Chuck Russom Special: Gun Recording Guide
Of all the things that I have done in my career, I get more questions about gun recording than anything else. Recording guns is an exciting experience and it takes a lot of planning and quite a bit of money to pull off correctly. Often I am asked why someone should consider recording guns for ªa project. Here are my feelings on gun recording:
Libraries don’t always have enough variety or the gun sounds you need – Sound libraries are a great resource and make our jobs easier. But when it comes to guns, it can be difficult to find the type of guns/sounds you need, and even more difficult finding the variety or perspectives that you require to build the sounds for your project.
To get a specific sound – There are probably guns sounds you are after that are not in any existing library. Whether it is the specific gun, a specific action, or a specific type of environment you are after, often your only option is to go record it yourself.
All the sounds you record will be grounded in the same space – The environment that you record in becomes a huge part of the sound of a gun. If all of the guns in your project are recorded in the same space, it helps to pull them all together and make them fit your world.
Experience the guns – Firing and being around a lot of different guns while they were being fired has influenced my gun sound design more than anything else. To learn first hand how guns work and to hear/feel them in person is both educational and inspiring.
In this article I’m going to share the approach I have used to plan and conduct gun sessions. I rely on professional, private party resources to provide weapons and locations. While others may have had success with police or military, I prefer working with the private sector as I can ensure that I can get the weapons I need, work in the locations that I choose, and work under my timeline. To get the results that I am after, I need to control as much of the process as possible. It takes a lot of effort to record guns and I want to be sure the effort pays off.
Planning and executing a successful gun shoot takes a lot of time and a lot of work. I can’t recommend enough that you hire the services of a professional sound recordist who has experience recording guns. The cost of a recordist will be such a small percentage of your overall budget, but their knowledge and experience, the quality they can deliver, and the equipment they can provide, will pay dividends. I recommend you choose your recordist first, and engage them in the planning of your session. They will have the contacts, resources, and advice that you will need to successfully plan.
Your recordist can help you determine how many days to schedule for your shoot, how many rounds you will need for each weapon, and help you develop a plan for each day. I like to record 15-20 rounds for a single fire gun (semi-auto, bolt action, shotgun, etc) and 150 – 200 rounds for a full auto gun. You want to record more shots than you need. You probably will run into issues during your shoot; lost takes due to air traffic, people moving/talking, insects, equipment issues, etc. It’s best to spend a little extra money, fire off extra shots, and ensure that you have enough takes for your project and for the future. I like to schedule 8 – 12 weapons to be recorded in one day. It depends on what your needs are, how many full auto vs. semi auto weapons, what time of year is it (the days are longer in summer), etc. When I am developing a recording schedule, I want to be sure that I have enough time to listen between takes and make adjustments to equipment, positioning, etc. You are also likely to encounter some small problems of one sort or another on shoot day, I want time to handle issues that arrise.
Once you have selected a recordist, you will need to select an armorer (weapon handler). The armorer will be providing and firing the weapons on your shoot. I work with professional armorers who have experience providing weapons to the entertainment industry. You want reliable professionals and not that crazy second cousin of yours who has a few machine guns stashed in his basement. The schedule of your project and a great deal of money is on the line, so make sure you do it right.
You also need a place that you can shoot and record guns. You may be thinking that you can just drive out to any open area in the mountains or desert and start shooting. This is neither safe nor legal in most cases. You want to do your gun recording in a safe, legal, and controlled environment.
You need a location that will have no other people shooting on that day. Most gun ranges are open to the public, so you either need to find a private range or a range that is willing to close to the public and rent to you. Many public ranges have days each week they close to the public and are available for private rental. You can usually schedule the range for these days, but be sure that there will not be any one else using the range the same day.
Next you need to consider the type of range. There are both indoor and outdoor gun ranges. You want to record outdoors. Indoor ranges have a very specific sound and the indoor sounds will not prove to be as useful or flexible as guns recorded outside. It is also easy to use processing to fake an indoor gun sound in your sound design, but not the other way around.
Outdoor ranges present a few challenges. You need to find a place as far away from civilization as possible. You don’t want to be near busy roads or highways. Air traffic is always a problem, but some locations are heavier then others. You’re going to have to deal with insects outside, which can be quite noisy at times. As with air traffic, some locations have more issues with insects then others. It is for all these reason that you must be prepared to fire off a lot of rounds to get the results that you need.
All locations will impart different characteristics into your recordings. The sound of the range will have a huge impact on your gun sounds. Think of it like this, the gun you fire is like a guitar, the range your fire in is like the guitar amp and reverb. Work with your recordist to find a location that will work for you logistically and will give you the sound you are after.
Here is a quick step by step gun shoot planning checklist:
- Choose your sound recordist
- Develop and refine your weapon list
- Determine the number of days that you need to record for
- Determine the number of rounds you will need for each weapon
- Choose and contact weapon handler, get a quote
- Choose and contact recording location, get a quote
- Work with recordist to finalize equipment needs, set up rentals as needed
- Finalize your budget
- Schedule dates. Book range, handler, and recordist
- Finalize contracts and insurance needs
- Plan food for shoot days, coordinate any travel needs
Plan your recording schedule before the day of the shoot. Plan to arrive before sunrise and leave after sunset. Be sure to schedule time for set up, take down, and lunch. If you have any really expensive or high priority weapons, plan to record those first. This way, if you run out of time, you will at least be sure that the most important stuff is covered. If everything is of equal importance, I like to schedule the weapons from quietest to loudest. Schedule your weapons into groups of similar calibers/loudness. With this approach, you can set up your mics and record a group of weapons, then if you need to, adjust the mic set up and record another group of weapons. Here is an example recording order:
- Sub Machine Guns
- Small Caliber Rifles
- Larger Caliber Rifles
- Belt Fed Machine Guns
- .50 cal (or other vary large caliber weapons)
￼Make sure everyone has correct directions to the shoot site. Everyone should also be clear about what time they are expected to arrive and what, if anything they are expected to bring.
Plan to be at the range just before dawn. Work with your recordist to find the best spot on the range to set up. Sometimes moving the shooting position just a few feet forward, back, to the left, to the right, etc, can make a huge difference on the sound. Walk around doing test claps, listening to the slapback. Or, you can even fire off some test shots. Talk with your weapon handler about your schedule. Make sure he knows what time you plan to start recording. Let him know how long you will need to setup. He will also need time to get set up, coordinate this so that he gets ready during your setup time. This way everyone is ready to go at the same time, and you don’t waste daylight.
Once you have your spot picked, don’t waste any time. Get set up quickly. It is going to take you a couple of hours to get everything set up. Try to set up your recording position as far away from the shooting position as possible, this will help save your ears and will allow the gun sounds to travel through a little bit of “air” before they reach you. Here is a sample set up plan:
- Unpack equipment from vehicles
- Set up any tables, chairs, and canopies you may have
- Put mic stands into rough positions
- Run mic cables to each stand
- Label both ends of each mic cable (with gaffer’s tape, etc). You want to know what mic the cable is going to
- Put all mics into their wind protection
- Put all mics on stands
- Power on and test all recorders and mic preamps
- Check that all recorders are set to the proper sample/bit rate
- Check that all recorders have the proper scene/take names setup
- Check that all recorders flash cards/hard drives are formatted/have available space
- Plug all mic cables into mics and into recorders/preamps
- In a notebook, take note of every channel of every recorder. Note which mic is on each channel and the position/location of the mic
- Fine-tune mic placement
I hate recording guides that get into specifics on mic placement. What works for one recordist in one situation, will not necessarily work for everyone. Here are some basic placement tips:
- Record using a variety of mics, to as many channels as you can, from as many different perspectives as possible. Keep in mind the more channels you record to, the less likely you’ll be able to properly check/monitor each channel, which may lead to less than stellar results. Also, the more channels you have, the more material you need to comb through when designing your sounds. I like to record, on average 14 to 16 tracks (more if required by the project).
- Focus most of your channels on close up and medium close up perspectives. These perspectives will give you detailed gun sounds.
- Distant perspectives will have less of the initial transient and mostly be the decay/echo. The number of distant perspectives you record should be based on your needs. If your project has little need for distant shots, then keep distant mics to a minimum, maybe just a couple of channels.
- Place your mics behind and to the side of the shooter for best results. I recommend that you avoid placing mics in front of the gun barrel, until you get more experienced. Not because of the risk of shooting a mic, but because it is harder to get a good sound. For distant mics, you can experiment with different placements.
- Use a variety of microphone types; condensers, dynamics, PZM’s, lav’s, etc.
- Lav mics often work well attached to a gun, and can give you good detailed mechanism sounds. Take care not to position the lav so that it gets in the way of the shooter. Also, keep in mind that gun barrels get very hot and can melt mics and cables, so stay clear of the barrel
- Dynamic mics work best when placed close to the gun. Try setting dynamics 3-10 feet from the gun.
- Place condenser mics at various distances. Know your equipment; know how each mic reacts to loud material and how close you can place each mic. Start at 10-15 feet and move back from there.
￼Ensure that everyone at the range understands that they need to be absolutely quiet and still during the recording. Talk to the weapon handler and explain that they need not move or work the action of the gun until the decay of a shot has completely died off or you give them the all clear. It is instinct for a handler to immediately clear jams or make a weapon safe when empty. Make sure they understand you need them to stay still.
A bullhorn/megaphone is a valuable tool on a gun shoot. Use it to ensure that everyone knows when you are recording and to slate your takes. Make sure that you slate each take with the name of the weapon and the action being performed (ex: AK47; Take 1 – single shots, AK47; Take 2 – short bursts, etc). You can also use it to yell at the people who don’t stay quiet when they are supposed to. It is also a good idea to use your notebook to keep track of take numbers and note anything about the take that you want to remember later.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen in gun recordings is incorrect gain settings. Anyone who has recorded sound before knows that good practice is to set your gain/levels so the loudest signal never exceeds 0dbFS (I’m talking about digital recording). Often, recordists will set their peaks lower, to give them some headroom (ex: -10dbFS). This is so that you do not have clipping/distortion in your recordings.
This approach does not work when you are recording subjects that are as loud as guns. The maximum level of a gunshot occurs during only a small fraction of the overall time of the shot. If you focus on keeping the loudest part of a gunshot under 0dbFS, then you will end up with recordings that sound like popcorn popping. Instead, you need to realize the initial transient of the gunshot is going to clip, and that is ok. You want to set your gain to get the best level you can for the sound that comes after the initial transient. I was once told that the first few hundred milliseconds are the least interesting part of a gunshot, it is what comes after that is the cool part.
You want to be sure that the signal coming into your recorder/mic preamp is not clipping/distorted. You accomplish this with proper mic placement and the use of in-line mic pads. If the signal coming in is distorted or sounds bad, more your mics around until you get the sound you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to switch out to a different mic. Not all mics work for every job you throw at them
The most important thing you can do when recording is to listen back to your takes regularly and make any needed adjustments right then and there. It is nearly impossible to get an idea of how your recordings will sounds just from monitoring during the recording. By listening back you can spot problems like incorrect mic placement, incorrect gain settings, bad mic cables, etc. Don’t wait until the day is done to listen to your recordings. Be sure you schedule enough time for listening and adjustments when you plan your session. Remember, a great deal of money is on the line, take some extra time and get things right in the field.
With proper planning and know-how, a gun recording session can yield you exceptional source material that you can use in projects for years to come. Gun recording is both a skill and an art. Don’t expect to achieve perfect results your first time out, like anything it takes time to master.