain feels like currently