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.
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!