Learn more about the challanges and interesting & funny facts that come along with a BOOM field recording session. BOOM sound designer Tristan Horton wrote this extensive Behind-The-Scenes report to give you valuable insight on the field recordings for our HISTORICAL FIREARMS library. Enjoy!
(tho) The Historical Firearms Library started off as a small email thread between Myself (Tristan Horton) and Axel Rohrbach.
I met Roger Ingle, the Chairman of the Durban Black Powder Club, at my local dog park. He is a retired communications specialist from the South African Army and keenly interested in sound technology, which we discussed at length. Through our discussions I learnt about his wonderful collection of antique and replica black powder firearms.
I proposed the idea of recording a black powder library to Axel. Roger had the main components of a solid library, including Muzzleloaders, Breechloaders and Revolvers. Covering many of the historic calibers and firing mechanisms. However, it quickly became clear that I would need to source a greater variety of firearms for a typically comprehensive Boom Library. After almost a year of extensive planning, sourcing, scouting and hundreds of emails, Axel and I had our line up of firearms and a plan to record them.
In July 2012 Axel travelled to Durban, his first journey to the Southern Hemisphere, to meet up with me. Our team consisted of Axel, myself, assistant sound designer Vlad Buzdugan and cameraman Jimmy Reynolds. Having a small team simplified logistics in some respects, but also added pressure on each member to perform at a very high level.
Our Firearms came from two main sources:
The Durban Blackpowder and Historical Gun Club, headed up by Roger Ingle and Don Greyson, and The Boston Blackpowder Club, organized by Police Captain Bertie Fourie, of the Boston SAPS.
Selecting a location to record firearms is a complicated equation, there are many factors to balance. The landscape is critically important to the sonic character of the recordings, but there will always be some trade offs to be made in terms of safety, feasibility, accessibility, legal restrictions, environmental noise and of course capturing the best, most usable sounds possible.
Luckily we did not have to make too many concessions in finding our ideal locations. The hilly countryside of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands in South Africa provided several good options that are fairly remote without being excessively far to travel. Our base of operation was Durban, South Africa. I spent many months scouting potential locations and coordinating (often sweet-talking) with local farmers, police and municipal officials. I had narrowed it down to a few locations all within driving distance. This gave us a bit of flexibility to adapt to any weather issues, which were luckily very few.
In the end we opted to record at two different locations, offering us two distinctly different reverb characters and simplifying accessibility for several of our gun owners.
Our first location was amazingly remote and beautiful. About 90 minutes from Durban, getting there truly stretched the off-road capabilities of my new car. We could not see a single sign of civilization. Just giant rolling grass hills and the Drakensberg mountains in the distance.
Amusingly, even in this remotest of remote locations, just to prove the adage “Leave a mic recording anywhere and you’ll eventually record a dog bark!”; A man drove past with his two dogs. We couldn’t believe it!! Luckily he was traveling several valleys over and this did not cause us any issues. Our only spectators where a herd of bucks, who didn’t hang around once the shooting started.
The landscape gave us an epic rolling reverb. This is the same landscape the Historic Anglo-Zulu War Battles took place on, so recording rifles like the Swinburn Henry, that were in service then, made a lot of sense.
Our second location was a stone quarry near Boston, KZN. The loose shale and irregular surfaces gave brighter, more aggressive early reflections and the distant hills created an incredible long reverb decay. All in all a very useful combination for creating everything from an intense First Person Shooter perspective, to a dramatic distant perspective.
It did have some draw backs. The quarry is lined with trees so the occasional bird noise ruined a few takes, we also had to pause occasionally for a light aircraft that was operating in the area. Fortunately the temperature stayed in single figures the whole day and limited the intrusion of environmental noises.
Axel and I made the decision early on that we wanted to record more than 12 channels and at 192kHz. The 16 Channel system we arrived at was three SD744ts, a SD722, a SD702, SD442 and two SD MP1’s. The recorders were C-linked and we used additional word-clock linking as recommended by Sound Devices.
This setup was pretty solid, although it did have a few issues when playing back and changing batteries. Annoyingly changing a battery on one of the first recorders required all the recorders down the C-link chain to be powered down and powered back up in sequence or else you get some erratic sync behavior. These small time wastages really add up, so we tried to coincide these disruptions with weapon changes.
To get the most out of using 192kHz, we wanted as many extended frequency mics we could get our hands on. Including an XY pair of MKH8040s, two MKH8050s, two DPA4007s and we even broke out a Sanken CS-100k (which doesn't usually leave Axel’s studio).
The basis of our mic setup was: a DPA 4061 mounted on the gun, an MHK416 @ 1m, a pair of DPA 4007 @ 3m, MKH8040ST 5m behind the shooter, a pair of MKH8050s 15m in front of the shooter, a pair of DPA4061s @ 25m, an M/S pair of MKH70 and MKH30 25m behind the shooter, DPA4080 @100m, Sanken CS-100k @100m and a Rode NT2000 (LDC) set to omni, “living dangerously” about 75m in front of the shooter exactly where they were aiming. This gave us a wide diversity of timbres. Surprising stand outs were the NT2000 and MS pair which we were not expecting to sound quiet as good as they did.
We ran all the mics on cables to a central recording station. It was a lot of cabling!!
Power was one of our biggest challenges using so many recorders. We ran all the recorders off standard Sony batteries, with several spares. At 192KHz this was still not enough to record all day so we hired an NP battery kit which unfortunately was the piece of gear that gave us the most trouble. It was pretty old and the batteries were very inconsistent. We used the NP kit to recharge the onboard batteries and we were able to just make it to the end of each day, adding an edge of excitement to the final few recordings. The particular highlight of our power issues occured late into Session 2, the DPA4007s (which were very close to the shooter) started to sputter and distort, it seemed Axel’s most expensive pair of mic’s had just blown. The colour drained completely from Axel’s face, until we realized that it was just that the batteries on the preamp had run low. We changed batteries and got back to recording. This relief really lifted our spirits and carried us through to the end of a very intense weekend.
The first day of our three day adventure we spent recording impulse responses with a starter pistol and MKH8040ST setup, at all of our possible locations. Afterwards we reviewed the recordings on a laptop to decide on our best option. One of our objectives was to get a well balanced stereo echo/reverb decay. We found that moving the firing position just a few meters makes a significant difference. We unfortunately used the entire box of starter caps which left us with a bit of an issue while setting up the next day. We had to improvise with a snare drum. In retrospect both of these options, while extremely useful, are not adequately representative of a gunshot. Once we started firing actual firearms, the awesome sound of the landscape became apparent. We were very pleasantly surprised.
Session one focused on the historically accurate firearms. Used throughout history in military service and combat, including the American Civil War, Napoleonic Wars, South Africa’s Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars, as well as frontier pioneering.
In order to be ready by the time the gun owners arrived, we set out well before dawn. Despite our best intentions, when you are running over half a Kilometer of cabling across un-even terrain, setup will take way longer than you expect! An hour and a half late - we were ready to go.
Muzzleloaders take a substantial amount of time to load. I would not want to have used these in real battle. To make up for the late start we began the session with the Breechloader Rifles which are far less time consuming. Allowing us to get a fast start. Its amazing how important little mental victories like these can be in building momentum in the session. Momentum is a key consideration to keep everyone motivated and involved in the session, helping everyone to stay focused and happy.
Axel had the idea to do group volley shots, as would have been appropriate for civil-war / colonial warfare. We were not too sure how it would work, but at the end of day one we got our first chance to try it. There is something about a group of weapons firing that is so authentic and almost nostalgically cool. Something that can’t be re-created by layering single shots. From that first shot we knew this was it, we need to do more volleys. So session two was re-arranged to give us some more opportunities for larger volleys.
It was a long day, we just managed to get the last of the gear packed in the car by night fall. We did a final sweep of the site using our iPhones as torches to make sure we did not leave anything behind, especially no trash in this pristine environment. To top all that, on our way back there was a heavy accident, forcing a complete block of the highway we had to drive on, costing us another three hours.
That night we downloaded and backed up all our recordings. We did a pretty thorough assessment of what we had recorded, using a laptop. We were very happy, all the mics sounded pretty cool. An observation we made was that the mics we liked best in the field, were not the ones we liked the best when listening back in the DAW. This is definitely due to the limiters on the headphone outs of the Sound Devices recorders. Something to be very mindful of when setting gain levels.
Session two focused on modern black powder weapons, custom rifles, canons and volleys.
We were grateful to arrive at the quarry with the temperature hovering around 0°C. Except I forgot my jacket at home, but once the sun was up the temp was cold, but comfortable to work.
Labeling all our cables the day before really helped speed up our setup. Good practice to avoid frustration and a real time saver.
We did a very similar mic setup to the first day, except for adding a Zoom H4n at the recording table and an MKH416 pointing away from the shooter towards some trees and a distant valley. I don’t know what it is, but it’s almost impossible to make an MKH416 sound bad. It routinely out-performs its tech specs in terms of frequency response and Max SPL. So the golden rule is “if you are recording guns, take an MKH416, point it anywhere and it will sound cool”. Ok perhaps that’s slight hyperbole, but just do it!
There were many more shooters involved in this session to accommodate the larger volleys, which unfortunately meant more spectators. Once everyone had arrived and settled, we convened a briefing to go over the safety as well as human noise intrusions. We settled on a warning protocol that, after the first few times, everyone adhered to commendably. They had to be very patient, the reverb on the distant mics occasionally rang out for almost 10 seconds.
We did, unfortunately, encounter a technical problem. We mysteriously lost 2 channels from the one SD744, however because we were recording so many channels this was not the complete disaster it could have been. In this instance our strategy to split different classes of mics across different recorders, one close pair and one distant pair per SD744, was a real life saver. A hard drive full of distant explosions is cool, but not nearly as useful.
I got in contact with gunsmith Kevin Snicklbien, who builds himself all kinds of interesting firearms. The one I was very interested in was his behemoth 4-Gauge Rifle.
It fires a conical round that is 25mm wide. Of all the rifles, this stirred up the greatest interest amongst the other gun owners.
Kevin’s rifle is not totally historically accurate, but 4-gauge rifles were used in the past, mostly to hunt Elephant and later to pierce light armor in WWI and WWII. This is not a rifle you would normally fire more than once, twice at the most. We needed at least eight shots! So for the sake of Kevin’s shoulder, the eight shots was willingly shared by all the gun owners. No one managed to keep both feet on the ground. The recoil is ridiculous. It’s a Beast.
The bullet is so massive you can actually hear it traveling through the air. An insane firearm and great addition to our library.
To create an authentic and useable Construction Kit you need to understand what you are recording. One of the best aspects of a project like this is that I got to learn from passionate experts. All the people involved were incredibly accommodating and helpful. Owning and maintaining these machines is more craft than hobby, an endeavor which is becoming more and more difficult with new legislation and red tape. Through this project I came to realize that these firearms are preserved for their engineering beauty and cultural significance.
Amongst our shooters were two retired Army Officers, a Police Captain, a Pastor (yeah Pastors like to shoot!!), a crazy Gunsmith, a 10 year old who could load a canon better than anyone and the father of a prominent South African Super Model. All in all, a very interesting couple of days. A massive thank you to everyone.
The size and scope of this project was fantastic, we got great recordings, had no in-surmountable problems and a lot of learning to take forward into our next projects.
Click here to get to the HISRORICAL FIREARMS product page to watch our great making-of video and listen to some audio samples.