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Experimenting with moving or POV stereo ambiences…

March 6, 2021
Setting off in the cause of research…or seeking ridicule?

I think Lockdown III must be getting to me: I’ve been pondering over stereo ambiences for film lately, wondering if they ever are or should be recorded while moving to match the POV (point of view) of the camera?

This was stimulated by thinking about sound for an upcoming project with drone footage, where the drone will follow the course of a small local river from source to sea – flying fairly low and slowly. I want the sound to match the view – along the bubbling stream, the passing over of weirs, cows and sheep being flown past etc. Obviously bunging a couple of mics on the drone isn’t an option given the noise of the motors and rotors, so any ambiences will need to be recorded quite separately. Initially I thought of helium balloons: I calculated that seven normal-sized party balloons would lift a pair of Rode Wireless GO II transmitters into the air, but, the more I have thought about this the more complex it seems: a totally windless day seems essential and, even then, trying to stop the mics spinning or, harder, trying to get the balloons in the right place seem fraught with difficulties. And then, more fundamentally, what does a moving stereo recording actually sound like? In other words, would it even be worthwhile trying to do this?

Recording to the miniscule MixPre-3

Drawing a blank through internet searches (the nearest thing being people trying to record the sounds of – say – a bike travelling, rather than just the ambience without evidence of the mode of transport), and not knowing how the soundtrack of any film with apparent moving stereo ambiences was actually made, it seemed easiest to experiment. A bicycle appeared to be the best bet for near-silent travel, as long as fast speed or free-wheeling was avoided. After initial less than satisfactory attempts with semi-binaural set-ups of lav mics by my ears and either side of a rucksack (both getting far too much bike noise, and, also, showing up the inadequacies of furry wind-protection for these mics), I rigged up a boom pool to a sheet of ply, cut to the shape of a rucksack, to mount the mics well above me (so further from the bike and road noise) and to prevent unwanted rotation. The mics were omni SDCs mounted end-to-end in a single blimp to minimize windnoise (see my post here on using mics in this way). Extending the boom pole very far got unwieldly, so it was only partly extended. Sound was recorded to a Sound Devices MixPre-3 on a light harness. The results were in a different league to the lav mic experiments, but the bike was still very evident and, above all, I’m not at all convinced that the sense of movement is very strong. This last point is critical. In short, I have no doubt that a better result could be achieved by recording general ambiences and specific sound effects from static positions and amalgamating them into the soundtrack to give the illusion of moving through space: doubtless this is what sound designers know and do, anyway, but it is good to experiment and find that, sometimes, the seemingly logical approach doesn’t work. And if, in doing so, I’ve gained an eccentric reputation in the village (yes, cycling with a blimp on a vertical boom pole does look extremely silly), then so be it…

For anyone interested, here is a recording of one of my tests with the SDC spaced pair in blimp, including the reaction of a passing neighbour.

Film Projects

Rolling-ball sculptures

January 16, 2021

Rob Moore has many talents – artistic, musical and practical. Over the last three years I’ve enjoyed making short and simple videos that showcase some of his amazing rolling-ball sculptures: that is, sightly whimsical, but endlessly fascinating, kinetic sculptures drawn in stainless-steel wire and given motion by balls raised mechanically and then descending under gravity. Rob’s most ambitious creation to date has been his ‘Kinetic Lungs’, but, in early 2021, he is just about to start on a far more complex sculpture still: the Brain.

There is a small number of like-minded individuals making these kinetic sculptures, spread across the world and linked mostly by the internet. Many of the videos posted showing these sculptures have soundtracks dominated by music, but, to me, the noise of a rolling-ball sculpture is a significant part of its character: the background rumble of the mechanism that lifts the balls up; the swish of the balls as they descend the tracks; the clunks and thuds as gates and switches move; and the frantic spinning of balls in cones. So my approach to the films has been to focus on the sound, tracking, as it were, an individual ball through the sculpture, in a slightly hyper-real way. In each case I recorded the mechanical lift system separately, then turned this off and recorded the progress of an individual ball close-up, section by section with a spaced pair of mics giving a rather exaggerated stereo sound, as if leaning in close to the sculpture. This was then pieced together, overlain with the mechanical rumbling track (with this turned down, to match more closely how you perceive the noise in the flesh) and (and this is the complex bit) multiplied and synchronized with the multiple balls in the video. The video itself in each case has the whole sculpture shown as a static reference shot, with a split-screen showing changing close-ups, but all synchronized: a complexity of audio and visual synchronization that gives a very simple-looking end result, which lets Rob’s rolling-ball sculptures do the talking.

With the upcoming Brain the filming requirements will be much more complex, with pieces to camera by Rob and behind the scenes filming of its making. I’ll post more about the filming and sound-recording aspects of what will be a long build: and Rob will doubtless post updates on his progress on his Facebook page.

Film Projects

Colin Bygrave – painter and printmaker – 1933-2020

January 12, 2021

Christmas brought a few sad notes in cards, telling of deaths earlier during the year, with families having to cope – on top of all else – with constrained funerals amongst Covid-19 restrictions. One such death was that of Colin Bygrave, well-known in Norfolk as a painter and, especially, etcher. Colin was a friend and, for several years, a neighbour (I even have one of his aquatints of the side of our house viewed from his). Back in 2013 Colin and I made a film on etching. Divided into five short sections, this was intended as a guide to those interested in etching and, especially, aquatint, perhaps thinking of having a go themselves, so it follows a simple step-by-step structure. I’m so glad we did this, not just for the purpose of being a Youtube guide, but also since it captures something of Colin’s gentle enthusiasm and skill as a lifelong teacher.

Filming in Colin’s purpose-built garden studio was appropriately low-key, over a few shortish sessions (Colin was already over 80): I used a single Nikon DSLR, while another friend (Adam O’Grady) with an interest in etching (he had previously attended a course or two run by Colin) operated the boom mic.

For a commemoration of Colin’s life and work, see https://colinbygrave.uk/

And here is Colin’s brief five-part guide to etching and aquatint:

Film Projects Live Music

Busking in Andalucia

January 7, 2021

As live music goes, this was about as easy as it gets for the sound-engineer: the band (Rattlebox) decided on a long weekend in the south of Spain in May 2019, to play a largely acoustic gig at a bar and to busk for the first time. That meant no PA and no mixing, but I tagged along for the craic and took the chance to make a short film. Not as simple as you might think: the handy flight from Norwich to Malaga was delayed, and we only arrived in La Tahá in the Alpujarras in the early hours, and there was never a chance to catch-up on sleep. The band kept pace with the lack of sleep and the booze, but, goodness, I felt rough: getting too old for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle? And equipment-wise, things were tricky: it was nearly all hand luggage to keep costs low and to squeeze into the single seven-seater hire car, with underpants and socks stuffed into musical instruments, and my cabin baggage allocation mostly given over to the band. So I bought a Páramo Halkon traveller jacket with 15 pockets, which I stuffed with gear for that low-rent Hulk/shoplifter look. As for the gear, well that was mainly a Lumix GX80 camera with a Zhiyun Crane M gimbal, and a Sony M10 recorder with a stereo pair of Primo EM172-based Clippy mics): can’t get much more minimal than that.

It was a lively gig at the La Cueva de Mora Luna in Mecina Fondales on the Friday night, even if slightly surreal with cars driving past between the band and the audience. Spectacular pizzas afterwards on the house. The next night we were invited to a wake in the neighbouring hamlet of Ferreirola (never met the chap alive) and ended up muscling a grand piano down impossibly narrow streets followed by a local on her penny whistle. And on the Sunday we made it to Granada for busking. No time to visit the Alhambra, but made enough for dinner. Satisfying.

Anyway, here’s a rather rough and ready film that captures something of the weekend. The first song (Hares on the Mountain) was recorded back home in Norfolk, outside in the woods with a pair of Rode NT55s with the omni NT45-O capsules.