Charles Maynes Special: Gun Recording Thoughts for 2010
I hope you folks found some of my experiences entertaining, and more so helpful in your problem solving, so in the spirit of such fellowship I wanted to share some thoughts and experiences in my recording weapons and explosions for Films and Games.
Chuck Russom, whom I consider a great sound designer, already spent some time discussing many of the logistical and creative issues that go into a successful recording session, so I will attempt to not travel ground which he has already richly discussed. I am going to try to cover ground somewhere between his article here in Designing Sound, and in the article I did for Gamasutra. Though I will likely meander (as I tend to do sometimes) I do reserve the discretion to revisit some of the different parts of the process in order to bring understanding to the endeavor.
As I mentioned in the article on Starship Troopers, I did my first proper gunshoot back in 1997 in support of the film, and it really was an experience, we actually did another session to capture impacts which earned me my first field recording trophy, a punctured Sennheiser MD 604 Dynamic mic (see photo). This injury occurred when a bullet from a HK MP5SD made it through an improvised stone barrier that I had set up while recording bullet impacts. Such things happen and they are really good reasons to consider either stunt mics, or insured rental microphones for doing impacts. Nowadays, if I get to work with my preferred armorer, I absolutely trust his aim, even on automatic fire- in fact, I routinely will direct him to aim for points within 12 inches of the mic and have never had gear get damaged.
I guess that is a good place to start actually as to this collection of musings. As a recordist of guns and military stuff, I have found that cultivating relationships with my armorers is a key thing to the success of a shoot. When I get hired to do a gunshoot, in most cases it is well in advance of the recording day, and if (in my opinion) I am allowed to advise on the weapons and range choices it can lead to both an efficient and relatively more economical expedition. I won’t dwell in the logistics too much since it is boring to most sound people, but the broad amount of time spent on setting one of these things up will typically take 3 to 4 times as much time in planning to the the time in the field. And that is good actually- as it allows for minimizing guesswork and the inevitable miscommunications to be handled well in advance of even arriving on site. As those of you who have actually gone out recording with me know, I am a huge fan of suppressed weapons; they are really cool as far as the glamour of guns go, but they also allow a two pronged benefit when you are recording with them, and usually to get a suppressor for any given gun will be a small charge, with the result being another weapon in the library, and with proper planning some good impacts can come into the deal for free.
The how’s and whys of this are relatively simple, at least in the way I tend to set up for my sessions. In most cases the ranges I prefer tend to have impact areas at multiple distances….
And with that I will run cable for microphones out to between 300 and 600ft to capture bys and impacts, as well as the distant incoming perspective of the gunfire. In most cases I will use two or four mics attached to a Sound Devices 744T to capture those angles, and since I consider them secondary tracks I can play around more with gain settings and positions. Back at the shooting position, if we are recording suppressed weapons, we are allowed a fair amount of flexibility in mic placement around the gun itself- typically, mics in front of the blast cone will fold up (which can be cool, but is pretty unpredictable from weapon to weapon as to where the sweet spot might be. I think Eric Aadahl had mentioned that in his comments about the weapons recording he did for Transformers); The thing that can be both cool, but sometimes dangerous though is that.
You really can’t monitor in the field accurately
This is an absolute, first, after a few hours of listening to gunshots on headphones, your ears DO get fatigued, they really do, so until you get to the point of being able to identify salient characteristics to look for to confidently confirm your mic settings you are not going to be able to absolutely trust what you get until you go back with rested ears and a proper studio environment to evaluate them. the other thing for the Sound Devices users: you will likely be hearing limiting from the headphone monitor while you are recording. I find this to actually be a really helpful gauging of how the recording will react to limiters in the studio. It never ceases to amaze me how many times I have had recordist come back with “popcorn popper” gun sounds, or guns sounds that are distorted to the point of being unusable. Just something to consider.
If you overloaded the recording to make it big, and end with distortion, you are stuck with what you have
The thing about doing guns AND explosions is trying to land in that sweet spot between having the PHAT sound, (which can be a capricious challenge) and a sound which you can flexibly mangle into the flavor you wished for back in the studio. For me, I try to get at least 3 food groups of sound when recording weapons, a hyper close ultra-real sound, a fat thump (which I tend to use the Crown SASS for) and a good ambient / distant perspective. (check sound examples) I also try to really understand the needs of the film or game as to the sort of gun sound that is desired. I have ranges which are very surgical all the way out to ones that sound like, well, Iwo Jima. So I guess that is sort of what I add value with- knowledge of the weapons, having a wide variety of ranges to work at with different sound characteristics, and having being able to consistently deliver usable sounds to those who employ me.
The value of having many channels to record to
I always consider this to be insurance. If I take out my typical rig of 3 SD 744’s and my FR2, I am confident I will be able to bring back at least 6 channels of really usable material, the more channels, the more chances you can take, and the more you can experiment with mics which may not be a part of the usual kit. Also, if a machine breaks, you still have good number of tracks to capture your sound to. There is however a point of diminishing returns on this though- on a recent shoot. I was actually tasked with running 4 744’s which ended up being 5 744’s by the end of the shoot. This is a true handful, and I felt that I was not able to really track all the channels to my satisfaction. but thankfully, that was simply the result of the opportunity for the tracks, (which were actually pretty useable)
Running the gauntlet of weather and conditions
This is a pain in the butt when doing these things. It ultimately comes down to money though as to how they can be avoided- For guns AND explosions, I prefer going to the Nevada desert- I live in Los Angeles, and have recorded at all the ranges between the Mexican Border and Bakersfield (which is 100 miles north of LA) and have found the best conditions for both wind and birds and bugs and humans , to be out there. In Los Angeles, the most popular ranges, Burro Canyon, Piru, and Saugus all suffer from airplanes and birds, and most of the year, also suffer from insects. this makes the economy of a local shoot somewhat dicey, since you have all these other unwanted noises potentially being n your masters. If the shoot is a “proper” formal sort of thing, your weapons budget is likely fairly large, as well your ammunition budget, and to go from a range that costs $500 dollars a day, that is close, but has bugs and airplanes- vs paying $1500 a day for a range out in Nevada which has few airplanes, and NO bugs or people noises is pretty much a no brainer in my opinion. Guns cost a lot to take out- and you don’t get to do it often, so you might as well stack the deck in your favor wherever you can. As far as weather goes, since these shoots usually have about 60 days lead time, I have found the Farmers Almanac to be an invaluable tool. In the last two years of shoots I have done, we had only one day of light rain which did not seriously impact our recordings. (that is called a secret weapon).
The sound and fury
When recording guns and explosions, there is a sort of odd calculus to how things work out- usually, a producer or audio director will have two directives to get the material they need for the project- one direction, technical accuracy is usually important as certain weapons just have a sound that is unique to them, guns like the M60 beltfed machine gun or the Thompson submachine gun are iconic in their nature, something I spent some time discussing in the sound for war films- other guns like the Barrett rifles or the M2 Machine gun simple are very specific in their sound and scale required.
The one thing that the pre planning can help with is to determine how to get the sound the audio team needs vs whatever physical limitations might be required, distant gunfire can sort of be like this as well, but I will get to back to this topic shortly.
The other type of directive is one where the audio team will simply want “cool” gun sounds to build their weapons from For the game “Brink”, Audio director Chris Sweetman, a true hero of mine, and ever affable and awesome Ed Stern, the lead artist for the game, approached me to do a session of such cool sounding guns, since nothing was real as far as existing firearms, Chris and Ed were quite interested in getting powerful and unique weapons sounds which they would use as a foundation to design the wicked weapons sounds of the project, we spoke months ahead of the shoot about what guns have different characteristic sounds they were interested in, and I was able to offer several suggestion that were of antique military weapons which had dramatically satisfying sounds for them, in the course of the shoot we were able to bring to the session some fairly unusual weapons such as the Johnson Light machine gun and the Czech skorpion submachine gun which were both very unique sounding and offered up weapons textures which were heretofore untapped by other games or films. A similar thing happened with a project I recorded for were we used a vintage ww1 Madsen light machine gun which had an amazing clockworks sort of sound to it. these kinds of projects are the main draw to the work as they are both educational and amazing instances of sound archeology of capturing weapons sounds which have rarely been heard by the public.
Getting back to distant gunfire, once you are about a 100 meters away from a firing position, the character of distant guns is going to cease to be as distinct as closeup weapon sounds- the cues you will find more recognizeable will be general caliber, and the rate of automatic fire, pistols will be very small sounding, and guns like the M2HB, Barrett or DsHK will sound quite huge if there are any sort of surfaces for the sound to bounce off of things like Grenade Launchers are very quiet, and would not be more audible than a suppressed rifle at 250 meters. In my experience, unless you are dealing with large caliber weapons, there would be no reason to record from more than 1000 feet away in most situations.
Another useful tool for the gun recordist is to investigate different cartridges for the weapons, the biggest variation will be in using blanks versus live ammunition, but for automatic weapons there will usually be a requirement of bring a blank firing gun as well as a live firing gun to get the variations, if this is a possibility, it is usually worth the effort.
Why cant we just use the Military?
(I am going to use the US Military as a point of reference here, other countries armed forces may have different parameters you must work within to secure cooperation) Many game audio folks will ask this, and often think that the Military can provide a low cost alternative to doing a commissioned gunshot- The military can be a wonderful resource, but there are a number of limitations to utilizing them, the first hurdle is making contact and getting approval from the service branch you are hoping to use, the one thing that is a primary requirement is that the Department of Defense approves the script or treatment for the project, they will only give assistance to projects which show the Armed Services in a positive and constructive light, so if you are doing a game with a story line of rogue soldiers or intelligence types involved in illegal activities, it would be unwise to expect approval. After approval IS secured, it then becomes a matter of describing what you need and when you need it. The military, for most things are not going to do special stuff for you, but they will allow you to observe and record training operations that are already scheduled. The cost of say, having artillery barrage is REALLY expensive- they do it because they are training- but it would be unrealistic to think you are going to be able to control the batteries, or control Attack Aircraft dropping Jdams on the range. They WILL do it, but you might only get one package from them depending on the exercise. In some cases you will have a bit more control, but it might not be in the use of munitions. So with that- scheduling small arms fire, might see you in a desert range with a diesel generator running the while time, if that works, then rock on, but the odds tend to be stacked against you.
Another thing about the military and the sound recordist. They are primarily concerned with your safety, so when you go and recording bombing runs, you will likely be doing it from a kilometer away, the sound can still be cool and unachievable by another means, but it is not the as a close-up recording of 20 pounds of black powder or a Fuel air explosive. The savvy audio director who is used to such things will try to do both, and will likely have an amazing set of material to show for the effort.
Since I specialize in this end of the sound milieu, I have to say that it is wildly cool and awesome, after about 44 shoots I still love doing doing it and find out new and interesting ways to capture the sound every single time I go out. It is what sustains me, and it is why I love this enterprise with all my heart.
Written by Charles Maynes for Designing Sound