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.
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.
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.
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.