The BBC's sound effects records have been the staple diet of many a film, TV and radio production. Now there is a new generation of digitally recorded sound effects available on compact disc which are ideal for sampling. David Mellor assesses their worth.
From David Mellor, the man who destroyed the Temple of Dagon fifteen times in London, Korea and Japan and once guillotined eighteen nuns in a single session, comes a review of the long-awaited series of sound effect compact discs from those long-standing coconut shell experts - the BBC.
Crack-crack-crack-crack-pow-BOOOOM-rumble-rumble! That is my interpretation in print of what must be the most famous recorded sound effect going. If you don't recognise it, take a listen to any TV or radio programme or advert that features thunder and lightning. Prosaically entitled 'Sharp Clap (10s)' on RED47M of the BBC's original series of sound effects records, this one effect must have cornered at least 50% of the entire thunderclap market.
Once you know it you can't help hearing it again and again. Producers use it not because it sounds like a typical thunderclap (it may be a real one, I don't know), but because it conveys the impression of thunder better than any other clap available on record. I've used it countless times, suitably treated, for the aforementioned destruction of the temple in 'Samson and Delilah' (the opera), a witches' spell in 'Macbeth', radio jingles, and many more.
The BBC series of sound effects records is probably the best known collection around, mainly because it is the most widely available and because it has a brilliant selection of good effects, from 'Rotary lawn-mower revving' to 'Nailing down coffin lid'. The only snag is that the effects soon become overused, like that thunderclap, and are easily spotted by a professional FX user. Maybe the general public aren't quite as discerning though.
Another problem is that the series is getting a little, how can I put it, elderly! If you managed to catch the touring production of the play 'Strippers' last year (no, it wasn't pornographic) then you may be interested to learn that the baby you heard crying voted for the SDP in the last general election! Very frequently, plays also use the old cliche of the car pulling up outside, unseen by the audience. I wonder how often it is the sound of that good old Triumph TR3? Fairly often I should think, even though the car is now a collectors item.
You could ask, 'Why don't you go out and record some new effects?' Well, I do have a few of my own, but most of the time a producer will not be too fussy about what he gets and will certainly not be willing to pay my fee for going out with my Professional Walkman and microphone. It's far easier and cheaper to lift the effect from a sound effects record, and if it's a baby crying he wants - well, I'm not going to go around prodding some poor little devil in the ribs to get what he requires!
The other snag with records is that when you find the right effect, chances are the record has a big click at that point and you have a lot of cleaning up to do on the tape copy. Compact disc is, in my experience so far, indestructible - so that problem has gone right out of the window. Cueing up is also a lot easier, especially on a professional CD player like the Technics SL-P1200 which also has a varispeed function - useful for turning grandfather clocks into Big Ben. (Many users just dub off the effects as they are. I always think you can do just a little better if you exercise the old brain muscle a bit.) Turning now to the contents of the new BBC series, 10 compact discs can cover a lot of effects - but where's the thunderclap? Perhaps they are waiting until a better one comes along. (I can imagine some poor chap being sent out onto the cold, wet roof of Broadcasting House every time Francis Wilson says there's a storm coming along!) Still, the BBC promise that this will be an ongoing series so that is something to look forward to. Those in the present series are titled:
SFX 001 Sound effects
SFX 002 Exterior atmospheres
SFX 003 Household
SFX 004 Interior backgrounds
SFX 005 Transport
SFX 006 Animals and birds
SFX 007 Human crowds, children and footsteps
SFX 008 Comedy, fantasy and horror
SFX 009 International
SFX 010 Communications
I was supplied with discs 001, 002, 004 and 007 for review so I, unfortunately, missed some intriguing experiences, such as '30 donkeys passing in a yard', 'Zeppelin bomb drop mechanism', 'Seychelles tortoises mating' or 'Restless sheep in the shed (with distant birds)'!
I was lucky enough, however, to hear such delights as city traffic (I could have opened my window and recorded that one) and pre-1976 television sets being crushed at a refuse disposal plant. My advice to you if you have a pre-1976 set is to bolt the doors and windows - it seems like they are on the look-out!
There is also the truly gruesome sound of teeth being drilled at the dentist, with the choice of low-speed or high-speed drill. I'm going to brush mine more thoroughly from now on!
Many of the effects are not 'spot' effects as such, but more in the nature of background ambience. Take 'City skyline' for instance. Nine minutes and 46 seconds of city atmosphere, without identifiable individual sounds. It's a good noise which will certainly find a lot of use in TV and radio.
Most of the effects are extremely lifelike, as they should be because they are mostly recent digital stereo or binaural recordings. I can warmly recommend the destruction of both the factory chimney and the power station. They nearly destroyed the bass drivers of my speakers, probably as some sort of act of revenge. Rather less good is the karate class, which has a lot of reverberation (probably natural) on it. I would have preferred 'dry' recordings so that reverb could be added as necessary at a later stage. I hope that not too many effects on other discs are like this.
Another query concerns the recorded level of many of the effects. Why so low? Although the signal-to-noise ratio of Compact Disc is inherently good, why waste a precious resource? Perhaps the BBC decided that since sound effects recordings always sound most realistic when played at their natural level, some attempt should be made to follow these levels on the discs. It is always the case that sounds that you would expert to be quiet in normal life have been recorded at a low level on these discs.
I love the amount of written detail that goes into the listings in the booklets that come with each disc, and also the general catalogue. For instance, 'BMW 980cc, 2 cylinder, 1982 model' or 'Helicopter, Bell Jetranger Executive'. It may not be necessary to have absolute accuracy in every production but it's good to know the detail is there if you want it. The old BBC records had a similar amount of attention to detail, which gives you the feeling that a certain amount of care has gone into the work.
Another example of attention to detail is the quantity of telephone effects available - 29 on SFX 010, including international line noise, local line noise and all sorts of dialling and ringing tones.
I'm not a TV or radio person but I am sure that the sound quality of these CD effects is exactly what producers have been waiting for for ages, so we will probably be hearing many similar 'City skylines' in the years to come!
For a theatre or recording engineer - I have been known to dabble in both fields - these new CDs will provide valuable source material. Taking the theatre case first, I hinted earlier that the reason the original BBC thunderclap is so successful is not that it sounds like a thunderclap but that it has qualities that make it work in a dramatic setting. Realism is not the be-all and end-all. Similarly with other sounds in this series, it will not be possible to take an effect from the disc and expert it to work without some treatment, such as equalisation or 'thickening'.
In the studio - especially studios which have those handy things called samplers - there are a lot of sound textures which could be put to better musical use than the more usual pinching of drum sounds from records. For instance, how about a tennis serve as a percussion noise? (I had Steffi Graf playing on my last production - pity she didn't win.) Maybe an Iberian marsh frog croaking an atmospheric chorus or a 1986 Rolls Royce Silver Spirit starting up the track?
The Beeb is not alone in producing a series of sound effects recordings. There is the American 'Sound Ideas' CD effects library, a 28-disc set selling for $1250 or a special offer of that and its companion 22 CD set, together for $1850. If you work it out, they are rather more expensive than our homegrown alternative and shipping charges and VAT, of course, would push the price up further.
Closer to home, there is also a similar collection of conventional vinyl records available from Chappell Music at £176.60 for a 10-disc set, although the more robust 15 ips tape format would set you back £524.70. It's worth mentioning that the Chappell effects do not pretend to be as wide-ranging as the Beeb's. Theirs are simply the most often used tracks from the library of a large London audio-visual studio, Molinaire. So, if you want a taxi horn, there is a choice of one. They reckon their system suits the pro user.
The BBC set of compact discs gives you a good selection of well recorded sound effects and ambiences at a reasonable cost and which they promise to expand. These are available for any type of commercial use without royalty payment, so if you are into noises or just want something different to sample, they are well worth a listen.
Personally, I'm looking forward to the disc with the storm effects so that I can record the sound of the old BBC records being at long last thrown in the bin! They have served us well in the past but now there is something better.
The full set of 10 discs costs £228.85 including VAT.
For more details of BBC Sound FX compact discs contact: BBC Records & Tapes, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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