You rip apart the shrink wrap and pull your new audio recorder out of the box. You power it up. You flip through the menus and apply the settings. You string lengths of cables to a dozen microphones. Each microphone is wiggled into Rycotes and spun onto stands. Their position is adjusted and tweaked. Then you slip into headphones and twist tiny dials so that the levels are just right.
What’s that? There’s hum on the line? Which mic is it? Another is picking up a current of air across the diaphragm. You fix everything. Then, after the first performance, you struggle to get levels from the contact mic without peaking. Half an hour later you’re ready to record. You’re frustrated and exhausted. How can you possibly expect to capture inspired performances now?
It’s not easy to be creative on demand. It’s especially hard when struggling with the technical demands of field recording. Last week’s post shared ideas on how to use adaptation, imagination, and creativity to grow beyond gathering only “sufficient” technical sound effects. And why not? There’s an opportunity to inject each field recordist’s expression into the sounds they capture. That invests a sound pro into their recordings, and sparks excitement in listeners, too.
Is there room to grow in other areas of a sound effect’s lifespan? As we know, capturing a field recording is only part of sound effect’s arc. After being captured, a clip must also be cleaned. Just like field recording, mastering requires precise technical skills. Is it possible to inject creativity when mastering, too?
Last week’s article explored whether field recording can grow beyond the technical boundaries of the craft. Today’s post shares a new idea: that it’s not enough just to record sound effects with emotion; the best field recordings must be presented that way, too.
So, today’s post shares tips and tricks for detecting and applying creativity when cleaning sound clips. Next week will conclude the series with ideas for organizing clips so listeners will be inspired when they discover them.
Please note: I explore this idea in detail. This article should take you about 15 minutes to read. Click the button below to email the article to yourself to read later.
A Tightening Noose
Field recordists need elaborate equipment to work. They can’t record sound without it. Still, though, it’s relatively easy to slip in your own creative flair when you put your mind to it. Rev a car engine like an enraged tiger. Angle a microphone at a window gap to capture haunting whistling wind, or reach it out the window for a fuller urban breeze.
Examples like these use creative performances and inspired interpretations to evade the technical traps of field recording. The battle isn’t over when the microphones are returned to their Pelican cases, though. In fact, that’s just when things begin to get tricky. Next, a field recording is cleaned of all errors during mastering. Then, it is organized and presented during curation. Like field recordists, these sound pros must use sophisticated hardware and software to get the job done. They too are technically heavy tasks. Why?
Well, mastering requires precision. There’s little room for interpretation. For example, you can’t leave half of a line hum in a track. For an ambience to be most useful, that 60 Hz buzz has to be eliminated – all of it. If you’re cutting ocean waves, that distant jet ski must be removed. Sure, it was there when you heard it on the beach, but most people are looking for water laps without distractions.
Curating sound has even less wiggle room. Either a sound is a cat or it isn’t. Is it meowing, or drinking? Does that track belong in the “Animals” category, or “Ambiences?” Was it recorded in New York or New Jersey?
That’s why it’s understandable to see both mastering and curation as binary crafts. The further a sound effect travels to completion, the more black-and-white its success appears. The result when field recordings pop out of this technical assembly line? Sound effects are precisely prepared and perfectly presented and, unfortunately, completely sterile. They are crisp and clear and free of noise, but have no life. You’ve heard the kind. They’re the clips you flip through in metadata apps, one after another, but fail to interest you. They’re technically sufficient, but uninteresting.
The upshot? Mastering and curation are a tightening noose of perfection that risks strangling a sound clip’s creative expression. How can you inject creativity into these highly technical tasks and deliver sound clips just the way pros demand them?
The Two Tiers of Field Recording Expression
One idea is to use a two-tier approach to preparing field recordings. Master two types of sound effects:
- Precise clips. Record, master, and curate sound effects with technical precision. This will create sound effects that anyone can use and build upon.
- Characteristic clips. When that’s done, augment those takes with more creative flair that use sound in more specific ways.
The result? You have the best of both worlds: clean, technically precise clips as well as takes with character. How can you do this?
It’s fairly simple when field recording. Perform one take with a standard, “clinical” technical performance. Then, repeat the performance creatively using the tips shared in last week’s post. Can this be done while mastering?
Yes. Let’s learn how.
Mastering for Character
Mastering is the sound effects sharing step that helps a clip be heard the way the creator imagined when it was discovered and recorded.
There are many steps to mastering sound effects, including:
- Trimming slates and dropping markers.
- Writing names.
Learn more about these steps in An Introduction to Sound Effects Mastering.
Those all seem like they allow little creativity, don’t they? How can the two-tier approach create both precise and characteristic clips? Here’s an overview:
- Mastering precise clips.
- Base takes.
- Secondary recordings.
- Mastering characteristic clips.
- Cut for character.
- Combo tracks.
- Creative grouping.
- Sound design.
- Pastiche editing.
Mastering Precise Clips
It’s important to provide precisely mastered sound clips without character. Why?
Well, not everyone needs a sound of a maniacally swerving car. Maybe characters are driving on a highway sharing an important conversation. A director won’t want an engine with character for that scene. So, it’s important to provide more neutrally mastered sound clips.
There are two reasons for this. First, it allows sound effects to become a supporting character in a scene. The clips will sit back and allow other elements of a project to shine. After all, sound effects may be important to us, but emphasizing them in every project just isn’t suitable.
Secondly, precise clips provide building blocks to help construct larger soundtracks. A prop airplane needs steady flying between the dive bombs in the action scenes. A library mastered with only aerial acrobatics is just as difficult to use as a collection of boring takes. So, clinical clips are important, too. They allow sound designers to use precisely mastered sounds as a foundation, and build upon them as they wish.
How To Master Precise Clips
How can you begin to cut the rank-and-file, reliable “precise clips?” Here are two ideas:
- Base takes.
- Mine for secondary recordings.
Let’s learn more.
First, provide for editors by cutting base takes. These versions of mastered field recordings are usually uneventful, but are solid and dependable. Here are examples:
Specific Sound Effects
- Doors: a standard, consistent door open and close, a classic door knock, unlocking and locking, knob turns.
- Handgun: a single simple gunshot, consistent clip reloading, basic shell drops.
- Transitions: a classic medium-speed whoosh, airy with a high-pitched texture.
- Vehicles: a car idling, a single pert horn hong, driving steadily, full coverage of doors and the hood and the trunk.
Just because base take specific clips are “precise” doesn’t mean they lack variety, either. Experiment with speed, pitch, rhythm, and so on to create variation in the building blocks you create.
- Traffic: steady, homogenous, flowing traffic. Not too much space between cars or distinctive motors.
- Birds: steady rhythm and pitch, no single bird calls.
- Crowds: without “pop-outs” or distinct voices.
What’s the best way to master precise base take atmospheres? Cut the consistent takes mentioned in an earlier article. These long takes don’t vary much, but create a good bed for other tracks to rest upon. Supplement them by offering loop-ready versions of the same ambiences. That helps your editor friends duplicate them in series and fill a scene quickly. Don’t forget to split out and master the precise transitional takes, too, for example the sound of crowd leaving a room and diminishing. Those guide the sound from one form of expression to another.
Learn more about these three types of ambiences in A Blueprint for Mastering Long Field Recordings.
Of course, not every sound is recorded in complete isolation. Sometimes other sounds overlap the subject, can be heard in the background, or are merely incidental to the recording.
For example, imagine sitting down to master clips from a fireworks field recording session. While editing, you’ve trimmed each blast, compressed the stuffing out of them, and have given them basic names. Is that the limit of creative expression in the track?
Expand your focus. Perhaps a fuse sizzles angrily before a cherry bomb explodes. The recordist didn’t start the day wanting to collect fuse sounds. Just the same, the fizzle is interesting. Split it off. Maybe just before a take ends you can hear the subtle barrage of a distant neighbourhood fireworks display. Save it. Then you notice a particularly flamboyant flame ignite before lighting the fuse. Sure, it overlaps the fuse a bit, but it is strong, and interesting. Chop it away to add to the library. Mine for these secondary recordings and master them into their own clips.
Mastering a combination of “precise” base takes and secondary recordings creates a solid foundation of reliable clips editors need.
Mastering Characteristic Clips
What about characteristic clips? Why bother mastering with personality in mind? Well, while the precise clips provide suitable, reliable takes, characteristic clips contribute more detailed expression.
Remember the film scene from earlier with the highway driving conversation? Let’s imagine those characters crest a hill and see a zombie horde in the valley below. They abandon their philosophical conversation about the future of humanity and slam the pedal to the floor. They swerve around the undead before revving the car and steamrolling dozens of animated corpses to safety. The resulting soundtrack is tense and exhilarating.
To cut this scene properly, an editor needs takes such as engine-punishing acceleration, high-speed swerves, driving over
zombie bodies uneven ground, and more.
Editors cannot rely on a stock car library of steady driving in 10 km/h increments. It just won’t have the material to complete the scene. This is why finding and mastering characteristic takes is essential. They provide expression that helps build energetic, emotional compositions.
There’s another hidden benefit to mastering takes with personality: they provide inspiration. A cool or odd take can fire an editor’s imagination. This is important when auditioning potential sounds. Even if they don’t end up using the clip, unusual takes can spark the creative process by selection (“That’s cool. I want to use that sound!”), association (“Ah, that’s given me a new idea.”), or exclusion (“I don’t want that, but now I know my needs better.”).
When tracks are mastered with both expression and inspiration in mind, they seek and find the personality of the field recordist and portray distinctiveness. That’s essential to showcasing what the field recordist themselves has to offer – to convey that their work has sonic flair that no other creator could provide. The mastering tech contributes to this too, of course. Their wizardry in the edit suite highlights a field recordist’s creativity and diminishes their mistakes. A mastering tech’s goal is to enhance the idea field recordists discovered on location and present it to listeners in the best, clearest way.
While that’s not always used practically in projects, it’s vital when creating sound libraries. That contributes to remarkable collections that invite fans to select and use them. There’s a bonus, too: sound effects mastered with distinctiveness inspire field recordists and mastering techs to keep producing remarkable clips.
How To Master Characteristic Clips
You’ve mastered technically reliable takes for your sound library. How can you contribute creativity when mastering?
Mute the practical tracks you cut earlier. Hide your precise ambiences and specific clip edits. Return to your source tracks and revisit the audio using two methods: editing, and sound design.
There are three ways mastering uses editing skills to embed creativity in a clip:
- Cut for character.
- Combo tracks.
- Creative grouping.
Let’s see how.
Cut For Character
The first and simplest way to master characteristic clips is to cut for character. Find notable elements in recordings and highlight them. These can include:
- Emotional performances. If you’re lucky, the field recordist used the feeling wheel from last week’s post to capture performances with emotional flair: frightened holster draws, or aggressive ones. All is not lost if that wasn’t their plan, though. Listen to the takes and think about how they make you feel. Separate those from the standard takes.
- Cool takes. These are a subset of emotional performances. How? They’re specifically designed to impress or convey swagger. Does booming thunder fill your edit suite and rattle the shelves? Pull that out from a longer storm track and master it separately. Does the third take of Corvette supercharger ignition create a throaty, gurgling growl? Focus on that region and master it separately.
- Odd effects. From a conventional mastering perspective, weird takes are completely useless; they’re too strange to fit anywhere. But from the view of a creative mastering tech, they’re a goldmine. Strange recordings make listeners think differently. They offer one-of-kind performances that couldn’t possibly be planned. For example, does a bike pump include an exhausted, nasal wheeze just before finishing? Sure, you’ll cut that wheeze away when preparing the precise clip. After all, you don’t want a piercing snort overwhelming the rest of the soundtrack. Return to the clip later and cut a second version with the wheeze intact.
- Mistakes. Often errors provide interesting, unplanned character. Maybe the field recordist planned to record a hammer hitting nails. Their aim isn’t great though, and they managed to crush the wood of a table below. Mashing the particleboard brought out a forceful splintering sound. When mastering, find and save these unpredictable performances.
Those are examples where mastering techs can use detailed editing to actively to highlight expression.
Imagine yourself auditioning clips from a sound library. You’re searching for a quiet cathedral crowd. You find a candidate, but after a moment hear the grumble of traffic from outside the church. In most cases, the track simply can’t be used. Why?
Well, most broadcast productions require tracks separated by theme: tracks 1 and 2 will have air tone, 3 and 4 will have birds, and so on. This helps mixers adjust the elements separately to find a proper ratio for listeners. That’s why most of the time sound pros can’t work with combo tracks with multiple sound effects.
So, you may be tempted to snip away the end of a rain track where traffic begins. Yes, cut the pure rainfall. Don’t trash the cars in the puddles just yet, though. Why?
Unusual combinations can inspire creators just like the odd takes and mistakes mentioned above. What’s more, these combo tracks could be just the all-in-one track editors require.
Who would use combo tracks? Industry legend Walter Murch, that’s who. According to a sound editing urban legend, Murch would mix with just three or four tracks. They’d be combo tracks, and they’d be the right ones. He didn’t need 96 tracks to get the mood he needed. Those six tracks did the trick.
True story or sound editing fable? It doesn’t matter. Maybe those combo tracks give editors an idea of how to sculpt their final soundtrack. Perhaps the blend becomes a reference point for a realistic sound edit using an array of stereo pairs. Master isolated takes, but don’t automatically trash the blended ones, either.
This is a minor editing gimmick. It’s used when mastering isolated, performed specific sound effects.
Have you recorded a “series” of similar sounds? Examples include a dozen rock drops using the same boulder, or 50 designed whooshes.
Standard editing practice is to trim each rock drop, slice away any imperfections, space them evenly, then bounce them together in a “family” or “series.” However, this process often produces a boring sequence of only slightly differing performances. The result? Editors tune out after the fifth similar rock drop.
Instead, consider the placement of each rock drop region, first. Re-order the performances creatively to provide interesting juxtapositions of pitch, texture, energy, and more. That helps editors make inspired selections.
Mastering for personality in the editing stage is done by finding interesting existing elements and highlighting them. By contrast, the sound design mastering stage takes existing elements and creates something new.
Now, you may think using sound design for mastering is limited to creating starships or wolf monsters. That is true, however there are more subtle ways to shape sound to create character. Let’s learn how:
- Pastiche editing.
Using processing when mastering is the most obvious way to inject character into field recordings. It’s a matter of using plug-ins to apply a significant transformation to existing sounds.
The seminal “basic” processing methods include pitch, time-stretching, sample reversal, reverb, delay, and others. More elaborate processing methods feature flangers, phasers, harmonic exciters, feedback, transient design, equalization (combing, filtering), distortion, compression, limiting, and many more.
Processing can be used when mastering to make field recordings usable (e.g., use compressors and transient designers to transform a pistol pop into a beefy gunshot), sweeten reality (e.g., use a harmonic exciter to make some sounds seem more full), or craft dramatic changes (e.g., use a stack of plug-ins to transform dog vocals into a dinosaur growl).
Prefer a subtle, “organic” approach when applying plug-ins? Maybe you want to alter your clips with “far out” psychedelic processing. It’s up to you and the demands of your audience. Whichever the case, processing and plug-ins are a “no-brainer” playground for applying unlimited creativity when mastering sound effects.
Not all sound design springs from samplers and plug-ins, though. It can also occur with the lighter touch of creative editing. How?
Creative mastering can cut normal field recordings differently to present new, provocative sounds. For example, remove the middle of bird chirp and stitch the beginning and end together to create a short, sharp, beep. Cut the head and tail of a mud footstep together and you’ll have a soggy hit or movement. Remember the gurgling supercharger from earlier? Why not string together the gurgle from all 10 Corvette ignition takes into one sustained throaty gargle? Not sure what it could be used for? No problem. Let future Anime editors twist it into the vocals of the next global sci-fi threat. As long as it is interesting, it has the potential to be a tool for sound design later.
This technique of pastiche editing presents field recordings in new ways using only simple editing. A nice bonus: it doubles the milage of recordings captured in the field.
Using Selection and Transformation to Inspire
Yes, finding, selecting, and mastering characteristic tracks is fairly easy if the field recordist planned for them on location. It’s possible if that’s not the case, though. Skillful mastering can spot expressiveness in mundane field recordings, slice it away, or edit intriguing parts into a new, fuller, fascinating clip.
That’s why characteristic sound effects aren’t limited to quirky performances in the field. It happens in the edit suite, too. Yes, sound effects mastering refines a field recordist’s vision into a polished clip and presents it listeners. It also has great potential to inject creativity by selecting fascinating clips or transforming standard recordings. The editing step of mastering uses selection, separation, emphasis, and organization to draw out creativity and lock it into a polished clip. Sound design uses plug-ins to warp sound effects or apply inventive edits to re-imagine typical recordings.
So, lock yourself in the edit suite. Settle into the chair. Reach into your toolbox of selection and transformation to master raw field recordings into inspiring creations.
Next: how to embed creativity when curating sound effects.