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Posted by on Oct 9, 2013 | 20 comments

Recording FX In 5, 6, 8, Or More Channels?

Guest Contriubtion by Randy Thom


Acoustic Authenticity Versus Entertainment Value

When designing a set for a film, the art director tries to use what is good about the real world place where the scene will be shot, but also tries to avoid being straight jacketed by what is there. The cinematographer usually has a similar approach in deciding what to shoot and how to shoot it. The director may want to put some local people in a scene, but they probably won’t be leading characters.

Sound design should be the same, I think. With the proliferation of multi-channel microphones in recent years, some with “5.1” channels and more, the promise of being able to capture and reproduce the aural sensation of being in a real place with three dimensional acoustics is definitely closer to being real…but is it desirable? I’d say the answer is usually “no.”

Achieving the right amount of authenticity in art is always tricky. Absolute authenticity is often a bore; too little authenticity seems…inauthentic. A clever composer I know often says “Authenticity has minimal entertainment value.” So what do we do? We tip our hats to authenticity, but don’t let it dominate us. The tiger scene in Apocalypse Now is a good example. As Captain Willard and Chef wander into a Southeast Asian forest to look for mangos there is no music, only the actors’ voices, movements, and the creatures of the jungle. The bird and insect sounds certainly make you feel like you are in a jungle, and they surround you in the theater, but they are not “real” in a strictly authentic sense. I recorded several of the principal bird sounds used in that scene in the San Francisco Zoo aviary. The insect sounds were mostly electronically synthesized by Richard Beggs. Using those raw elements, Walter Murch composed and orchestrated it all. The original sounds were either mono or stereo, but they were panned in the mix to move them through the x and y axes as desired.

If Nat Boxer, the production mixer on that film, had made recordings in five or six channels, nearly all of it would probably have been useless. They might have been acoustically “correct,” but correct for what? Our perspective as audience members is constantly changing as we experience a film. What is in front of us in one shot is behind us in the next shot, and the same for left and right. Capturing the sound of a parrot flying and squawking from left front to right rear can be a beautiful thing to listen to by itself, but shoehorning that recording into a film scene is going to require so much manipulation of the timing and spatial characteristics of our original beautiful recording that we might as well just start with a mono recording of a parrot flying by, and pan it manually….which is basically how the ambience in that Apocalypse scene was done.

Recording sound effects on location should be mostly about finding good sounds to record, not about what equipment you use to record them. In a sense what we do is cast sounds, like a casting director casts characters. As sound designers we’re always listening (through the corners of our ears?) for sounds we can use. We then try to figure out how to get a recording of that sound with a minimum of environmental noise. Those two processes, finding a great sound and making an isolated recording of it, are 90% of the job of collecting sounds in the field. Making an acoustically accurate recording of the place where the sound happens can sometimes be nice icing on the cake, but don’t let it distract you from getting the 90% part right.

Randy Thom

Recently returned from collecting sunny sounds in southern Italy.


  1. I love this, Randy!

    “Recording sound effects on location should be mostly about finding good sounds to record, not about what equipment you use to record them.”


  2. most – important – sentence – ever…… (for sound people)

    ” In a sense what we do is cast sounds, like a casting director casts characters. ”

    thanks Randy!!!!!!!

  3. This is very interesting. And after experiencing my very first project in 5.1 I can lend weight to this stance on mixing for surround. With my short film project I was the entire audio team from production on through post all the way to master. Extremely small budget meant I had to manage it as efficiently as I could and since I don’t have time to spend capturing, designing, and mixing re-recording sounds for 90% of the film to give it that commercial vibe, I opted to capture as much as I could in production for versatility in mixing in post however I could. Armed with a Rode NTG-3 shotgun+boom & a mic stand to switch out to for static shots, a Zoom h4n, and an AT3035 large diaphragm mic, I tried to capture in “quad” being mindful of camera’s viewpoint on subjects, managing distance with the NTG-3 for dialog focus, capturing the overall performance set back behind or off side of the camera shots with the Zoom, and the AT3035 buried on-set out of camera’s view especially in places where characters had to move around between “compartments” of the same set. IE: behind a bench where the two characters were sitting, and aimed upward focusing on a window on the opposite side of the room for when the main character has to get up and go over to that window to look out it for another character cue hitting the window. I had to use 80% of the sound mix in post production and just manipulate what I could, being aware of throwing things out past the “viewing plane” off to the sides, and rarely out into the surrounds behind the audience to engulf them in the scene ONLY when necessary. It allowed me to move quick on editing and mixing because of a short deadline. It still doesn’t feel like a commercial sound mix but now I know what I would do for future projects!

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Sure there are many times when “authentic” sound may be needed for specific well know events but I believe what we should do with our design is help tell the story. What is the emotional content of each scene and what can we do to reinforce the imagery? Ultimately this a movie……not reality. The art is in moving the audience sonically along the journey the film maker is presenting.

  5. Sorry to ear that from such a great guy. Recording in multichannel dosen’t mean that it’s a more “real” material than mono or stereo. It also do not mean that you are no more creative and above all it dosen’t mean that you are forced to use the sound recorded on the set.

    Sorry mister Randy Thom, but with great respect of your work, i do not agree.

    • Hi, Gael!

      No worries about disagreeing. Though if I understand what you are saying correctly we may not disagree at all. Nobody is forced to use sound from the set, I agree. I certainly agree that a recording in multi-channel isn’t necessarily any more “real” than a mono recording, and visa versa. I also agree that recording in multi-channel doesn’t make anyone less, or more, creative.


      • Happy to hear that we are on the same line, no matter what you do as long as the result is there.
        I use Ambisonic’s surround sound technics with soundfield microphone for nearly 8 years now. (that’s why i’m a little bit touchy on the subject ;-))
        And i have to say that it’s a great format for sound on picture.
        Each sound (in ambisonic) can be adapted, in post, to your picture in term of localisation, space and volume.
        Those sounds can be decoded on a large number of speakers, included height. With dolby atmos system, i believe that it will be a must have for atmosphere sound ambiance. I’m sure it would have been great format for the Quad system of “Apocalypse now” ;-)
        I used a lot of these sounds on the feature films i worked on (In France).And for Guns (@charles) you can be very strong without beeing too loud, simply because you have pressure on all speakers at the same time.
        I’m very fond of that kind of multichannel recordings. I’m sure you are aware of this but just in case…

    • the aesthetic of sing multi-channel effects in a film or other venue is not tied much at all to the capture process. I agree entirely with Randy in the difficulty of “shoehorning” multi-channel recordings into story telling, but I doubt that he intended to dismiss the notion of the value of having multiple channels of mics out for recording events in general. Of course I might be mistaken about that- as I certainly record many channels for most of the field work I do, and actually like multichannel recordings via the Soundfield or Holophone for things like crowds and all. But that said- the recording format is really secondary to the story telling.

      • Using multiple mics recorded on multiple channels as a way of capturing different perspectives is very useful, I think. For example, a close stereo pair, a medium distance stereo pair, and a distant stereo pair if the sound is loud enough to justify it. The thing I think is much less useful is capturing a “5.1 picture” of the location.


    • I completely agree with Randy
      But perhaps we have too much experience?
      When you mix 400 tracks created by a talented sound designer
      You may wonder where to start!

  6. I too disagree with this mono vision of sound collecting. It is a Hollywood approche for Hollywood films and workflow. The documentaries and independant films that I work on have different ways of doing things.

    • Hi, Ben!

      I respectfully disagree that what I described is a “Hollywood” approach. First, I rarely work in LA, so I’m not a “Hollywood” guy anyway. Second, I’m surrounded by people working on wonderful sounding documentaries, and I don’t hear about people on docs making 5.1 recordings of effects on location very often.


  7. When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
    Ansel Adams

    Capturing sound for a story is far different than capturing a sound for archival. We are trying to find the sense of the sound and be in its presence, not necessarily record its mortal authenticity. Film is never truly authentic because first and foremost it is a story telling medium, and for that reason crafting sound for it must be about the story it tells not the authenticity of the capturing method.

    • That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There are times when totally building the surround environment of a scene in the design room is the way to go, and times when multi channel recording on location is incredibly valuable. On “Collateral” we recorded the taxi cab and the guns on six channels, as well as the subway train for the ending. I’ve recorded sports crowds in the same fashion. But it is our skill as artists and story tellers that helps us decide how to serve the movie best on a case by case basis. And…….unfortunately the budget as well may dictate what we can do in the field. There really is no right or wrong answer. That’s what’s so great about what we do.

  8. Brilliant and Inspiring advice!

  9. It seems to me that the advantage of multichannel recording is not the ability to use the sum total of all of your channels together but rather the ability to choose from a variety of perspectives, each of which conveys a part of the whole sound.

    In many cases, this is an unnecessary step. Often there is a single microphone perspective that captures the most important quality of the sound that you’re trying to record, like the sound of a parrot squawking.

    However, in some cases multichannel recordings provide the variety that allows us to convey a sense of perspective to the audience. If a scene in a film revolves around an angry crowd yelling in the Notre Dame cathedral and we cut from a medium shot showing only 10 people to a bird’s eye view revealing the entire crowd, a change in microphone perspective will help to convey the visual change in scope. Playing both microphone perspectives on top of each other may not be useful, but in contrast they may indicate something significant to the audience. Of course the perspective change could be achieved by adding reverb in the mix, but sometimes the acoustic quality of a recording are difficult to reproduce.

    In other cases, multichannel recordings allow us to capture parts of a sound event that when summed give us more options in refining the quality of the sound. When recording an explosion or a gunshot in a canyon, if we place a microphone near the source of the sound the sharp attack and body, but not much of the decay of the sound in the canyon space. Similarly, a distantly placed microphone will capture the reverb decay but not much of the bright attack. Summing the two together may give a fuller representation of the sound, although not necessarily more “realistic.”

    In any case, I think the most important thing is context. Multichannel recordings can be a useful and creative tool, but shouldn’t be used just for the sake of having “multi-channel sound.”

  10. I feel like some people are misinterpreting things here. I don’t see the article as advocating the complete avoidance of multi-channel recordings. I agree that fixed perspective multi-channel recordings (i.e. 5.1…think Holophone microphones) are often less than ideal when it comes to post. That’s not the same thing as using multiple mics to capture multiple mono/stereo signals of a sound from different perspectives. That is something that is well worth doing. I’ve personally used “surround” mics in the past, and it’s been extremely rare that I’ve used the recordings without chopping up at least two of the channels.

    Paul hit the nail on the head! It’s all about context. If I’m going to record a jet passing overhead, a tracking mono recording is far more useful to me than a fixed 5.1 recording. There are times when 5.1 ambiences are nice in tight turn around productions (i.e. television programming), but I’ve still found it far more rewarding to build the ambiences from multiple stereo recordings whenever I can (including documentaries).

    I disagree with the idea that this is a “Hollywood” approach. This is a question of control vs. efficiency. If you have the time to carefully craft and construct the soundscape, it can give you results that serve the narrative on deeper levels. If you don’t have the time, then you’re perfectly justified in prioritizing the needs of the piece as you see fit. Have I used fixed multi-channel recordings in a piece before? Yes. Will I do it again? Probably. Do I consider that approach ideal? No.

  11. This reminds me of my first 5.1 project, a short film that I recorded, edited and re-recorded in my third year of film school, in 2009.

    The film is about a young couple hiking up the mountains, with the first scene shot in the train on the way there.

    It was shot on Arri 2c, so no production sound was used, but for every shot, after the crew moved on, I captured double MS ambience with a Senn 418 and a Senn 416 facing away from each other, using the 418’s side capsule for the surrounds as well, literally capturing 3 channels which I later decoded to 5.0.

    My goal was 100% authenticity, so for every shot I changed the perspective, and I rarely EQed the ambiances, and I was very proud of how it sounded, knowing all the effort that I put in,

    So after it “premiered” in the cinema, with a full audience (in the film school’s festival), nobody really cared. The sound was especially hissy, due to the noise in the 418’s side capsule, and the lack of EQ thereof.

    I was expecting the audience to be awed at how realistic it sounds, how the film would “transport” them in the train, and then on the mountain. All I got was yawns, and then later even laughter:

    It was my first experience with ADR as well – and for a wide shot in the forest, when the two characters separate from each other, the boy yells after the girl, and the echoy reverb that I added in post really made people laugh (although it sounded much like production sound recorded from the camera POV).

    That was a lesson I learned the hard way….

    ps. I could upload the film to youtube, if anyone’s interested

  12. So what we’re all trying to say is that what ever sounds best is best!? :)

    Please correct me, but I think I’m right is saying Stanley Kubrick only liked mono mixes as he wanted the audience to focus in on the picture. Can we argue about this guy’s film making ability? Although reading this…

    I’ve had the pleasure of using some of Charles’ field recordings. Great stuff, but I certainly didn’t use all the channels: I picked the best one or two for what I needed.

    Personally I love working with mono sounds and moving them about. With multichannel recordings I normally split them into mono’s. I often find myself less ‘flexible’ with 5.0 and 5.1 recordings. I like my ambiance track-lays to start wide and close in when the drama needs it. I sometimes see ‘full’ discreet atmosphere track-lays and often wonder ‘why did they do that?’. Whatever the technique, right or wrong, I think as an sound editor we have a responsibility and chance to create our OWN interpretation prior to pre-mix… but in the knowledge that I’ll try (I say TRY) not to be too disappointed when someone doesn’t agree.

    I think that the audio of a film can be compared to the score; we have the chance to create mood, feeling and emotion. With more tracks you don’t necessarily get a better result, but you have an extra option, which can sometimes be a good, OR bad thing.

    You can’t teach emotion, but an artist can go to classes and develop themselves.

    I’m looking forward to trying the new Dolby Atmos mic! :)


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