Pole’s Field Recording Workflow
Yeah, why is that? And how does live ammo sound in comparison with blanks? Come along on a Pole Position recording session on location!
Last month we talked about how you prepare yourselves for a recording session. When you eventually arrive at the location, what’s the first thing you do?
There are some procedures to go through when we first arrive at a recording location, of course a little bit depending on which location that we are arriving at, and what we are about to record. Usually we try to record at places that are well known to us. About an hour and a half north of Stockholm, e.g., there is an old airfield that we always use when we have the possibility. That makes everything so much easier because we know beforehand where all recording stations will be. If we arrive at a new place, we will start by briefing any location staff what we need to do, and then together with them decide where to set up our base where we can mount microphones and prepare recorders. We will check the spots around the location, it can be along a track or at a shooting range, where to place each recording station, and then we’ll get to work.
It’s important to identify any possible disturbances around the location. It can be a highway for instance. Depending on wind direction you might want to have your microphones point towards or away from it. Or it can be some trees with birds in it, maybe you want to move one of your stations away from it to avoid getting more birds than necessary on the recording. We have a saying though, when you want to record planes, there will be birds. And when you want to record birds, there will be planes. Last week when recording an Airbus A320 there were even planes when we wanted to record planes!
Before we start putting mics onto a vehicle we will start by examining what we are dealing with. Sometimes it’s easy, for example a standard car or even a race-car, and we can follow the same scheme. Other times it’s harder. For example, if you are dealing with a very large vehicle like the SKOT-OT64 that we recorded in Poland a few years ago, there are so many points to record that it easily gets rather complicated. The SKOT-OT64 is an APC (armoured personnel carrier) from the 60’s eastern block, and it’s a really huge piece of machine. For that one we had recorders inside the driving compartment, on top of the roof to capture intakes, exhaust and some engine mics, and then a recorder in the personnel transport compartment in the back of the vehicle. All in all we used more than twenty on-board channels for that vehicle.
The exterior positions are set up depending on what we are expecting to get from them. When we record vehicles we kind of try to visualise camera angles in a film. We want to have the vehicle approaching the camera making a stop, or going away from the camera. In addition to that we visualize and mimic different contexts. Is it granny driving the vehicle or a bank robbery sequence? To make the final recording useful for a person working with audio for films, we need to try to understand the scenes they might be facing. When it comes to other types of recordings, like weapons for instance, the far away stations might have completely different purposes. It can be to get reflections from a hill, or positioned inside a vehicle or metal container, to capture the sound of what it would sound like being shot at from inside these objects. Again, it helps trying to visualise what might be going on in a film.
How many of you are present at a session?
In the early days of our recording adventures it was actually pretty common that we’d go out alone and do a whole recording-session, we’d for sure never be more than two. For an on-board-only recording that is perfectly possible, but it gets much more limited in how much you can capture, especially exterior sound sources such as pass-byers etc. In the early days we also only had one on-board recorder so we were limited to recording eight tracks of material, whereas today we usually have the double of that amount or more.
These days, to achieve the goals that we’ve set up quality-wise for our recordings, to be only one person is not possible any longer. Depending on the scale of the recording we need to be at least two, but usually we try to be three or four to cover all angles of the object.
On a typical recording day we’ll have Bernard as the driver. We will have two recordists along the track, one at the centre position from where all manoeuvres will start, and one will be standing at what we call Position B. For very large sessions we will also have a project manager that makes sure that everything is on schedule and that vehicles show up on time. That is Linus I might add, and he’s also a terrific cook, which makes those days all the happier. On top of that one person will be mounting microphones onto the next vehicle that is to be recorded. This way we can be extremely efficient, and we have e.g. been able to record, with full on-board and exterior coverage, as many as 13 cars and one motorcycle in two days at a track in California three years ago.
When you record a vehicle of some sort, how many different sounds do you want to capture?
The answer to this is different for different sound sources of course, but I can mention a few examples. Our aim is to capture as many angles as we can, which in some cases can be quite many. One example that pops up is the Cigarette Top Gun boat that we recorded for The Crew 2. It is a 10-meter race boat that weighs 8 tons, has two V8 engines with altogether 2250hp and makes more than 100 knots an hour. In other words, it’s the scariest machine that I’ve yet encountered. So for that we had a number of straight exhaust pipes close to the water line, two huge engines both of which we needed to cover from all angles, and on top of that an open steering cabin that was extremely exposed to wind. Not to mention getting the exterior material with passbys, aways and so on. There is no way to cover so many sound sources unless you have an abundance of mics and recorders at hand. This particular boat sounded like a plane when it came by at high speed. Niklas was positioned at an island to get passbys, and had to deal with a very angry neighbour…
One of the most amazing recordings that we’ve done was the one we did for Dunkirk, a WW2 Spitfire aircraft. The supervising audio editor for the film, Richard King, had asked us to place mics inside the engine bay, which for us was, until that day, unheard of for an airplane. Plane owners are usually a bit hesitant when we show up with our microphones, although they are always okay with it as soon as we tell and show them what we are going to do. We always put safety first, and putting mics inside the engine of a Spitfire is not something that most people would equate to “safety first”, not at first glance at the very least. So before we got to the airfield we were a little worried about that, but as always, given the circumstances, set out to do the best job we could. As it turned out, another crew under the direction of our friend Eilam Hoffman had been at the airfield to record another Spitfire just a few days earlier. They had spent hours figuring out where to put the mics inside the engine, and where to route the cables into the cockpit and the recorder, so that when we got there the flight crew already knew exactly how to do the micing. Without much fuzz or discussions we had the whole plane rigged within an hour. At the end of the day we had a full recording of a genuine Spitfire, recorded simultaneously inside the cockpit, inside the engine, from three stations along the airfield runway, with the pilot doing all sorts of narrow fly-ins and steep elevations right over our heads.
Some of you guys know how to operate larger vehicles like heavy-duty trucks but how do you find a pilot who’s able to manoeuvre a fighter from WW2? Or a tank?
Niklas is the one among us who knows how to drive just about any vehicle. If you put him in a wheel loader, 1930s truck or what have you, he will most likely figure out how to manoeuver it. Which is a huge asset for us naturally. We did a huge session in Poland a couple of years ago (which was when we recorded the SKOT-64 mentioned above) and we were incredibly lucky to have Niklas drive the old trucks that the owner had in his possession, as well as some really hard to drive old Polish police cars.
Then there are of course those vehicles that none of us can drive, or fly for that matter, our selves. The SKOT-64 for example is one of them, but also tanks, planes, boats and more. Luckily there are almost always solutions to this as well, namely the number of, often retired, military tank drivers, pilots and other professionals and enthusiasts that have spent countless hours in their lives and careers driving said vehicles. They are almost always more than happy to get the chance to get behind the levers and buttons of these old beasts.
We were once asked to record planes for Battlefield One, i.e. almost totally non-existent planes from the 1910’s, extremely rare aircrafts. Those machines were incredibly difficult to fly then, and they are as difficult to fly today. The person of rescue that time was a professional pilot in southern Sweden with his own airfield just by his house, who spends his free time building perfect replicas of those planes. He said that every time you come down in one piece, it’s one time closer to the time when you don’t. I think that says quite a lot about how dangerous it is to fly these machines. Without people like him our mission would be so much poorer!
And since we’re talking of war machines, do you ever record live ammunition?
It’s quite a difference in sound between live and blank rounds, and live is not always to prefer. If there is time and budget, we try to get both. Live ammo often has a sharper sound to it, while blanks often are a bit lower in tone but louder. We recently recorded RPG shells hitting armour, and in this case we used shells without the charge to only get the metal impact. Quite lucky so, since one of the shells missed the plate and went through the roof of an old car wreck positioned right behind it, in which we had some microphones. If the shell had been charged we would have a few less microphones.
During the session, how do you know if a certain recorded sound is optimal?
One of the hardest things to handle during a field-recording session is the lack of control of what you are actually recording. When you are in a studio, recording music for example, you have the absolute control of everything. You can tweak the exact angle of a mic position and really hear the difference. And you will immediately hear if a mic is broken or if there is some kind of interference. This luxury you do not have in the field.
But this is where experience comes into play. After many years of recording during different circumstances and weather conditions we have become very familiar with not only our gear but also with the different factors that will come into play and that will affect the results. We know how to shield from wind, we know which microphones that can handle loud SPL (sound pressure level), etc. This enables us to prepare for, and to fend off, trouble.
Still, of course, there are some things one can do to safeguard the recording, the most obvious of course being to do an initial test run and listen back. If anything is broken, then you have the chance to fix it. Another thing that sometimes saves the day is to have an abundance of mics in as many positions as possible. If one breaks, and that definitely happens, it helps if there are a couple more mics taking up the approximate same sound source to make up for it.
Depending on what you are recording, you can do yourself a favour and count on that things do break. We have had cables shot of, shrapnel cutting cables, heat melting cables, vibrations shaking recording devices to pieces and so on. One thing that we have found very useful is to have one safe rig, and one “stretching the limits” rig. The safe rig is equipment that you have used before and you know what it will deliver. The “stretch the limits” rig is to try out new equipment, maybe microphones positioned at new places, or even microphones positioned at risky places where you know it’s a small risk of losing it. But if it works, it might prove to be worth it! One example of that was when Mats recorded a house being burnt down. We got DPA to send us a couple of microphones to go inside the house. They lasted for about five minutes before the fire took them, but it’s a really scary sound and one you hope to never experience in person.
How accurately must the mics be placed on the object? Can a couple of inches off affect the result?
Mic placement is a difficult topic, and something that one can never learn enough about. Placing the mic in the right position is somewhat similar to how you point your own ears when you want to hear something better. You turn the head until you get the best possible position, and if you have a hat on, you probably take it of so that your hearing gets less muffled.
We use different mics for different purposes, for the very same reason as described above. For some sound sources we use omni-directional mics, which means that they will pick up everything that emanates around them. This is especially useful inside the engine bay or on exhaust pipes. For exterior sources one the other hand we use (among other) super directional mics that let us point towards the sound source and pick up sound from long distances. With those it naturally becomes very important to point them correctly, otherwise they will pick up the surrounding ambiences instead of the desired sound.
At the extreme end of this spectrum we have the Telinga satellite-dish mic, which enables us to, with amazing detail, single out sounds at extreme distances. At the other end there is the Moon mic, which takes up only really low frequencies, sounds that have no direction at all.
You’ve recorded a broad range of sounds during the years. Have you ever been surprised by a client’s request?
There have been numerous times over the years when we’ve stood at different locations around the world, thinking how awesome it is that we get to do these recording sessions. We’ve been on a mountain in Japan recording race cars, on racetracks in California and Italy, on shooting ranges in California and Great Britain, at airfields recording really rare war-birds, climbing trees to record leaf rustle and wind, and the list goes on. What surprises us is that we are so incredibly fortunate that clients will pay us to do these kinds of sessions.
There was one recording adventure though that still surprises me that it actually happened. Max, Mats and famous sound-designer/recordist Aleksander Karshikoff went to Sweden’s second largest island, Öland, to record wind passing through plants, leaves and other objects. Öland is a very windy place with lots of open tree-less spaces, which makes it suitable for such recordings, so we packed a mini-van full with plants of different types and sizes and headed south. We didn’t really know at which exact location we were going to record these plants in the wind, so on the first morning of our plant-recording-excursion we headed down to a very famous lighthouse located on the south point of Öland, called Långe Jan, which also happens to be a popular tourist attraction. So what those poor, unknowing, tourists saw that sunny Saturday morning, was a minivan coming down the road, stopping by the road side, out jumps a middle-aged man who opens the back doors and takes out a huge plant with enormous leaves, walks 50 meters with it and stands in the wind, listening attentively for 30 seconds, walks back and says to the guys waiting in the car: ”no, this is not the place”, and then they leave.
There is actually a film that Aleksander did from that trip which is quite fun to watch:
Is there a difference between recording an accelerating car and recording for example wind blowing through a tree?
Of course, there is a big difference. When you record a car, you have control of the objects movements and you can do re-takes to get what you want. It takes a lot of people and lots of equipment and planning. It’s noisy and you follow a schedule, and every minute is a cost. When you record wind, you need to have a backpack with equipment ready to go, and keep checking the weather forecasts. When the time is right you go out, but from that point you have no control of the object you are recording. The wind will come and go as it pleases. So, you can set up your equipment and either sit down and relax and listen or stroll away for a bit and leave the machines running. Recording ambiences and nature sounds is an amazing experience and very relaxing.
Are there sounds that are particularly hard to record?
Recording soft sounds are always a challenge, especially if you are outdoors. There is so much sound pollution nowadays, so sometimes it feels almost impossible. Indoors you have more control. We are lucky to have access to very well built rooms, where we can record very soft sounds. Along with our Sonosax recorder that has close to no noise from the preamps, and a pair of Ehrlund microphones that reaches up to 80 kHz, we can get some amazing results.
At a session, besides mics, is there a tool or thing of some sort that is absolutely crucial?
Depending on the session: cable ties, duct tape, batteries, chargers, nippers…
One piece of equipment that always comes in handy, that has followed us since our first session ever, and that never seizes to amaze me, is the Manfrotto Magic Arm. It’s a little device that consists of two arms connected by a joint that locks in any position. It has “claws” at each end that can be attached to an out-sticking rod or similar. This ingenious little piece of wonder allows us to mount just about anything anywhere, and to magically point a mic in just about any direction. It’s absolutely crucial to many of our recordings, because of its versatility and flexibility. To give two examples, it allows us to put mics in really difficult positions under big trucks where the exhaust pipes hide, or to reach the top of a wheel loader where the exhaust stretches way above the roof.
And one must not forget the paper cups from your local Subways or hamburger restaurant. It is often the last stop we do on our way to a session. We found out that they are very useful when recording bikes to get rid of wind hitting the microphones, since they are very exposed on a bike going at high speed.
Does a session always go as planned?
God forbid that anything goes wrong during a recording, and almost every time nothing does. But… sometimes it happens anyway. There was the time when we were going to record extremely loud drag cars, and every one of them broke down during the day. That’s not a very amusing experience, but sooner or later something like that is bound to happen, especially since those types of cars are so extreme and sensitive.
Something that is less likely to happen though, but really did, is when a stray dog popped up out of nowhere and decided that he wanted to pick up one of the small distant recorders, in his mouth, and walk away with it. He probably took the dead kitten that was mounted on it for something else. We had to break the whole session off before we managed to get the dog to drop it and leave it in the grass. Cheeky dog haha!!!
Somebody ever forgot to switch a recorder on?
Haha, sensitive topic! The truth is that all of us have at one point forgotten to switch on a recorder. The reason for this is always stress, so we have become good at double-checking with each other that all recorders are on. We’re not going to play blame games here though; everyone feels guilty and gets anxious whenever this topic is brought up.
Back at the studio, there’s a lot of work to be done, right?
Besides sorting the equipment, as mentioned in last months blog it has resemblances to a fisherman sorting the net when he comes back in, you also need to take care of the catch. Hopefully you did back ups even before you get back to the studio. You need to have at least two copies of your session at different hard drives, even better stored at different physical locations. You can never be too careful with back ups.
Next up is getting all the recorded material into Pro Tools, and have it all synced up and labelled correctly, down to microphone name, model and position detail level. Hopefully all of this was slated properly at location, and should be fairly easy to add to your Pro Tools session. Once we have it all in Pro Tools, we convert the session to Reaper as well.