Stuff Around the House

One of the nice things about a career in sound design is that everyday listening is your job. Stopping to take in the sound of a passing car, a rusty hinge, or some birdsong is all part of building a vocabulary. Once you open your ears, you’ll start to find a myriad of things in your everyday life which will double as fantastic sound effects. Here, I’ve pulled some of my favorites from around my apartment building.

The building is old, circa 1920. It has been upgraded over the years (although the elevator permit expired in 2005) with some modern amenities. The windows, unfortunately, are old and cheap and if you’d like to hear their sounds, you can do so here. The other great things about the building are its garage door, accordion-style elevator, and the ronky wooden floors.

First up, the elevator.

Accordion Elevator by dsteinwedel

The gate is the prize here and comes in handily from time to time. Besides working out for Accordion Gates, it can double as a ronky gear or winch and has a fantastic metal latch.
Elevator Latch


The squeaky floors & garage door were especially hard to record as those areas of the building are susceptible to massive amounts of traffic noise. I’ve found over the years that 3:30 - 4:30/5 AM tend to be the quietest in terms of human movement in populated areas. As such, these were recorded in the early hours of the morning (on a holiday, no less, to make the chances of contamination as low as possible).

The floors are inside my apartment and don’t feel too loud during the day. The normal recordings actual feel better to me as rope stress than wood ronks. However, they start to take on an ominous quality when you pitch them down (the back half of the clip is played at 25% speed).

Floor Ronks by dsteinwedel

The garage door is a fantastic yet specific sound. The motor severely limits its usage but I love the character of the door as it opens and how it changes over time. Towards the back half of the cue, the door really starts to complain.

Garage Door by dsteinwedel

In the end, the things surrounding you make can make the best effects. It’s not always necessary to travel or find the most exotic things to make interesting sounds. They might be right under your nose.

Recording Geek Notes: Zoom H2 @ 24/96k.


Permit
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Onboard Bicycle

A few years back, I worked on a commercial for the USPS which featured Lance Armstrong cycling all over the place. For that spot, I got to record a bike race, spend a few hours in the field with a bike to record movement and bys, and bring a bike onto a Foley stage and let the artist wring what he could from the machine. However, I never had a chance to explore making onboard recordings for that spot. The idea has been rattling around in the back of my head ever since. When I hopped on my bike a few weeks ago it was immediately apparent that a major service and tuneup were needed. The gears were rough and cranky, the chain had become dry, and the whole thing squeaked and groaned as I pedaled. In other words, it rode like shit but sounded fantastic!

Onboard recordings are not my specialty and my kit is primitive. Mounting a zeppelin to the bike is impractical due to the potential speed of a bicycle. A zepp, even fully fuzzied, cannot handle much more than 15mph. My zeppelin is also large and would be unwieldy to mount with tape. For an onboard recording where size and weight are vital, I like to use lavaliers.
LavInACan
Stuffing a can full of foam and burying the mic inside can effectively turn an omni lav into a directional mic. (That’s not to say it rejects any signals from the side, but the can/foam muffles a lot of high end.)

The cans are mounted to the bike with a good amount of foam between the two and a whole lot of duct tape. The points of interest were the front and rear gears, so I mounted the cans on the frame pointing towards those objects. The cables were then carefully routed up the frame and the recorder gets worn strapped directly to my back.

The biggest problem with my setup is rumble from the frame transferring to the can/mic mount. This was alleviated a bit by padding more foam around the can and between the can/bike. As I aim to perfect this setup its obvious some type of shock-mount needs to be designed. Because of the noise transfer, these recordings required severe processing to bring the life out of them. Below is a side by side comparison of the original, unprocessed recording and the heavily effected version.

Bicycle Before And After by dsteinwedel

(The MP3ification for the web actually makes the low end sound less bad than it actually was.) Waves C4 was a real champ at bringing this recording back from the brink. Here are some other samples at various speeds and gear ratios.

Bicycle Samples by dsteinwedel

And finally, some pitch shifting and minor tweaking turns the recording into something else entirely.

Bicycle Pitch Shifted And Tweaked by dsteinwedel

I am aiming to get the rig and mount working a tad better. Also, the bike sounds much better (more stressed) when riding hills, and these recordings were all on a track. Look for another segment in the future for round two of onboard bicycle action!

Gearslut notes: Recorded in Dual Mono using 2 Sony ECM-44B Lavaliers->Fostex FR2.
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MUNI Lightrail

San Francisco has a bevy of transportation systems and all have their own unique sound. Off the top of my head are gas powered buses, electric buses, a lightrail system, the cable car system, the F-Market train, BART, and a few AC Transit buses coming into town. Each has its own unique aural signature. Below I have a few recordings made on the light rail system, both inside the underground stations and on the above ground tracks.

MUNI Lightrail Blog by dsteinwedel

The first section comes from Montgomery Station, in the heart of downtown. Recording in the stations is a bit tough due to constant PA announcements. (Walla is
MUNI_1
not much of a problem as people have a deathly fear of speaking when using public transit.) However, if you explore a little bit to the very end of the platform, you’ll find utility platforms that are far enough from the PA speakers to get some clean recordings. Venturing into sections like this is can be a little risky. The utility platforms in the MUNI stations aren’t marked as non-public, but from the way the station is designed it’s clear that they are meant to be for employees only. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The train makes a smooth, ghostly sound when traveling in the underground section of the system. The trains can be heard from almost a full station away if the environment is quiet and you listen intently. I’ve used these sounds as background elements in a few games by throwing them through a delay or echo with a touch of feedback and washing the whole thing through reverb. If you want the sound to be indistinguishable, the track clacks need to be cut out first.

The second half the cue is from above ground. While these trains are smooth on a straight, even, underground rail, they are anything but when traveling around corners or on uneven pavement. This cue comes from the corner of Church and Duboce,
MUNI_2
a heavily traveled intersection by light rail, buses, bikers, and some cars. However, it’s a decent place to try and capture due to the frequency of the trains (2 lines run through it), shelter from the wind, and the relative lack of cars. Also, since the trains completely envelop the intersection when crossing, it’s perfectly safe to cross with the train to perform tracking shots.

I used the clacking bit of the recording just yesterday as a sweetening element for a group of tanks. I needed something heavy, clunking, and metallic to go along with the chorus of treads and squeaks. This filled the hole nicely.
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Backpacking

A few weeks ago, my fiance and I took a short camping trip into the backcountry of the East Bay. We visited Black Diamond Mines, which is out in Antioch. While it was a bit hot, the landscape is beautiful and affords some recording opportunities. Being the avid recordist, I packed my gear in for the night.
Black Diamond Mines view from above the valley.
The extra 6 or 7 pounds sucks on a steep hill in 95 degree heat, but getting a chance to be out in the middle of nowhere and never have to worry about vehicle traffic is Nirvana.

Unfortunately, Antioch is up the delta and the whole place is pretty windy. The wind was light enough so as to not cause mic pops through my blimp but just strong enough for the blimp to be the cause of the wind noise. That’s not usually a problem, unless you burnt your windjammer up in a little fire escape and have yet to replace it. D’oh.

I spent a lot of time recording wholly unusable things because of that noise and you’ll hear what I’m talking about interspersed in some of the effects below (especially the gate). I ended up with two pretty cool sets of effects after all was said and done. First was the rustiest old gate I’ve ever found and a next was a night of crickets in an open field.

Rusty Gate by dsteinwedel

The rusty gate.
This one speaks for itself. It whines, it moans, it ronks and bangs. Someday when I have the chance and a good wind forecast I’m going back to get a set that’s free and clear of that damn wind.

Our campsite was next to a large, open field in the bottom of a long valley. The hardest part about recording the crickets was deciding which direction to point the mic. The chorus of insects was absolutely beautiful in all directions. At points there are also peeps in the recordings. I’m not sure what kind of animal made them although my gut says some relative of a prairie dog.

Night Crickets by dsteinwedel

At 1:42 in you’ll hear a selection of the recording pitched down at about 40% of the original speed. Below is the sun rising across the lovely field in which they live.Cricket field

Recording geek notes: Neumann 191 -> Fostex FR2
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Protests

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.
san-francisco-beijing-olympics-protest
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.
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FIRE!

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).
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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!
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Wind

Wind is a pain in the butt to record. While we hear it all the time, finding and isolating a source from background noise is near impossible in today’s hustle & bustle world. Even if you do find such a place, because wind and microphones are ancient adversaries, being in a position to physically record it without getting your mic pounded requires creative planning, perseverance, and luck.

Fortunately, I live in a building where the windows are so poorly made that wind seeps right through! Lying in bed in the morning I can actually see the plants in front of my windows fluttering around as the wind whips in from the ocean and through the gaps where my window will never seal. This gives me the perfect position not only to capture the wind, but to control its sound by adjusting said gap. Just this weekend I had such an opportunity when my neighborhood experienced a heavy storm with sustained gusts at 40mph.

Wind Sample by dsteinwedel

Since I’m attempting to give an idea of how I’ve used the recordings presented here in actual projects and this recording is a scant 3 days old, I’ll change focus a little bit and talk about some methods to eek more out of a recording like this. Now you might be saying to yourself, “But David, that sound is already AWESOME!!” And yes, it’s nice, but we can make it do so much more.

The next track is the same sound twice, raw and then with a small round of polishing. While the recording picked up a lot of nice wails and moans, there’s also a steady hiss throughout. To pull that back I used a high-shelf EQ, with a low Q to drop the high end and remove some of the hiss. Next, it’s too narrow for my tastes. In games, wind is often a BG element attached to the player, not placed in space as a 3d object. So it needs to be widened. A Stereo Enhancement plugin will do the trick. If you don’t have one, a chorus or other delay type effect that lets you set Left and Right delays independently will work. A touch of verb at the end will help round things out. Every effect I used the next recording is a stock Nuendo plug.

Hard Wind Duo by dsteinwedel

The difference isn’t all that dramatic but for 5 minutes worth of work it’s not so bad. To really get this right, automating the EQ will go a long way as each character of whistle needs its own settings.

Taking things a step further, here’s a sample that’s pitched down 2 octaves. The first octave is done without time correction and the second with.

Wind Pitched Two Ocatves by dsteinwedel

Spooky.

Finally, we can take things very far. In the following sample, a single EQ band has been isolated and boosted, noise reduction applied, and the same Stereo Ehancer/Reverb combo as before slapped on the tail.

Noisy Wind Duo by dsteinwedel

You can hear that all the junk (the birds and some exterior banging) is gone and we’re left with a spooky, ringing sound that has a humanistic vocal quality to it.

oooOOOOOoooO0Oooo0OO0ooooOOooooooo


Recording Geek Notes: Neumann RSM 191 (sans wind protection) direct to a Fostex FR-2.
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Fleet Week

I always like to take advantage of my surroundings. Living in the City, I have no shortage of traffic, sirens, horns, walla, drum circles, or guys trying to sell me weed as I walk through the park. Unfortunately little of this comes in handy when trying to record effects. From time to time, living here offers great opportunities to gather sounds that are otherwise prohibitively expensive or just can’t be found elsewhere.

Every November, San Francisco holds an annual Fleet Week. For 4 days (2 practice, 2 shows), the city is treated to the tearing, ripping roars that are modern fighter jets. The Blue Angels fly low across the landscape, giving little warning of their impending approach. Shock and Awe is an apt description. If you don’t know they’ll be about, Terror’s not bad either.

I realized early on in my life in San Francisco that this was an opportunity which would otherwise cost me tens of thousands of dollars or require me to be working on the type of film which only comes around once every year or so. Therefore, I spend two days of most years gathering material.

Recording this type of material presents a few problems. First, spectators come out in force whether or not it’s an official show day. Finding a suitable location to record from is paramount. I started off on a pier with talkative oglers and a fisherman sporting a chorus of plastic bags blowing in he wind. Fortunately, after a little searching I found the perfect location almost dead center on the Fleet Week course. I ended up with a recordists dream--no people, no traffic. And no, I am not sharing.

The second is that, as far as I can tell, the sound of a jet comes from considerably behind the actual plane. After watching them go by at various distances and speeds for a few hours I found I was able to better localize the sound and point my mic with my headphones off. This isn’t much of a problem in itself (unless something in your chain goes bad, so it’s best to check from time to time) except when you get buzzed at 100 feet by what has to be the loudest man made sound on earth and your headphones, which double as ear protection, are around your neck.

FA18s by dsteinwedel

Even with 6 Navy fighters performing death defying stunts for my amusement, my favorite sound came from the prop planes flying in the stunt races. These puppies have a voice all their own, something that says, “I’m feisty and fun yet you don’t want to mess with me.”

StuntProp by dsteinwedel

As for practical uses, the jets have gone into numerous sounds and projects I’ve created. Their first and home was as the original ‘Sprint’ sound in Hellgate: London. I tacked a nice BOOM on the front and let the jet wash trail out as the character sprinted on screen. It was immediately loved by the entire studio--but the more we listened the more tired it became. The effect had too much punch and cut through too well for a skill that was used over and over and over. The final ‘Sprint’ sound was much more subdued, airy, and washy. The jets are also good for depicting movement during slow motion. The prop plane bys once became the base of sword whoosh set (along with some bees), that’s one I’m still pretty proud of.
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BART Trains (Bay-Area Rapid Transit)

Here’s an oldie from back in the day. I spent a night riding the local rails. The BART system is over 30 years old and travels all around the central Bay Area. The Sound Designer in me always loved how the trains sound moving through the tunnels--loud, harsh, and ghostly. Though the passenger in me abhors it for the same reason. I bring earplugs when riding the system due to the excessively loud noise. SF to Berkeley will give you a nice dose of tinnitus for the next half hour.

Many of these recordings were used as source in the game Hellgate: London as part of the Foetid Tunnels level set (designed by the intrepid Charles W. Lapp). An effect send with a little delay, some reverb, mix with wind and bangs, balance it all out, and PRESTO! Instant post-apocalyptic London Tube backgrounds.


BART Series by dsteinwedel

Recording Geek Notes: Neumann 191 to a Fostex FR-2. Most likely with a Sound Devices 302 in between. All @ 16/48k (it was a long time ago).
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