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In this eighth installment about how SFX creators have pushed artistic and professional boundaries, we hear from TONSTURM, Sonicsalute.com, Field Recording Working Group, and Monte Sound. Stay tuned for our final collection of stories from our community later this week.
What is your name, and who are your team members/co-creators?
Field Recording Working Group: The Field Recording Working Group is Katsy Pline, Danny Lewis, Daniel Shubat, and whomever else who would like to join us in our practice.
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to capture the perfect sound effect?
TONSTURM: It is somehow in TONSTURM’s DNA to push the boundaries as far as possible for every library we create. Since we do this together, one of us is constantly pushing the other with a new idea. For our ‘Gore And Slaughter’ library we recorded tons of stuff. One part of the library was blood and gore SFX for which we used hundreds of liters of real pig blood and splattered it against various surfaces. We scouted abandoned buildings and prepared a whole recording studio to cover all the intensities and surfaces we had in mind. But we were still missing blood splats on skin, so we drove into the countryside in the middle of the night. Since Emil’s shaved head would be easier to clean from the blood, he had to be naked except for his shoes and shorts while Tilman splattered small buckets full of pig blood onto his back. It surely must have looked as if we were doing a serious satanic ritual :-) For a recording session like this you need to be two sound freaks, otherwise you don’t do it.
A few random memories from other library projects: manually mounting 4m² double glass frames onto wind-up tripods to lift them off the ground for perceivable time gaps between the impacts and the glass shards falling to the floor; driving hundreds of kilometers to find the perfect spot; hiking into the mountains with all our equipment in our backpacks until we could hardly feel our legs anymore; arranging a final recording session at a huge gasometer after we had already recorded the Aquaphone at three different locations; ordering half a pig from a butcher and finding a professional recording studio that would allow us to hang it up in their recording room; inviting a boxer to professionally beat up the pig for convincing sounding punches for ‘The Fight’ library; and finding the right explosion expert and being able to record more than 260 pounds of explosives on a military training area in Germany. These are only a few examples that show how sound effect libraries always have to be a bit of a pain to make us satisfied.
Sonicsalute.com: Whenever I record sounds, either for a new SFX library or when recording SFX for a feature film, I kind of feel like I push the boundaries a little every time. The world is a noisy place, and being able to record single, delicate and isolated sounds can be really hard nowadays. I often find myself being forced to change the microphone setups or placement, going out late at night when traffic is less present, or maybe even completely rethinking the whole recording process.
That said, like many other SFX recordists will recognize, recording the elements can be really challenging. My own most challenging SFX library recordings were made during some strong storms and hurricanes that slammed the Danish coast a few years ago. Recording outside in the dark where the winds were taking down trees and debris was flying all over the place was very frightening (at least for me). Many of my recordings from the ‘Hurricane Winds’ SFX library were recorded at my local harbour. Here the water was about two meters above normal. That may not sound like much, but it meant that none of the wooden piers were visible and boats were crashing into each other because the ropes tying them to the pier were cut. At the same time, the winds made the ropes on the boat masts scream. Terrifying experience. Seeing the damage the hurricane had done the next day was crazy. I’m not sure I’m going out into the dirt like that again any time soon.
Field Recording Working Group: The novelty of our current body of work stems from its source material and more broadly the subsequent politicization of the musique concrete, acoustic ecology and electronic-based music it entails. We’re particularly interested in the way a sonic environment changes in relation to its social environment and all the ways one can hear history, political economy, gender and race in soundscapes. Our most recent projects, ‘Microblocks’ vols. 2 and 3, culled percussive noise and ambiance from soundscapes of struggle against the racist police brutality, economic inequality and heteropatriarchy in the Bay Area. The projects aim to transform these sounds of resistance into building blocks for electronic composers to work with—with the hope that the problematics addressed by the demonstrators can be asked anew within the sphere of composition.
Monte Sound: I was really lucky to be able to travel around the world with my film school graduation film Picturing War. During the shooting period I realized how much I enjoyed recording ambient sounds. The opportunity to be in remote places and capture a completely new sound palette is very exciting. During our shoot we visited Kurdistan and a frontline close to ISIS—this can be heard in my ‘Atmospheres of Kurdistan‘ library. Recording good ambiences in Kurdistan was very important to me. The Kurds are so passionate about their people, their culture, and their music, so knowing the sound design was for the movie, I made sure to record good ambiences.
As a Brazilian, I cannot tell you the amount of times I have heard inaccurate sounds in movies about Brazil—sounds that were maybe from “south american forest” but did not fit in the movie due to the different Fauna. These sounds distract me from the story. In my atmosphere libraries I value acoustical accuracy, variation and uniqueness. I honestly don’t put that much focus on the technical side/equipment. Of course I keep that in mind, but just like music recording, choosing the right source material for your sound recording can go a longer way than using an amazing microphone in a bad location. Background sounds have such a subconscious power, and providing accurate atmosphere sounds has become a passion of mine.
When was a time you felt you pushed the boundaries to design a new sound effect?
TONSTURM: Pre-production, Preparation and Editing always take way longer than the actual recording itself. The explosions library for example was recorded in two days, but since we recorded 19 discrete channels, the actual editing and mastering time for the two of us took more than two months of full-time work. Every click or chirping bird had to be painted out manually on each of the 19 channels, and Izotope is not able to process more than two channels at a time! We never use noise reduction as we think it always steals the sound quality. We try to achieve everything through editing. During the editing process we also double-check our files with massive amounts of limiting just to hear if we got rid of even the tiniest unwanted noise, and we make sure there are no surprises for the end-user if they apply a limiter to our SFX.
Sonicsalute.com: Besides recording SFX, I do a little editing on different feature films and documentaries. I’ve been very lucky to be part of Sound Designer Peter Albrechtsen’s sound team on nearly all his projects for the past four years. Peter has always encouraged me to try out different things and push the boundaries when editing and recording. He has the most excellent ideas and set of ears, and he always gives me time to experiment. When we spot movies together he has notes on certain objects, ambiences, or props I haven’t been seeing (hearing) at all. When I send him sessions, he can instantaneously hear if the sound should be more aggressive or subtle to fit the picture. It makes my head spin at times and keeps me on my toes. I’m very grateful for Peter teaching me to listen differently. It has changed the way I work. In my editing process, I also like to bring in random sounds and even place these randomly in the timeline in Pro Tools. Sounds you could not imagine working can sometimes be really cool and add a vibe or edge to the final SFX. I like working this way.
Field Recording Working Group: We recorded the sound of a tear gas cannon being fired on a demonstration. We noticed the sound was filled with an unusually strong low-end in the sub frequency range (2080 Hz), and thus it was an excellent starting point to craft a strong bass kick. Its extreme decibel changes, however, made it a difficult sound to work with. After we isolated the clip, we created three duplicate tracks: the sub range, the low/low-mid, and the mid-high range. Each track required a compressor with vastly different settings, automation of volume, and EQ’ing, all while working to keep the mixing apparatus inaudible. The result (Sh*tKick Bomb Blast #2) is a pleasantly distorted, warm and deep sub bass kick.
Monte Sound: What I mostly enjoy about creating sound libraries as opposed to creating sound design for a movie is that there are basically no rules! The world is your acoustical playground! With this in mind, there are tons of libraries that end up sounding very similar, so the challenge is to put your unique twist on things. Creating sounds by speeding things up or slowing things down is “easy”— but have you recorded a monster sound coming out of a cassette tape being played underwater? Me neither! But it would be cool to know what that sounds like :D
When have you pushed the boundaries in selling sound effects (whether they be yours or others’)?
TONSTURM: We both work as freelance film sound designers and together we have worked on over 70 feature films. We create our libraries the way we would want and need them to be as film sound designers. After releasing our first libraries we quickly realised how big the game sound scene is and that luckily our libraries are also very valuable to game sound designers. We regularly watch game demos now and, when time allows, we do play some recent games, too! Besides our feature film work we definitely got a lot of inspiration from games for our libraries.
Sonicsalute.com: With the massive amount of SFX packs coming out weekly and even daily on different online SFX sites, I find it very challenging to come up with new material to record. While everything can be recorded and eventually sold, I try to stick with the ideas I get when I edit certain scenes for a movie. It’s a creative and refreshing process for me to record sounds, edit them, name them and put metadata into the files. I don’t think I would feel like this if I recorded and sold everything that ended up inside my recorder.
Field Recording Working Group: To begin with, we do not sell the sounds we have mixed and organized. We release them for free on Bandcamp. We’re more on the Aaron Swartz side of things here and argue that the free circulation of knowledge, collective ownership of the means of production, and the end of copyright are necessary to liberate cultural production from its capitalist shackles. Of course, ‘free’ in the new digital music economy does not mean that money is not being made, and it’s here where the limitations of our current approach to distribution come into view. Although the Bandcamp platform we use is free to use, and even though our projects are freely available, the company makes money through valorizing user data by selling users’ information to third parties. Our project, then, is more of a thought experiment in imagining a world without the commodity form than an effective and practical way to work through these particular problems. We’re working on it :).
Monte Sound: I’m honestly very new to the sound library business but I enjoy every minute of it. I am, however, not new to the movie business and I know as a sound designer the kinds of sounds that we need and are missing in the market. I keep this in mind when creating sound libraries. Ambience sounds are, in my opinion, highly underestimated. Everyone wants to do the cool explosions and creepy ambiences, but most movies rely on “normal” ambiences that need to be well recorded and unique. I would say a proud moment regarding selling a sound library is when I was contacted by a sound designer doing a Hollywood movie about American soldiers in Iraq. He contacted me to ask if I had a recording from a remote Iraqi village and I did. So my ambient sounds are now in a Hollywood movie. Can’t wait to hear them!
Have you ever created a sound or synth that made you or your team laugh out loud? If so, what was the sound?
TONSTURM: During one of the night recordings of our ‘Mountain Air’ library, we had our headphones turned up quite loud to listen to the total silence. Suddenly a roebuck grunted at us from a few meters away. It was so shockingly loud on our headphones that we ran away until we realized the deer was probably more scared than us.
Sonicsalute.com: A few years back, Peter was designing sound for a Danish monster movie. In one particular scene, the main character was stuck in a basement with his brother. They were looking for weapons among the junk lying around. The main character finds an umbrella which he opens up. Peter wanted the sound to be comical, so we ended up using a squeaky metal thingy and an old umbrella, and we added a whoopee cushion fart sound to the opening of the umbrella. It worked very well. Unfortunately, the scene did not make into the final film.
Field Recording Working Group: Back in December 2014, we found ourselves in a precarious situation. After having marched down the 80 West with the aim of shutting down the Bay Bridge with other protestors, we were forced into the loading dock of the Ross in Emeryville. At this point, police had cordoned off all possible exit routes, and the hundred or so of us that remained were deadlocked into a “kettle.” There was no hope of escape and our future was secured—members of FRWG, radical pastors, black blockers, students, and more, were going to be arrested. Of course, we kept our field recorder rolling this whole time. At one point while awaiting our arrest, Daniel remarked his disbelief in the prospect of so many folks getting arrested in one sitting. Listening back to that moment after receiving our confiscated device back from CHP brought us right back to the ridiculousness of that particular mass arrest and made us laugh.
Monte Sound: The first time I played around with sound manipulation was for a sound design class at my university in Chico, California. We had to design the sound for some small aliens in a cartoon and for this I recorded my German friend saying “Schnitzel with potato salad tastes delicious.” I mean, what else could you expect when you ask a German to say something into a microphone? :D I sped up that recording and it ultimately became the voice of the aliens. It is still an inside joke between me and my friend. I’ve also recorded the sound of my cat going to the bathroom. I thought it was hilarious—my cat, not so much. Don’t ask me why I recorded that. It’s a business secret.
What is your advice for sounds designers who want to create and sell their own SFX libraries and synthesizers?
TONSTURM: Spend a lot of time researching the overall topic you want to record and think of the aesthetics of the sound you want to achieve. Be very precise with your editing and spend time creating thoughtful metadata. Do not use a denoiser plugin! Throw away the sounds that simply did not turn out well and learn from them. If possible do test recordings before you plan the actual recording session. Try to find the best possible recording location for the kind of sounds you plan to record. If you think you are finished with the library… you are not! :-)
Sonicsalute.com: Well, I think I would just say go ahead and do them. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to critique your own work or have other soundies critique your work, too.
Field Recording Working Group: Contextualize your recordings! Discuss your sounds’ narrative, history, and politics. Discuss your technique. Most importantly, do not let the aims, uses and ends of your art be co-opted by capital. This way of organizing the political economy of music is not particularly old and will not be around forever. Find the cracks in the facade of the real, figure out alternative pathways, and be friends with us. Reach out to others who are working on sympathetic projects; an isolated commune is bound to fail.
Monte Sound: Don’t wait for the perfect and most amazing equipment to get started! Not everyone can afford an expensive recorder from the start! Just trust your ears and instinct, and go on the fun acoustical treasure hunt. You’d be surprised by what you can do with even a simple Zoom ;)
What is an area you’d like to see pushed even further?
TONSTURM: More quality experimental types of microphones. More alternatives for dedicated mastering and spectrogram editing software like Izotope’s RX, but with a multi-channel workflow! More choice of quality portable field recorders with the specs needed for SFX recording. Still there is no perfect field recorder that has all needed features in one unit!
Sonicsalute.com: More quiet and subtle recordings and a little less big and loud.
Field Recording Working Group: Join the FRWG!!!
Monte Sound: I think binaural audio is an exciting technique to create “surround” ambiences for headphones. This can become quite handy when designing sounds for video games.
We hope you enjoyed reading these stories and words of advice. To hear more about their experiences, check out their blogs:
Field Recording Working Group: Katsy occasionally blogs over at insearchoftheconcrete.wordpress.com
Monte Sound: www.facebook.com/montesound/