Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Saga of the Typewriter

Introduced in the first episode of Tales of Elves and Trolls is a contraption called a 'type-writter.' In essence, it's a typewriter to the Nth degree: a steam-powered lump of metal, pistons, cogs, and keys. In order to create the sound of this beast, I set out to find a typewriter to record in-studio. This was easier said than done!

I've frequented thrift shops, flea markets, and garage sales for years. A lot of the electronic toys that I turned into circuit-bent instruments have been sourced from them. And, yes, I've seen my share of typewriters in them too. But when it came to actually needing one, none were to be found. I came close: I found a monstrosity of a thing at the Re-Use Centre, which looked like it came from a WW2 army hospital. Unfortunately, it didn't sound as big as it looked, so it remained hidden away on its dusty shelf.

Months passed. I located no less than two electric typewriters, and had a local antiques dealer keeping an eye out for a mechanical one. It was time for plan B. I sent my aunt an e-mail. She teaches at the local college, so I figured if anyone could find me a typewriter it would be her. Lo and behold, a few weeks later I was loaned this 1925 Remington 12:

It weighs as much as a small planet, but fulfills all the requirements and is blessed with a wealth of character. Just gazing upon it is a treat. I gave it a rudimentary clean and set about working out what sort of microphone configuration would best capture its sound.

After a little experimentation, I settled on placing my contact mic beneath it (it's open at the bottom) and suspending the CAD GXL1200 above it on a gooseneck stand. The typewriter produces an incredible amount of vibration despite its weight, so the stand had to be placed on a separate surface to the one supporting the typewriter to avoid unwanted 'mic stand wobble' noise. There wasn't much choice with the contact mic (which in this case is acting as a pickup rather than being attached to the surface of the sound source), so a towel was placed underneath.

As with my breeze block experiment some weeks ago, I recorded using both mics at once, on separate channels. My plan is to mix both recordings together after I've edited and pitch-shifted them. There's a surprising amount of variation in the sound of each keypress, so I recorded the entire sequence I need for my production (two takes) as well as additional sounds such as carriage return, bell, paper-winding, etc...

My only worry at this point is the length of the recordings. Not counting the extras, they add up to several minutes. The scene in the story should realistically be under a minute. I have a feeling I'll need to speed the typing up or edit keypresses closer together or ... something. Oh, the joys of real life vs. fiction! At any rate, there's a lot of other work to be done on these recordings before I reach that stage. The GXL1200 source will need compression, to bring out the nuances lost to the low headroom of digital recording, and the contact mic source will need noise reduction and possibly EQ. I'll explain that process in more detail in 'Field Recordings Part 2,' whenever I get around to posting it.

You may be wondering why I've gone to so much trouble when I could just as easily have used a couple of generic typewriter sounds from a sound effects collection. Well, for one it's a lot of fun, and as I mentioned before: each keypress has a unique sound depending on which bit of the antique mechanics it activates, and how hard you press it. There are also subtleties such as parts of the typewriter vibrating from the sheer momentum behind the tension of the carriage. All these things, I hope, add up to a unique and expressive 'performance' rather than a stale computer-generated facsimile (not that there's anything wrong with the latter).