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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.



Costa Rican Water Sounds

I recently went on vacation to Costa Rica and brought along a recording rig. My main goal was to record capuchin monkeys but I wanted to make sure I got some ambiences while I was there. The resort I was staying in was an extremely noisy environment so capturing an ambience of any kind besides "resort" required getting as far away as I could from the hustle and bustle. 

I got my chance when a few of us hired a boat and traveled about 45 minutes away from the resort to go snorkeling in an uninhabited cove. To be honest, the underwater scenery was underwhelming. The water was cloudy and the coral was dying. Also, I got stung from the top of my head down the side of my face and around my throat by a jellyfish - ouch. We did see some interesting fish, but on balance it was a bit of a painful disappointment.   

After the snorkeling was done we stopped and had a barbeque lunch on a beautiful mile-long white sand beach. While the others ate, I had time to sneak off down to the end of the beach and capture some ambience of the waves rolling in from the Pacific ocean. 

There is a reason that relaxation devices always include the sound of waves; this sound has some kind of instinctual calming effect on people. It's really hard to be stressed and dwell on your problems when the waves are gently rolling in from the ocean. Toronto, where I live, is on the shore of Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes. Three of the largest lakes in the world are included in the Great Lakes system -- they don't call them great for no reason -- they are huge. Yet when the waves roll in from these vast lakes it still has an entirely different quality than waves coming in off the ocean.  I am not sure if it is the salt water or just the seemingly infinite size of the ocean, but ocean waves have a sound that is special.

This beach was protected by a chain of small islands just off the shore so the waves rolling in were really small, no crashing or smashing against the shore. Here, take a listen:

Later we pulled the boat up in a much more rocky coastal area.  This area was also protected and not getting the full-sized ocean waves, but the sound of the water hitting the rocks was different.  After the waves washed over the rocks, they sizzled until the next wave rolled in.  Although it was extremely hot out (45 ºC or about 115ºF), I don't think the rocks could have been hot enough to make the water sizzle on their surface.  So I am not actually sure what was causing this sound.

Back at the resort I was able hike along the shore a good distance and found another beach that was distinct because it was so shallow.  You could walk out a couple hundred yards before the water was even up to your knees.  As a result, the waves had lost any power they had by the time the fizzled out on the beach.  These are some super-soft gentle waves.  These waves could ease you to sleep if you were not careful.


Are you still awake? The last water sounds I'll share from my Costa Rican adventure are from a interesting little cave I stumbled across.  It was not much to look at really, just a small opening in the rock face, but upon closer inspection I found out how amazing it was. There were two small tunnels that led deep into the rock and out to the open ocean on the other side of the cliff. The two tunnels were at 90 degree angles from each other, so water would stream in at different rates and times from each tunnel.  The waves would crash into the the tiny cave and wash around before being sucked back out again. Then the next surge of water would flow in, in an erratic cycle. It was pretty cool. I wanted to get close and record this, but the current was pretty strong and a log was floating around inside the cave.  I didn't want to climb in the water with my Sony D-50 recorder only to have the current pull my feet out from under me and dunk my recorder in salt water.  Salt water and electronics don't play well together as we all know. But I was hearing something I had never heard before and knew I had to take the risk and get inside.  Every once in a while waves would rush down both tunnels at the same time and collide with a sonic boom-like sound. I had never heard anything like it before. It only happened every couple minutes but when it did it was mind blowing.

I made the decision to climb in the cave with my recorder to capture this crazy cave ambience.  Sadly this big booming noise wasn't very accurately captured by the D-50.  I think it was just too low a frequency for the little mics on the recorder.  This was a sound you could feel as much as hear and I think it was too much for the D-50. Luckily the current in the cave never knocked me over although it came close a couple times. The damn log floating around in there beat up on my shins pretty good though.

Take a listen to the waves in the cave and pay attention to the low boom hits every once in a while.  I have included text in the video to identify one of the wave booms.


Recording Capuchin Monkeys

I love to travel. I look forward to encountering the unexpected because it opens my eyes to things in this world that I had no idea existed. When I travel I love the trip as much as the destination - driving through unknown territory in a far-off country is when I stumble upon the most memorable experiences of any trip. In my opinion, the less you plan in advance, the better off you are. The culture you've dropped into will sweep you away, like a twig on a river, into its best and worst.

Sadly, this kind of travel, which I've grown accustomed to, is not an option right now.  My wife, who is also the best travel partner in the world, is currently 7 months pregnant and she isn't really up for the more adventurous mode of traveling right now. We wanted to go on one last trip before we get pinned down by parenthood so we decided to take a kind of trip we've never tried before - an all-inclusive resort holiday!? 

Normally the idea of travelling to a far-flung destination and then just staying in one spot for 7 days would feel like a total waste of time.  But given our circumstances and the fact the there were 8 inches of snow on the ground outside our house in Toronto, this all-inclusive idea didn't sound so bad. The decision was made and we booked a last minute trip to warmer temperatures.

Main hub of activity at the resort in Costa Rica we traveled to.

So off to Costa Rica we went. I had read that the area we would be staying in was home to a large population of capuchin monkeys.  I was not sure if these impossibly cute little guys would make much noise, or how hard it would be to get close to them but I figured I might not be around a capuchin again any time soon so I might as well try to record any sounds they might make. As we headed for the airport I had my regular suitcase full of clothes as well as a second one full of recording gear.

One of the capuchins up close.

Bringing a shotgun microphone onto a plane is always a bit of a pain. There is no way I am going to check a $2000+ microphone, so I take it as carry-on.  The interest of security staff is always piqued when the mic goes through the x-ray machine.  A long skinny metal tube sends up a red flag in these days of heightened airport security.  So I am always pulled aside and made to jump through a couple of hoops to prove I am not carrying a pipe bomb or something equally dangerous. After I explain what they are looking at I am always waved through.

Once we arrived at the resort I became aware of what a different environment I was entering compared to my other travels.  It turns out that enjoying quiet is the last possible thing you can do at an all-inclusive resort. Recording the capuchins, or anything at all besides maybe 'obnoxious resort ambience' would be tricky.  Noise was coming from many sources:

  • music in the bar and around the pool
  • waves rolling in from the ocean
  • wound-up guests living it up all around the resort
  • cooking and eating sounds from the buffet restaurant
  • diesel engines from the shuttle vans that transport patrons around the area
  • constant bird song
  • announcers on the P.A. calling bingo/aquafit/dance classes, etc.

Some of the bird life walking on the beach.

At various times, some or all of these noises were present and inescapable. With some trial and error I narrowed down when the quietest time could be to record the monkeys.  Afternoons and evenings were out because of the pumping reggae and dance music audible all over the resort, but before 9 AM the music was only playing inside the buffet restaurant area.  Also in the morning most guests were still groggy and relatively quiet as they recovered from the previous evening's adventures. The waves were quite light in the mornings as the tide was 50 meters further out than it was in the afternoon and the shuttle vans ran less frequently while most guests were still sleeping. On the negative side though was that the buffet was in full swing with lots of dish rattling and people chatting. All the birds in the area were also engaged in their morning conversations.

The monkeys come in towards the resort from deeper in the forest around 8 AM so from then until around 9 AM when the music really kicked in with the bass thumping pop remixes seemed to be my window.  Not a huge amount of time, but enough to get something.

Whether I'd be able to get close enough to the capuchins to record them was my next unknown.  This turned out to be no problem at all. These monkeys have been around the resort all their lives and were not afraid of people at all.  All it took to attract their attention was a bit of fruit.

One of the Capuchins munching away at a chunk of fruit.

I woke up nice and early, got my gear all ready, and headed down to a spot near the beach where the monkeys like to hang out. I guess I don't really think like a monkey because I made a faux pas right off the bat. With a nice chunk of fruit in one hand and my microphone in a rycote windshield covered with a furry windjammer in the other, I moved in on a monkey. The poor little guy took one look at me and backed off and started barking at the mic in a fairly aggressive manner.  I had no idea a monkey could bark like this. This was not a sound I was expecting at all.  It took a minute to dawn on me that the monkeys were alarmed by the furry cover on my microphone  - it was convincingly imitating a threatening predator. I took the furry off and put it out of sight and they were immediately comfy and playful again. Here is a clip of the monkey barks:

These may not sound too menacing. Keep in mind that these capuchin monkeys are very small animals, so their barks sound more like a chihuahua then a big roar like you hear in Hollywood movies like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  

I made another pass at recording once the the furry was off and the monkeys were more than willing to come right up to the rycote.  They patted it down and tried to figure out what it was. One of the monkeys even tried to bite into the rycote to see if it was some new kind of fruit.  

Still from video, blown up, showing a capuchin inspecting the rycote windshield.

Here is what they sounded like as they contentedly wandered about in the trees and ate fruit while overlooking tourists setting up their towels on the beach.

Well, I have to admit that these little guys were possibly the cutest things I have ever been around. The sounds they make sound very very close to human vocalizations.  I imagine it would even be fairly easy to replicate these types of noises with an actor.  Like willing interview subjects, they were very good about camping out in front of the microphone for a while and just squeaking away. Then they would get bored and scamper off to another tree branch along the beach.  Aside from the birdsong in the background I was able to get fairly clean recordings of capuchin chatter. It worked out pretty well.

Here is a video I captured with the capuchins in Costa Rica. This video is of them running around in the trees and grabbing fruit. The video and audio were not shot together so they are not in sync, but it will give you an idea of the environment.  All the recordings were made with a Sanken CSS5 feeding a Sound Devices 702.

Here are a bunch of photos taken by my wife while I was recording the capuchins.

This final picture is of an animal called a Coati. It's in the same family as the racoon.  These guys rest in the trees and the monkeys mess with them and generally annoy them.


Snap Crackle Pop

Here's a bit of a combo post.  Two recording sessions I've done that have yielded similar sounds from completely different sources:

Every year on New Year's Eve my wife and I head way north to a cabin in the woods for a big party with friends, family, and fireworks.  This year I brought along my hydrophone and took it out into the woods, buried it in some ice, poured some water over it and walked away.  My plan was to let the water freeze solid for a few hours, then come back and manipulate the ice as much as I could, while recording the whole thing. 

The view from the cabin window in winter.

Later that day I started packing up my gear to go collect my sounds, and while I was getting my boots and coat on, my cousin came through the door, telling me how I must have dropped some of my equipment in the woods, and that it took some effort but he was able to chip it out of the ice and get it back to me in one piece. Oh boy.  When I explained to him that I had left it there on purpose and was just heading out to experiment with it, he apologized profusely - but how was he to know.

So I trudged back out into the forest and started the process all over again, this time leaving the hydrophone out in the woods overnight.  Luckily no curious animal tried to carry it off into the night, and in the morning it was still where I had left it.  I plugged the hydrophone's cable into my recorder and was instantly rewarded with the sound of complete silence.  Nothing.  Last year I tried dropping the capsule into a crack in the lake as it froze and got some great sounds but I guess everything was frozen solid by the time I got there because this time I was getting nothing. Instead, I found that by stepping on the snow and ice around where it was buried I could get some cool snaps, crunches and squeaks.

Here are some of the sounds I was able to get from the session:

Some of these sounds reminded me of a set of recordings I did a few years ago where I needed some new bone breaks for a fairly violent fistfight scene.  I went down my block to where a giant old tree was shedding it bark all over the street, and scavenged a few bags full of dry bark.

Some of the bark I collected before I started recording.

I set up my Neumann BCM104 and started snapping away on the dried bits of bark.  I got some pretty cool results and ended up with a whole library of bone snaps for that scene that the director approved without any changes.

The Neumann BCM104 is a condenser and is meant as a v/o or broadcast mic, so I was curious as to how it would perform in recording SFX.  It turned out that it handled the recording really well; I think it captured a richer low-end than I expected.  I've not used it much since for SFX but while writing this post I have reminded myself to keep it in mind for this type of work in the future.

the pile of bark when I was finished breaking and crushing it.


Fun with Floor Creaks

The house I live in is an older house.  I have never gone to city hall to look up the exact age of my house, but it was estimated to be between 80 and 90 years old when I bought it 5 years ago.  There are good and bad things that go along with old houses.  The positives are that the neighbourhood is old too, so the trees are big and the area has developed its own unique personality. The downside is that it can be a lot of work to keep an old house in good shape. As the house ages it develops a personality too, and some of those signs of degeneration can actually be, well, maybe not enjoyed, but put to good use - if you are a sound recordist like me! I just recently became aware that I basically have access to an endless supply of creaks and other strange "old house" sounds.

If you read this blog with some regularity you may know that I am a big fan of The Sound Collector's Club (read this post, or listen to this podcast if you are unfamiliar with the SCC).  One of the themes the club has is for Creaky Floors and for some reason it took me nearly a year to contribute to this collection.  I finally got around to it and I was shocked at just how loud my old house is!  I guess I have become so accustomed to these creaks that I have been just unconsciously filtering out these sounds.  I just don't hear these great creaks and strains when I walk around the house in my normal daily life. I got some pretty amazing sounds simply walking around on the old hardwood floors throughout the house.

My house is on a side street but traffic is pretty steady during the day and evening, but after about 1 AM there's only rarely a car driving by. Around 2 AM I got out of bed and went down and unplugged the fridge and turned the thermostat way down so the furnace would stay off.  Now that I had the house as quiet as I could get it I grabbed a shotgun microphone, pointed it at my feet from waist height and just walked slowly around the main floor of my house.  Here is a section of what I got:

The floors are so loud!  How is it even possible that I haven't gone crazy from this?

These types of sounds can have a couple of uses that I can see: as an added element to foley footsteps (or even production sound) to add a feel of age to the environment on screen or simply to add a heightened tension with each step a character takes.  They are also clean enough to be used as SFX on their own.  I can see/hear them in scenes with branches sagging from the weight of someone climbing a tree or old doors opening/closing or as elements in large wooden objects being moved.

All in all I am so glad I finally got around to recording the basic sounds of my own house.  Sometimes the best sounds are right under your nose and so ubiquitous you just don't think about it.  A "can't see the forrest for the trees" type situation for sure.

My full recordings from this session plus a cool recording of the wooden floating staircase in my house are now available as part of the Sound Collector's Club Creaky Floors collection.  To get my recordings and a bunch more (the collection sits at 1.53 gig currently) become a member of the SCC and contribute your own sounds.  This is a great collection that will be handy to have in the future.