Saturday, August 27, 2011

Footstep Effects Box

I don't know what the proper term for one of these is, assuming there even is one, so I've dubbed it the Footstep Effects Box. I need the sound of footsteps on gravel, with a particular tone and feel, so I sought out some gravel and took my feet with me (I take them everywhere). The perfect gravel turned out to be crusher fines. It's rock crushed into pieces tiny enough to still be considered gravel, but large enough that it compacts when it settles. For this reason it's perfect for pathways or rough-and-ready parking spaces. I lined my garden path with some this spring, but unfortunately the sound of traffic is so abominable here that recording clean gravelly footsteps on my path is out of the question.

So I thought outside the box and decided I'd bring the gravel path into my studio - well, a bit of it, at any rate. I figured all I'd need is a shallow wooden box large enough to accommodate both feet, so I cut some scrap 1x4" lumber left over from a concrete pour, and a piece of scrap 5/8" plywood 18 inches square. A few drywall screws and Bob's your uncle's third cousin twice removed. Not bad eh? And it's made from recycled materials!

I've yet to test this contraption, but I've collected enough crusher fines to line it about an inch deep, given them a wash to get rid of the dust and dirt mixed in with the rock (the worst of which was sieved out first) and have them drying in the greenhouse. I expect you could line it with anything - dried leaves, for example - to create your own custom footstep sounds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tales Music: 'Evening Descends'

Yesterday I took a break from editing field recordings long enough to finish the first piece of music for Tales of Elves and Trolls. I had a few pieces started before I decided how to approach the soundtrack as a whole, but I had the theme song to guide me (it can be heard in the promo video at the start of this blog).

One thing I'm keen to do with this soundtrack is combine electronic sounds (chiefly created with analog and pseudo-analog synthesizers) with acoustic sounds. I don't necessarily mean acoustic instruments, but any sound produced acoustically. This could be anything from a dripping tap to a metal object being struck. The kind of sounds chosen will vary depending on what I'm trying to convey.

Some pieces will also use orchestral elements, albeit from a virtual orchestra: a VST called EastWest Orchestra Silver (I was going to include a link, but the software appears to be discontinued). I've used this for several years now, chiefly for its grand piano sound and a few violins. It accounts for about 75% of the instruments on the Tales Theme music.

For now I'm only concerned with music that bridges the gap from one scene to another: the transitions. Incidental music that plays during scenes will come later. When a transition appears in the script, I give it a simple title so I have something to work with.

The first transition of Episode 1 I've named 'Evening Descends + The Alarm Rock.' It signifies the passing of time as Agnor and Runkthussle, the Troll Tree Removers, await the setting of the sun. Once it sets they can emerge from their sun shelter and go about their business. In the novel, there's also a line that reads: '... the alarm rock thudded into place ...' Rather than script it as a sound effect, I chose to incorporate it into the transition. So, as the music unfolds, clock-like sounds come in, culminating in the thud of the alarm-rock itself. My trolls are simple creatures, so I imagined that rather than a traditional time-piece they might have something rudimentary built of clockwork and stone.

For some reason, the melody of Evening Descends turned out to be a rising scale. Don't ask me which scale though, as I couldn't tell you. It's accompanied by a sweeping synthesized bass drone which also gives the illusion of rising/falling. These sounds, as well as some rudimentary bass and bass drum sounds were created on my trusty Novation K-Station.

For the 'Alarm Rock' I spent an afternoon in the studio with a breeze block and a stone. I struck both together, scraped one across the other, and also dropped the stone onto the block to capture the resulting percussive sounds. I recorded with two different microphones at once: my Shure SM58 (traditionally used for vocals), and my Buffered XLR Contact Mic. The SM58 was placed in close proximity to the block, and the Contact was sellotaped directly to the surface. I found that the SM58 resulted in sounds that were bright and trebly (is that even a word?) and the Contact gave me duller, bassier sounds. In the track I used a mixture of the two, but favoured those recorded with the Contact mic.

These recordings, or I should say a tiny percentage of these recordings, were loaded into the Shortcircuit VST sampler, and used an octave below their natural pitch to make the clockwork sounds. Shortcircuit v.1 is my sampler of choice since my Akai S1000 developed a fault. It's also free, I might add :)

Interesting though the breeze block was, I realised it sounded a little weak with just a tiny pebble rattling around on it. So for the Alarm Rock thud, I selected the sound of a more sizeable rock from my recent quarry recordings. This was also loaded into Shortcircuit, pitched down somewhat and given a touch of EQ.

This may sound like an awful lot of work for a piece of music only 30 seconds long. But to me, all this fiddly stuff is one of the reasons I create electronic music in the first place: the process. Creating sounds from what amounts to a pile of circuitry, and making the everyday sound otherworldly.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Field Recordings, Part 1

Not a lot to report at the moment. I've been engaged in the tedious work of cleaning up the backlog of field recordings made over the spring and summer so that they're ready for use in the Tales Audio Drama, music, etc... So I thought I'd write a post about what that involves, what kind of sounds I've been collecting, and how I go about it.

I've made my own field recordings and collected 'found sounds' for years now, mainly for use in music. I started out capturing them with a mini-cassette recorder, which I still have floating around the studio somewhere - it's good for achieving a phone-like effect on spoken word samples. Eventually, though, I saw the need for stepping up the quality, so I switched to a Sony MZ-NH700 minidisc recorder. This served me well for many years, but many a recording was ruined by the sound of the motor on the thing, which kicked-in every few minutes to write data to the disc.

Now there are a host of pocket-sized digital recorders available that offer 16 to 24 bit stereo recording with no moving parts, and after much deliberation I settled on the Zoom H1. I've had it since the beginning of the year, and have found it to be invaluable. I use it with a specialised 'wind-screen' outdoors, and also have a custom-made hydrophone I use with it for underwater recordings.

I take the Zoom with me pretty much everywhere. My job as a renovator gives me access to some interesting places, such as industrial buildings, and I live in a semi-rural environment with plenty of hiking trails. Unfortunately said trails are not far from mill yards, the main highway, and the train station, so there's an ever-present layer of noise pollution in the background at varying degrees. Most of this can be scrubbed out, or at least dampened - something I'll cover in Part 2. But certain sounds are particularly stubborn. I've learned to avoid making any recordings if a lawnmower can be heard, for example. Another trick is finding natural noise dampeners, such as a hill or bank between you and the unwanted noise.

On my hikes, once or twice a week, I keep in mind some of the sounds I need for my production and make use of what I find at hand. I needed the sound of trees being destroyed, for instance, and was able to find several trees ranging from saplings to much larger ones that had blown over or fallen from the weight of last year's snow. These could be easily lifted and let drop to achieve the effect.

As well as these kinds of engineered sounds, I've recorded the likes of streams, birdsong, and squirrels. I've recorded extensive metallic sounds in a junk-yard in the middle of the woods (this was a very lucky find!), and rock and gravel noises in two different quarries. On one occasion I was even caught in a thunderstorm with the Zoom to hand. Bliss!

The one problem with this undertaking is that sounds are relatively easy to capture; they pile up, a bit like digital photographs, in no time at all. But editing and archiving them is a long and drawn-out process. I'll take you through the editing stage in Part 2.