Richy Carey: Sound Advice

BAFTA Award winning sound artist Richy Carey offers some thoroughly useful practical advice on recording sound for film poetry.

Recording film sound can seem less instantly gratifying than shooting the images. It’s more ephemeral and less conspicuous, and it’s an investment in terms of time and energy for what might not seem like the eventual focus of the film. When was the last time you heard someone say I can’t wait to hear the new Star Wars film? But it is the sound of your film that carries your work to the audience. The patterns of light and sound waves entwining as they unfold from the screen are the contour lines along which your poetry walks, and taking time to think about what the sound of your film says about your work will amplify your imagery and your poetry.

What follows is a bit of a checklist for recording sound for your film poetry, written on the assumption that you might not have done a lot of a sound recording previously. It will hopefully help you think about where and why the sound of your film poetry meets the images you create, as well as just giving you some practical advice to help speed up what can seem like a laborious process.
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1 What do you want to hear?
Much like planning your shots for filming, you should always first sketch out what you want the audience to hear. Find some examples of recordings/films that you like the sound of and try and think about why you like them. What can you hear in them and how might you come close to replicating it? This is true for working in the studio as well as when out doing field recording.

Fig 1: A very quick sound sketch.

It’s really difficult to improvise when you are also thinking about the technicalities of recording, so spend some time making a list of all the things you know you want to get recorded and do them first. Then you can go back and try other things out. This way you’ll quickly build up a bank of sounds and get to making sooner.

2 Monitoring.

Try and make sure that the speakers or headphones you are listening back on when recording are the best you can get your hands on. What the recording sounds like when you record it is more or less what it will sound like when it is played back to the audience. Cars, wind, electrical hum, etc. can be taken out when you are editing, but doing so severely compromises the quality of your recording. Do your best to make sure what you can hear when you make the recording is what you would be happy for your audience to hear at the end. This will also reduce the amount of time you need to spend editing or trying to cover up unwanted sounds later in the mix.

Microphones.

There is a world of microphones out there and for the most part they are not cheap. Much like cameras however, it’s not how big or expensive they are but what you do with them that counts. Different microphones are made for different things and it is important that you know which one you are using and how best to use it. When filming, the most common type of microphone used is a shotgun microphone. These are very good for using outdoors and at a distance from the source you want to record. X/Y microphones, like the kind you get on zoom recorders, are great for close up field recording, ideal for collecting sounds that you will use later in the work and they can also be useful for recording voice. The third is a condenser microphone, much like you’ll see in a recording studio. Excellent for recording voices or other sounds in a controlled environment – not good for outdoors (they are very delicate) and not good from a distance.

Whatever type of microphone you use, be it the one on your phone or something upmarket, make sure you try it out at different distances from the source of the sound. This lets you figure out what type of sound you like and also think forward to the eventual shape of the work and the image you foresee it being paired with. A close up image of a bird and a recording of distant birdsong might be jarring. This can be a good thing of course, just as long as that is a decision you have chosen to make and not one forced upon you by not having made the right recording at the time.

Housekeeping.

This might seem obvious, but once you start recording you’ll quickly amass a long list of .WAV or .MP3 files with memorable names such as 00011463.WAV. When recording using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) such as Reaper, Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, Garageband or even Final Cut, etc. make sure to name the track you are recording on to. This makes it much easier to edit yourself, or pass on to someone else to edit, as it will automatically name your file something sensible. Similarly, when you are out field recording, say what you are listening to into the microphone at the start of the recording. This means that when you come to transfer them on to your computer you only need to listen to the start of the track to know what it contains.

Editing.

As I have mentioned there are lots of DAWs you can choose to use to edit your recordings into one homogenous audio track. They all have their ups and downs, but one that is initially free, has excellent tutorial videos on its website to help you, and can be used to edit to video, is reaper.fm. Of course whatever you are used to will likely be the best option for you.

There are only a couple of tips I would initially give for recording which will help you in the edit, and again these are as true for studio recording as they are for filming and field recording.

  • Let the tape roll a bit before and after your recording. As with film, give it a few seconds from hitting record before you start to speak into the mic or move to the sound you want to capture. Similarly give it a few seconds at the end before hitting stop. It’s really easy to trim a long recording short, but impossible to extend a track if you have stopped it too early and clipped off the last bit of dialogue or not allowed the sound to naturally fade out.

  • Avoid clipping. This is when you see the meter on your recording device go red and means that your gain setting is not right. A clipped audio file will distort and sound noticeably poor. It is not possible to fix clipping in the edit as it’s part of the original recording. To avoid clipping, if possible test out your source by either asking them to do the loudest part of their performance or, in the case of field recording getting as close to the source as you are likely to get in the recording. Adjust your gain level so that you get a good, strong recording level but make sure that it’s not too close to the red. Always anticipate that when recording a voice or performance, the performer will be more animate, and therefore louder, during the actual take than they are when you ask them for a test run.

Sculpting.

The language we use for sound is a physical one. When we talk about sound we talk about its texture, shape, size, weight and materiality. Try to think about your sonic composition as if it were a sculpture. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does one substance meet another? How and where does it entwine with the image and the poetic object?

Practically speaking, it’s useful to think about the frequency spectrum and where the sounds in your work sit within it. If you have a speaking voice as part of your work, introducing other sounds that are in the same range of the spectrum can muddy the mix, making it difficult to hear both the voice and the other sounds no matter how much you adjust the volume of each. A broad palette of textures and frequency ranges will give colour to your mix and also allow you to experiment with different audio-visual relationships.

The {sound-image-language} object.

This is a term I use that helps me think about the rhizomatic, dynamic structure of film, what Umberto Eco might call a “complex interplay of motive forces”1. The sound, image and language of film are in a state of constant flux, vying for attention and continually impressing their agency on each other and you. When you are constructing a {sound-image-language} object, it makes sense to be as responsive as possible to the unexpected ways they might meet and change each other.

As such, I’d advise being flexible with the film and audio editing process. Don’t just edit the film to ”completion”, and then make the sound, or vice-versa. Try to be editing each at the same time. You might find that there are moments in your editing process where the poetry and sound really connect to say something that contradicts the image at that point in the film. If so, change the film. Similarly, with the sound or the poetry. Let each part of the process inform the construction of the other.

Make a decision.

When you do something, make sure you know why you are doing it. This seems obvious, but when you are working with recording devices, cameras or DAWs it can be really easy to let the technology make the decisions for you. Knowing what you want to record and finding the right sound is great, but equally so is just hearing something you like and going with it intuitively. In both cases however, you can say to yourself that you got that sound because you wanted it. Your choices are what give your recording character, and are where you can make the sound of your film poetry insightful, artistic and personal.

Richy is a sound artist, filmmaker and academic. He makes films about the way we listen to film, and writes about the language we use to talk about film. You can see some of his work or get in touch at www.richycarey.com.

1 Eco, U., 1989. The Open Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Eco was speaking about graphic scores, but the field of interplay which he talks about is as applicaple to film as it is to the open scores he is discussing here.

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