A Mission to Capture Vanishing Sound FX

2016/01/06

Steam Train

Imagine you walk into work one day and discover you’ve been assigned to edit a television series based in the 1970s. The picture hasn’t arrived yet, so you spend the morning browsing your sound effect libraries. Will you have the proper police sirens, telephone sounds, or vehicle clips suitable for the period?

I had been thinking about this while watching the second season of Fargo. That’s based in the 1970s as well, and I wondered how the editors dealt with cutting authentic sound for that time. We’ll see an answer to that in the coming weeks. For now, though, the concept came with an interesting coincidence. Last week blog reader Martin wrote to me about British sound recordist Peter Handford.

Handford (1919 – 2007) was a pioneer of film sound, having worked with Sidney Lumet, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sydney Pollack. It was his collaboration with the latter director that earned him both a BAFTA and an Academy Award for his work on Out of Africa.

In addition to his mastery of production sound duties, Handford also dedicated his life to a fascinating mission: a urgent race to record the sound of steam trains before they vanished from British railways.

A Desperate Vocation

Peter Handford during WWII

Peter Handford during WWII

Handford began recording steam trains while working in film sound in the 1950s. During any picture he worked on, he scanned the countryside for interesting steam train recording locations. He often squeezed field recording missions into shoots even if the picture didn’t call for trains, much to the annoyance of producers.

Perhaps because of this, his recording sessions grew more independent from film shooting. He bought a disc and tape recorder as a more convenient way to capture train sound clips without needing to be chained to a production sound truck.

Finding himself out of work by chance in 1953, Handford decided to use his gear to produce sound on his own. He created the company Transacord, which was originally designed to transcribe and record music festivals. Developments in 1954 convinced Handford that the future of the steam age was threatened, and he set out to create an authoritative collection of the sound of steam trains. He began releasing them through Transacord. The 78 RPM LPs were met with great acclaim by the steam train enthusiast community.

Steam Train - Wheels

While the recordings were successful, Handford still needed to support himself with film work. However, he fit in train recording whenever possible, racing to record as many models and lines as he could. By November 1967, Handford had recorded the last British steam train in regular operation. From 1969 on, his remaining recordings were speciality trips; the steam age was over and the locomotives were replaced by new, more powerful diesel engines.

All of this is documented in his fascinating book, Sounds of the Railways and Their Recordings (Amazon link). Published in 1980, the book describes Handford’s beginnings in pro sound, his love of steam trains, and the origins of his vocation. It is packed with the history of steam trains, nuances about the engines themselves, vintage models, and the people who worked the rail lines. It includes a general primer on field recording. He describes suggestions for recording trains that are still applicable today, such as microphone choice, positioning, and tips on technique. Interestingly, Handford preferred to use dynamic microphones instead of condensers to capture the recordings for his 45+ albums.

7 Lessons Learned from Peter Handford

Recording, like photography, is a combination of art and science; the science can be readily learnt but much of the art is intuitive, not easily taught and best learnt by experiment and experience. Results, of a sort, may quite easily be achieved with a camera or a recorder, but the making of good recordings demands just as much care, attention and imagination as the taking of good photographs.

– Peter Handford

Of course, Handford’s history and the art of recording steam train sound fx is fascinating on its own. What’s also interesting is that even though Handford’s book doesn’t mention the term “field recording” once, there are vital lessons that we can learn from his efforts, almost 70 years ago.

  1. Challenges of recording sound beyond the studio. Peter Handford details the struggle to capture good sound effects in the wild. He describes in detail how he struggled with problem sounds, poor weather, and technical failure. He points out a number of similarities between recording sound effects and capturing dialogue on set.

  2. Problems with “clinical” recordings. Coming from a film background, Handford’s first recordings attempted to mimic production sound techniques. What he found was interesting: while the recordings were clean to the point of clinical purity, they felt lifeless. They weren’t enjoyable to listen to. He discovered that they didn’t convey the proper feeling of the steam age.

    Handford began trickling in other aspects of steam travel, including the atmosphere of the countryside, the chatter of railway workers, or station ambience. Adding this context and additional richness filled out the track.

    We can learn from this today. Of course, it’s important to provide editors the tools they need. They demand clean, isolated takes to use in their films, games, and theatre productions. It’s also important to add other variations, too: designed clips, emotional takes, and combinations that provide designers with context and inspire sound pros with new ideas. If you have time, add emotional takes to your shot list.

  3. Steam Train on Track

  4. The role of gatekeepers. While Handford’s equipment was more portable than what was required for a film set, his kit was cumbersome. It was impossible to use it without being noticed. Backed by public enthusiasm, Handford convinced railway officials to give him access to the trains and railways of Britain. It’s a good example how much working with talent and gatekeepers can strengthen field recordings. Learn more about gatekeepers here and here.

  5. Vanishing sound effects. Peter Handford raced to record as many steam trains as he could before they disappeared. It’s a helpful reminder that sounds we find commonplace now may some day disappear.

    It’s a good challenge to set for yourself. Can you find and record vanishing sound effects? They are immediately valuable. You can find examples on The Museum of Endangered Sounds. I also shared some thoughts on extinct sound effects earlier.

  6. Independent sound effect publishers. Peter Handford started his Transacord label when he was out of work. His first recordings were enjoyed, but did not earn enough to support him. So, he continued working in film sound and created steam train albums in his spare time. Let’s not forget that this was the case despite the fact that Handford was one of the original legends of sound recording. His story of sharing sound is an interesting parallel to what indie sound fx publishers are achieving today. Handford did the same thing, and he left behind a legacy that the world respects. It’s a good goal to consider for your own sound libraries.

  7. Steam Train - Stopped at Station

  8. Finding an expressive voice. What sound subjects are naturally rich in expression? Our first thoughts may bring to mind the human voice, birdsong, or animals. The chaos of weather or waves are others.

    Handford’s work is notable in the extent of expression he captured from a fixed, lifeless source: a machine. Despite the fact that a steam engine operates under largely unchanging rules, Handford was able to coax endless voices from his subject.

    Imagine an excitable puppy. It’s relatively easy to capture a huge variety of emotional sound effects from it: forlorn whining, moans, yips, yaps, and barks. However, just because a subject isn’t alive doesn’t mean it can’t contribute emotional sounds. It requires thinking about mechanical subjects differently: not that they are emotional themselves, but considering the emotions they create in us, and how we can capture that in sound.

  9. The power of emotional sound effects. Handford felt strongly about the steam age, the machines of that time, and the people who worked the rail lines. There are thousands of enthusiasts who feel the same. He reflected that much of the appeal of steam train sound effects came from nostalgia.

    Whatever the source of the connection people felt towards his recordings, part of the impact of his field recordings was based on emotion. His first attempts were failures, and even his following efforts lacked modern fidelity. It didn’t matter. His vocation, his connection with the subject, and the how fans felt about the vanishing steam age provided an opportunity to capture more than just sound.

    As field recordists, we need to use equipment to capture sound fx. However, it’s also important to think what field recordings can capture beyond choosing gear, setting it up, and navigating tech specs.

    René Coronado elegantly describes his experiences capturing emotional sound effects in a recent Tonebenders podcast episode. Rob Nokes’ love of hockey and horse racing shines through in his feature film recordings. There are other articles about that here on the blog, too (article one, article two, article three).

    The haunting sound of a steam whistle in the distance easily evokes emotion. Handford’s lifelong love of steam trains ensured they were captured with respect. His work is a good reminder for us to find powerful sound subjects, then record them with care.

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