Field Report: Carnival Sound Effects


CNE Ride: Swing Ride

Funfair Ambience Sound Effects


At the end of summer every year, the Canadian National Exhibition visits Toronto. This carnival fair signals the end of summer for Torontonians.

Home to such venerable attractions as the human cannonball, strong man show, air show and midway, the CNE also features B-list concerts, slippery home show salesmen and the show-stopping donut bacon cheeseburger (1,550 calories).

Donut Hamburger

Courtesy of ccaviness

I make a point to visit each year before the carnival packs up and disappears with the vestiges of summer.

Jump to and download the fair sound effects now.

I enjoy wandering the vast fairgrounds amongst the crowd, playing the odd game of chance and seeing the fair light up as dusk settles.

The CNE has a buzz to it. What creates this buzz? I’ve tried putting my finger on it. Unlike amusement parks, the CNE lasts only a few weeks. Maybe this impermanence contributes to it. The throngs, events, rides and games create an expressive atmosphere.

As readers of this blog know, I seek out evocative sound effects for my library at Carnivals are stuffed with unique and distinctive sounds. The crowds are excited, diverse and lively. Barkers entice with characteristic flair. Both the games and rides have unusual voices.

My goal was to capture the vividness of the fair with field recordings. The environment was rich. How hard could it be?

I quickly discovered how tricky it was recording evocative fairground ambiences in such a complex environment.

The location

The CNE sets up at Exhibition Place, southwest of downtown Toronto near Lake Ontario.

Courtesy JenniferHeartsU

I had been to the CNE before, so I had considered the location scouted. The layout didn’t change much from year to year.

Within the grounds common attractions are grouped in areas. The casino, exhibitions, kid’s rides, games and midway were all separated. This was good; I would concentrate recording each family of sound effects before moving onto sounds of a different nature elsewhere.

The shoot


Because I had scouted I knew the challenges I’d be facing. They were:

  • Aircraft overhead. Billy Bishop Airport is a prop plane strip to the south east. Although small, it has a constant stream of helicopters and planes passing. However unless a TV news helicopter appeared, this kind of interference would pass. Patience was the best solution.
  • Traffic. The fairgrounds were bordered by two highways. The highways would only be an issue if I was recording on the outskirts of the fair.
  • Music. Most of the rides blasted distorted music.
  • Concerts. Two concerts were scheduled every night. Even though they were distant, bass carried to even isolated areas.
  • Compressors and motors. Many of the games and machines were powered by compressors or motors that interfered with recording specific sound effects.
  • Overlap. Although casino sounds inside the games building wouldn’t overlap with the open-air midway games, it would be immensely difficult to record any fair game or ride in isolation. This would be different if I had access to the machines and rides outside of fair hours. I had no luck with this, so I was recording stealth and had to adapt.

There was a lot of ground to cover. To capture the spirit of the fair I wanted ambiences from:

  • Games midway.
  • Rides midway.
  • Home show building.
  • Food building.
  • Children’s rides area.
  • Casino.

I set aside seven hours to record as many sound effects as possible.

It was hard to get a break from the challenges. Whenever a concert ended the air seemed to fill with helicopters.

I also realized that the carnival transport trucks and motor homes were parked on the fairgrounds, tucked behind rides or game stalls. They were out of sight, however they ran compressors steadily and the low end seeped throughout the fairground.

In most locations I found myself waiting for:

  • Music to finish.
  • Compressors to stop.
  • Aircraft to land.

Reorienting the microphone didn’t help since the nature of these interfering sounds were so loud or pervasive that they flooded the fairground. Changing the microphone pattern was similarly useless. The only solution was to wait or move on.

One benefit was that recording stealth wasn’t an issue. It was easy to be inconspicuous amongst so many people and so much activity.


You are welcome to download and use the following fair sound effects in your personal projects as long as you do not redistribute them, even for free.

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CNE Game: Crown and Anchor

The first field recording is a crown and anchor game sound effect. There are two, each with different click tones. I positioned the microphone so one was generally in each channel to create an impression of width. As with the following midway games, there’s a bit of light carnival ambience.

CNE Game: Derby Race

This recording is a close ambience with a bingo caller on one side and a derby race game on the other. The players rolled balls up a slope into sockets to advance horses to the finish line at the back of the stall. A female announcer called the play.

Here’s a sound effect of the shooting gallery with air guns. I was right next to the booth. You’ll hear the grizzled booth operator and some excited teenagers amongst the shooting.

I stepped back into the middle of crowd to record this carnival ambience sound effect. There is no particular focus on any game. The crowd is thick and milling, and has a lot of distintive vocals and detail.

I also recorded some rides. CNE Ride: The ZipperUnlike previous years, there were only a few spots where music from the rides didn’t saturate the recordings.

This ride, called the Fireball, had a great swishing, mechanical aspect to it. As you’ll hear though, there’s music in the background. EQing the sound only crippled the effect. I’ll include it for reference but since it breaches copyright and isn’t the greatest quality I’m not going to include it in the Airborne Sound library.

I had more luck with The Zipper (pictured up to the left). This fair ride sound effect captures the machine starting and swirling with some screams. Bumper cars are behind the mic.

You can find more fair sound effect field recordings on Airborne Sound. Here’s some links:

  • a jaded and gruff fair game announcer or barker sound effect
  • midway fair games ambience
  • midway fair ride sound effects
  • fair ride machinery sound clips

Some thoughts

Because the shoot was technically challenging given the music, aircraft and overlap, it was difficult to record a clean, evocative representation of the CNE.

I was satisfied with the ambient midway crowds. The Neumann microphone did a good job capturing the impression of the business of the swirling, milling crowd while adding the bells, sirens and machinery of the distant rides. The excited crowds and energetic barkers were key to contributing to a vivid, distinctive track.

A note about overlap: I come from a film editing background and I prefer to have discrete, pure recordings of machines. In the past I would lose my mind waiting for a clean take. Promising takes would begin and be interrupted 20 seconds after I punched in.

Given that I was stealth recording I considered two second-best perspectives to recording specific effects:

  • treat the specific as an ambience: shoot wide and capture a variety of sound effects. This would alter a specific fair game sound effect into a fairground ambience. The kind of recordings are important since the are the most significant way to capture evocative recordings
  • recording the specific sound effect despite background ambience. This would only work if the ratio was high between the specific effect and the ‘noise floor’ of the background ambience. This isn’t suitable for video game sound design or multimedia, where clean recordings are essential. In film mixes however there is a bit of flexibility. When used in the density of a film mix the focused specific effect would jump out and the quieter background would be buried in the rest of the soundtrack. I would have to edit out any pop-out background sounds so that the ambience would remain quiet in ratio to the specific effect. I don’t prefer this technique, but if the recording is rare and cannot be captured any other way it is better than nothing


Gear used

  • Neumann RSM 191-i – pattern set to 120 degrees
  • Sound Devices 722
  • Sound Devices MixPre


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