Bringing Sound Effects to Your Community – Interview with Shaun Farley

2013/08/08

Shaun Farley and Tortoise

A sound effect may last minutes, or mere seconds. Its life has a longer arc, however. It begins with research, and then, after many hours and countless steps, ends by sharing it with listeners and fans.

Field recordists need many skills to help usher a sound along this journey. Some of these are similar: editing and mastering, for example. Others, like sharing sound, require completely different mastery.

Shaun Farley is someone who has led his sound effects along this path. Farley is a sound editor and mixer based in Washington, D.C.. He is known for his extensive knowledge of sound theory, equipment, and software, which he shares on his blog at dynamicinterference.com, on Twitter, and forums such as socialsounddesign.com. He has guest starred on the Tonebenders podcast. He is also contributing editor at the world’s most popular sound design and field recording blog, designingsound.org.

Most recently, though, Farley branched into a new realm: sharing sound effects. Last month he released a sound effects bundle. It is his first collection, named Fabric. It’s an impressive offering: over 9,000 files in 6.5 gigabytes.

I’ve been discussing sharing sound here for a while. I’ve been interested how field recording and sharing sound intersect. When I saw Shaun had released his first collection, I was immediately curious. I was interested to learn about his experience sharing sound with the community. He kindly took time to share with me his thoughts and experiences taking his field recordings, and sharing them worldwide.

The Role of Field Recording

The best sound effects are the result of an idea. That’s how field recording, and sharing sound clips begin. For Farley, the story behind his Fabric pack began over five years ago. In 2007, he joined the staff of Teleproductions International, an outfit providing documentary and non-fiction entertainment programming.

Farley’s role there was unique. He worked both in production and post-production audio for the same project. This atypical combination was one that would eventually contribute to sharing his work with the community.

Farley explained: “I’d be the one out in the field capturing interview audio, then I’d also be the one cutting it as soon as we got into post.”

He began to appreciate the role that field recording had in the entire scope of a project. “Nothing teaches you what you’ve done wrong in the field, or could do better, than trying to use the sounds you’ve recorded in post,” Farley said. “The additional focus on it that the job required quickly changed the way I approached it.”

Three Key Elements for Sharing Sound

Production demands eventually receded. However, the impact of the process remained with him. It cultivated an appreciation for the journey of audio in a project, an attention to detail, and a deep focus that would later contribute to the release of the Fabric pack.

Farley continued recording sound effects whenever he could. He captured audio that he could use in his projects at work during evenings, and on weekends. It was at this time that Farley began thinking deeply about a specific category of sound effects: fabric sounds.

“I never have enough of them myself,” he explained, “and I’m not always in the right situation to record custom Foley sounds to picture. It seemed like an unfilled need. I wondered why no one had put out a library of fabric sounds.”

Farley’s thinking brought together three key elements required for sharing sound. It began with an idea distilled through a particular focus: fabric sound effects. It answered a question and a need, wondering why the tracks weren’t common. And, perhaps most importantly, its origin was authentic. In Shaun’s case, the desire was a personal one: he needed those tracks. “It was, first and foremost, a library I wanted for myself.”

Fabric 2 Slice

Thinking Deeply About The Prop

This authenticity provided a solid foundation to the collection. It wasn’t assembled merely for commerce. Instead, Farley searched for a deeper role in the recordings. It started about two years ago, when he began collecting fabric. He thought about the props thoroughly, considering the material, blend, and weave. He began organizing worn-out clothing that otherwise would have been donated or sold.

“If I didn’t have the material or weave in the collection already,” he said, “I’d take that piece for the day when I might actually start recording.”

Recording With Context

When recording finally began, it was an involved process. He used a variety of microphones, including a Sennheiser MKH40 and MKH 60, an AKG Blue Line (CK 93 capsule), a Neumann TLM 103, and TLM 170R set to hyper-cardiod. Experiments during the sessions ruled out most of the 170R takes. Also, Farley found the off-axis rejection of the 103 wasn’t suitable for the prop, or the room. The library, Farley told me, consists mostly of the Sennheiser and Blue Line channels.

The microphone selection wasn’t the only elaborate approach to the session. He applied the same amount of detail and thoughtfulness to each fabric he used.

Farley explained: “I slowly went through each piece, recording every possible movement I thought I could capture on the mics.” His recording style emphasized flow. He persisted through each take even knowing that a motion may be too quiet, or buried in the noise floor, and end up on the cutting room floor. This helped him keep the entire scope of the project in mind.

He shared one example: “I kept track of what movements I had done with each fabric. If I thought of a new approach with another fabric later on, I’d go back and record again with the previous fabrics.”

After recording movements, he began to rip the cloth. The results from that particular performance surprised Farley.

“I had assumed the silk tie would be the hardest thing to tear. Not so. It was the polyester/rayon blend, which was a herringbone weave. On most of the fabrics, I would use a pair of scissors to get a starting point to tear from. Even with that, the polyester/rayon shirt could not be torn. That’s why that particular fabric has files labeled ”slice,“ because I literally had to use a tool to slice it apart.”

The attention to detail in the fabrics and blends produced the most notable recordings.

“I think the tearing and ripping sounds are my favourite part of this library,” Shaun said. “They’re also the sounds that I think would be most useful for non-foley/design applications.”

The work wasn’t easy. “With few exceptions, I did all of those tears by hand. After wrapping fabric around your hands to rip it apart 50, 60, 100 times, you need a break. I honestly had to stop recording one day entirely, simply because my hands couldn’t take it anymore.”

The idea had a long history, and I wondered how the sessions occurred. Did he record it all in one go, I asked?

“Yes, actually, I did. I had that collection of clothing I had been building over the previous year, and I started recording the different handling movements in my off-hours.”

The result? 100 gigabytes of raw files.

Fabric 3 Slice

Shaping The Collection

I asked Farley what it was like to master 100 gigabytes of audio. “Tedious and tiring,” he told me. His main approach was to provide clean, authentic files, and this required time.

“I wanted to provide the files with as little processing as possible,” Shaun said. "If a file needed heavy EQ or noise reduction to be usable, I threw it out. I even left in the proximity effect on a number of the files. It’s easy to take that out, and really hard to put back in if it’s the sound you need.

“For the most part it was just a little EQ on the extreme low end, standard gain adjustments (no compression or limiting), the occasional gentle application of noise reduction to push the noise floor back a little, and cuts to preserve the tail out.”

All the tracks feature metadata. Farley used a combination of OpenOffice Calc spreadsheets and Soundminer HD+ to compose the bonus text.

The Role of Motivation

As you can imagine, mastering and curating a collection of this size isn’t easy. The fact that 100 gigabytes was whittled down to 6.5 suggests the amount of work involved. Farley commented on this.

“It often felt like I wasn’t making any progress on the library, just because of the sheer size,” he said. “It was hard to stay motivated, and that may be why it took me a year to actually finish it up after recording.”

The solution?

“I had to start looking at it in smaller chunks. Each fabric/weave type was separated into its own folder. Once I started setting smaller goals like ”mic A of Denim,“ it started to get a little easier.”

And, throughout the process, Farley ensured only the top material would be shared: “I always put the best files in the library to be sold.”

After 180 man hours, the collection was complete.

The Role of Community

The next step was to share the collection. Farley already had a history of sharing sound. For years he hosted a contest on his website known as the Sound Design Challenge. After that shuttered, he continued to share sound on SoundCloud, and on his blog, including a collection of free sound effects he recorded in the Galapagos Islands.

I asked him what inspired him to begin sharing sound effects commercially.

“Curiosity,” he said. He also cited another key aspect of sharing sound: “I like being part of the community… I get a lot of personal value out of my direct involvement through Designing Sound, [and] the Sound Design Challenge.”

It was a natural step to share sound with the friends and colleagues he had met there. “I had a unique set of sounds sitting on my hard drive. They had already made my life simpler on several projects. If other people could benefit from that work too, why wouldn’t I share it?”

Fabric 1 Slice

Sharing the Fabric Bundle

There are dozens of ways to sell sound online. It would be the first time Farley would share sound effects in a store. His primary concern was for the fans that would visit his shop.

“I didn’t want customers to deal with dodgy downloads,” he said. “I didn’t want anything in the chain to fail once the library was released.”

This concern led to building a shop analytically. “I like problem solving and puzzles. When I look at a problem, I tend to seek out all of the things that can go wrong and start from there… Thankfully, I have a lot of friends who’ve been doing this for a while, and there have also been a lot of discussions on how people are doing it online.”

He spent time finding the right shopping cart, consulting a lawyer for an End User License Agreement, and beta testing. “I had a few people help me out with that in the weeks leading up to the actual release. We tested everything, and I had all of the bugs in the shopping/commerce system worked out.”

Engaging Fans

The next step was to invite the community to experience his work. A library preview is a critical, and often overlooked, aspect of sharing sound. Farley crafted an inventive version for the Fabric collection:

I asked him his thoughts behind creating the preview.

“It offered me the opportunity to present most of the categories of sounds in the library: handling, rustles/crumples, flaps and even a tear. I wanted to use the sounds to tell a story, but needed to make sure that the story was clear. That simple static camera shot provided the context for the story. With the exception of my voice, room tone, and the drawers, all of the sounds in the story came directly from the library.”

His next step was getting the word out. Farley was adamant about not using his association with Designing Sound to promote the pack. Instead, he crafted a unique pre-release buy-in offer. He rewarded sound pros that were interested in the pack: the more sound pros that signed up raised a discount percentage to a new tier. It was an inventive cross between Kickstarter and Groupon.

Joining a Community

What can we learn from Farley’s experience sharing sound?

First, his attention to detail was deep. It was a process that involved years of thought. It considered not only technical requirements such as proper microphones, but creative ones as well: he reflected on the very weave of each fabric he captured.

The second key element involved others. From the genesis of the idea, Farley was thinking about what others needed, how they would browse the pack on his store, and use the tracks later. This consideration for community is a consistent theme in Farley’s work.

“The friends I’ve made, the conversations I’ve had, and the places I’ve gotten to visit because of that involvement have changed who I am as a person and a professional.”

It’s no surprise that his advice to new recordists who wish to share sound involves joining others.

“Get involved with the community,” he said. "There’s an endless number of ways to do it, and the rewards you reap from participation are equally endless. Take a wider view with an open mind, and you’ll start to see opportunities and benefits in places you’ll never have thought of.

“Then, when you’re ready to share, people will be ready to listen.”

A deep thanks to Shaun Farley for taking the time to share his thoughts and experiences.

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