I am really enjoying collecting aircraft sounds and I think I am going to make that my next library collection to publish on DVD. I am extremely lucky in Melbourne to have access to some fantastic old aircraft and I am going to make full use of it while I am here. Not only are they really good sounds to include in a library they have to be one of my favourite things to record. So I went down to Point Cook as I knew there would be an old aircraft flying today and was lucky enough to find that a second old plane was flying in with some students to view the display. I had turned up early to increase my chances of getting some good material and that just proved to be a very good decision.
The first plane to come in was a fantastic Douglas DC3 built in 1945. This plane is pretty well known in Melbourne and it was great to see it up close. I love the sound from a twin engine propeller plane and this is one of the best examples in the world of a well known passenger aircraft. The DC3 taxied in and stopped right in front of me before shutting down so I got some good material. I was also aware that it would be leaving in a couple of hours so it was well worth waiting to get it taking off as well.
Next to arrive was a 1943 Harvard. I knew very little about this aircraft before I went to the Tyabb air-show, but it is quickly becoming a favourite as they have a great sound when they take off and manoeuvre. Its not a big plane but it has a pretty grunty engine. I had to make sure I set my levels to get a good signal but leave a bit of room so if it moved closer or revved its engines I wouldn't max out my recording levels. I set- up one of my shotgun mics on the tripod and used the other on the boom pole to give me better flexibility. There were some noisy kids watching the display so I couldn't cleanly capture all o the sounds but I still managed to get some good material. I am going to make a habit of coming down here and getting as much material as possible
I have found that the best way to record planes at an airshow is NOT to go to the airshow. Too many noisy people and canned muic make it impossible to record anything. Going the day before to the practise however can often get some good results. To that end, Anna and I went down to Tyabb south of Melbourne today to check out the set-up for tomorrows Tyabb airshow.
For something as big as an airshow I bring all of my gear with me. I set-up the tripod as close to the runway as I could with the Sennheisser MKH60 attached to the Zoom H4. Airfields are often very windy as they are big open areas, so its very important to have wind protection for all your mics. I also had the Rode NGT3 attached to the Zoom H4N mounted ont he boom pole so I could move around easily and follow any aircraft moving through the staging area. In this way I could cover more material and effectively be in two places at once. Most of the time I managed to record planes as they taxied in from landing or where heading out to take-off, but the staging area allowed me to get some good idle and start-up sounds.
I find propeller aircraft much more interesting to record as they have a more complex sound in my opinion than a jet. In general older vehicles have more interesting sounds than modern ones often. A lot of prop planes have an interesting procedure before they shut-down their engines. I talked to a pilot and he explained what they actually do. Just before they shut-down the engine they rev it quite high for a few seconds. This drains the oil out of the propeller and sends it back into the main engine area, so there is the maximum amount of oil there for next start-up. This revving is usually much louder than the general idle and taxiing sound the plane will make as it comes in, so you need to set your recording levels appropriately otherwise you risk peaking when the pilot revs before shut-down. I discovered this the hard way with my first couple of recordings.
I still had to deal with some noisy people, and every now and then there would be some very noisy children, but in general today was a better day for recording sounds than coming down on the day of the main event. I also got some very good information on some other sources for good aircraft recording so I will be looking into that over the next few weeks. Days like today are both exciting and frustrating for me. They are good because I get the opportunity to record some excellent material from really interesting sources, but they can be frustrating when a rare opportunity is lost because people in general are not very sympathetic to what you are trying to do and will quite happily continue to talk when something interesting is happening.
Sennheiser MKH 60
Boom Pole array
Well today in some ways made up for Avalon not being quite what I had hoped it would be. The Melbourne F1 Grand Prix is on this weekend and today was a day for some F1 practise as well as some of the other cars doing some short race events. I hadn’t planned much on going down there, but when we woke up and could here the cars from our apartment I thought it might be worth taking a look and see what was happening today. Because I hadn’t organised prior media access I just needed to get a ticket and go in normally like everyone else, which was hardly the end of the world, it would just limit where I could go once I got in.
I captured a little bit of material at the end of a GT race, I got some fairly good material of some Porches, Lotus, BMW’s and I think maybe a Ferrari. A guy showed me the program and told me there was going to be a BlackHawk Helicopter demonstration in about half an hour so I headed over to where they had one parked just in time for its pre launch prep. I managed to capture a clean full power up and take off sequence which I was really happy about, especially so since the BlackHawks at Avalon had been a total disaster with all the crap music and commentary going on. This time the helicopter was on a patch a grass miles from anyone or any noise with only a few guy standing around waiting to take photos, so it was a great opportunity. Later on I managed to capture a fair bit of good material as two BlackHawks did their manoeuvres.
After that I caught some more Army gear as they had brought along their hotted up Land Rover. This thing is insane; six wheels, all supper slick racing tyres and rims, and a 7 litre super charged Chev engine that sounds like thunder. I got a good deal of material from this and also talked to the guys in charge about possibly organising to visit them in the future and get some samples of it actually on the track, so keep an eye out for that one. Mixed in with all this for some reason the local maintenance guys were trimming some trees. I guess maybe it was for safety on the weekend, but either way I even got to record some chain saw sounds, the guy seemed fairly keen to help out to so I got a few extra revs as he was working which was great. Thanks Mr. chain saw guy!
Then we got the F1s. Bloody hell but they are loud! I tried different positions and also used my D112 mic which is specifically designed to deal with high output sounds. Obviously all I could ever capture was the sound of an F1 flying past at crazy speeds, and some general race ambience. I am going to need to be a lot more influential before I’ll get an opportunity to attach a mic to one of those beasties, but I did get some good material today, far more than I was originally expecting. Every day I go out recording its almost impossible to predict the outcome. I guess I just need to get out as often as possible and hope for the best.
Sennheiser MKH 60
and R09 handheld
What do you do when the army decides to spend hours flying around the city chasing each other in helicopters? Set up your equipment of course! The Australian Defence Force had announced recently that there would be various military training exercises occurring over Melbourne in the near future. The first of these took place today and consisted of what appeared to be two Squirrel Class helicopters being pursued by up to four Blackhawk helicopters over the Melbourne city area. A lot of the time the helicopters where flying without running lights on in what I assume was a tactic to approach each other unnoticed. I am also assuming that the air traffic over Melbourne was completely cleared for this exercise as it would have been bloody dangerous otherwise. Because of the completely unpredictable nature of their movements I thought it would be pointless to try and find a “perfect” position to record them and just set up my gear on our balcony. It was more an opportunistic session than a planned one, but I did get a few good passes, most notably when the Blackhawk’s went past in close formation. Having a large memory card in my recorders means I can just switch them on and leave them for several hours just in case something good happens. This was the best approach as the helicopters would often fly off for quite sometime before returning.
Sennheiser MKH 60
Boom pole array
Well today was something I had been planning for and looking forward to for sometime. The reality on the day was a series of annoyances and frustration. Perhaps the best thing I learnt was that some days are just going to suck. With any large event such as an air show I make sure I do plenty of preparation, checking all my gear recharging batteries, packing spares, clearing memory cards. This is stuff I do regularly anyway, but when it’s an unusual event I make sure I go through it all carefully. I even packed two cameras to help with the new video journals I am trying to add. Its just part of trying to be professional, check your gear, make sure you don’t forget anything and avoid dumb mistakes. Its never perfect but it helps. Anyway I had everything sorted and ready, and I drove out to Avalon with my special parking pass and media access stuff, I even had time to go around and take still shots of all the major planes I was planning to record during the day. Then the flying demonstrations started and everything fell to pieces.
Last time I had been to Avalon there was a fair bit of canned music through PA speakers, it was fairly annoying and got in the way of some of the recordings. I managed to position myself to be away from most of it. This year the geniuses involved obviously thought that no human being can possibly cope with watching an event as boring as supersonic jet fighters pulling death defying stunts without really loud, crap rock music and annoying commentary every single second. I had even gone to the trouble of contacting the organisers before hand and pointing out that media sound crews could not do their jobs properly with music playing and that it would be really nice if they could go without it on the media days and save it for the public access days. They obviously interpreted this as “turn it up please” The music and verbal dribbling was present almost everywhere, and I was very close to saying screw you and leaving. I did not however as I was determined to grab something from the day.
From a learning point of view today was pretty useful I think, although at the time it was hard to think so. Earlier in the day before the flying show started I walked around to grab still shots of various planes. Because the airport was still being used for some commercial flights there were passenger planes landing every half hour or so. I found myself torn between rushing off and recording these and taking photos, and then a helicopter came in and my immediate thought was to rush off and record it. Seeing as the airport was laid out over about a kilometre strip with planes parked all along, this could very easily have lead to me spending the entire day running back and forth, missing everything and achieving nothing but exhausting myself. That would have been a total waste of a day. I knew that the fighter staging ground was up one end of the runway and that most planes would taxi out to the runway and start their take-off from there. This spot also happened to be fairly free of PA speakers, so I decided to stake out a spot and camp there for the day.
I did manage to get a good sample of a 747 Jumbo idling, and taxiing out to the runway and finally taking off, as well as a couple of other clean samples of planes. The problem with my position was that every time a plane was up, there would be another waiting to come onto the runway, and an idling plane tend to be fairly loud, especially fighter jets. So a lot of my material was contaminated by other sounds. It seemed no matter where I positioned myself for the day I was not going to get nice clean material.
As far as recording was concerned I needed to be very aware of the extremes of sounds I was exposed to. The planes when idling are fairly constant and quite audible without being too loud, but when a fighter takes off or does an extreme manoeuvre while flying the volume level is very extreme. Not only do you need to be very careful with your hearing, but it creates a big challenge for recording. At all times I had the R09 recording on its absolute lowest input level, and a lot of the material captured there is very good. The Sennheiser in some ways is far too directional and sensitive to be pointing at the business end of a jet engine during take-off, and while I got lots of material I also got a lot of distortion even with very low input levels. This was mitigated somewhat by having different levels set on the left and right channels. But sometimes the shear power of the sound waves coming from something like a jet engine is just too much. The problem with moving further away is that then you risk picking up other sounds in between. And frankly one of the fighters was still extremely loud even when it shot above the clouds, so it’s a tricky balance to work with.
Some useful things to remember at an event with lots of noisy vehicles.
-Remember planes travel so fast you don’t want to track the plane with a directional mic, you want to be aiming just behind it, because that’s where the sound is coming from.
-I would always recommend having at least two devices for a day like this. Set one on very low input levels and use it as a backup for extreme sound levels.
-Make a rough plan, but be prepared to be flexible, don’t however try and be everywhere at once, that will just get you tired and frustrated.
-Don’t plan to sample everything, concentrate on getting what you can, and try not to be disappointed on what you might have missed out on.
-WEAR SUNSCREEN! Yeah I got badly burnt because it was very cloudy in the morning, but it cleared, and airports have very little shade for obvious reasons. I had sunscreen in the car, but it was a fair hike back to the car park. My bad, and I’m suffering for it. I should probably buy a hat, but I look like a total noob in a hat.
-It is worth checking your gear and having a routine for each time you go out. Of all the issues I had at Avalon, non of them were gear related, everything did what it was supposed to, and did it pretty well.
Sennheiser MKH 60
Boom pole array
Today was the kind of recording opportunity I wish I hadn’t had. Late last night several bushfires started in the area. For anyone who does not know Australia very well, bushfires are probably the biggest threat to life and property over the summer months in Australia. They can be very serious and very dangerous. In this case they were also close enough that it only took me 10 minutes to walk to where they were being dealt with by the fire and rescue services.
I watched for nearly two hours as, initially two and then later three, helicopters water bombed the flames constantly. Even with the combined effort of the helicopters the fire front advanced over about half a kilometre in that time. The area was such that fire trucks couldn’t access it and so were waiting on a nearby road to intercept it. During this time I recorded a lot of material as the helicopters made numerous passes dumping water. The helicopters would then fly over to the river and hover and reload via a hose that dangled below the vehicle. They were able to reload and return to the fire front in under five minutes which was quite impressive.
As much as I would have loved to record the flames more closely I have far too good an understanding of how bloody dangerous a fire front is, especially when it’s a hot dry day and in this case we also had a very strong wind. A single wind change in these conditions can send the fire off in a totally new direction in seconds. I waited on the road with the fire crews for the front to get closer and managed to sample a bit of the sound of the flames before they asked non fire personnel to move back.. At this stage myself and the news crews on the scene withdrew.
The amount of damage caused in one morning as the fire moved through the national park areas was quite depressing, what was more depressing was that apparently it had been deliberately lit by some school kids. I wonder if I can get a recording of them being strung up by their toes!
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences