Explorers of Ambisonics – Richard Devine


Richard Devine recording at Honeymoon Island State Park

I have been a fan of today’s guest field recordist for some time. It’s clear I’m not alone, of course: sound designer and musician Richard Devine has tens of thousands of fans worldwide. Sound pros may be most familiar with his contributions to SoundMorph’s acclaimed sound effects libraries such as Mechanism and Modular UI. Devine has shared his field recordings and stylized sounds with many other projects, too. During a recent correspondence, Richard revealed a fascinating fact: he has been deeply involved with producing Ambisonic recordings for virtual reality projects for clients such as YouTube and Google.

I asked Richard if he would care to share with us these unique experiences capturing these field recordings for his clients. He very kindly agreed. So, today we have is a special treat. Devine shares his experiences as a pioneer producing Ambisonic sound effects for VR.

Creative Field Recording: You have worked with sound across many disciplines: music, sound design, hardware, software, and more. What is that makes you capture field recordings in particular? Why do you enjoy it?

Richard Devine: I had started capturing sounds since the early 90’s, as I bought my first digital sampler in 1992. Which was an Akai S3000 that had the capability of recording sounds at 44.1 kHz 16-bit stereo but was limited to storing only 8 to 32 MB of memory. I began collecting sounds on my Sony Portable MiniDisc recorder (MZ-R50). I soon later purchased a Sony portable DAT recorder (TCD-D7). Using the sampler opened up new world of possibilities for manipulating sounds/samples. I could now take any sound, and pitch shift/filter/loop or multi-layer different combinations. At the time it was a big turning point for me. It really sparked my interest in field recording and I began capturing and cataloging as many interesting sound sources as possible. Today I use a more modern setup for capturing sound effects, Sound Devices MixPre,744T/788T/442 x 2, Sony PCM-D100, Zoom H6, and Zoom F8.

CFR: How did you first discover Ambisonic recording?

RD: I was asked to work on a sound design project last year with Google for their new virtual reality platform called DayDream. I was assigned as the main sound designer responsible for all of the Ambisonic environmental and UI sounds for all the VR apps. It was through this project that I discovered Ambisonic mixing and recording.

CFR: What was the first Ambisonic recording you captured? What were your impressions recording in this format after working with “conventional” formats previously?

RD: My first assignment was to capture a few different babbling brook/streams in Ambisonic format that would be used on Google’s Home Page Environment. I was asked to use the TSL SoundField ST450 MKII portable mic system to capture all of my recordings. I conducted a series of in-studio tests with the microphone to measure its performance/sensitivity. Since I had no experience with it before, I wanted to understand how this microphone worked. I did a series of surround recordings using different objects, walking around the mic with an egg shaker for example, to test how well the ST450 could capture close up and far away sounds. The SoundField’s technology is based on the principle that all acoustic events are represented by four basic elements. Beginning with ‘X’ which is the front/back information (depth), the ‘Y’ that is your left/right information (width), ‘Z’ which is the up/down information (height) and ‘W’ the central point from which the other three elements are referenced. So collectively W, X, Y, and Z are what make up the SoundField B-Format.

ST450 MKii

A few things I noticed from my first initial experiments were that locating sounds horizontally (L/R) was fairly easy but I had trouble locating sounds vertically (up/down). I noticed that the more refined the sound was the easier it is to recognize its position and distance. I also noted that sounds that have an emphasis in the higher spectrum (7 kHz to 15 kHz) really worked well with the ST450.

I also noticed that locations that had lots of natural reverb reduced the accuracy of localization. This was also true when I was mixing sources in the computer, the general rule for me was to only use the smallest amount of reverb and reflections to give the environment a natural feel. Another issue I ran into was getting the sound source to match the approximate distance of the source you see in the virtual environment for example single bird flying above your head 40 feet away. I had tried many times to record this exact scenario but often had difficulty getting it to be exactly like the virtual environment as you would capture lots of other sounds in the process. Working with a mic like the ST450 you are now capturing sounds in every direction so you have to absolutely have the perfect situation which most of time didn’t happen. I had to resort to artificially recreating some sounds like a gentle wind, or a few sparse crickets created synthetically. For these situations I would record these elements as mono/stereo sources then pan them in using AmbiX plug-in suite with Reaper. This was great in that I could dial in just the right amount of each source. For example, I could place and position the crickets in the scene, and also control the rate at which they would chirp, using Pure Data.

Richard Devine Recording at Hemlock Falls

CFR: What kit do you use to capture Ambisonic recordings? Have there been any milestones in the evolution of your Ambisonic kit?

RD: Well, as mentioned above I used the SoundField ST450 MKII, and more recently the Sennheiser Ambeo VR mic. I would use sometimes both mics for some sessions, and record into the Sound Devices 788T recorder. I tried to keep everything small and as portable as possible as there would be times when I would have to walk or hike many miles out in remote locations to get the perfect sound.

Sennheiser Ambeo VR mic

CFR: The Ambisonic format needs to be processed to be used in projects. What's your preferred workflow for doing this? For example, is editing trickier when working with Ambisonic files? Do you use a particular plug-in? Do you decode to any format in particular (stereo, 5.1, or leave it raw)?

RD: For the project with Google I was specifically working with Format-B audio, which is why the ST450 was my primary microphone in that I could monitor everything from the ST450 Control Unit (box). I think this is right now the only mic on the market that allows you to do this in real-time. It was also great having a system that can generate audio from mono, stereo, M/S, and 5.1 surround. This offers a lot of flexibility to play with lots of different options in the post editing process.

Typically I would take the Ambisonic audio files from my 788T and import them into computer. From there I would quickly check the wave files with either Twisted Wave editor, or Adobe’s Audition. Twisted Wave editor is great in that it can read and save Ambisonic B-Format (amb or ambi) sound files. From there I would take the recordings for further processing using Reaper and the ambiX v0.2.6 Ambisonic plug-in suite. The AmbiX suite is free and is available here.

Most of my Ambisonic sessions were mixed and processed with these tools. I would then test my B-Format mixes and sounds using another app on the Android phone called AmbiExplorer, which allows you to listen and explore Ambisonic B-Format and UHJ audio files. It does it by decoding to stereo binaural or virtual microphones. You can position were you want to be facing in the sound field simply by moving a virtual 3D panner, that lets you rotate and set the angles for either the virtual human head or virtual microphones. Since most of what I do will be listened to in headphones this was the most ideal setup for previewing and testing all of my files. I later integrated the Harpex-B plug-in for previewing my Ambisonic recordings, the combination with the ST450 was incredible!

Richard Devine Recording at Arabia Mountain

CFR: What place do you find Ambisonic sound fx have amongst other field recordings? Do you see them as a specialized or situational format? Or will they become more prominent in the future? Where do you see them going in the future?

RD: So far I see it moving into lots of different areas, film, gaming, and education. Right now you have things like Google Cardboard/DayDream view that offers very affordable headsets, which run on their latest phones. All you need is the headset and a pair of headphones to get things going. I think we will see this becoming more prominent as the technology gets better and cheaper. I also worked on the HTC Vive system for about 4 months, as we created content for Google’s Earth VR. I contributed many Ambisonic environmental sand UI sounds for this. The application here was to explore the world from a totally new perspective, soaring over the Grand Canyon or teleporting across the globe for example. It opened a world of possibilities for creating and capturing new sounds and ambiences.

CFR: During our earlier chat, you mentioned that you have been involved in a number of interesting Ambisonic projects. Can you share with readers the projects you have been excited to work on?

RD: Well, I just finished working on Youtube VR, and just several months before that Google Earth VR, which came out fantastic. I was also very pleased with how DayDream turned out. I spent months getting just the right Ambisonic ambiences for all of the VR apps, like Photos app, and the DayDream Home Page. We are working on some other exciting new projects that will be coming out later this year.

Richard Devine Recording at North Cooper Lake Park

CFR: What is the Ambisonic recording you are most proud of? Can you share the story of how you recorded that with readers?

RD: One of my favorite Ambisonic recordings was taken at North Cooper Lake Park, in the middle of a gentle flowing stream. There was no wind as the creek sits low at the bottom of a small valley. I was able to capture the sound of the water flowing all around me in this Ambisonic recording, by placing the ST450/788T in the middle of the creek on top of a few dry rocks. It was magical as I could hear all the insects and birds up above your head. I often record with many other microphones, like the Neumann RSM-191 A/S, KM 184s, DPA 4060s, Sanken C0-100k, CSS-5, and Sennheiser 8040ST’s x 4.

As for other recordings, I recently visited the Mysterious Ringing Rocks in Montana, near Butte which is part of the edge of the Boulder Batholith, which is a large jumbled pile of boulders, the rocks in the unique geologic formation chime melodically when tapped lightly with a crescent wrench or mallet. I recorded them with my Sony PCM-D100 recorder, and created a short musical piece using just the sounds of the ringing rocks.

Another interesting recording came about on a camping trip up at Anglers Point in Blairsville, Georgia. I was on Lake Nottely for New Year’s with a group of friends. We had a campfire right on a beach near our cabin. It was getting late, we decided to put out the fire and got a water bucket to put out the remaining burning logs. The fire was very close to the waters edge. My wife had the idea to throw in one of the burning embers and see what it sounded like underwater using my Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones. We submerged one of the logs with a shovel then used two hydrophones moving them carefully around the piece of wood; the result was astonishing and bizarre.

CFR: Do you have an tips for new field recordists who want to explore recording Ambisonic sounds?

RD: I would try to get as much recording experience as possible. Try recording inside a studio or acoustically treated room with these microphones first, so you can grasp the way these microphones capture sound. This was very helpful for me in choosing what sources to record with what mic, and how far or close I would place them to sources. Sometimes it wasn’t possible to get the sound to match perfectly to the source in the virtual environment. So, I resorted to capturing sources in mono and stereo then placed them later in an Ambisonic mix. This would sometimes give me greater flexibility over how to position and place the sounds in the environment. You could also control the rate of how much activity that source would play for example how often you hear a bird chirping in a distant tree. I experimented a lot, and by no means think I am an expert in this field. I feel I have only scratched the surface of what is possible with Ambisonic sounds. There are already some great new tools hitting the market today, like Sound Particles by Nuno Fonsca, and 360 Pan Suite by AudioEase, which I just recently picked up. I feel it’s a really exciting area to sonically explore; I am looking forward to creating my next album in this format.

My thanks to Richard Devine for sharing his experience with us!

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