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Monday
Feb252013

Talking Weapons with Watson Wu

Episode 7 of the Tonebenders podcast is available now at Tonebenders.net.  This episode is all about the art of recording firearms. Recently I did a shoot recording fireworks which is something along the same lines, but obviously having live guns on hand is a whole different dynamic.  To get a better understanding of how it's done, we reached out to a few seasoned professionals and asked them to be part of the podcast. Among the experts we contacted were Charles Maynes (one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for gun effects), therecordist.com 's Frank Bry (did you know his last name is pronounced Bree?), Axel Rohrbach of Germany’s Boom Library, and renowned firearms recordist Watson Wu.  We were very fortunate that all these top pros agreed to join our conversation. Amazing. 

Watson Wu with his gear set up to record at a gun range.

As you'll hear in the podcast, Charles Maynes and Frank Bry appear live, we sent Axel a list of questions beforehand and he sent us back his recorded answers. (Since English is not Axel's first language, he suggested taking part in the interview in this way so that he'd have a chance to better express himself.) Unfortunately  Watson Wu could not take part in the live conversation because... he was out recording machine guns that day.  That is basically the best possible reason to miss being a part of a podcast about recording guns - he was too busy recording guns!  Watson was kind enough to write down some answers to our questions so that we could share them during the podcast.  

As things played out while we were conducting the interview, we didn't have the opportunity to include all of Watson’s answers in the podcast.  So I will include the full interview here (as well as on the main tonebenders site)

Here is a brief rundown of Mr. Wu’s work.  He specializes in field recording of authentic weaponry, vehicles, and hard to find exotic and muscle cars.  He has been in the industry since 2001 and some selected credits on video games include Assassin's Creed 3, The Need for Speed franchise, Transformers: War for Cybertron, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Warhawk, and many other games.  


Given the written format we used, Watson didn't go deeper into some of the details we drew out in the conversation found in the podcast but I think his answers still cover a lot of ground and show why he is one of the top guys in the field.


Tonebenders: First off,  to give people a little bit of your history, how did you get interested in sound design/field recording?

Watson Wu: I've always Loved sound. When I was a young child, my father owned an arcade which I had full access to play all of the games. It was fun to be surrounded by lots of interesting sounds. During late high school & early college, I often performed in bands and did live mixing of classical and rock concerts. These hands on experiences were stressful, as there were always tons of gear with something always breaking. Learning to listen and make quick adjustments were some of the skills I acquired from schooling as well as from those fantastic performances.

TB: What research and prep do you do that might be unique to recording firearms?

WW: With my collection of short and long firearms, I often get to try out various microphones while shooting at a few exclusive private ranges. The invitations I also receive to attend machine gun shoots allows me to experiment more. After some years of this I can most of the time tell which microphones are ideal for various placements around certain firearms.

TB: What criteria do you look for when picking a location for a firearms recording session?

WW: Whenever I come across a potential quiet location to record at, I will have someone do some test shooting for me. Most often I would stand behind the shooter using only my fingers to cover my ears. After each of the shots I would quickly release my fingers to hear how the shot tail travels. This process is repeated until we find the least echoing location and angle. Fortunately one of the best sounding areas is at my favorite shooting range here in Florida. I have rented the entire place for myself. :-)

TB: How many crew members do you like to have for a record?

WW: It depends on how many microphones we need. Ideally I like to have at least two assistants to help me set up, adjust, and do the clean up at the end of the day.

TB: How do you gain access to the weapons?

WW: Just like attending car shows, I also often attend gun shows. I have friends whom I shoot with, who are Class 3 Dealers. These great guys also know of other guys who have incredible toys. Serious gun guys are different people, but knowing who I am and who I associate with, they do become approachable. :-)

TB: Can you go over what types of microphones you use for a multi-mic set-up during a gun record session?

WW: I own a lot of different mic brands. They range from AKG, Audix, DPA, EV, Neumann, Rode, Sennheiser, Shure, etc. For firearms I like to use pencil condenser mics as well as a few shotguns.

TB: Any special equipment you need for a gun record?

WW: I really like Sound Devices mixers as well a certain Zaxcom recorders. The limiters have to be fast enough to handle to fast-traveling super loud sounds. My Remote Audio headphones also allow me to monitor loud sounds.

TB: What safety precautions do you put in place when recording guns?

WW:I like to only bring people with me who are experienced shooters. It's easier to bring a shooter than a master recordist who might freak out. During recording, all non-shooters must stand or sit at least 20 feet behind the firing line. We always bring along safety glasses as well as enough ear plugs and ear muffs for all. Safety is Always The Priority!

TB: Top three tips for recording guns/weapons?

WW: Learn to safely shoot and get used to the explosive sounds. Learn to move the microphones closer or further from each of the firearms. Of course one should never place anything valuable in front of a firearm. Log what sounds good at what distance. It's almost like learning to mix live concerts, so you should never stop learning and experimenting.

TB: What's your favorite weapon to record?

WW: Machine guns and high power rifles are my favorite weapons to record. To name some, they are the M16 variants, Kriss Super V, AK47, AK74, M60, 50 cal Ma Deuce, and the famous MiniGun, which fires 50-60 rounds per second!

TB: What is the gun you are shooting in this photo?

WW: This "Turkey Gun" is a 3.5" Shotgun. Normal shotguns shoot 2 3/4" to 3" shells. It was painful to shoot this thing!! The armor guys made me shoot it because I was laughing at them. Then, it was their turn to laugh at me reacting to the BIG recoil. Haha!

Tuesday
Feb192013

2 Year Anniversary

When I started the Azimuth blog I was a busy sound effects editor, spending long days in the windowless edit suite in my house.  I was doing a lot of work but it was a somewhat lonely way to go about my days, as my interaction with the outside world and other sound pros was limited.  I had worked at larger facilities in the past that meshed the technical and social aspects of the business much better then freelancing.  So I decided to start a blog as a way of engaging other audio people and gaining new social outlets to learn from and pass around knowledge.  It has been great to meet so many people, some in person but most through the amazing online sound community.

Today is the 2 year anniversary of this blog.  So I thought I would celebrate by going over a couple of milestones of the last year.  By far the biggest news for me was the launch of the new podcast on sound design and recording, called Tonebenders.  Taking on the dual roles of a co-host and co-producer has been a lot of fun, as well as an education unto itself.  If you follow this blog at all you have read enough about the podcast already so I will leave it at that.  Another cool innovation from the past year has been the addition of the free downloads page on this site.  Instead of just writing about some of my field recording adventures I am now able to share some of the sounds with everyone.  I have been amazed at how many people have pulled down these collections.  I plan on including more sounds for download in the coming months, so stay tuned.

Finally I am going to repost a few of my personal favorite articles from year 2 of the blog.

I got a lot of great feedback from this post on the various forms of wind protection I use in my field recording kit.

 

Before I did my first multi-mic vehicle recording session I did a ton of research on the subject and made this post with links to a bunch of the info I was able to dig up online.

After doing all the research mentioned above I put all that information to work by doing a full coverage recording of an Argo amphibious ATV.

This diary of my various attempts to record the wing flutter from tiny hummingbirds tells how tricky the little guys were to capture sound from. This post includes a free download of some of the results.

This post covers my recordings of the burners that heat the air in hot air balloons.  I love the pictures of the Arizona desert in this one.

This was a fun post about the signature sounds of various cities around the world.

This is possibly my favorite of the last year.  My trip to Iceland was really a life changing experience.

Here is one is really only going to be important to me - but I still like it a lot. 

There was a lot of discussion created by this post and it got passed around quite a bit.  I did a bit of research into what kinds of projects various soft synth manufacturers actually allow us to use their sounds in, according to their various End User Licenses.

Here are my thoughts as to what we can all do to make the Sound Collector’s Club even better then it already is.

Finally if you scroll down to the bottom of this post (or even read the post too) you will find my supercut of quotes from the SoundWorks Collection that all mention how sound is there to help tell the story.

Thanks to everyone for reading the blog over the last year and especially those of you who reached out with comments and questions.  I always like hearing from others in the online sound community, so reach and say hello some day!

Monday
Feb042013

Field Recording in Cold Conditions

A cold wind is blasting your face. Your hands are shaking and your teeth are chattering. Your legs are caked in white powder from trudging through the high snow drifts. And you have not even set up the gear yet... It's going to be a long day.

On a field recording assignment there are a million things to think about, both technical and creative. Sometimes you also have to worry about the environment in which you are recording as well, specifically the temperature you can expect to be working in. Both hot and cold extremes call for special preparations if you want to have a successful session. Extreme heat might come with the humidity which can wreak havoc on electronic gear and the inner workings of microphones. Heat can also lead to human error as a result of dehydration or even heat stroke. Today I am going to focus on what I think is the more difficult weather extreme, and the effects freezing cold can have on a field recording session. Plummeting temperatures can create obstacles that are difficult to overcome.

Living in a area of the planet that gets pretty cold for a good part of the year, I have had to prepare to record in cold conditions many times. The first thing you will notice in frigid temperatures is that you'll get dramatically reduced lasting-power from from any battery-operated gear. The power-producing chemical reaction that happens in a battery depends on extremely fast moving ions - and cold temperatures prevent this process from being efficient. The cold effect on batteries is no joke, the difference is drastic. So cold temperature sessions require first of all a comprehensive battery strategy if you don't have access to plug-in power on the shoot. You'll need more batteries than usual and you will also have to keep your extra/back-up batteries warm until they are put to use. If they're already cold when you need them, then their performance will be even worse. This can be tricky to overcome if you don't have a heated place to store them until they are needed. Using your own body heat by keeping batteries inside your jacket is usually the best way to keep your spares warm until they are pressed into service. And make sure all your batteries are fully charged before you head out into the cold. A half-charged battery in normal temperatures is a dead battery in chilly conditions. I find that “AA” batteries are affected quite significantly by cold temperatures and will drain much faster than the lithium-ion batteries used in some recorders (for ex: the Sound Devices 7 series.) So think ahead and stock up on extra batteries and organize and charge them up the day before. 

So your spare batteries are being kept nice and warm in your inside pockets, but you want to keep the batteries that are in use as warm as you can too. This can be done by having blankets to wrap your gear in. The blankets help in two ways, shielding the gear from wind and falling snow as much as possible. If there's snow on the ground I find it's extremely helpful to bring along a smallish sled. The sled can be used to help you transport everything to your location through the snow. It can also be used as a dry work surface for your equipment set-up.

You will have to keep yourself warm as well. The answer here is layers. When you're running around setting up all your gear you will find things a lot warmer than when you are sitting still waiting for things to happen. Having the ability to drop and add warm layers will allow you to adjust as the day goes forward. Lined boots, gloves and a warm knit hat, or a toque as they are called here in Canada, are extremely important. Gloves can make operating gear difficult though. They can make clumsy work out of simple scroll dials and button pushes. I find that gloves with with exposed fingers and a mitten flap are great to use on a recording trip. These gloves keep you warm when you have the flap over your fingers but allow you to easily push small buttons and accomplish fiddly tasks with the flaps back and your fingers exposed.

Although these gloves are good for using gear with small buttons and dials, if you are used to using any touch screen devices on a shoot you are better to leave those gadgets at home. In general they do not perform exceptionally well in the cold, and your small motor skills deteriorate as the temperature drops too. It's hard to work an iPhone's keyboard if your hand is shaking in the cold. 'Smart' gloves, which have electro-conductive thread woven into them, are becoming popular, allowing you to use touch screens with your gloved hands, but I still think that in cold weather using a paper and pen for notes is much better than a tablet, since you won’t have to worry about the batteries failing with a pad of paper (although it is possible for the ink in the pen to freeze!) and if your notebook falls into a slushy puddle or a snowbank you can just wipe it off instead of crying all the way to the Apple store at the end of the day.

Human ears were not designed well for cold conditions. They stick out, basically defenseless against the elements. Your ears are among the first parts of the body likely be affected by frostbite (along with fingers and toes.) You have to keep them covered in sub-zero temperatures. Yet on a recording field trip your ears are the most important tool you have. How can you get the most out of your hearing if there is a dense layer of fabric between your ears and the sounds you are trying to record? There is no simple solution here. If the temperatures are very low and you are planning to be out in the cold for a long time you have to cover your ears to stay comfortable (no recording is worth messing with the functionality of your ears!) I find that in short stints you can get away with using your headphones as earmuffs. That will only work for so long though, since headphones are optimized for sound reproduction, not heat insulation. The best way to tackle this issue is to wear a warm hat with the headphones over top. This will affect the sound from the headphones but not so much that you don’t have a decent idea of what you are recording. Every couple minutes you can pop the hat off your ear and listen for a moment to make sure all is still good. With experience you will find that the hat is not much of an issue.

Another thing to think about when shooting in snowy conditions is the noise interference you yourself are going to create. Every move you make will be noisy. Synthetic jackets create a lot of cloth movement noise with every little body shift. The simple act of taking a photo on the fly will ruin a take as you fumble around through your gloves and big winter jacket, generating a blizzard of nylon swiffling noises. Nope, you must stay as still as possible... not fun (or easy) when freezing your butt off.

You will also find that in the snow, every step you take can be really loud. Snow is an amazingly complex-sounding substance. Sometimes it's crunchy, other times mucky, while still other times it can be fluffy or even glassy. The temperature of the air will affect what the snow sounds like: the colder it is the more dry crunchiness you will hear, but there are lots of other factors at play too: 

How deep is the snow? 

What surface is under the snow? 

Has it been compacted down in tire tracks or footsteps? 

Has any ice formed in the snow from a fast drop in temperature? 

Is there any slush as a result of a fast rise in temperature? 

Has the area been salted? (rock salt is spread on pavement to melt ice)

Depending on these variables, and many others, you get remarkably different sounding snow under your feet. Yet they are all loud and distracting unless "footsteps in snow" is what you are actually setting out to record. So for this reason too, you will be forced to stay still once you are rolling.

Another thing to plan for is acclimatizing your gear to the cold before you start rolling. This applies mostly to the microphone. Most shotgun microphones work very well in the cold (DPA tests their mics to -25°C or -13°F) but issues can crop up as the microphone itself cools down to the ambient temperature. So ideally you want to have the mic out in the cold for an hour or so before you start rolling. I have not always been able to follow this rule and have actually not noticed any problems, but if you have the time it is a good idea to plan for enough time to cool down the mic in advance. The main thing you want to do is keep the microphone as dry as possible. Since water expands when it freezes you really don’t want any moisture in the mic that will cause a problem. Humidity in a mic can also interfere with the electric activity in a condenser mic. This really comes into play if you have multiple transitions between warm and cold environments. Condensation can develop when you bring a mic in from the cold, and if moisture has collected in and on the mic you won’t want to bring it right back out to freezing conditions. To avoid this, try to find a place to put the mic for a bit that is somewhere between freezing and normal room temperature. Then bring it all the way in to normal temperature after a while. Normally the car ride back to the city is perfect for this. The car will slowly warm up over the drive home, making for a good transition. Any condensation that has formed will have a chance to evaporate.

Another tip I can offer is to avoid recording near your vehicle unless you have lots of time to set up. If you drive to your location in a car or even a snowmobile you will be shocked how long it takes for the vehicle to become silent. As the engine cools it will sizzle, ping, and pop for a lot longer then you'd think. The hood will give little metal flexes as it cools, water will drip down and melt the snow below the exhaust. Lots of other little noises will continue on well after the ignition is shut off. If you are there to record a chainsaw, then this will not be an issue. But if you are looking to record blustery winds or the delicate ambience of a winter wilderness you'll end up with an editing nightmare when you go to master the file back at your studio.

Winter conditions make for a fantastic recording environment if you have planned properly and come prepared. Specifically recording in nature. The blanket of snow covering everything acts as massive sound insulation system, dampening distant echoes. As a result the sound of deep winter is very different. And also eerily silent. The leaves are all off the trees, so the wind makes very little noise in the woods. The vast majority of the birds have flown south taking their daily chatter with them. When the wind is calm, standing in a northern forest can be as silent as the most expensive acoustician-designed floating recording booth. It can actually be a little disorienting when you find yourself surrounded by such an enveloping quiet - it's not something we city folk are used to. Yet these conditions can be perfect for a field recordist looking to record clean takes of explosions, firearms, or anything else that needs a wide open quiet space. 

Just remember to stay warm, keep your wits about you and bring a lot of batteries.

Finally, just be glad you are not recording on the ground in this picture, which I took while flying over Greenland.  I have no idea how cold it would have been down there but I am sure most of us are dealing with much more hospitable conditions!

Friday
Feb012013

Plugin Use/Abuse Month at DesigningSound.org

I wrote an article, along with the other co-hosts of the Tonebenders podcast, for the awesome website DesigningSound.org  I am a big fan of this website, so it was a big honour to be asked to contribute to their Plugin Use/Abuse theme of the month.  If you are not familiar with this site, then get ready for a great new resource all about the art and tech of sound design.  

The article I contributed is about using convolution reverbs with sound effects as the impulse response.  This is not really how the plugins were designed to be used, but you can get some great results with this technique.  So please check out the article and let me know what you think.

http://designingsound.org/2013/01/the-tonebenders-share-plugin-secrets/

Here is a quick string of audio examples using the technique I talk about in the article.

Big thanks go out to Jack Menhorn at Designing Sound for his help and patience in getting these articles posted. 

Monday
Jan282013

Analog Synths for Sound Design (with Free SFX Download)

The latest edition of The Tonebenders podcast is now live.  In this episode, 006, I produced a segment on using analog synths for creating noises to mangle in sound design.  The segment is followed up by a discussion involving modular synths as well.  In the podcast I talk about a couple of analog synths in particular, of the ones I currently own.  I thought I would post up a couple pictures of these synths so you can see what it is you are hearing in the podcast.  The segment starts at the 6 minute mark of the podcast and can be heard by going to www.tonebenders.net (follow the instructions under "?" icon to subscribe in iTunes) or by listening to the youtube video above.

The first synth I talk about in the podcast is a Moog MG-1 Concertmate. 

Here are some examples of this synth in action:

 

This little synth is described by vintagesynth.com as follows:

This is the very source of cheap Moog bass! It is a lot like the strap-on Moog Liberation in its design and architecture and also looks and sounds very much like the Moog Rogue. The MG-1 was built by Moog for Realistic (Radio Shack), and was designed specifically for the home market. Very basic and easy to use, this is a nice cheap way to get your hands on Moog sounds!

The MG-1 is a 2-VCO monophonic/polyphonic analog synth with a genuine 24dB/oct Moog filter, however the overall sound is thin. On the MG-1, the VCOs are referred to as 'Tone Generators'. It can produce sawtooth, square and pulse waveforms, and the oscillators are detunable and syncable. A simple ASR (attack, sustain, release) envelope called 'Contour' can be applied to both the amp and the filter. The LFO section provides triangle or square wave patterns as well as Sample-and-Hold. Additionally there is a simple Ring-Mod effect called 'Bell'.

I have spent un-countable hours playing around with this synth.  It was my first analog find and it hooked me in and was somewhat responsible for me falling in love with making noise and going down the career path I have.  It sounds great but it is also so much fun.  

The second synth in the Tonebenders segment is a Cruise made by SIEL.

Here is some of what vintagesynth.com says about this one:

The Cruise was a synthesizer released in 1981 by the Italian Organ makers at Siel to the Italian and European markets. However, it made its way to the USA’s shores when Sequential Circuits, who really wanted to add a compact mono+poly synth to their own product line but lacked the resources to do it on their own, worked with Siel to release their own re-branded and re-painted version of the Cruise known as the Sequential Fugue. In true Italian style, the only difference between the two, was that the Cruise looked good!

The Cruise is two synths in one, combining what is Siel’s Orchestra and Mono synthesizer models into one powerful synthesizer! It features two discrete synthesizer modes or sections: Mono Synthesizer and Poly Synthesizer. The front panel has a lot of graphical information printed on it to clearly designate the Mono section functions from the Poly section features, as well as signal flow charts to help the user understand how the sounds are internally routed. In the middle of the synth is the ‘Masters’ section. This holds master volume sliders for the Mono and Poly synth sections and keyboard split mode options. The keyboard can be split in the middle, and either section of the Crise can be assigned to either split. When not split, the Mono and Poly sounds are played at the same time (assuming both sections are turned on—there are enable buttons for each section), except the Poly sounds are polyphonic while the Mono sounds will follow the low-note or high-note priority setting. There are also separate outputs for the Mono and Poly sections too.

 

The Cruise and the MG-1 are both sitting on the desk next to my main editing rig currently.  I don't use them as much as I would like to.  Hopefully I will stumble across the perfect project to really put them through their paces soon.
Feel free to download a collection of some of the sound effects used in the Tonebenders podcast segment over on the Free SFX Pack Downloads page of this blog.  Included in the zip file are:
  • lasers
  • Alarms
  • Cartoony helicopters
  • Telemetry
  • Static
  • various other sounds
Please also download the End Users Lisence Agreement (EULA) on the same page for details on how you can use the sounds.  Basically use the sounds in any project you want but please don't sell, share or repackage the content.  Have fun with the download, and let me know if you are able to morph/mangle/distort the sounds into any thing cool.
I have a few other analog synths, as well as my toy theremin (check out my blog post on the theremin and the free downloads of it in action). I have lent a few of my analog synths to my friend Jim Guthrie, who is getting a bunch of use out of them in his studio.  Jim Guthrie is best known outside Canada for his award winning score for the game SuperBrothers: Sword and Sworcery, while in Canada he is an indie rock musician of note.
In addition to the analog synth segment, the latest Tonebenders podcast also goes into the subject of moving studio locations and building a new space from scratch.  Both Rene and Dustin, the other hosts of the podcast, have recently gone through this process and they talk over some of the lessons they have learned.
Please take a listen and let me know what you think in the comments section over on the Tonebenders website.