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Thursday
Jul262012

Argo Vehicle Recording Session 

Up at my family's cabin a few months ago, I spotted a rather conspicuous vehicle parked outside a neighbor's place. It was an Argo, a very cool 6-wheeled amphibious ATV. The minute I saw it, I knew right away that I wanted record it. I approached the owner to get permission to do a full coverage recording. He agreed and I started to think about how to approach this the right way.   

Prep

My first step was to do a once-over of the vehicle and take a quick test ride with the owner.  While I was checking out the Argo I realized a couple things that made it unique and would be especially challenging in the recording process.  The most obvious thing I noticed was that its body was entirely sealed and closed in.  Being an amphibious vehicle, it can drive right into the water and keep on motoring.  For this reason, the entire underside is sealed water tight.  This meant there could be no microphones mounted under the Argo, as they would just be recording a plastic panel instead of an interesting engine perspective.  The entire outside of the vehicle is smooth, so there are no nooks or crannies to slip mics or cabling into for protection from the wind once it got up to speed.  Drafting would be an issue.

Then I took a test ride with the owner.  Again I realized a few more things that would make recording a challenge.  It is a rough ride.  We were traveling on a fairly level gravel road on our test run and the Argo was bouncing all over the place.  Keeping microphones in place was going to be a major concern.  It terms of how the Argo sounded though, I was over the moon.  During the test run I brought along my Sony D-50 handheld recorder and captured some great sounds right off the bat.  Here's a clip from that first Argo ride:

The Argo's owner, John Beumer, has a grandson who was very interested in the whole recording concept and you can hear him asking me to hear playback in that clip.  Here is a picture of the two of them on the Argo during that first test run.

So I now had a general idea of what I was up against with the Argo.  It was everything one should expect from an all-terrain vehicle - it was rough, loud, and challenging.

My next step was to research everything I could find detailing other recordists' experiences with vehicles, take it all in, and learn as much as I could. (Check out this previous post for the 25 top links I found on full-coverage vehicle recording).  Then I did a few test runs with my own car, during which I learned a lot.  I was getting fairly confident that I had learned enough to be ready to go for it.  So I booked an afternoon with the owner of the Argo and started collecting all the gear I would need for the upcoming record day.

I was able to borrow the 8-channel Sound Devices 788T digital recorder, and quickly realized that it was way more complicated than my own Sound Devices 702, a 2-channel recorder. I had to download the manual!  I also borrowed a Crown PZM microphone from an old friend. Once I had a good idea of the gear I would have available for the session my next step was to map out a plan for mic placements on the Argo.  After a lot of pondering over various combinations, I ended up with a starting point that looked like this:

I also came up with a shot list of all the actions I wanted to record the Argo doing.  I wanted to get the Argo at various speeds, but there is no speedometer on a vehicle like this, so I couldn't plan to capture exact speeds.  Ideally, I'd get the Argo to go through a planned route at specific speeds (ie: 15 km/h, 20 km/h, 25km/h...80km/h)  but since the driver had no real way to gauge exact speeds and also since the Argo tops out at around 40 km/h, I decided to plan for 3 versions of each route.  One fast go-around at at full speed, followed by a medium and a slow version of my route.  

I also thought I'd get some foley of the Argo, but in my test run I realized that the body of the Argo doesn't have much in the way of moving parts. No doors, no trunk, no windows to record opening and closing.  Here is the shot list I drew up before embarking on the session.

Next step was to gather all the gear, charge all the batteries, make sure I had enough cabling and account for all non-audio gadgets (bungie cords, gaffer tape, power extension etc.).

Once I had everything checked, I packed it all back up and loaded up the car for the 4-hour drive to the cabin.

 

Set Up

On the day of the recording I knew time was not going to be on my side.  I only had the afternoon with the Argo.  It was July 1st which is a national holiday in Canada and John, the owner of the Argo and my driver for the session, was hosting a big family BBQ with 16 guests due to arrive at dinner time.  I was hemmed in because I couldn't do the recording in the morning. The area where we were recording would be buzzing with birdsong from sun-up until mid-day, so we had to squeeze the session into the short interval after the birds settled down in the afternoon but before I lost my driver to his dinner guests. I only had 2 or 3 hours to get all the sounds I wanted.  

The first task was to get the Argo all wired up with mics.  When I arrived I got John to start up the Argo with the hood open and shoved my head in the engine compartment to listen and find some sweet spots. I was looking for a location that would have an interesting sound and would be safe to place a microphone, without it getting caught in the works of the engine or overheating.  Once that was determined I let John go and asked him to come back in an hour and half.  I optimistically guessed that's how long I would need to set up and test all 12 channels on gear I was unfamiliar with (the borrowed 788T) -  all on my own.  I had originally planned to have a friend with me to help out, but this fell through and I decided to move forward anyway.  In hindsight I realize I should have rescheduled.

My initial estimate of an hour and a half to wire up the Argo fell well short, as it ended up taking 2 hours and 15 minutes.  Eating a big chunk into my already short recording time-frame.  I was, however, able to stick to my recording layout plan.  First thing I did was set my Rode NT4 stereo microphone inside a Rode blimp with a furry onto the end of a mic stand.  Then I secured the stand to the back of the Argo with 3 bungie cords so that it was hanging about 1.5 feet off the back of the vehicle, with the blimp aimed back at the vehicle and down at the back tires.  Since I knew from my test run how rough a ride the Argo was, I stuffed foam between the stand and where it made contact with the Argo's body.  This minimized the sound of the stand bouncing around really well.

Now that I had the back of the Argo covered I moved on to the front engine compartment.  I was going to have one mic under the hood at the front of the engine and one at the side.  I only have two DPA 4060s, and I wanted to use one on the exhaust pipe.  So  I turned to a Naiant X-S for the other engine mic.  Luckily I found a great little spot along the dashboard of the Argo where I could pop off the moulding and create a little space leading directly into the engine compartment.  This meant I could feed the cabling from the microphones under the hood into the cab of the Argo where the 788T was waiting.  This made dressing the cables significantly easier.

Next up was the exhaust.  Because of the sealed body frame of the Argo, the engine mics were not exposed to much wind, but the exhaust mic would be completely exposed to the air currents.  The Argo offered no nooks in which to tuck a mic away from the wind, so this one was going to need a lot of extra care to capture a clean sound.  I put on the little foam that comes with the DPA 4060 and then reached for a new toy I recently purchased, a Bubblebee Windbubble miniature fur windscreen.  I popped this little furry over the foam-covered DPA, and then attached the mic, facing backwards, just above the exhaust pipe with gaffer tape.  Next, I layered on a thick covering of foam to offer increased wind protection.  I was able to play with the foam until I had a lot protecting the tiny mic but no foam actually between the mic and the exhaust pipe, hopefully meaning the foam would act as a windshield without muffling the recording.  

Here is the microphone placement with the Windbubble fur, prior to covering it with foam padding.Here you can see the layers of foam that were placed over the exhaust microphone in action.

I wanted to get an on-board recording of the passenger space of the Argo.  This is a little tricky since there really is no defined interior - it has an open top and no doors.  I felt it was important to have something representing the drivers' perspective though.  So I turned to my Sony D-50 for this job.  The problem was mounting it somewhere.  The Argo was too rough to put the D-50 on a tripod; I assumed it would just topple over.  Plus there really is no room in the Argo for a driver, a recordist and a tripod.  I figured ahead of time my best bet would be to use my Delkin suction cup mount and have the D-50 attached to the interior of the windshield, pointed at the driver.

My first idea for how to record the the Argo's Interior.

Now that I had what I expected to be my main mics set up, I wired up the contact mic on the hood over the engine and attached the PZM to the chassis.  I was not sure what to expect from these two mics but I was curious to hear what they would come up with.  Finally on the last channel of the 788T there was a handheld mic - I had it resting beside the 788, so that I could use it as a slate mic to ID each manoeuvre and speed the Argo went through.

Aquarian Audio's H2a Hydrophone with the contact mic adaptor was attached on the Argo's hood and then a layer of foam was placed over top.Crown PZM180 attached to the chassis of the Argo.

The final step before we started recording was to "tapslate".  This is a great little tip I picked up from René Coronado; it is simple yet effective. Once all the microphones are in place and wired up to the recorder, start rolling and just walk around to each mic one at a time, and physically tap on it lightly.  Then say out loud the name of the mic you just tapped and its placement location.  This way you have a fool-proof way of identifying each channel and what is feeding into it, after the fact.

Since I knew the Argo would be traveling on gravel and dirt roads I was worried about dust and dirt getting everywhere and onto everything.  To combat this I stowed the 788T under a plastic cover and gaffer-taped the cover down so that the recorder was only exposed to the elements when I lifted the plastic to adjust levels.

Here is a photo taken right before we started recording showing the final placements of many of the mics and cabling.

 

Recording

Now I was ready to roll.  I fetched John, my driver, and he started up the Argo.  This little vehicle is really loud so I started off with all the pots really low..  The plan was to do a lap or two around the area to let me get proper levels and then I would get off the Argo for the rest of the record.  I would then record pass-bys, pull-ups and pull-aways from a stationary position using the Sanken CSS5 stereo shotgun going into a Sound Devices 702 at the same time as all the onboard mics were recording.  This way I could be recording 12 simultaneous channels of the Argo (10 onboard and 2 handheld).  Well that never happened.  Within about 20 seconds the delkin suction cup mount popped of the windshield where it was mounted.  The Argo was just too unstable and rough for the suction cups to hold on.  Luckily it only fell a few inches and no damage was done.  I had to improvise and find new spot for the D-50 and the best I could come up with was to put it on a small Joby tripod and hold it in place myself.  This worked great except it meant I could not leave the Argo to be recording the stationary positions at the same time.  So now I had to find time to record the pass-bys, approaches and aways separately. 

That was not the only problem the rough ride of the Argo brought forth.  Especially when we hit the off-road terrain and went for a ride through fairly dense forest, over fallen trees and large rocks.  This terrain wreaked havoc on my rear mic hanging out behind the Argo.  The Rode NT4 is actually quite a heavy microphone and with all the bouncing up and down on the rough terrain it slowly worked itself out of one of the clips holding it in place in the blimp's shockmount.  Once loose from the clip, the mic rattled and smacked around on the inside of the blimp on every bump we hit.  Luckily this did not happen until near the end of the recording session, but the final few minutes were essentially ruined for these channels as a result.

Next up I got off the Argo and got my driver to do pass-bys, "Start, Idle and Aways" and approaches, all at various speeds while I was recording from the roadside.

Because I needed to adjust the schedule to make room for a separate set of manoeuvres recorded from a stationary position, I had to make some tough choices.  As a result I would not have time to record the Argo going in and out of the lake.

The actual recording process seemed to happen so fast and was full of action and quick decisions. So much so that it has all turned into a blur in my memory now.  I really could have used an extra body to help out with everything.  That was the biggest lesson learned during this process.  12 mic feeds is too much to manage for one person.

Once my time with my driver was up I spent some time stripping all the gear off the Argo and packed everything up after a long, stressful, but exciting day.

After tearing down the mics off of the Argo, I was left with a good sized gaffer ball from all the tape used on the shoot.

Results

WOW!  The Argo has some really great sounds.  It's engine has a great high-pitched whine on top of the engine roar and growl that really gives it a unique sound all its own.  The engine mics held up great and each have their own sound.  The exhaust perspective worked really well too. Sadly the contact mic did not work out, as it ended up just recording a undefined low rumble that I find rather ugly.  I was really happy with what I got from the chassis-mounted PZM though.  It has a nice bias towards the whine of the Argo and really makes it prominent.  My rear mic, recording the road surface and tires, was great on the gravel roads but lost its lustre when we went off road and the ground surface was softer and offered less crisp sounds.  The Sony D-50 did an admirable job with recording the interior of the vehicle - I was happy with the results, given how plans changed on the fly for this recorder.

The Argo really excelled on the exterior stationary recordings of pass-bys.  The vehicle has a nice change in frequencies during a pass.  As it approaches you hear the low end rumble of the engine and then as it passes you get the high engine whine for a few moments.  

All in all the session was a success.  I learned so much, and now know a bunch of things I'll do differently next time...... I can't wait.

Here is a video of all the isolated microphone feeds I was able to record.