Field Report: CF-18 Jet Fighter Sound Effects

2012/02/29
CF-18 Hornet

CF-18 Flying over Pearl Harbor

Fighter Jet Sound FX

I’ll come right out and say it: this field recording session felt like a disaster.

But let’s stay positive, shall we?

I wasn’t planning to write about my experience recording fighter jet sound effects last August. I started thinking differently though after reading comments and Tweets in response to my Occupy Toronto protest crowds article. At that session what I wanted to record and what ended up on tape were two different things.

Since then, I’ve thought about what exactly constitutes success and failure when field recording. After some reflection I realized that the answer has many shades.

So this will be a three-part post: In the first I’ll explain my goal when recording the jet sound fx, the challenges and the results.

Next week I’ll briefly describe how I overcame the problems. I’ll also have suggestions for managing mental challenges when recording.

In the last post I’ll look at the idea that sound effects success is not simply black or white.

Background

Last year I wrote about my experience recording fighter jet sound clips during Toronto’s air show.

The air show during 2010 went well. However, I wanted to find an even better location with less ambient noise of traffic or crowds.

A few months before the shoot I scanned Google Maps for a new spot. I was looking for somewhere that was:

  • close to the air show
  • isolated
  • accessible (i.e. legally available)

Location

That was when I saw Toronto Island. The island would be directly in the path of the air show. It also had a few other great benefits:

  • no crowds
  • no traffic
  • the island had an airport used as a staging area for the show. I hoped I would get some take offs and landings
  • the lake would create some distance between the microphone and din of the city

No traffic is allowed on Toronto Island. There’s no way to reach it except by ferry or private boat. That was good. The best locations for field recording tend to be the hardest to reach.

I saw a spot where the arm of the land curled away from the island out under the flight path of the jets. I knew the schedule of the jets so I would be ready when they came.

Sounds ideal, right?

The shoot

Well, there was no crowd and definitely no traffic on the island. However, there remained one major issue: insects.

Of course, I was shooting in August, so some insects were expected. However, my ‘perfect spot’ was overwhelmed with crickets and swelling cicadas.

I was surprised. The location was essentially barren. I had not expected anything there.

I had a bit of time before the first jet arrived, so I wandered. I hoped that a walk five minutes away would improve the ambience. No luck. The difference was negligible. Insects were everywhere.

It was at this point that the shoot began to feel like a disaster.

I realized that I was caught. It had taken 45 minutes to hike to the location. If I left and searched for another spot, I would miss the jets.

If I stayed, the jet recordings would have insects beneath them.

I decided to stay.

Time was running out as I scrambled to find a location away from the insect chatter. I found the best spot I could and set up the Neumann 191.

Results

These are CF-18 jet fighters. They are the Canadian retrofit of American-built F/A-18 Hornets.

The jets are incredibly loud. When they pass they sound like they’re ripping apart the sky. The turbines create a cool whine which is paired with a fiery crackle. They’re one of my favourite sounds.

First, here’s an example of a jet with insects. A cicada swells a few times during the recording. If you account for the loudness of the aircraft, you can imagine how prevalent the insects were.

Whenever that cicada sang I would curse inwardly, thinking, You. Little. Bastard.

After a while my frustration changed to bargaining. Surely the cicada could conveniently swell when the jets were in the distance, and not when they were overhead? Completely reasonable.

It would be best to relocate but I felt paralyzed. If I moved I could miss the next jet.

However, as I wrote earlier about getting good sound effects from passive sessions, a recordist is not powerless even when the environment and subject are out of their control. I tried a few tricks which resulted in the following:

In this take the jet passes across the microphone to the left then circles behind to the right. The location near the lake gave the recordings a good sense of space.

You’ll notice the insects are greatly diminished. I’ll describe how I did this next week.

And here’s another from the island, tightly cut, focusing on a doppler turbine whistle.

The lake I feel gives the recordings an open, expansive sense.

Compare that to this recording I made the next day in the city. You can hear the sound of the jet bouncing off high rises as it approaches.

The recordings are trimmed only. I didn’t use EQ or any denoising software plugins.

Stay tuned for the next part in this series. I’ll write about lessons learned and how I overcame challenges of the shoot.





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