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Entries in Crowds (1)

Tuesday
Sep252012

Recording Crowds when news Strikes!

Back in the spring, I inadvertently found myself in the middle of a news event and luckily my microphone was picking up the whole thing. It all started when I set out to attend a press conference at City Hall with the goal of capturing a medium-sized crowd gathered to listen to some speeches - a press conference for the raising of the rainbow flag over City Hall to signal the International Day Against Homophobia; I was expecting some speeches, some polite applause and that would be that. I would get my crowd reactions and I would be on my way. 

The rainbow flag flying over Toronto's city hall.

Realistic-sounding crowd reactions are one of those persistent challenges in sound-effects cutting. There are so many variations of reactions possible and each crowd scene will call for something different. The number of people present, the level of enthusiasm, the ratio of positive to negative reactions, the size of the space the crowd is in - these and many more variables make crowd scenes as unique as snow flakes. I can never have enough variations available in my library. So off I went to add what I thought would be some low-key crowd sounds to my collection. Turns out I was wrong. In order to understand the situation I stumbled into, I'll give you some backstory - bear with me.

The city I call home has been going through some moderate political controversy over the last few years. Toronto has been a fairly left-leaning city for most of my life, but two years ago a right-wing mayor took office and has been upsetting the political scene ever since. One of the divisive techniques the new Mayor has employed is to completely ignore the city's gay population. Toronto is home to Canada’s largest gay pride festival. The festival, and its approximately 500,000 attendees, is a huge boost to the city’s tourism industry and a large boost to the local economy in general. Traditionally, the sitting mayor has taken part in the centerpiece of the week-long celebrations, the parade. Our current mayor has bucked this trend, skipping the parade as well as avoiding all related appearances during the entire festival. This stance has been the subject of countless newspaper columns and endless hours of debate on local talk radio. It may sound trivial to some of you, but it is part of a much larger political puzzle in the city and it's environs.

Given the climate around City Hall, there was a fairly large contingent of local TV and radio news crews present that day to cover the flag-raising, though it was otherwise not a big-buzz type event. But then, just a few minutes before the conference was to begin a sudden wave of energy moved through the crowd. It had just been leaked that the mayor was going to be taking part in the ceremony and was working his way out into the crowd. 

Everyone knew that this situation had the potential to be volatile. You had a crowd of 100 or so people who had been continuously ignored and belittled by the man about to address them. This could easily have become a spontaneous protest where the crowd booed, hissed and chanted over the mayor’s speech. Instead, he was cheered on and the crowd was genuinely excited to see him there and to accept the municipal recognition that came with the mayor’s presence. It quickly turned into a love-in, punctuated by rousing ovations as the mayor read a prepared speech.

Toronto's mayor posing at the press conference. I have never been a part of a situation like that before - where a group of people was suddenly confronted with a complete change of context from what was expected. There was no leader telling everyone how to react, yet everyone somehow collectively decided to make the event positive instead of turning negative. This non-verbal collective decision seemed to be dictated only by the energy of the people assembled. The press conference ended up leading the 6 P.M. news on most local stations, even if it was quickly left behind in an ever-changing news cycle. I am fairly sure if the crowd had turned sour and been confrontational it would have been a news staple for days or weeks. It was a very reassuring moment in my view of the future of politics - instead of the knee jerk reaction to mud-slinging, people decided to get along - if only for a brief moment. A few weeks later when the Pride Festival began, the mayor again absented himself from the proceedings.

Since this press event was held outdoors (it was a flag-raising) a lot of the audible energy, when the crowd realized that a change in plans was afoot, was lost in the background noise of the downtown core of the city. So I was not able to get any good recordings of the buzz and murmurs going through the crowd. I was able to get lots and lots of the crowd reactions during the speeches though. They range from a joyous swell at the beginning of the mayor’s speech to the polite small applause received by some of the later speakers at the event.

There are lots of problems with recording real crowds at public speaking events. Obviously the speaker's goal is to win over the crowd; unlike me - the other guy with a microphone - they are not exactly worrying about clean ins and outs on crowd reactions. Once the the speechifying is edited out, you end up with a lot of great starts and swells, but almost no natural ends to the applause. 90% of the time the speaker will start talking again before the end of the crowd's response to their last statement. This forces a sound editor to either fake a natural-sounding ending by pulling down the fader early, or by taking the few instances of clean outs and editing those endings on to the other takes. Neither of these options are really good enough. The forced/faked option never sounds quite like the real thing, and listeners will notice the repeated edited ending if a scene calls for repeated swells of applause. I find the best bet when faced with this situation is to use a mix of both techniques and lots and lots of layering to help sell the whole thing.

Here are a few of the crowd reactions I was able to get that day:

 

Recently I've been posting free downloads here on the Azimuth website, featuring selections from field recordings described in my blog , but today's sounds will be available to you through a different channel. A selection of the crowd responses will be available in The Sound Collectors Club library of small crowd reactions. They will be available to any other members of the club who also contribute to the library. So I highly encourage you to get out there and record your own crowds and post them up with the SCC - it will help grow everyone's sound effects libraries. Win/Win.