Watson Wu Essential Guide to Recording
People in general ask why I often do field recordings of firearms. Here are my responses. When you watch movies or play video games with guns being discharged, someone had to have recorded and edited those sounds. There are no accurate ways to replicate the multiple frequencies of such powerful sounds with synthesizers and/or audio software. Well, maybe not today.
To capture great sounds of weapons, you'll need to use tons of high quality gear. There are several different methods but I have divided my own key points into five separate sections.
I own many microphones of all types. Why do I own so many? Because I'm a Microphone Junkie! Microphones are like ice cream flavors; the more different ones you use, the greater chances you'll have in capturing great sounds. Charles likes chocolate while Watson loves vanilla. Just like art, particular sounds from particular microphones come down to one's personal preference. Having more recording channels from different sounding microphones will also give me more options for editing and mixing.
Typically I record 12 or more channels for medium to large size budget jobs. The most often used microphones are Rode, Sennheiser, Neumann, Shure, and other similar high quality brands. I find it necessary to have dynamics and condensers such as handheld vocal mics, pencil mics, shotgun mics, XY and MS stereo mics all thrown into the session.
Field Mixers & Field Recorders
The right Sound Devices field mixers and field recorders are actually the key to successful recordings of weapons. A long time ago when I tried other brands, all of the channels sounded about the same. In fact, they all sounded like popcorn. This is true even when comparing a cheap $100 handheld vocal dynamic mic to a $2,000 super shotgun condenser mic. The fast responding analog limiters from Sound Devices is what makes each of the mics sound different from one to the other. My favorite field mixers are the 442, MixPre-D, and the USBPre2. The 702, 722, and 744 are the best stand-alone field recorders.
I often find myself pushing the gain beyond clipping to achieve great aggressive sounds. It isn't about what the wave file looks like during editing, but rather, it's about how it sounds. The Sound Devices analog limiters will often times produce great sounds despite the awkward looking wave files.
Running Long Cables
To attach many XLR cables from the array of mics to my mixers and recorders, I use InstaSnake™ boxes. ETSLan.com makes these fantastic boxes that utilize CAT5e data cable to send long runs of audio signals. For the Ghost in The Shell online game, we had to do over 600 feet of cabling to capture the sounds of super long distance gunshots. InstaSnake™ boxes are rated to send up to 1,900 feet even with Phantom power turned on.
During a gun recording session, there are two ways to monitor gunshots. If you use regular studio headphones, you'll need to be far enough (60 feet or more) so that the loud gunshots won't hurt nor impair your ears. This method unfortunately will make communication difficult between the recordist and the armorer.
The workflow will slow down when you have to yell at each other and/or rely on walkie-talkies. The armorer must also wear electronic earmuffs that will allow him to hear normal speech and still protect his ears from loud gunshots. Precious amounts of ammunition will also be wasted when the armorer can't hear you telling him to stop shooting. I always use my Remote Audio headphones to record loud sounds. They are made for helicopters, race cars, and gunshots. Most of the time I can be 25 feet or closer to the shooter and still be able to monitor the recordings. Isolated playback with these headphones is also great even during moments when loud planes fly by.
Location, Location, Location! Depending on the client's needs, there are few shooting ranges and private properties I can choose to rent. One place here in Florida will allow machine gun firing but won't allow for explosions. This particular quiet range has areas where I get minimum amounts of echo, which is great for CQB (Close Quarter Battle) types of sounds.
If I need to do everything including explosions, I will use a huge private property in the desert just outside Las Vegas. At this prime location we've shot off tons of handguns, high power rifles, machine guns like the Mini-Gun to Explosions that send off Giant mushroom clouds of debris.
There are clients who know what they want, and then there are clients who have little or no clue. When I worked on my first few projects that involved weapons, I was given room to choose what I wanted to record. Based on the agreed upon budget, I decided to choose weapons of different caliber ranging from 9mm, .40S&W, .45ACP, .357 Magnum handgun rounds to .22LR (Long Rifle), .223, .270, and .308 rifle rounds. I have convinced clients who have limited budget to change weapon selections when there are two or more handguns that shoot the same caliber.
When I have to record various 9mm handguns, I will acquire handguns that are all metal made material (like a Sig P226) as well as polymer types (like a Glock 17). Different types of body material, barrel lengths, as well as different brands of ammunition will produce different types of sounds. Once I was recording some hunting rifles, the owner had with him a small thumb size revolver that shot the same caliber as his rifle. However, the tiny handgun actually produced a better and more interesting sound. It was comical! For best results, most of the time, I strive to record large caliber rifles and as well as full automatic machine guns. The loud, powerful transients they produce are very exciting!
When dealing with a mid or large size project, I sometimes will buy various loads and brands of ammunition for the possibility of capturing a variety of sounds. For example, an inexpensive non-major brand of the .45ACP caliber ammo won't sound as beefy as the more expensive Winchester brand.
If I sat within 25 feet or closer to the shooter, the explosive sound from the Winchester PDX1 round will bleed into my Remote Audio NH7506 super headphones.
Not only is it good to record acceptable gunshot sounds, but my role is to also capture as much variety as possible.
When possible I will try to budget in a backup day in case we run into bad weather. I like to record in the desert away from chatty Florida birds and insects during the hot seasons. An exception was made when I gained access to shoot over a lake at a private orange groves property. This was for my "Rifles & Pistols of The World Wars" sound effects library. Shots from the rifles produced unusual gun tails that sounded fantastic over water! Moreover, whenever the wind blew, each of the tails sounded different from each other, which is great for video games. Video games are non-linear so more variation sounds are often needed.
To prepare the needed gear for a medium or large size gun session, it may take an entire day or more to gather everything. Everything means mic stands, folding tables, chairs, cooler to store food/drinks, audio cables, long CAT5e data cables, batteries, custom batteries, bullhorn, walkie-talkies, tools, mixers, recorders, plastic bins, laptops, sun block, weapons, ammunition, tools, etc. Sometimes I have to rent a large SUV like a Chevy Suburban or a 15-passenger work van to haul the equipment plus personnel.
Most of I do is "Work for Hire", meaning a company will pay me to field record sound effects then send the files to them. They would own the copyrights to those files. Typically these companies will supply me with a specific list of the actual weapons. Once the shot list has been acquired, I would call my multiple gun owner associates and offer to pay them for their services. If they don't have what I need, they too know other gun owners who may be able to provide the same service. Once a day rate has been negotiated, I would pay for the ammunition in advance. I tend to over budget ammunition in case something interrupts the recording session. Also, here in America, purchased ammunition cannot be returned.
To keep the cost down for a lower budget project, the weather will have to be perfect and without much interruption from traffic, critters, and noisy people. Having the right assistants who know when not to speak nor make noises also helps. Microphone placements depend on the project. I often compare two films: Heat and The Matrix. Heat has lots of explosion-based sounds whereas The Matrix has more mechanical types of sounds and as a fan, I always try to capture both. To record mechanical sounds, I typically will place mics very close to the ejection ports (where empty shell casings eject out) of Semi-Auto and Full Auto weapons like the M4 as well as the AK47.
High power sniper rifles such as the Remington 700 and the Barrett 50 cal usually produce more explosion-like sounds. It's through the many experiments of shooting and recording I conduct to figure out what is useful.
During the production of the British film '71, video clips containing gun battles were shared with me. Based on that I was able to determine the needed angles and distances. On the other hand, for video games, I typically need to record multiple perspectives such as close, medium, far, and incoming. During the planning of Ghost In The Shell online game, the audio director wanted all different perspectives including mics being as far as over 600 feet away from the shooter's perspective. Needless to say, the InstaSnakes™ really came in handy!
When field recording sounds of live firing, safety is Always number one. Here in America, we use the terms "Hot" and "Cold". The term Hot means that firing is going on, meaning you don't step beyond the safety line. Cold means that there are no ammunition inside the weapons, meaning it is safe to check your targets etc. Whenever I bring along assistants with little or no experiences in firearms, we brief them extensively on gun safety. If during a moment where someone had to go and adjust a microphone problem like a rattling cable or a fallen mic stand, that person is suppose to ask if we are Cold or can we go "Cold" so that accidental firing may never occur. I cannot stress enough at how important it is to listen to armorers and/or safety officers. Just like driving on the road, accidents can be avoided if you watch, listen, and follow the rules.
I have hired professionals to shoot for me because I've seen how safe and serious they are when operating firearms. They will also need to be able to follow my directions such as when and where to fire. The finger is never near the trigger until the gun is leveled and pointed at a specific target.
When the range is Hot, attendees should always wear are anti-fog safety glasses (or large sunglasses) and proper ear protection such as electronic earmuffs (or ear plugs).
Naming files can be a little tricky. Let's say a company hired me to record two specific firearms that shoot the same 9mm round. The following two types of firearms are good examples to show.
The Glock 17 is a semi-auto handgun. Semi-Auto means that each time you squeeze the trigger, a round fires off. When you squeeze and hold back the trigger, again only one round fires off. The Glock 17 model is a 17 round pistol. To shoot off all 17 rounds, you'll need to squeeze the trigger 17 times.
Type of gun _ Name of gun _ Caliber _ Perspective _ Version number
The MP5 sub-machine gun can shoot in various modes. The selector switch can be set to semi-auto single shots (like the Glock 17) or to full automatic. Full Automatic means when you hold back the trigger, many rounds will shoot out from the gun until the finger release. A short burst of shots can quickly fire out three to five or more rounds. The term MagDump means Dumping out all of the rounds from the MP5 magazine (holding back the trigger until all of the rounds have been dumped out).
Type of gun _ Name of gun _ Caliber _ Type of shooting _ Perspective _ Version number
Foley file names can be like these:
These are some of the technical terms I've taught to many of my clients. The South Koreans that attended their paid session were quite fascinated and frantically wrote down new terms such as Bursts and MagDump.
The first things I record are usually the foley sounds. We do this because fired weapons tend to get too hot to hold. You can literally crack open an egg and let it cook on a full automatic AK-47 that has fired several rounds! The typical foley sounds I record are magazine inserts, magazine removals, charging the bolt, safety on, safety off, and dry fire.
Types of Firing
When recording a full automatic weapon like an MP5, there is a selector switch that will allow single shots as well as full automatic shots. I will typically instruct the armorer to first perform single shots follow by short burst shots, then at least 4 to 5 MagDump shots.
My preferred method of recording is the poly wave file format in 24bit resolution, 96 or higher kHz sample rate. When I use my Sound Devices 788T-SSD 8-track recorder, each wave file contains 8 channels. This makes it easier for me to stay organized especially when there are numerous guns to record and manage.
Prior to editing, I would use Wave Agent from Sound Devices to export the poly wave files into single mono files. Sometimes I need to remove unwanted birds, insects, drops of empty bullet casings, and wind noise using RX4 Advanced. Afterwards, the single mono files are then dragged and dropped into the DAW. While I do use ProTools and Sony Vegas, Reaper has been a joy to work with. I would compare it to Google Chrome. It's light, fast, and easy to use! Moreover, it works with both Mac and Windows.
To beef up gun sounds, I often do layering and the usage of various plug-ins. I find Waves plug-ins to be extremely helpful. Sound Forge is a great software to finalize files. The Batch Processing tool is like Gold!
Gun Sounds for Games
When I work on games, it's typical that I'm tasked to create variations for each of the shots. If the weapon again is an MP5 sub-machine gun, this means that there might be as many as 10 variations for close Single shots, 10 variations for close Burst shots, 10 variations for close MagDump shots, etc. The variations can be subtle from one file to the other such slight EQ/Pitch changes to vast Soft/Hard Compressions, more layering, delays, echo lengths, etc. You can see how many files there might be for implementation when all of the editing completes. The number of files can be doubled if you have to do both indoor and outdoor types of sounds.
With the modern games we have today, shots are randomized to entertain your ears. After all, field recordists and sound designers work in the entertainment industry. Remember, safety is Always Number One! Hire professional armorers to do the shooting and handling for you.