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The Compleat Sound Effects Recordist

Article from Sound International, January 1979

I used to work with this prat once who thought that I'd mis-spelt compleat when I used it in an article - sometimes you just can't win, can you? Dave Hastilow, however, is well sussed and brings you sound at a stroke.

Although there are many sound effects records available in record shops and libraries, recording your own sound effects can be great fun and a rewarding experience. Our ears are bombarded with noise every minute of the day and although it would cost the earth, you could literally have a tape recorder running all the time for the chances are that some film producer or other will require the very sound you took for granted and pay a good fee for a quality recording of it. Also, a sound effects library is a valuable asset, because although we don't notice it (due to our single mindedness) everything about us is in a state of flux and the barrel maker down the road that you take for granted won't be around when a machine takes his place. So if you get a recording today you'll have an archive tomorrow. This applies to everything we see, hear, say, and do. Do you remember flower power, the hippies chanting their love and peace calls? The Ban the Bomb marches to Aldermaston? These are part of our past. Now start talking to your grandma about hers. Just about everything she talks about, from the way she dressed, the way she was taught at school, what she did in the war, or what she thinks of Concorde compared to the aeroplanes of her day will be like prehistory compared with the way we go about things today. Things change so fast. 75% of all the films made, books written, plays on TV and the radio programmes are about the past. That's why I never bother renewing my TV licence; I just repeat it.

To get the most out of time and money while recording sound effects requires research, organisation, and knowledge like a reference library. I work with a Nagra 1VS stereo tape recorder and four mics, two Sennheiser gun mics for a 'directional' stereo pair, a Schoeps CMTS variable polarity stereo mic, and a Schoeps MSTC 110-degree ORTF Principal Binaural stereo mic, and a parabolic reflector; I don't consider it worth going on the road with over £5000 worth of equipment unless I know I'm going to come back with a good batch of tapes taking in everything available in a given area. For instance, suppose there is an ancient custom taking place in some village in Yorkshire. The first thing I do is research the custom so that if I bump into an old farmer who has been taking part in it for about fifty years I know what to ask him. Then I will get my book on word geography down and find out the local dialect, drawing up questions to get the best responses from the locals. When I get there I will enquire at places like post offices as to who are the oldest inhabitants of the village and try to arrange a meeting with them. Then I will get down a map of the area in which the village lies and study the different types of countryside, cross-referencing it with my wildlife books for any nature reserves and looking up local country crafts, museums, factories and so on in the rest of my reference library (which takes up half the house).

Then I set off, sometimes for weeks at a time, often with the family because it's good to have someone taking notes or making conversation with people you wouldn't normally be able to approach. Children are great ice-breakers, for at big events people are only too willing to help you with your equipment, and they often start conversations by talking about the kids or coming to the rescue when they get out of hand. Also, you'd be surprised at the number of people who are working on the same projects as yourself, only in different media; perhaps they are writing a book or researching for TV. They can give you lots of tips. In fact, one researcher I met even worked with me as an interviewer because he was so committed to the importance of getting things down on tape. He knew every folk custom in England and went to every one of them year after year so that the dancers and participants knew him as a friend. When you've got that sort of relationship then the real work can get under way. Some villagers won't even let you take a photograph unless they know that your interest is genuine and not for quick cash. So take it easy. However, recording folk customs or dialect may not be your cup of tea, so let's talk about what most people think of when they hear the words 'sound effects'. Kerchunker, plonk, zaaaaaaaaa-aaaaap, splosh.

As soon as you start recording sound effects it is important to log, either in a notebook or on cards in a card file, exactly what the sound is and then give the tape a number. I have come back with about twenty or thirty tapes from some trips with only the barest notes and, believe me, they helped a great deal. For instance if you arrive in the New Forest you may be immediately confronted by somebody breaking into a parked car. So start the tape rolling — the log will go something like this:

Glass Breaking with birdsong in the background.
Car door being opened with birdsong in the background.
Car starting and driving away — fades into distance — with birdsong in the background. Now when you get back to base, the cross referencing on these would be:

GLASS being broken in woodland atmos Roll 3 Band 1
Car Door being opened in woodland atmos Roll 1 Band 1
Start and away in woodland atmos Roll 1 Band 2
Woodland (New Forest) Roll 2 Band 1

and so on. You will immediately see that it is not really possible to go out and record things under particular headings because so much can happen once the tape is rolling. If you go out to record birdsong in March or April, you will also get aeroplanes flying overhead, pony trekkers trotting by, distant traffic, people falling off mountains (AAAAAAAAAARGH Crunch), church bells, tractors etc etc. There aren't many quiet places left, believe me! A friend of mine went to the middle of the Scottish Highlands to record some rare birds which were breeding on a remote loch. He waited a week before they started doing anything vocal and all week he didn't see one aeroplane, hear one petrol engine, or see one monster. However, the minute he switched his tape recorder into record... a tractor started mowing a field on the other side of the loch. I have similar experiences, they are all too frequent.

Because you will be presented with such a diversity of sounds wherever you go, it is best to get everything that crosses your path. Cows, bicycles, motorway service areas, children's conversations, but don't park on level crossings, it is not advisable.

As I mentioned earlier, it is good to have a brain like a reference library, and the only way you can do that is to join a good book club which offers a good selection: from field guides to touring manuals. It is all very well recording a cow mooing or an old motor car but it is one step better to know what sort of cow and what sort of motor car because people can tell the difference. The BBC get festooned with telephone calls if they use the wrong aeroplane engine noise to the one mentioned in the script. Another good reason for doing this is that at certain times of the year birds migrate, and the one which you record on the local sewage farm might be a rarity previously 'recorded' (that is, 'observed') only twice in the past one hundred years. You may have the only sound recording, so it is as well to make descriptive notes and then check the reference books. One of the most useful books to have is the AA Book of the British Countryside, it covers everything. I will pay anyone handsomely for a book called the Readers Digest Complete Atlas of the British Isles which is now out of print. I will also pay handsomely anyone who has portable stereo recording equipment and wants to do some recording in his or her spare time for ready cash. Providing the results are good.

Now for the instant sound effects. These are sometimes called 'spot' effects because they are often done while a show is being recorded, as in many of the BBC radio shows. I remember only too well my days with the BBC Drama Department when I would receive the script a couple of weeks ahead of the recording date with a list of 'spots' and then go around to their 'FX' store and fill a huge basket full of bells, squeaky clocks, shells, crockery (for the breaking of) - and get every imaginable type of bell because you never know specifically what sound the producer would eventually decide on. Then you had to carry this huge basket across the zebra crossing to the studio, or up the lift, or down to the basement. Of course, when things are stuffed through the recording system they never sound like they are supposed to. I remember munching my way through a mashed-up copy of the Times because it sounded more like porridge than porridge — and if you've ever tried to make washing-up sound like washing-up when a red light is glaring in the corner of your eye then you can only have worked for the BBC. Recently I spent a whole day in the studio recreating a jungle fire, in stereo. I had the tape op in fits of laughter as I crunched and snapped my way through half-a-dozen rose bushes (kindly donated by the gardener from the college next door) at the same time as I was squeezing used and crumpled tape in front of the mic to simulate burning foliage and undergrowth. Then I had to put 'fleeing animal' on it, I used the tape op for that (serves him right, those rose bushes cut me to ribbons). The fact that things never sound the same off-tape is of course a big advantage when doing 'spots' and a good library can be put together in a short time if you have a quiet studio or living room; the latter is okay, because if well furnished it should be pretty dry acoustically. Here is a list of some interesting and easy 'spots' to be going on with:

Footsteps in undergrowth: Get some old tape, the LP type is best for this, and shpeel it all over the floor. Then walk all over it.

Fire: When you have just about pulverised it, pick it up in your hand and squeeze it into a ball, then let it release itself slowly. A potato crisp packet is even better. (Eat the crisps first.)

Rain: Get some aluminium cooking foil and stretch it over a biscuit tin lid. Then pour water over it. When there is enough water in it heat it over the gas. (Be careful where you put the mic.)

Bird's wings flapping: Put tape speed to slow, then open and close an umbrella. When the tape is played back at a higher speed it will sound like birds wings. Or Dumbo.

Arrow swishing through air: Swish a length of rope.

Bow twang: Pluck an elastic band.

Arrow hitting the target: Dart into dart board close to mic (use a good darts player for this).

Sea shore (surf): Slowly move a bean bag from one hand to the other close to the mic.

The above may also be used for marching feet if the bag is manipulated to the required speed.

Footsteps in snow: Twist a roll of cotton wool at required pace close to mic.

Spear: As for arrow, except heavyweight darts give a better effect.

Guillotine (French): Slide a bread knife along the stainless steel tubing of a mic stand. At the end of the slide, chop a cabbage in half and let it fall into a waste paper basket. (Not both halves, unless the victim has two heads in the script).

Body being thrown: Requires the assistance of the tape op, say no more. A good substitute is a washing line coiled up inside a towel and dropped near the mic.

Soft drink fizz: Liver Salts in the bottom of a glass and water poured over them.

Person running: Drink the Liver Salts and leave the recorder running. For a quicker result use more liver salts.

Door knobs and latches: Get an old door and mount it on wheels. Then get every conceivable type of latch and knob and mount it on the door. No joking, this is a really useful prop to have about and can lead to many openings. Mount the door on wheels so that it can be moved about.

Creaks: A cork rubbed on a glass window or wooden table top. A slight amount of polish can enhance the effect. Or rub a piece of string with a rag covered in polish. Any unlubricated metal device can also be useful — anybody wanna buy a car? A cane waste paper basket can produce the sound of an old rocking chair if slight pressure is applied to it.

If you have access to a synthesiser then try the following:

Gusty wind: The problem with recording wind in the field is that it is either too high and the mic is overloaded or the wind comes in puffs and lacks continuity. Firstly, take the 'field recording' and patch it into the envelope follower via the preamp. Use this to voltage-control the synthesiser's own 'white noise' type wind sound. However, if your synthesiser permits, mix the field recording with the 'noise' and sweep the noise with an LFO controlling the voltage controlled filter.

Moaning wind: Get the basic white noise wind and raise any number of out of tune oscillators into it. All the better if they are just audible. Also, enhance the effect by tuning the voltage controlled filter until it just 'rings'. Voltage control all of the aforementioned with a very low frequency sine wave to make them rise and fall together.

Metallic rings and clock chimes: Patch two oscillators into a ring modulator. If the oscillators are tuned in musical intervals the effect will be of clock chimes, especially if you work in the mid to high octaves. If the oscillators are out of tune the chimes will sound more like metal being hit with a hammer. Set the ADSR for a short release time. Alter the sound by raising a third oscillator into either of the previous oscillators. A low frequency is good, especially a sine wave because with a long decay-time the chime or thunk will 'sort of waver away'. If the ring modulator is patched into the VCF, then sweeping the VCF with a LFO sine wave will have a similar effect but with weird wavering harmonics, particularly if the ring modulators oscillators are square wave because these have a very rich harmonic content.

Trains, surf, wind, crickets, explosions etc are readily available on most synthesisers but if you don't own a synthesiser but do have a couple of tape recorders, here are a few techniques which should keep you busy for a few years:

Flying saucer taking off: Connect and thread up two tape recorders as shown in the diagram, using a piece of already recorded tape — it doesn't really matter what program content. Put recorder one into 'pause record' mode with superimpose button switched in, or if you don't have a superimpose button put a piece of cigarette packet over the erase head, shiny side to tape. Put recorder two into the play mode then start both recorders simultaneously. If there is a 15in gap between the recorders then after 20 seconds there will be 512 superimposed tracks going through (and a lot of noise). Stop the tape and then rewind. Run the tape in fast forward on one machine holding the tape against the head for effect, but keep the volume down or you'll blow your tweeters.

Ethereal spooky wind: Record a piano but while you are recording it constantly change the tape speed so that the final recording sounds like an aerobatic Elton. Overlay this track about 30 times on to another piece of tape on the other recorder in the superimpose mode. Make sure that every take is slightly out of sync with the original (if you can still hear the original that is). The combination of flanging and hiss can give a very spacey sound which sounds great at a live gig. Like a flying saucer coming in through the roof.

Well, I can't really let you in on any more secrets, the best ones are always found through personal experimentation. An interesting library of tapeloops can be very handy and provides stimulus not only for further sound effects recordings but also for music or whole album concepts. The most famous example is the Pink Floyd (and I can only wonder why they didn't give me the job).

In future articles I would like to deal in more detail with all of the areas touched on and include an 'effects recordists calendar', which will pinpoint events and places of interest to go, month by month, with notes on how to get the best recordings. For instance, if you think placing a mic 9ft from a grand piano to get the overtones is a problem, try recording church bells. Oh, and the offer of recording work is for real, drop me a line c/o of the editorial address.

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Three Sax Players

Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Jan 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Dave Hastilow

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