After the G20 last week and a lively discussion on some sound boards about the ethics of recording such sounds, I thought I’d bring out one of my favorite protest sets. Living in San Francisco, I have no shortage of protests to pick from. Small, large, peaceful, angry, happy, parties, you name it--we got it. The police here are so used to working protests and marches that they have a very laid back attitude most of the time (and will pose for photographs if you ask nicely). (The marches here are also generally very peaceful affairs.) When the Olympic Torch came through the city in 2008 and throngs of genuinely angry people were lining up just a block outside my office, I had no choice but to grab the gear and head out for the day.

I found a very orderly affair along King Street, right in front of the Giant’s ballpark. The streets were blocked off with barriers and protesters of all kind lined the sidewalk. Looking like a member of the press always pays off and, using it to my advantage, I moved right past the barriers and into the street.
I walked along the barriers, stopping at each group and letting them lay their chants on me. I got everything from “Free Tibet” to something about healthy eating and veganism. *Shrug* After about 20 minutes a policeman nicely asked me to move along.

Around the corner on 2nd Street, however, was a much more violent affair. The crowd here was starting to undulate and a few individuals were getting into heated arguments. The vitriol was actually pretty amusing (I never have and don’t think I ever will understand how Communists are destroying the United States...but I digress) and I can only imagine nabbed straight from talk radio.
Once the torch was released, it disappeared. The city pulled an excellent switcheroo and no one knew what happened to the torch (it appeared well across the city a few hours later). This ended up being fantastic for me, as the news choppers vanished to search for the missing torch. I was left with a crowd that split up in a few directions but remained large and loud. Below are some of the more interesting sounds from the day.

OlympicTorchProtestSet by dsteinwedel

Recording geek notes: Neumann RSM 191->Sound Devices 744t.

Glowing Sounds

I was once asked in a job interview, “What kind of sounds aren’t you good at making which you’d like to improve upon?” It was a fair question but one I never expected (I was waiting for the more generic, “What is your greatest fault?” interview question). It took me a minute or two, literally (never be afraid to take your time in an interview to find the right answer), but then it hit me. “Love. Hope. Home. Warmth. Kindness. Heaven.”

Sound effect people get asked to make Hell all the time. Guns, zombies, goopy mud, blood curdling screams, explosions. If it’s violent, terrifying, or freakish, that’s our time to shine. The warmer moments (few and far between in games) usually go to the composers. Still, I was being honest in the interview--I had had trouble making such feelings come out in the past. Just because a composer saved my butt once doesn’t mean they’ll do so again. As an artist I feel much more comfortable tackling my weaknesses than I do avoiding them. (And come on, it’s way more fun to operate outside of your comfort zone anyway!)

When I think of the words described above, I hear ringing. I hear it as a note & chords, as chimes, bells, and other types of harmonious ringing. One of the tools I’ve picked up since the interview to achieve this type of sound is the tibetan bowl. For those who aren’t familiar,
Tibetan Bowl Used as a Warm Ringing Sound
it’s a standing bell that can be struck or played by rubbing a mallet around the edge to produce a wonderfully complex singing-type sound.

Below you’ll hear a recording I took time to do one day with Larry Peackock manning the console. First is the bell ring. Second is playing of the bowl. Finally, I’ve included a texture I made using some surround panning (the online version is a 2 track fold down), pitch shifting, and delay tools (not sure what anymore but I’d bet on the SoundToys Crystallizer). The hardest part of recording the bowl is keeping the mallet from striking the bowl while rubbing. It takes a steady hand and a good surface on which the bowl can rest without spinning yet doesn’t stifle resonation. You’ll hear that we didn’t get it perfect.

TibetanBowl3Takes by dsteinwedel

Wineglass used for both ringing and strained sounds
Another choice for making a ringing sound is the crystal wineglass. Fill a glass with liquid, get your finger wet, and rub it around the rim with just the right amount of friction to excite the glass and get it to hum. Altering the volume of liquid in the glass changes the pitch. It took me a long time to be able to pull this off and I’m not sure why. It’s kind of like whistling: I couldn’t do it until I could do it and now I couldn’t give you the faintest idea how I go about doing it. Unfortunately, this glass didn’t respond with an exciting glow. It did, however, give a nasty, struggling, squeaky, strained call when muting the glass while resonating it--not the emotion I was trying for but a very nice sound indeed.

WineGlass by dsteinwedel

To the practical uses: Eventually I was asked to make an entire level that was meant to be a little slice of heaven. I had to pull about every
“Nice” sound I’ve ever recorded, made, or run across in a library to get the job done. I also didn’t have the luxury of plastering music across the whole level--so no composer butt-saving this time. :) Fortunately, the end result turned out well with lots of cool winds, warm tones, glowing textures, and was a stark contrast to the dripping, creaking soundscape in the rest of the game. One of my favorite sounds from this level was the fire. Using a combination of real fire and some kind of ringing (I don’t remember if it was the Tibetan Bowl, chimes, or something else entirely), I created a blend of the two that feels as if the fire is sparkling. The effect was achieved using a touch of Izotope’s Spectron Morphing tool & good old fashioned layering.

Recording Geek Notes: The above sounds were recorded in dual mono, using a Peluso and Neumann KRM 81 into a Focusrite preamp to Nuendo at 24/48.


Disclaimer: Fire is dangerous. Whenever working with fire keep appropriate safety measures around including, but not limited to, a fire extinguisher, gloves, long sleeved shirts and long pants. Call your local Fire Marshall or department if you have any questions.

Everybody loves fire. It cooks our food, warms our homes, and melts our delicious, delicious smores. My mom always told me, “not to play with fire.” Apparently the lesson never stuck.
Fire & Flame Sound Effects Bonfire

I’ve tried a number of times to record fire, flame, flame whooshes, sizzling, popping, snapping and all other sorts of fire sounds. I’ve had the fortune of being pretty successful too. (The hard part with fire is getting it to cut through a dense video game mix.)

My first attempt was straightforward and basic: I set up my charcoal grill & got a group of coals nice and hot. Taking an empty can from the kitchen, I filled it with lighter fluid and dumped it on the fire. The trick with this method is to get a good dump so the fluid doesn’t splatter but all goes up in one big POOF! Eventually (and wholly on accident), I set the can aflame, for one of my favorite searing sounds ever.

CansOfLighterFluid by dsteinwedel

That same night I figured out that moving flame sounds way better than static flame. Being in the zone I improvised. An old rag wrapped around a broomstick and doused in lighter fluid turned into a torch. The following set of whooshes has been turned into a number of weapons (both guns and melee pieces), stand in well for a flame up, and are great as transition and bumper elements.

TorchFlameWhooshes by dsteinwedel

I’m going to skip over the flares, bacon, gas heater, cooking, and a few other “boring” sessions in the middle.

Which brings us to the big day of Giant Flamethrower Man! Working on RPGs means I was becoming overloaded with weapons that continuously spray fire, monsters breathing fire, and magic attacks based in fire. Getting a collection of big fire became
Fire & Flame Sound Effects Flamethrower
useful enough to warrant spending the money on a proper session. This is one of the larger and more complicated sessions I have orchestrated. First, I had to find a location with enough open space to keep from starting a wildfire. It also had to be on the quiet side of quiet as fire isn’t loud. I had to get permits from the county Fire Marshall, book insurance, and jump through a number of other hoops. (On top of finding a dude (Justin) to *safely* supply us with and operate flamethrowers.)

We used a number of fuels which gave different aural characteristics. Methanol, gasoline, and propane (and mixes of the latter two) were all used through modified paint sprayer. The methanol had a more shooshy quality to it while the gasoline and propane packed more of a punch. We recorded a whole cadre of effects: Short bursts, medium shots, long steadies, short/medium/long takes of controlled flame movements (these translated well as sound), and running out of fuel.

MethanolGasoyourneOutOfFuel by dsteinwedel

Justin also brought along a pair of flame cannons. While these sound more like huge air releases they do pack a big punch and are one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard (including weapon shoots & the F/A18 which buzzed me a few posts back).

FlameCannon by dsteinwedel

As the day drew to a close, we created a little bonfire to try burning different objects. One chemical compound in particular provided a very nice, sizzly fire sound. The wind picked up and buffeted our fire, adding quality ripping sounds to our take for the day.

Bonfire by dsteinwedel

Fire & Flame Sound Effects Recorder Setup
Recording & Library Geek Notes: We recorded to two FR-2s and two Sound Devices 744s @ 24/96. Mics used included a 191, SASS, SM57, MD421, DPAs, AKG 112, Sony Lav, KMR82, & MKH40. (We also tried some PZMs but they just weren’t picking up much of anything.) The final, mastered material takes 6.66 gigabytes of disk space (seriously).

The Treadmill

Things have been busy this week. Hence, this will be short. A few years ago, I belonged to a small, local gym. I loved the place. It was within walking distance to my house, was never too crowded, but more than anything else, had the most awesome sounding treadmill I have ever heard! After speaking with the manager, I arranged to come out one evening after the place closed and spend an hour with said treadmill.

This is a short recording of the machine going from off to full speed and back to off again.

Treadmill by dsteinwedel

You can hear certain points where it’s just amazing, I’m especially enamored with the low to middle speeds. When I first heard the machine, I knew one day I would turn it into some sort of vehicle sound (preferably a spaceship). I took about an hour to record, collecting each speed setting, acceleration and deceleration between speeds, and full runs up and down like the one above.

The only disappointment was the squeaking noise made by the belts & bearings heard at some lower speeds (especially in the startup). While I tried to get the machine to run perfectly smooth, it was not to be. However, the interference hasn’t prevented me from making good use of the recordings.

The stop/off has come in particularly handy as it’s a great representation of a machine slowing to a stop. The treadmill has also stood in for a turbine engine at times. However, after years of waiting, I was finally able to recently turn it into a spaceship. Being able to record steadily at each speed setting allowed me to collect a set of sounds perfectly suited for use in a game-audio-engine-design-tool. After EQing the sound to taste, I took loops from my favorite sections (I only needed 4 of the 20 settings to make a believeable engine) and used FMOD’s engine designer to create the necessary pitch bending and crossfades. I added a second, low end throbbing sound to supplement and round out the sound of the craft. (I found it nice to have the flexibility by using multiple layers for an engine. I used different blends of the two sounds at different engine speeds and otherwise affected the layers differently based on in-game parameters.)

Recording geek note: Shure SM57 -> Sound Devices 744.

One last note: I’ve been having trouble picking recordings to use for this blog. Not due to a lack of material but because I don’t know what you want to hear (fire, props, electricity, metal, whooshes, animals, toys, glass, dirt? You name it I got it). So next week I’m taking requests--post yours in the comments section!