How to Record Gun Sound Effects – A List of Resources

2013/09/18

Bullets

I remember firing my first gun. It was a fully-automatic AK–47.

I was in the desert east of San Diego recording weapons for an HBO show called Generation Kill. The gun was owned by an elite soldier who brought it back from a war in the Middle East.

Previously, I was indifferent to gun recordings. However, as I squeezed the trigger and fired into the empty desert, I instantly understood why so many field recordists specialize in recording gun and rifle sound effects.

It was like holding a controlled explosion in your hands. I was surprised, not at the recoil, but the amount of power from such a simple action of pulling the trigger. It wasn’t only the physical aspects of the kickback and the bullet pounding into a sandy incline, it was the sheer force of sonic expression as well.

In today’s article I’ll share information about these elusive and popular sound clips.

Why Record Gun Sound Effects?

There are dozens of reasons gun sound effects attract field recordists. First, they contain endless variety. Just like learning about car makes, custom versions, and differences between yearly models, guns are incredibly nuanced and diverse. A recordist can explore an endless supply of clips: handguns, rifles, machine guns, or artillery, each modified by ammunition, environment, and more. When you add in Foley handling, you’ll find that a gun can have as many voices as any sports car.

Gun recordings are also popular for another reason: they’re challenging to record well. Guns are one of the trickiest categories of sound effects to capture. Part of the reason is because they are incredibly loud. Capturing loud sounds is understandably challenging, but this is complicated further by the dynamic of the sounds: the blast occurs at the same time as subtler movements, as well as the metallic voices of the gun itself as it fires the shot and ejects the shell. A field recordist needs to balance these elements, not only in the field, but in mastering, later.

Why Recording Gun Sound Clips is Challenging

In my opinion, the trickiest part of recording weapons isn’t the technical aspect. You can eventually figure out microphone placement and levels with trial and error. Instead, the real trick is finding distinctiveness in gun recordings. It’s common for gun recordings to suffer from a troublesome problem: all the gun shots sound identical. Fifty gun shot clips are no better than one, really, if they are all indistinguishable.

Pulling distinctiveness from guns is admittedly quite hard. One reason is that machines always have less dynamic voices than living subjects. They’re inert, metal subjects with a fixed expression. They have many voices, of course, but generally fewer than the dynamic found in animals or people.

Another reason is that finding character in very loud, short sounds isn’t easy. Nuances are often found in subtler areas, or when clips alter from one moment to the next over time. Loud, isolated blasts don’t have that advantage.

Learning From The Masters

I’ve tried a few tricks to get around these challenges. However, I prefer to record atmospheres than specific sound effects, so I’m not a gun expert by any means. There are other recordists far more skilled at recording gun sound effects than I am. So, when a reader asked me for advice about recording guns, I turned to the masters.

They include Ken Johnson, Charles Maynes, Rob Nokes (who taught me), Frank Bry, Watson Wu, and Chuck Russom (among others).

Below is a compilation of links you can explore, together with a description of what you’ll find there. I’ll include articles on explosions as well:

Tutorials – Recording

Tutorials – Mastering

  • Explosions From Scratch – Field Recordist Frank Bry shares his experiences recording explosions. This is paired with a video, and some specific mastering suggestions, and plug-in settings.
  • Explosions: The Alloy Ozone Way – Bry explains his technique mastering explosions using Alloy 2 and Ozone 5 in Soundminer.
  • Transient Enhancement With Explosions – Bry shares another article about using transient enhancement to beef up explosions. Details specific plug-ins, with a video showing the effect of each.

Gun & Explosion Recording Sessions

Interviews

  • Weapons recording roundtable – a podcast from the Tonebenders about gun recording techniques, featuring guests Charles Maynes and Frank Bry.
  • Chuck Russom video game sound designer interview – gamesounddesign.com interviews Russom, who shares his thoughts on distinctiveness, 5 important elements to weapons recording, and more.
  • Exclusive Interview with Rob Nokes, Sound Effect Recordist on 3:10 to Yuma – Nokes shares a few tidbits about capturing guns for the film, including gear selection, and aim for the shoot.
  • Four Guns West – A panel discussion (audio with slides) about weapons recordings for games, featuring Chuck Russom, Charles Maynes, Chris Sweetman, and Ben Minto. Some real gems, including defining conditions for weapon recording, philosophy of gun sound design, layering, technical aspects of working gun sound design into game audio, and more. Tailored toward game audio.

Discussions

Have I missed an article you like? Contact me and I’ll add your article to the list.

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