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Posted by on Feb 14, 2014 | 4 comments

Viviana Caro: A Career Working With Animal Sounds

100_2152Guest Contribution by Leonard Paul

You’ve worked a lot with animals as a sound engineer, could you give a brief history of how your initial interest in audio restoration of bird sounds has led to being the recordist for the Colombian Mountain Grackle in the mountains of Colombia?

My interest on animal sounds started when I worked on my audio engineering undergrad thesis. I paired up with a biologist that was building an animal sound archive at the Humboldt Institute in Colombia and he needed the technical help of an audio engineer to help him develop the archive. One of the objectives of this collaboration was to produce the first CD of Colombian bird sounds using the material he recorded in different locations around the country. It was a challenging project since at the time there were no local audio engineers working in this area. They were working in either music, live sound or audio post-production and all the tools available for sound restoration were focused on those applications. I tested out filters from different software including ProTools, Audiosculpt, Canary and Matlab. After a year of research, I ended up programming filters on Matlab and applying them to each recording, based on the information from their frequency content. I found, among other things, that audio restoration for animal sounds is very subjective; sometimes removing too much “noise” from a recording makes it sound out of context and it’s not pleasant to listen to. I came up to this conclusion after doing a survey to people from different backgrounds (musicians, biologists and the general public). They listened to the same recording filtered in different ways and chose the one that was more appealing to them.

While working on my thesis, I joined a group of biologists that wanted to record a rare bird in a remote area in the mountains of Colombia. The Colombian Mountain Grackle a currently endangered and at that time it had never been recorded before in Colombia since it is very difficult to find. We spent a few days searching and on our way back from the mountains everyone thought that we weren’t going to find one so they had put their equipment away. As it turned out a pair of them flew close overhead and vocalized. I was the only one who had my equipment available so I was able to record them and publish the recording on the CD. Eventually I ended up graduating with honors at the university and have continued to enjoy my time working with audio for the past ten years or so of my professional career.

You have worked on the major blockbuster Hollywood films such as The Incredibles and Ratatoillle in your audio career. Could you describe what you contributed to these films and what challenges you had to overcome while working on projects as a consultant with the Macaulay Library?

While I was working at Macaulay Library (the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video recordings), we usually got requests from major film companies to help them recreate specific scenes for their films. Among them, we had the people from Ratatouille looking for recordings they could use in one of the scenes that was taking place in the French countryside. My main challenge with this project was to be able to provide accurate material of a place I’ve never been before. I started doing research on animals that used to live in that area, looking at pictures of countryside landscapes and getting all the information possible from the Ratatouille people about that specific scene. After getting a good idea on how this place might sound like, I compiled the material, organized it in day and night recordings and then gave them different options to choose from. On their side, they knew they were getting accurate material and it helps give more credibility to the scene.

On the other hand, the people from The Incredibles were looking for sounds for an island that didn’t exist in real life. So the main challenge for me was to come up with a combination of sounds from different parts of the world that could be put together in a way that wouldn’t resemble a particular place on Earth. In this case I had to use my imagination and come up with a good “tropical mixture” of material. Since I was fairly busy with other projects at the time, I totally forgot about my work on the film until I was watching the movie in the theatre. I recognized some of the sounds that seemed familiar, but didn’t clue in until the end of the movie, when I saw the credits.

We also had the opportunity to consult for a movie called The New World by Terrence Malick, that was taking place in a 17th century English colony in Virginia called Jamestown. It was very important for them to have accurate nature sounds that would have been heard at that time in history. We had to do historic research in order to determine what animal species were originally living there and make sure that they were not actually introduced there at a later time.

I find these types of projects very interesting. The soundscape is a story in itself since it provides an accurate setting and the context to where the story is taking place. When I consult for a project, the client knows I’m not just giving them a bunch of sounds to fill the gaps, they know they’re getting accurate and relevant content for their project.

I know the Macaulay Library well enough to be able to point clients in the right direction quite quickly. In addition to that, I have a personal sound collection that I use on my own projects on a regular basis. I have a good network of scientists to provide me with additional advice when needed. If I’m doing sound design or audio post, my clients enjoy feeling like they’re actually in that particular place in history. This type of work is my passion and to me every single project is special.

You ran an animal recording workshop at Universidad Nacional in Bogotá on bioacoustics. What tricks and tips did you describe in your workshops and what did you find the students have the most issues with when recording birds (and other animals)?

The majority of people focus on the typical aspects of recording, including recording equipment, which is of course very important.

There’s a great variety of recording gear options in the market. It really depends on your budget and personal preference I personally use a small and inexpensive Zoom H2 recorder that has been working fine for me. It’s small, light, works well in different weather conditions and the quality of the recording is good. I can record stereo or quad. I also like it because usually people don’t even notice you’re recording and they leave you alone.

I will rent additional equipment if there’s something very specific that will need to be recorded. I tried surround arrays before, they require more time and technical details to have them working properly, but it’s always an option if you want to capture ambiances.

Most of the challenges students have are actually things that are easily overlooked and very simple to do. I’ve outlined a few points below that were helpful to cover in my workshop and might be helpful to the readers as well.

Set Your Goals:

It’s very important to define specific goals when you’re organizing a recording trip. Are you looking for a specific animal? Do you know the behavior of that animal? When is it more active (during time of the year, time of the day, and so on)? Do some research on the location you’re going to go beforehand. Check weather conditions and accessibility. Even if it’s a remote area, it doesn’t mean there will be no noise around. I remember one time I went to a remote location hoping to record good soundscapes and animals, and I didn’t know this particular location was a major route for airplanes. I had to time the gap between planes flying overhead while also trying to find a good recording location.

Be Prepared:

Make sure you are prepared for unforeseen technical problems with your equipment. Make sure you bring along extra batteries, additional cables and proper isolation if you’re going to a wet or humid place since some equipment could suffer from humidity problems. You should test all your equipment before going to the field and make an inventory of everything you need to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Having technical problems in the field and not being prepared for that could ruin your recording plans.

Be Quiet:

Make sure you wear proper clothes. Don’t bring any synthetic material, since they’re very noisy when moving around and can add noise into your recording. Always bring a snack, an empty stomach could be very noisy too.

Know Your Gear:

It’s also important to know your recording equipment really well in order to get the best out of it. Using a shot-gun microphone vs. a cardioid microphone requires different recording techniques in order to capture a good quality sound. A windscreen is a very important accessory for any microphone and I always recommend bringing one along at all times.

Log Your Recordings:

Get into the habit of recording all the information about the sound you’re capturing, simply by talking into the microphone before and after each recording. You should record information about the location, time of the day, equipment you’re using, what you’re trying to record, and any additional information that will be relevant for you. It will save you a lot of time later on when you’re editing your recordings.

Document and Backup:

Documentation and backup are very important. If you don’t keep good track of the material you recorded and you leave it sitting in your computer for a while then you’ll eventually forget what is the material that you have. Keep a spreadsheet with the information of your edited material so you can access it any time you need it and always keep a backup of your original recordings.

When working with documentary film, what are differences in technique do you follow to balance drama with realism? How do you work with camera perspectives – especially with a close zoom when the mic is actually far away? How “fake” can you and have you gone with documentaries and is this an issue?

When I work on documentaries, I like to have the audience feel they’re actually in that particular location. I use very organic sounds and in general, do what I call “soundscape design”. Use the camera perspectives to your advantage by layering out your sounds in different ways depending on how close or far are the objects. Sometimes adjusting the volume of your sounds is not good enough, that’s why I always try to record the same sound in different perspectives (close, medium, far) and use them accordingly.

I like to sonically emphasize key elements in the story and make sure all the components of the documentary (visuals, music, sfx, bg’s, etc) are complementing each other instead of competing.

How do you fix issues with bad camera audio recordings? Do you try to go back and record the audio from the same location?

Most of the time I have to replace a big chunk of the original audio during post. Going back and record the audio from the same location is usually not possible, since most of the locations are pretty remote or not easily accessible. I talk to the director and get all the information I can about the location and start collecting elements that I will use in my “soundscape design”. Sound accuracy is very important for me; I always make sure all sonic elements in the documentary are actually present in the real-life location.

When I go on a field trip to record, I always make sure to capture a good “ambiance tone” of the location. This comes very handy when you need to build audio from scratch. It gives you the flexibility to add any animals or elements you like. I also record many versions of the same animal vocalizing since these recordings are very useful when having to “lip sink” the animal vocalizing with the picture.

7197178700_47eafc7479_hOnce I even had to foley the sound of a tapir for the entire documentary. I found locations that looked similar in the picture and recorded footsteps on grass and water splashes from a lake that I later added in post. It makes a big difference to have sounds recorded outdoors vs. indoor studio recordings.

I actually got one of my clients, a producer of natural history documentaries, to get himself a small portable recorder to bring along with him in his expeditions. He uses it to record animals and soundscapes for me which is often in remote areas. He’s aware of the difference it makes to have accurate and good quality material and he’s willing to take a bit of extra time to capture it.

You work as a consultant with Macaulay Library. Could you describe the process of how you help people source sounds for their projects as well as how people can effectively use the library for their own productions?

There are many people from different professional backgrounds (scientists, educational institutions, film industry, TV, etc..) looking for animal sounds for their projects. It’s important to understand what they’re looking for, what their needs are and what are their priorities. Some people are looking for quality recordings and some are more interested in the content. Some people want the sounds alone and others want you to do sound design or restoration.

Depending on the scope of the project, there are three different types of licenses: commercial use, institutional use and individual use and fees are applied accordingly. There are no fees for student and research use. Those fees cover the cost of the studio time allocated to provide the material and also cover the royalties recordists will receive. If you’re really into nature recording, this is a great way to get a little extra money and exposure for yourself. If you submit your recordings to the archive, people can search for your material and if they use it for commercial purposes then you’ll get a percentage out of the license fee they pay. Additionally, you will get a credit in every single project that is using your material, which is great exposure for your work.

Everyone can search the library online and listen to the recordings: http://macaulaylibrary.org/search-help. You can browse by location, quality of the recording, sound type, length, date and so on. If you want to order a sound, you will need to create an account and place an order online. They will get back to you with details about licensing, pricing and downloading options. It usually doesn’t take longer than a couple of days to get the material you ordered. If you need special advice, the library or a consultant like me can respond to the specific needs of your project.

Do you consider yourself a “sound librarian”?

Yes, I think in a way I am. Working around sound archives for 15 years made me appreciate the value they have for everyone. Over the years, I archived over 7,000 recordings from Colombian recordists for the Humboldt sound archive. I had the privilege to listen to some very cool stuff. Sadly there are thousands of hours of interesting material accumulating dust in people’s homes but if they allowed other people to access it then others could make good use of it. With proper credit and royalty compensation people’s work will be useful and valued.

I believe every sound designer should have their own sound collection. Whether you want to share it or not, you will definitely value each recording you have when you use it for a project. Every recording has a story behind it, maybe it’s the trip of what you did to get it or how many times you had to record it to get just the right sound. When you listen to that recording later in life, it will definitely take you back to that place and time – in a way, you’re capturing moments of your own life when recording sounds.

DSC02178What recommendations would you make to people that are interested in working with recording animals in zoos and in the wild?

Besides the tips mentioned earlier, I would say if you’re planning to visit a zoo, nature reserve or any other place run by public or private institutions, it is always very helpful to contact them beforehand to find the person that is dealing with the animals on a regular basis. Tell them your story and ask them when the animals usually more active vocalizing. Captive animals often have different behaviors than wild animals.

I wanted to record a lion and a tiger sound for a monster in the video game I was working on at the time so I contacted a nearby zoo and got in touch with the zoo veterinarian. She mentioned the lion was usually more active after his cage was being cleaned, since they had to lock him up in a smaller cage for safety. This meant that after the lion was released, he was pretty upset (don’t blame him) and also vocalized a lot. I was at the zoo ready to record when they were doing the cage cleaning and the lion vocalized a lot which was great for my recording. Afterwards, there was complete silence. I got great material and even had extra time to record other animals as well. Zoos are not my favorite place, but if you need to find a specific animal, that’s often the way to go. I usually offer them a copy of the edited recordings, so they can use them to promote their park or zoo. They will be happy to help you out!

Schedule a visit where there’s no one around, ideally when the zoo is closed to the public, to avoid additional noise. Using recording equipment in a zoo is pretty safe, you just have to pay attention to your recording levels; lions and tigers can get very loud.

What are you listening for in an animal recording – how do you know it is “good”?

Defining a good animal recording is very subjective, it really depends what you need it for. You want to avoid for sure distortion or excessive noise levels – you need to find a recoding level range in your portable recorder that will be a good balance for that. When you’re recording wildlife it’s really hard to have full control over the external conditions of the environment. I try to get as much variety as possible and different perspectives of the same sound.

I have a good idea how much I can use DSP to reduce noise in the recordings. There are certain types of noise that are difficult to remove or minimize without affecting the primary quality of the recording. Over-processing a recording is not ideal, so getting a clean version of the sound at the start is crucial.

Using headphones while recording is the best way to have a good reference of the signal you’re recording. It will give you a reference to position yourself or the microphone in a way where you’re reducing the amount of noise as much as you can. For example, if you want to record an animal that’s near a river, you can use an obstacle between the microphone and the animal, to reduce the noise of the river in your recording. If you want to record an animal near a road, you can position yourself in a ditch, to minimize the road noise in your recording. Small details like this will make a big difference in the quality of your recordings.

DSC02059What are the ethics of getting a good “performance” out of an animal, especially when traveling to remote places where it might be the case that the animal keeper really wants to try to get the animal to be vocal?

A common way to get animals to vocalize in the wild, specially birds, is using a technique called “playback” where you play a recording of the bird vocalizing on a speaker. It’s usually very effective, but you have to be aware that the animal can get very distressed, because he thinks there’s an intruder in his territory. If you don’t use this technique with caution, you can expose the bird to predators, and have them waste time and energy searching for something that isn’t there. You can even alter their social environment if the female thinks the male is not strong enough to chase away the potential threat. If you choose to use this technique, you should use it with moderation; play the sound for few seconds and make a long pause. Use a moderate volume and don’t go crazy playing sounds of different species – make sure you know your target. You can also imitate the sound with your voice to attract the animal. Keep in mind it will have a similar impact to the bird as playback so I rarely use this technique unless it is absolutely necessary.

If animals are captive or live near urban areas, people also use food. In general, anything you do that will alter their natural habitat and is a disturbance of their space. That’s why is so important to know the animal behavior of the species you’re trying to record and above all, be patient.

Thanks for asking me about my work and if the readers have any questions then they can feel free to contact me directly on my website.

Viviana Caro has a B.S. in Music Studies with Sound Engineering emphasis from Javeriana University in Colombia and has a Sound Design Diploma from the Vancouver Film School in Canada. For more information about Viviana’s work, please visit: http://www.VivianaCaro.com.

Leonard Paul is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio.

Remember that Designing Sound is a site run by the community for the community, and we always welcome guest posts. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please contact shaun {at} designingsound dot org.

4 Comments

  1. Magnificent, rich journalism describing i the feats of Viviana Caro, a remarkable professional, who makes it all seem so easy! Thanks to both Leonard Paul and Viviana.

  2. Really interesting interview! Good on ya’ Viviana and Shaun!
    It’s really interesting how attention to detail and good understanding of goals and variables can get you where you want.
    I also found remarkable how you consider the ethical/humane aspects of the impact your activities have on the animals you’re recording.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Credit where credit is due…Please note, Carlos, that I had nothing to do with the article (other than posting it here on the site). The interview was conducted by Leonard Paul.

  3. Thanks Bob and Carlos for your comments. I’m glad you found the interview useful and inspiring. I’m happy to share any additional information if there’s something else you would like to know.
    Shaun, thanks very much for posting the interview on the site, always great articles and interviews!

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