[Written by Tim Walston for Designing Sound]
Disclaimer: I am writing these articles as an independent sound designer. Any views or opinions expressed here are simply my own, and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of any company, corporate entity or anyone else. Any images or sounds presented are subject to copyright by their respective owners, and are presented for educational purposes only. Any information given is correct to the best of my knowledge. Some assembly required. May cause drowsiness.
I find recording my own sound effects to be enormously satisfying. It’s wonderful to be able to get just the sound you need, but can’t find in your library. It’s also an exciting creative exercise to find a great prop and just see what you can do with it. As you might have guessed, I’m a big fan of unexpected discoveries. As I’ve also mentioned before, I don’t record often enough. I’m usually too busy. Rather than expensive, exotic recording extravaganzas, my recording sessions are usually small, improvised affairs, or simply seizing an opportunity that has presented itself. I write this to underscore the notion that you don’t necessarily need a lot of money to experience the joy of recording for yourself.
Early in my career, I sold my ADAT machines (remember those?) and bought a portable DAT recorder. I thought I exhibited great dedication to my new craft by bringing it with me on a winter trip to Minnesota, to visit… you guessed it… my in-laws. As a native of sunny Southern California, the snow and ice was new and exciting to me. I was recording everything I could, because I could. One night I went out into the snowy breeze around midnight, in my pajamas, boots, and a coat. It was 12 degrees F. Ah, what we do for our craft. Yes there are pictures, and no, you can’t see them.
During that same trip I recorded a plastic dog ball rolling across the linoleum kitchen floor. It had an interesting sound that reminded me of a large crackling rocket. Listen for yourself. First, is the raw recording and then a version with some 1999 style processing:
I also recorded my in-laws trash compactor and years later turned it into a thruster engine room sound in Poseidon. My father in-law’s car tires spinning on the icey driveway in 1999, became a dragstrip tire chatter sound in 2002. I played you the pool tube squeaks and squeegee sounds earlier this month. What can I say? My in-laws have cool noisy stuff!!
Remember that ugly brown Buick Skyhawk? The day it was to be towed from my driveway and out of my life, I recorded everything I could think of: Walking on the roof, headlight servos, dead engine false starts. Then, I stumbled across sounds like this:
Sitting on the hood of the car, with my shoes on the damp windshield, and my neighbors watching from the relative safety of their homes, I found some truly unexpected and inspiring sounds. 10 years later, some material like the low part at the end was a big part of the 2009 Enterprise interior warp engine sound. Unfortunately, certain issues prevent me from providing the actual processed elements I used, or showing a clip, but if you listen to film when a perplexed Sulu throttles down the engines while the “parking brake is on”, you might recognize it.
My wife has even gotten into the action. One day at work I got a call: “Hi honey, I thought I’d paint the bathroom today, and you know the big mirror over the sink? Well, I thought I could move it by myself, but it turned out to be really heavy… Should I save the big pieces so you can break ‘em and record it?” True love!
At times, however, a wonderful wife’s patience can be stretched thin. For one show a long time ago, I wanted small jet sounds. So, I recorded an old canister vacuum cleaner with the motor in a closet and just the hose end in front of the mic. I experimented with the nozzle for about 45 minutes learning how to “perform” the airy sounds I wanted. When it was over:
This leads me to some amusing recording failures. Not quite epic, but I hope you enjoy them. First up is an attempt at the “stealthy” recording of walla in a Minnesota quilt shop. With my mother-in-law.
“Don’t mind my son-in-law. He’s recording what he calls ‘quilt shop walla’. He’s a sound editor.”
Next was my first time recording jets, on the Naval Air Base at Point Mugu. I was about half way down the runway as two F14’s were about to take off. I was listening for the idle as it taxi’d into position, but I couldn’t hear anything. So… I turned up my headphone volume. All the way. Barely anything was on my meters, so I turned up the record level. All. the. way.
As it finally started to approach me I figured I’d ride the gain to get a good recording of the take-off by. The problem is, um, jets are loud, you see. Did I mention I was literally standing on the edge of the tarmac? As it passed me, the pilot must have punched it. When the rear end of the plane was facing me the jump in volume was like a huge electric shock. I have never FELT sound in my body like that before or since. I must have jumped 3 feet in the air, and instinctively turned down the gain – which of course, did nothing to stop the physical shockwave assaulting me. By the time I recovered my senses, I only had time to catch the second jet’s distant away:
It must have been really funny to watch, but it was frustrating, as they were the only jets to fly that day. Luckily, another recordist further down the runway got the recording. But this is why I’m writing here today – so you don’t have to suffer the same fate. Next time – ear protection!