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
Weapon Sound Effects Recording and Design for the Next Generation – gamasutra.com features Charles Maynes’s thoughts on gun recording. Includes the impact of guns in film and game audio, a reflection on the conceptual impact of gun recordings, a precise technical breakdown, and mastering suggestions.
Charles Maynes Special: Gun Recording Thoughts for 2010 – more details about field recording guns from Charles Maynes, together with musings on gun shoots.
Recording Firearms for the SoundStorm.com Sound Library – Sounddogs.com and Rob Nokes present a YouTube video with tips for recording guns.
- An interview with Chuck Russom by A Sound Effect – Russom outlines some of the challenges recording a gun sound library.
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
Trident Arms Recording Firearms Explosions – Watson Wu describes field recording a gun sound effects library. Includes a good selection of general advice including safety, location, and talent tips. The embedded YouTube video showcases various weapons. Gives a few ideas on general microphone arrangement and range layout.
Gun Recording October 21 2011 – Frank Bry describes his experience capturing an M–60 machine gun. Describes gear used, and the process. Includes a video.
Explosion Recording October 2011 – Bry’s experiences recording explosions. Includes a video of impressive results.
The Cannon – Recording Session 1 – Bry records a small cannon. Includes his thoughts, gear selection, sound samples, and video.
This Watson Wu video features various field recording outtakes while shooting up a damaged Camero. Not instructional, per se, but a fun preview of a session. Highlights a variety of weapons.
Assassin’s Creed 3 – Recording weapons for the video game – an overview of recording cannons. Gives an idea on gear used, and microphone layout. Also shares an overview on equipment for beginners.
- 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.
- How do you record gun movement Foley? – a discussion on Sound Design Stack Exchange with great commonplace suggestions.
Have I missed an article you like? Contact me and I’ll add your article to the list.
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