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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.


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!


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


Remembering Patrick

I have written a few times about my former boss and friend Patrick Spence-Thomas.  He was my first boss out of college and a big influence in my career path.  Sadly he passed away a few years ago, but every year on his birthday those that knew him all gather at his favourite watering hole in downtown Toronto to raise our glasses and tell stories of his great adventures.  Recently family and friends met for what would have been Patrick's 80th birthday and it was a fantastic night filled with stories of all the crazy ways he got himself into and out of sticky situations.

Patrick with his field recording gear back in the day.Patrick was a sought after field recordist and traveled the world recording battlefields and historical moments on his trusted Nagra, but he was also a talented audio engineer in the studio.  He helped a lot of Canadian film makers get their start.  Strangely amongst all the projects Patrick worked on, the one that gets talked about most is possibly the worst film he ever worked on.  In fact there are many people who would argue this film is in the running for the very worst film ever made.  Patrick mixed and did voice over work on "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats", a truly horrible and damn near unwatchable film.  Deathbed was finished in 1977 with a minuscule budget. The antagonist in the film is a wooden four post king size bed. When people fall asleep on the bed it somehow sucks the victim into its acidic underbelly and dissolves their bodies.  With a concept this bad it makes sense that funding would be hard to find.

The film was recently featured by Rotten Tomatoes on their list of "25 Movies So Bad They're Unmissable" and it has headlined festivals dedicated to horrible film making around the world.  Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is truly a spectacularly bad film.  When George Barry, the film's American director, arrived at Patrick's studio he had little money and a giant mess of a film on his hands.  The film did not make sense at all.  With no money to go back and further edit the film, Patrick and George made an attempt to save the film by adding new narration and ADR.  Since this was decided so late in the process Patrick was quickly cast as the voice of "The Artist" simply because he was already present in the room.  I can not even imagine a film arriving for mix in such bad shape that the director asked me to get in the booth and narrate what was supposed to be happening on screen.  Patrick also performed the voice of the Deathbed itself (uncredited!!!) when the bed would snore or laugh after a "nice snack", as Patrick himself would say.

Patrick's "acting" credit in the closing credits.

Other lines were added in post, with much of the ADR occurring while the actor's mouths were fully on screen and closed.  This lead to Patrick adding an odd audio treatment that implies characters have ESP powers and can talk to each other without speaking....... but only sometimes........ and for no discernible reason within the plot.  What an amazing mess this film is!

To really get an idea of kind of film Death Bed is here is a synopsis from wikipedia:

A large, black, four-poster bed, possessed by a demon, is passed from owner to owner. The Demon was a tree, who became a breeze and seemingly fell in love with a woman he blew past. The demon then took human form and conjured up a bed. While he was making love with the woman she died and his eyes bled onto the bed, causing it to become possessed. Those who come into contact with the bed are frequently consumed by it (victims are pulled into what is apparently a large chamber of digestive fluids beneath the sheets). The bed demonstrates a malevolent intelligence as well as some psychokinetic and limited telepathic abilities to manipulate dreams.

Now you are intrigued right?

I now have a DVD copy of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.  It was released a few years ago for the first time after becoming a bit of an underground sensation through bootleg copies being passed around.  I have attempted to watch it many times and never made it through the whole film in one continuous run.  I believe I have seen it all though in various sittings.  I can attest that it is, in fact, really really bad.  If you think you are up for the challenge I believe it is available on Netflix in a few countries. Good Luck if you take on the challenge.

The comedian Patton Oswald saw the film and it inspired a hilarious portion of his stand up album "Werewolves and Lollipops".  You can hear it here:

The amazing thing is that I can guarantee Patrick Spence-Thomas tackled this project with great zeal and excitement!  Not because he could not tell that this was a horrible train wreck of a film, but because that was just how Patrick was.  He loved working with filmmakers and helping get their careers off the ground, he loved everything about making movies.  Even if that movie was destined to become an legendary example of the worst the medium could offer.  He was a positive guy and he would have taken it as a challenge to make this horrible film into something better then it was when it got to him.  I am not sure how successful he was on this film but I know he was a strong positive influence on countless other projects.  Patrick could talk for hours about the crazy times he had working on this film.  He was never ashamed of having worked on it, he wore it like a badge of honour.  He especially loved hearing his own ridiculous V/O work when he saw the film again 30 plus years after working on it.  I have to say hearing Patricks voice is by far my favourite part of the film.

I had my field recorder rolling in the bar the night we gathered to celebrate Patrick.  I got some great moments of various people telling their favourite Patrick stories over the course of the evening.  Without knowing the man personally some of the stories might not make sense to outsiders, but as I listened back the files, I heard something universally understood.  Lots and lots of laughter.  I think that is the greatest thing Patrick left us all.  Take a listen for yourself.



The Out of Focus Drummer

This is a bit of a different post for this blog as it does not contain any field recording info at all.  It's just a fun story I was recently reminded of when I was sent a link to a YouTube clip from a project I was involved with many years ago.  

A little over a decade ago I got a late-night phone call from a friend and found myself in a rock video the next morning.  

I had a job at a studio and I had brought in my drum kit in so I could practice there in the evenings and weekends, since I couldn't have played them in the little apartment I was living in at the time.  The studio shared the building with a production company and the in-house editor there was an aspiring music video director named Jay Bond. This was who was on the other end of the slightly panicked phone call I received that night. Jay was set to shoot a video the next day with an established Canadian band called the Skydiggers, but their drummer had to back out of the shoot at the last minute. Jay had seen my kit kicking around the studio and hoped that I would agree to sit in with the band and be the drummer in the video.  Luckily I was not busy the next day and I said yes right away.

This was a cool situation because I was actually a fan of the band.  The Skydiggers had been around for years already at that point and in the early to mid 90’s they were a top touring band in this country.  They played an interesting mix of folk and indie rock, rightfully belonging in the pack of bands that were spawned under the influence of the first few R.E.M. records.  Although they never broke big, they were a staple on MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) and rock radio throughout the country.  So I was excited to meet them and pretend to be a part of their band on camera.

I got up bright and early the next day and arrived at the warehouse where we were shooting the video.  The first step was to get my makeup applied and my outfit approved.  Everything was going great except for one fairly massive problem.  This video was for the first single on the band's forthcoming album, so the song was still unreleased and under wraps. I was about be filmed playing the drums to a song I had never actually heard before.   This was before mp3s were being emailed around without a thought, so after I was all done with the makeup people I was given a discman (remember those?) and headphones and told to listen to the song over and over.  While I was hearing the song for the first time grips were doing the final touches on the lighting and soon it was time to roll camera.

The video’s concept was easily adapted so that I was never really the focus of the action. They kept me in the background and tried to keep me out of focus for the most part.  I even wore a hat so it was less obvious that I had a different haircut than their real drummer.

Another problem was that the playback system the crew had was not very loud so if I actually played the drums properly, the sound of the drums would drown out the the playback we were lipsyncing to.  Playing along to a song you barely know is challenging enough, but trying not to actually make any noise while you're doing it is an extra challenge I hadn't considered.  Luckily the band was super cool and had my back when I screwed up early on.  Andy, that band's singer, was particularly kind to me, explaining to the crew why what I was doing was tricky.  After a few takes I was up and running and we were on our way. 

Luckily most of the song is a simple straight up rock beat.  You can see me really screwing up some of the fills in the changes.  Ooops!  All in all it turned out OK for the most part.  Take a look (video starts around 40 seconds in):

This is not the band's best song, though upon repeated listens it does stick in your head.  They were about 5-7 years past their prime commercial success when this video was made.  It was a really fun way to spend a weekend though, playing the “out of focus drummer in the background” with a band I really liked.

The Skydiggers still tour every couple years and this year are doing a big celebration tour for their 25th anniversary.

Jay Bond, the video’s director, has gone on to become of heavy hitter in the world of opening titles for films and TV shows.  He recently wrapped up a talk at SXSW on the topic and is a past winner of The Art of the Title’s award for best Opening Title sequence.  Here are the the latest opening titles he has worked on:

Hard Rock Medical - Main Titles Sequence from Jay Bond on Vimeo.