Let me start by asking you a question. When you are driving your car, what is one of the key indicators that something is wrong, that it may need a tune-up, or worse still, that it is about to break down? There is a reason why hearing is our critical danger and warning sense. It is always on (even when we are asleep) and it works in a 360-degree sphere, so we can hear things we cannot see. Also, our brain, through what we hear, recognises patterns very effectively so we notice a change in sound that may indicate a problem.
Yet even with how effective our sense of hearing is I have been surprised on many occasions by the number of training simulators, both military and industrial that overlook the importance of sound in their trainers. I have spoken to users of some of the most advanced (and expensive) military flight sims and been told over and over that the sound was poor quality, not very useful and not designed in a way that aids the user.
VR is rapidly proving to be an effective format for providing training for vehicle and machinery users. Being able to place a user INSIDE a virtual vehicle and have them operate it in a virtual world allows for realistic training and the virtual nature of the space ensures safety.
The audio capabilities for VR surpass almost any other format of media, and we are still discovering just how effective VR audio is at providing useful feedback and enhancing the realism of VR environments. We can completely surround the user in audio that responds to their actions and can be used to indicate events in the virtual world.
Moreover, well implemented VR audio can make a massive impact on the value of a trainer far in excess of its cost. Need to simulate a critical machinery failure? This can be done almost entirely with sound, it will indicate an issue the user cannot even see and does not require expensive graphic representation in many cases.
So, lets have a look at a couple of scenarios for simulators and how well-designed audio could support them.
For an industrial training simulator designed to train heavy machinery operation, the audio feedback provides information confirming nominal operation. Essentially if everything sounds good, then everything is likely working correctly. For equipment used for digging, audio feedback can inform the user of the types of materials being processed. A drill of any kind, from your cordless home drill right up to a machine rig will alter its sound as it operates. Strain or stress will alter the sound it makes and cutting through harder materials will sound different. In this way you can simulate not only, operational issues, but potentially reflect exactly what is being drilled based on the sound it makes.
For training in critical failure scenarios audio is probably more important than other aspects of the sim. Engine or equipment issues, heavy vehicle performance and emergency situations are almost always indicated through the sounds you hear before any other indicator. A Hydro station turbine performs under constant stress and shutdown of this type of equipment is time consuming and costly. Capturing the sound of this equipment when working optimally allows immediate and easy reference at any time. Is your equipment working properly? Listen to how it currently sounds, then compare it to the reference recording for optimal operation.
The “all around us” nature of sound should never be underestimated. Operating many large industrial machines has the constant inherent issue that the operator cannot see much of their environment or even most of the machine they are using. But if something goes wrong behind them they will often hear it, even if they do not see it. Many pieces of industrial equipment are huge and very noisy, as a consequence the operators must use hearing protection. But even with hearing protection the vibrations of potential issues can carry through to the operator. Many training simulators cannot provide haptic feedback (vibrations and movement) but again sound can provide this vibration information using low frequency sound output.
When working on a VR infantry training simulator I was tasked with providing the sounds that matched the firearms being used by the troops using the simulator. So, I was told the priority was for the gun in the hand of the user to sound realistic. This was a good start to creating a useful trainer. However, when I asked about the sounds to use for the virtual AI opponents I was told just to use anything, the sound of an AK47 would be fine. I found this strange. My time in basic training many years ago reinforced to me that one of the most important steps in any engagement was to ascertain the biggest current threat, i.e., who was trying to kill you and how they were doing it.
If you talk to any combat soldier you will find that many of them learn very quickly to recognise the sounds of various enemy weapons. This can mean the difference between life and death in the seconds you have to respond in a combat situation. What you hear is likely the first warning you have of a possible threat, spending time looking around to judge the situation may often get you killed, so your hearing at that point in time is critical.
-Direction of enemy threat
-Nature of threat: single weapon being fired or group or weapons
-Type of weapon being fired: Is it automatic weapon fire, or a high calibre rifle? The difference between these two tells you the potential accuracy and penetration of the incoming fire and may well determine where you should seek cover.
-Distance: After a while you learn that the quality of the sound can inform you of how far away the sound is coming from
-Reflections: Echoes can provide even further information on where the threat is coming from as a sound will echo more when it travels through a built-up area such as building walls.
Even within military vehicle simulators the audio can indicate systems failure, potential enemy threats, types of threat, direction of threat etc. Knowing that here is a potential imminent engine failure in your fighter plane because you hear a change in its sounds a second before the warning indicator lights up might just save your life.
Engine performance, road surface, weather conditions, status of your load (freight moving around, or loose ropes and straps) are all extremely important to simulate during training to ensure operators gain experience dealing with dangerous situations. All of these examples are also scenarios where audio can inform the user of exactly what the issue is and often the how bad the situation is.
The main reason we train anyone in operating various vehicles is to ensure they can do so safely, for their own well being and for the safety of others. Providing situations to test a user’s response to potentially dangerous situations allows assessors to judge the operator’s suitability and equally important allows the user themselves to gain confidence in their ability to handle a range of scenarios and know that can respond in the best way.
Creating training simulators for military and industrial uses can be very expensive and it is important that these products are effective. Lives are quite literally dependant on people being trained properly. Good quality audio is important for the reasons stated in this article, but more importantly any amount spent on adding and improving audio feedback to a simulator will have a more significant impact on the effectiveness of the training than money spent on other aspects of the product.
You could simulate all aspects of training safety with audio alone and know that the users understood exactly what the issue was and would never miss the problem. This is not the case with information to our other senses. As a developer you could add a huge range of situations to your training simulator utilising only audio functionality which is often faster to implement than other aspects of development.
Utilising effective audio design for training is cost effective, impactful and most importantly improves the effectiveness of the all safety training across all industries.
More planes, really good ones
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.
Boom Pole Array
Well it took a couple of weeks to organise, but as promised today I went to play with some tanks. I was worried the weather was going to betray me again, but it turned out to be a fantastic day. (so nice I got sunburned again even though I used sunscreen). We drove down to the Mornington Peninsular where there is a ranch where you can go for rides in the tanks. Today was a member’s only event for the Victorian Military Vehicle Corps, but I had gotten prior permission so we were allowed to come along. The first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of vehicles around and that there was no way I was going to be able to do a full recording of all of them. I had come for tanks so I thought I would concentrate on them, and anything else was just icing on the cake. The main tank on the property was a British Centurion tank. This was one of the most widely used tanks since World War 2. Originally of British design, Australia used them in the Vietnam war. They were active around the world from 1945 right up to the 1990’s.
I have no experience with recording tanks, so it was a day of trial and error. I mounted some mics onto the back of the turret on the Centurion. There is a cage at the back that I think is used to carry jerry cans of water or fuel. The good thing about the cage is that if any of the mics came loose they would fall into the cage and not get lost. Also the cage was positioned pretty much right over the main engine so it was a good location. I used the Zoom H4 as I wanted to keep the H4N on me. I mounted one of the DPA 4061 mics and then strapped the MKH60 in its blimp cover to one of the cross bars with a roll of Velcro tape I had recently bought. I think this Velcro is going to be really useful in the future. I had had really good timing this week as my new Rode blimp had arrived just on Friday so I could use both the MKH60 and the Rode NTG3 in blimps which was excellent.
I think I will need to make future trips just to get a full recording of this one tank alone. I did capture some excellent material, but I would like to grab some more sounds of the caterpillar tracks isolated from other sounds..
The Centurion was not going to be used till much later in the day. One issue with a casual event such as this is it is difficult for me to plan what to do and when. I might have been able to use the mics on other vehicles, but I was determined to get a good recording of the centurion so I left those mics where they were and used the NTG3 and H4N for everything else. I did spend quit a lot of time chasing after vehicles, standing behind them when they were idling or positioning myself on corners to catch them as they zoomed past. One of the club members has an air force Humvee which I think I am going to do a feature on as it’s an excellent example of a modern military vehicle. (And sounds great) There were also lots of jeeps and a couple of land rovers which I decided to leave for future dates. I did capture quite a bit of material from an FV603 Saracen APC. This is a British made vehicle used from the early 1950’s to the late 60’s. The Saracen had an entirely metal suspension system which on a vehicle this old meant it squeaked and creaked a lot. This might not be good for creeping up on the enemy, but it certainly made it sound more interesting. This one had a little trouble starting up and they needed to use another armoured car to jump start it. I even captured some material inside the Saracen by setting my R09 recording it and asking a young guy to hold it for me while he went for a ride, he was happy to help and I got some good material.
Two gentlemen had a converted Bren Gun Carrier that their grandfather had built years ago. It had had a lot of the armour removed from it so it could be used for farming, but it still operated well and sounded really good. They kindly took me for a ride in it. The small size of the carrier allowed me to lean over the front and capture some sound from a different angle, as well as the usual close micing of the engine. The tracks on the Bren Carrier were quieter than I expected, that might have been due to the vehicle being a lot lighter than a full sized tank. The engine overheated a little towards the end, but it was a tough little tank and had a very distinctive sound that I liked. Between riding in it and following it around for a while I think I probably captured as much of that vehicle as I would ever need, so it was good to get such a good range of sounds without needing to attach extra mics to it.
I managed to grab some snippets of other vehicles during the day. A tank transport truck, a Ferret armoured car, the siren of a US Army Jeep. These were simple captures made by positioning myself in a good position and recording with the NTG3 on the boom pole. The pole itself is handy for quickly changing positions and allowing me to angle the mic under a vehicle, or close to its exhaust or from above. Once I have captured some material from one angle I will usually walk around the vehicle to test how the sound changes. Some vehicles produce a very different sound from different angles. The exhaust usually has much more low frequency material where as the front end will include the sounds of cooling fans and drive belts that can’t be heard elsewhere. I can’t always capture every angle, but when I have time I captures as much as I can. The boom also allows me to position the mic closer to where a vehicle will be when it comes around a corner. As much as I don’t want my equipment getting run over, it is a much better option to have a tank run over one of my mics than to run over me, so it can be a good safety function as well.
When it came to the Centurion tank I made sure I was on top of it when it started up. It has two engines, a secondary engine that is used to power a lot of the electrical equipment on board also helps start up the primary engine. I captured a good clean sequence of the secondary engine starting up and running for a few minutes before the main engine started. I also captured the main engine from several positions before they started moving the tank. The attached mics captured a good constant amount of material as the tank was driven around. This combined with me following the tank with the boom pole gave me a good mix of close and distant mic samples. The only thing I really missed was some good track movement noise. I think next time I will mount some mics right at the front of the tank on the track guards just over the front curve in the tracks. This should be far enough away from the engine at the rear to capture some good clunks and squeaks from the tracks without too much engine noise. This was a good lesson to learn, but even if I had known this beforehand I didn’t have a third recorder with me on the day anyway so I wouldn’t have been able to do it all in one recording. I am happy with what I did capture, but a tank is a complex enough vehicle that I think it requires more mics that a standard car or truck. These are all good lessons to learn for next time.
The final vehicle for the day was the Sherman tank. I only captured this one with the boom pole setup as I didn’t have time to transfer the mics from the Centurion onto the Sherman, but I still got some excellent material. The Sherman has a new engine in it as it was restored to use in a movie. The engine is a massive and noisy thing that produced the most amazing sound. This combined with the tank’s driver who was very good and could control the vehicle as well as any racing driver provided an incredible series of sound samples. Tanks are also very interesting to record from a distance, and the property allowed the tanks to be 300-400 meters away behind a small hill. The main thing I noticed is that when a tank is moving away from you, you can hear the low frequency rumble of its exhaust, but when a tank is travelling towards you, you hear far more of its track squeak than its engine. I suspect this information is something that a lot of soldiers around the world are very aware of and use as a survival skill. It is important to point out that sound over distance change a lot more than just getting quieter. While you can simulate a distant sound by playing it at a lower volume most sounds change dramatically as certain frequencies are easier to hear over distance. So when you are recording it is worth capturing distant samples as well if it is possible and practical.
I plan on meeting with the people from VMVC again and eventually archiving as many of their vehicles as possible. Not only are military vehicles something that are popular subjects fro films and games, but they often have very distinctive and interesting sounds, so I think the time will be well spent, not to mention its loads of fun.
Single hand setup
Commissioned 17th June 1942 The HMAS Castlemain was a Bathurst class minesweeper for the Royal Australian Navy during World War 2. She now resides as a permanent floating museum on Williamstown pier with a great view of Melbourne city from her rear decks. Today I am going to record everything that bumps and squeaks on an old warship. Sadly none of the weapons work anymore because everyone likes a good loud bang, but there are quite a few interesting sounds to be captured from this old warship.
I have adopted the same recording setup as I used at the children’s farm a few weeks back. It is fairly practical for having everything setup in one hand, although it can get a little heavy after a while. I have the H4N strapped to the side of the blimp cover for the MKH60 and the D112 also attached to the blimp cover pistol grip. I need something I can move easily with as I will be climbing up and down stairs between decks and warships don’t traditionally have a lot of room to move. Some of the stairs are going to be enough of a challenge as it is with only one hand free.
I started by moving around the ship recording the more straightforward elements. Doors, hatches, and switches all made fairly unique sounds compared to their modern day variants. The museum also an interesting variety of ships bells including one from a Japanese ship. I recorded several rings of all of these. The weather wasn’t great today, but I spent most of the time below deck so it wasn’t too much of an issue. Some of the hatches had multiple clamps to seal them and they made nice clunky sounds.
Things started to get interesting when they offered to start up the engines for me. Traditionally the Castlemaine was steam powered via giant boilers. These days they have a modern compressor in one of the deck houses that provides pressure to drive the main pistons, but they can only run at a low speed. The pistons themselves were actually not as loud as I was expecting. Being powered by steam pressure and being very well maintained they moved smoothly and quietly. The Castlemaine also has a range of different pumping engines to circulate the water around the ship, run the water purifier (steam engines need distilled water) and maintain things like ballast and other systems. I was very lucky to have all of these started up for me to record. They all made different sounds depending on their purpose. They also started up the diesel engine for me. One of the diesels was used to generate a current that was directed through a network of wires trailing behind the ship. The current in these wires would trigger certain types of mines in the water.
As a final treat they activated the ships siren for me. This was a steam driven horn used as a fog horn or to indicate actions in port. Overall I got some really good material as well as a good lesson on Australian Navel history form some of the guys working on the ship on the day.
Shure Beta 58A
Tripods, mic stands
Well Victoria is still conspiring against me as far as weather is concerned. Most of the two hour drive up from Melbourne was it he rain, but it does stop every now and then so I will probably be able to record some material today. Today I am working with the North East Muzzle loading club about two hours north of Melbourne. The club is a group of people who are all interested in historical firearms. This includes a variety of black powder firearms including pistols, rifles, shotguns and even canon. Some of the designs date back over two hundred years. Because of the technology involved they produce very different sounds from modern fire arms.
For an event such as today I brought all my equipment as I want to capture as many different versions of the events as is practical. Different microphones and different positions will result in different qualities of sound being captured. From previous experience I have a better idea of how I should place some of my mics, but every time I do this I learn new things, so its always useful to write down what I did and what was good or bad about the results. The shotgun microphone was setup on the tripod with the H4 attached. I was happy to use this as an off target mic for the day. The shotgun is far too sensitive and directional to point directly at firearm when its discharged, and I find it is generally better when placed further back. I often point it “up range” in the direction of where the firearms will be shooting. This allows it to capture the echoes of the distant hills and trees, while still capturing some of the initial bang sound. The MKH60 is very good at capturing the low end frequencies and I find when I mix in the echoes it gives me a good warm aspect to the sounds.
I am still trying different positions for my other mics. Today I decided to place the D112 on a mic stand with a boom and position it very close to the firing positions. This would be the closest mic to the firearms, but it was still positioned at the back end of the weapons, closer to the firers’ head. It will take a very sturdy mic to be able to cope with being placed right at the muzzle of a firearm when ti goes off. I placed the beta58A on a small tripod and positioned it on the ground behind the firer. This was more experimental than with any real intent for results. The H4N’s inbuilt mics were also active and set to capture a general ambience. I also activated the R09 with its internal mics, but the lack of a wind cover meant that most of the material it would record would not be usable. I still have more mics than wind covers so when I deploy them all I need to hope there is no wind around. Today was very windy so it’s a good lesson to get some more covers soon.
The first event of the day was the firing of a 100 year old howitzer. One of the old members of the club had asked to have his ashes fired down range as his way of being laid to rest. There were several speeches and some bagpipes played. It was a solemn but also enjoyable event, and reflected the character of the gentleman that had passed on. I was worried about capturing a sound I had never heard and would only get one chance to record. I set my mics in a variety of positions, but more importantly I set them with a variety of input levels so I increased my chances of capturing as much usable material as possible. I was pretty lucky as the levels on most of the mics seemed to be pretty good. It’s not every day I get to record 100 year old canon unfortunately.
The rest of the day I managed to record a variety of old firearms from pistols to rifles and shotguns. I moved the mics around occasionally to capture different aspects of the sound. I always think about the idea of marking exactly what mic was in what position at what time, but invariably these events become disorganised and I am often struggling just to find out what model of firearm is being used, setting my levels appropriately and making sure everything is working as expected. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to fire a “Brown Bess” which is the nickname given to the long arm musket used by the English in the Napoleonic war and the American war of independence by both sides. I was very surprised to find it has no recoil at all. It was very interesting to fire such an old weapon and I got a good recording because I could position myself well in relation to the mic. I also got to fire an old cartridge rifle which was fun, but showed I am way out of practise as it has been over ten years since I last fired a rifle. I know it was very windy, but my aim was terrible.
The final part fo the day was another canon being fired. This was a much smaller field gun, but it still made a good bang. Again I aimed the shotgun mic downrange, but this time I positioned the D112 slightly in front of the canon to try and capture a more direct sound. It was raining by this stage so it was not very practical to move the mics between shots which was a shame. I spent all my time looming over my mics trying to keep the rain off them.
The final lesson of the day was to check off my gear thoroughly when I am packing up. Since I got home for the day I have discovered my Shure Beta58A is missing. I really cannot imagine myself putting it down somewhere and not seeing it, but I must have been distracted when I was packing up. I have since contacted the club and maybe it will turn up, but I am really annoyed at myself for not being more thorough with my pack up. If it does turn up it will have spent two weeks out in the weather which may not do it any favours. I am quite disappointed about this as it was a good study general purpose mic, and I certainly cant afford to replace it right at the moment as I am planning on getting some hi input mics to use on car recordings. So it looks like I may have learnt a good lesson, but at a fairly high price.
I would like to thank everyone at the club as they were really friendly to both Anna and I, and I was really happy to get a chance to fire a couple of rifles. John who had organised the initial contact and mike who taught me how to fire a musket were especially helpful. I hope to get up to Taminick in the future and maybe try and record some more canon and maybe some ricochets by placing my mics up range. I am sure that will be full of interesting challenges as well.
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.
You can be my wingman
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.
Second Day Recording Firearms
Sennheiser MKH 60
Boom pole array
After a successful day at the rifle club it was suggested I come down to the range again the next day as there are three other firearms clubs that all meet on Sundays. I spent most of the day with the North Arm, Sporting Shooters, Shotgun association and Pistol clubs, and I got to record things I would not have dared to dream of.
I started with the Sporting shooters club. They have a large range of rifles being used at ranges up to about 100 meters. (The previous day with the 303 was 750 meters!) There was a range of the usual rifles you would expect at a range. .22, 222, .308 as well as air guns and I got the opportunity to record all of these. I also got the opportunity to record 4 different black power flint locks which had fantastic sounds. They were all reproductions of American flintlock rifles from the 1800s but a great deal of detail had gone into making them true and accurate reproductions. The sound of these large calibre muzzle loaded black powder firearms is so different to modern weapons, and from my point of view far more interesting. A flintlock fires its round by having a small spring-loaded hammer released when the trigger is pulled. The tip of the hammer holds some flint that sparks when the hammer hits. The spark ignites the powder which then explodes and projects the round out of the barrel. In modern fire arms all of this happens inside the shell case and so there is just a single “bang” sound. With a flintlock you can actually hear the individual elements. The hammer impact, the ignition of the powder on the receiver plate and the final discharge of the main powder as the weapon fires can all be heard (although in very quick succession) This results in a great sound when the weapon is discharged.
I was also lucky enough to record an old 1930’s Russian bolt action rifle from World War Two. This thing had a monstrous sound as it was fired. I spoke to the owner who kindly gave me a lot of information. This model was the rifle made famous in the Hollywood movie Enemy at the gate as the Russians main sniper rifle. It is a very accurate weapon over quite long ranges. I also managed to record some lever action rifles which are like the old style cowboy rifles.
After the Sporting Shooters range, I moved on up to the Shotgun Association range. They were having a competition day and so I went along with one group as they moved through the different stations. At each point I would set up the R09 a little back from the shooters position, mainly to avoid it overloading the levels, but also to get a less direct sample. Again I initially used the MKH60 to try and capture both loading and firing sounds by quickly switching the input gains from minimum to maximum. In some instances I would leave the levels at max to capture all the extraneous sounds of the gun knowing I would need to discard the gun firing sound as they would be much too loud. It becomes a bit of a balancing act when recording sounds with such great extremes of levels.
The advantage I had was that by traveling along with a group over the better part of an hour so I had plenty of time to record the material I needed. It is important to keep this in mind when recording. Not every single sound you record needs to be perfect and usable. If you have already recorded a shotgun being fired 10 times and you know you have at least a few nice clean samples with good levels, then you have the freedom to set the levels to record other aspects of the gun such as loading, cocking or just subtle general movements. Setting the levels high enough to capture these aspects will more than likely result in the levels overloading whenever the gun is fired, but as you already have firing sounds this should not be an issue.
Time is the real issue when recording. If it is a random opportunity to record something you would otherwise not get a chance to record then you set the levels as best as time permits and hope for the best result. If however you know that the sound will be reliably replayed over a reasonable length of time, then you have the flexibility to be careful and even creative in how you go about recording things.
On the way back down to the clubhouse after the competition I realized I had accidentally captured far more than I originally thought. As the competition consisted of several groups’ rotation through several firing points, it meant that there were shooters firing from many different locations at all times. This meant that while I had been concentrating on the group I was accompanying I had also been simultaneously recording all the other groups. This meant that I captured the sounds of shotguns being fired at just about every range from a couple of inches through to over 100 meters away. This will allow me to add a far greater depth to the shotgun section of the library. As they were all 12 gauge guns I effectively have a very big range of recording of the same sound. This would normally be a very tricky and time consuming result to achieve. Again it’s often the unexpected that gets you the best results.
Finally I made my way to the pistol range. It was getting well into the afternoon at this stage and so there were not many people left. One gentleman was very helpful and fired a full clip down range in rapid fire mode allowing me to capture the sounds. I recorded semi automatic pistol at 38 Calibre as well as three revolvers. Finally one of the committee members was preparing his pistol for an up coming competition shoot. His gun was a Tanfoglio 38 super semi automatic and it sounded like a howitzer. The first time he fired the gun I actually felt the shockwave hit me physically. Even with both earplugs and my headphones on (signal switched off) this gun was very loud when fired.
I was also able to capture all the Foley of the pistol being loaded cocked and unloaded which was great.
All up this weekend has been a fantastic opportunity to finally record some firearms and get a better feel for what is involved with doing so. There are many obstacles when recording firearms especially when at a range. I would have loved to have carefully record all the Foley sounds for every weapon on the day, but this has issues in itself. Firstly with all the shooting going on it is very difficult to get a nice clean sample of anything else. A weapon discharge is such a short sharp sound that it is often possible to capture good samples even with other guns being fired, but loading, unloading and other Foley sounds are much quieter and can take more time to complete. This means you really need to capture these sounds offsite somewhere else. This could involve organizing the gun owners to meet you, having a suitable location and all of this mean more time especially for the gun owners. The advantage of what I was doing all weekend was that I was recording people doing what they would be doing normally at a range, shooting firearms. Occasionally I would ask them some questions about their firearms, but generally I did not interfere with their day. This makes people far happier to have you around, but if I had asked them to come in especially with their guns to stand around while I recorded all the Foley, this is far less convenient for them and is asking them to sacrifice their time for my benefit. I try as much as possible to record what I can without needing people to go miles out of their way to help me. Sometimes I’m lucky and people will offer the extra time themselves. Until I can afford to pay people for their time I think this is the best balance of capturing the sounds I want without taking up too much of people’s time.
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences