Why Slating Sound Effects is Vital – The Basics, and Beyond

2013/08/14

Paper Slate

I recorded the Honda Indy a few weeks ago. There was a lot of downtime between races. As I stood waiting in the blistering summer sun, I found myself thinking about how important slating is to field recording.

The Indy was incredibly loud. It required working stealth. I had to race around the 2.8 kilometre course from hairpin to back stretch to capture all my takes before each race ended.

The result? Slating was incredibly difficult. I walked away from that session with over 16 gigabytes of audio. Without slating, those files would have been jumbled, misidentified, and weaker from lack of detail.

Have you been in this situation? Have you recorded a batch of sounds, became distracted, then realize you have no clue what is on your hard drive weeks later in the studio? Do you have sound files with featureless descriptions? Maybe you felt as I did at the Indy, that it was a struggle to slate anything in the time and environment I had.

I’ll write about the Honda Indy session a bit later, but right now I want to describe slating: why it is done, and how you do it. I touched on this in my book, Field Recording From Research to Wrap. I also want go deeper, and share some new ideas about the impact of slating, and how it can affect your craft as a field recordist.

Next week I’ll list five reasons why we slate. I’ll wrap up explaining how I slated during that difficult environment at the Indy, and share some tools that can help you get the job done.

What is Slating?

Slating field recordings is often taken for granted. It’s a pretty simple task, and that would lead one to believe it’s a basic skill.

It’s not. Slating well requires expertise. It’s a vital part of field recording.

Slating is indeed simple in concept. It’s verbally describing to the microphone what you intend to record, and how. Usually this occurs immediately before a recording begins.

“Exterior perspective high school crowd. During recess. Fifty feet away.”

That’s a basic slate. You’d then step away from the mic and begin recording.

Rycote Over City, Back

Tail Slating

At times you won’t have a chance to slate before a recording. There may be no time. Slating may draw too much attention to yourself. In these cases tail slating is used to describe the track after it’s concluded. Tail slates also add important, unexpected detail a recordist has noticed during the track.

Let’s consider the high school crowd. Midway, a car at an intersection nearby revs boldly and tears away. You like the growl of engine, and the impatient performance. Of course, there’s no way of knowing that Mercedes would enter the take when you began. So, you’ll note the time, model, and make of the car afterwards, in the tail slate. An example would be:

“Tail slate: kids are fifteen to twenty years old. Also, a Mercedes R231 passed by the mic, left to right, at 2:20.”

That tail slate added detail about the primary target you had forgotten when you began. It also noted the R231. You could split out that Mercedes later to create another track.

So that’s slating at its most basic level. There’s a lot more we can add, though. How? And why would we do this?

Do Details Matter?

The best slates describe a recording fully:

“November 21st, 10 AM. Outside Central Tech High School (Bathurst St. and Harbord) during recess. Recording scattered crowd of 20 people, roughly 15 to 20 years old, mostly female. In a courtyard. Excited and playful mood, carefree attitude. They’re fifty feet away, and I’m maybe twenty feet from a four-way stop intersection. Slight bird chirps (sparrows?) and occasional wind in trees. Possibly faint HVAC in background. Recording using the MixPre, and a Neumann 191 microphone set at a 270 degree pattern.”

“Tail slate: a Mercedes R231 passed by mic, left to right, at 2:20, 55 kilometres per hour. Leapt away from stop sign eagerly.”

What a mouthful. That could last longer than the recording itself. Are those details really necessary?

It’s a good question. There’s no way our ears can pinpoint the speed of a passing car to a precise five kilometre difference. So, if we can’t tell the difference between a 50 and 55 kp/h car pass, does adding the information really matter? What about the performance? Why choose “excited,” “playful,” or “carefree” instead of just “happy?” If we can’t tell the between a 270 or 250 degree recording, should we really include it in the slate?

Practically? Maybe not. However, slating performs a deeper function. Details matter. Why?

There are five reasons, which I’ll list next week. But they all have one thing in common: good slating helps you share your field recordings.

After all, who knows where your clips will find a home? They could be used in an edit suite, an art gallery, or online in a Web shop. Without a good slate, listeners will be lost. There’s only so much we can tell by our ears alone, after all.

Even the most grizzled sound pros may not be able to decipher the exact distance and age of that crowd just by listening. But, as anyone in audio knows, when a sound effect is a good match, it slips smoothly into your tracks, and enhances the entire scene. A good slate can help spot a track that “just fits.”

It’s true for casual listeners, too. They may not be able to tell the difference between a sparrow and a robin. Whichever the case, it’s vital to give listeners a bit of help. Slating is essential to add data to help share sound with others beyond ourselves.

Rycote Over City, Front

Slating and Metadata

“Add data to a sound beyond the audio itself?” Where have we heard that before? Yes, we looked at that in an earlier article about metadata.

In the simplest form, metadata is a sound’s name and description. Most of you are familiar with professional Soundminer metadata.

Metadata serves a functional purpose. It adds more information than a simple file name can provide. It is data about audio, but not actually part of it. While it is wrapped around a sound, you can’t actually hear it as part of the recording (say, compared to a commentary track for a movie). Slating is the same. While Soundminer metadata is detail for your mastered sound files, slating is metadata for your field recording sessions.

Isn’t this a over-intellectualizing such a simple task? Isn’t slating just ten seconds of facts before you record? It is. However, it can be more. The reason I’m bringing this up to think about slating differently. It’s not just listing stats. Details that relate to a sound, but are not actually part of it, perform a powerful function. They add something deeper to the sound effects you’re recording: context.

How Slating Enhances Sound Effects

Why bother using slating to add context to a sound effect?

The facts help us identify what exactly is happening during the field recording. But slating has a stronger power when it conveys context. How do good slates do this?

  1. For You: Slating Captures An Experience
  2. There’s a lot going on during a field recording session: setting up equipment, connecting it, calibrating levels, and adjusting gear.

    The problem is those tasks pull a recordist into the role of an operator. To capture powerful sound effects, we need more.

    Slating is one way to do this. It leads you away from mechanically operating gear and brings your attention to the sound effect, and its environment. It changes a session from methodically collecting clips into becoming an experience.

    Operating gear provides a circle of awareness just large enough for your equipment. It’s an essential role, but it’s a narrow perspective. Considering slating deeply pulls your awareness away from LCD screens and meters, cables and microphones. It allows a recordist to experience the environment as it is being captured. Don’t let your attention to the sound relax when you press record. When you think about slating as you record, your awareness broadens.

    This doesn’t end after the head slate. Think about how sound evolves as the recording continues. Watch. Listen. Does the high school crowd stiffen as a teacher joins them? Is one guy trying to impress the girls? Does the wind pick up as a storm approaches? Maybe the traffic thickens as rush hour begins.

    Noticing this accomplishes two things. First, it helps you spot details which may affect the sound: the wind, the density of traffic, or conversations. It also helps broaden your recording perspective from a single pixel to the entire display. You become aware of the broader environment beyond your gear.

    Add your experience, and that of your subjects, to the slate.

  3. For Others: Slating Delivers Imagination
  4. Capturing an experience enriches your session, and adds detail to your tracks. But how can it help editors and listeners?

    Well, your listeners weren’t there. If you just used the first, basic slate, they would have no idea that some high school kid was amusingly rejected when trying to impress the girls. Or that courtyard makes the location seem more spacious than it actually is.

    Did the mood become lighter? Did it silence suddenly? Maybe the the voices are hard to place in the reverberant space. The slate explains why.

    There’s another important reason. When you’re field recording, you’re capturing more than just the audio. You’re capturing an experience. That experience can drift away if it is not embedded in the slate.

    Hard details are important, but the experience of the recording has even more power. Why?

    Broader context adds colour to recordings. It provides context to a mere audio file. A good slate does more than describe the facts. It transfers an experience to listeners. That means every listener afterwards will share your experience being there, even if it is just a portion of it.

    Let’s think about that long high school crowd slate, above. Read it again. As a casual listener, can you picture the scene? If so, the slate has done its job.

    How does this help listeners?

    Sound pros are creative people. Anything you can attach to a sound file to inspire them makes their job easier, more fulfilling, and creative.

    This gives your field recordings more power than the raw audio alone.

Victory Vegas

How To Add Context to Your Slates

How can you do this? Here are three quick suggestions:

  1. Describe history. What’s your subject’s background? How does it affect the sound? How can this help listeners enjoy or experience the recording?

    When I published a motorcycle bundle on Airborne Sound recently, I included a spec sheet about the bike. I described the engine stats, and information about the company and the motorcycle. (Download the spec sheet ZIP file.)

    It was my hope that the information would help editors learn about the company, the machine, and riders, bring the motorcycle closer to reality, and inspire them when working on their projects.

  2. Share insight. The Victory Vegas was made to compete with Harley-Davidson bikes, and appeal to niche riders. This is reflected in the bike’s sound. Harleys have a beefy, muscular tone. The Vegas is different: it mixes a grumbling with a tense whine. That reflects the brand’s approach to riding: powerful, but different from the mainstream Harley-Davidsons.

    Insight about a sound effect is revealed by asking the question: “How is my sound different from similar ones?” Discover what this is, and include it in your slate.

  3. Broadcast emotion. Including emotion and imagery with your slate is by far the most potent way to improve a sound effect by slating. Why?

    It conveys an experience that will resonate with listeners. It engages their imagination. It forces them to visualize the sound effect.

    How can you do this? Here’s one trick I use. While a field recording is rolling, think of a unique word to describe the sound effect. Just one word. Is that crowd “angry?” That’s pretty broad. Can you be more specific? Are they “furious?” “Impatient?” “Restless?” “Annoyed?” It’s only one word, but if you add it to your tail slate, your recordings immediately broaden.

    Use the same technique to describe a prop, even mundane ones like doors. Was that door close “lazy,” “weak,” or “hesitant?” Go deeper. What about the environment, or the room? Is it small? That’s not bad, but be more creative. “Oppressive?” “Tight?” “Claustrophobic?” Now you have two words you can add to your tail slate that add depth to your recording.

    That’s a huge improvement over “Door close 1” and “Door close 2.”

Using one of these is a vast improvement over basic slating. Using all three gives your recordings incredible depth. Then, when mastering, use the details to slice away distinctive cuts from a raw recording. Embed the key details of your slate in the file name, description, or metadata.

Broaden Your Field Recordings

No listener wants to guess what makes a sound effect special. But when clips are not slated distinctively, that is exactly what they are forced to do. Poor slates lead to weaker, less usable sound effects.

Would it be better if we could uncover every nuance about a sound by listening alone? Of course. But it’s always a good idea to give listeners a bit of help.

After all, field recording is not a robotic craft. You were there. You know how amusing that high school crowd was. You felt the beefy power as that motorcycle roared to life. You felt nature settle timidly after you fired the first round from a 50 cal gun.

Help listeners experience that. Broaden field recording beyond merely operating gear. Convey your experience in the slate. Transfer that to your listeners using inspired edits, sound names, descriptions, and metadata.

Then you’ll find your experience recording a sound will follow it, wherever it may travel.

Join me next week for “A Sound Effects Slating Checklist.”





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