Mike McDonough is one of the premier sound designers, engineers and recordists in the industry. We had the honor to ask him about his incredible career in this two part interview. Read part two below, where Mike shares with us his top tips for field recording and his go-to recording equipment!
Missed part one of this interview? Check it out here!
INTERVIEW PART TWO
You have had the privilege to see the sound design industry evolve throughout your 30+ year career. Can you pinpoint one technologic advancement in sound design that has made your life much easier?
I think most people who made the transition from analogue to digital in the 90’s would agree non-linear editing and digitized video files changed their professional lives. It’s hard to believe now how we had to do post production before that time. I never worked on sproketed film, but transferring everything to 35mm mag and editing on upright Moviolas must have been grueling for a sound editor.
In the 1980’s SMPTE time code gave post production an alternative by being able to slave 24 track to linear picture using a synchronizer, and that is how I started doing post work. But doing picture changes meant hours of going down a generation on tape, and using time code offsets to re-sync everything. That was horrible!
1990 was a banner year for me because I jettisoned the linear analog process and got one of the first digital audio workstations; the New England Digital Synclavier Post Pro system. It was an immensely expensive and complicated machine. 16 tracks of sound editing with waveforms, and no DSP of any kind. The Synclavier keyboard was amazing though, a $30,000 add-on to the system with a tactile piano style keyboard, and dedicated button controllers, all working in RAM. The whole system was a $300,000 investment, and was run on two dedicated 19” equipment racks. Skywalker Ranch bought 12 of them, I believe, and used them for sound design and playback on the dub stages. That made it easy for me to take my data DAT backup tapes there and load my projects into their systems for final mixing. Before that, I had load a dozen 24 track reels on the plane with me, and use a handcart to get everything up to Skywalker’s mixing stages from the parking basement!
In 1996, Randy Thom convinced me to switch to Pro Tools, when he showed me how he used his system to do sound design on Forrest Gump. I started with Pro Tools 4 back then.
You spend a lot of time in the field recording your own sounds. What are your top tips for field recording?
Good, well prepared equipment. Obviously, not everyone who wants to record sounds will be able to invest $20,000 or more into microphones and recorders, but I think it’s important to make sure you have prepared and tested your gear. Even If you are using just a hand held, you can be running the latest software and firmware, and recording at 24 bit, 48 kHz, .wav format. I’d say there’s no reason to ever record using a lower sample rate or bit depth, or Mp3 as your file format. Even if you have just a cell phone in your pocket and decide to capture a sound using that, set the preferences for the highest bit depth and sample rate possible. Also, have extra batteries and some sort of good wind protection for your mic or handheld recorders. I also always make a test recording and play it back to make sure it all works right.
Pick your gear to match what you are recording. If I am recording interior ambiences in a public space, for instance a restaurant or office lobby, I want to blend in as much as possible to my surroundings, and not call any attention to what I am doing. I will probably use the smallest hand held recorder in my collection. I have a belt pack for it that slides the unit over to my side, and I start recording without ear buds or headphones, which would draw too much attention. I can move around to different locations easily and hold still for 3 to 5 minutes in each area while recording. It works great! If I’m recording forest birds, then I use my best field recorder running at 96kHz, best stereo mics on a small stand, with a blimp and fuzzy windscreen. If I’m recording explosions, I’d also add my vintage analog Nagra 4S to the package, and make use of the nice tape compression of that machine.
Try to pick quiet and appropriate locations. It’s very difficult to sometimes find quiet areas to record in, but I think it’s worth the drive to get to a spot that doesn’t have traffic noise or overhead jets flying by. Of course, sometime the location is what you are recording, like with ambiences. One of the great tools for recording loud, percussive sounds like gun shots, explosions, whip snaps or even hammer hits, is finding an acoustically interesting location that will add natural echo or reverb to the sound. A gun shot recorded in the desert will be a boring single percussive pop with no character to it. And if you record it digitally, it will sound extra flat! Try cutting that sound into a dramatic film or TV show! Yuck! Take that same gun into a forest of trees, or into a box canyon and let the sound interact with the environment and echo or reverberate a bit, and it starts to have some character. Many of the classic gunshots used in film for the last 50 years were recorded in reverberant areas, like a canyon or big interior space where the tail of the sound was as loud as the initial “pop” of the gun. And analog recordings added a sort of natural brick-wall limiting effect to give the loud explosive sound even more character. The environment you choose to record in will make the sound work or not.
Don’t be too laser focused on what you are recording. For instance, if you are out to just get metal creaks from an old rusty truck you’ve found, before you wrap for the day why not record any other sounds it might make, like doors opening and slamming shut, horn honks if the battery is still intact, gear shift levers, clutch squeaks and so forth. Same holds true for anything you are recording. I used to spend a lot of time out in desert areas recording bullet ricochets in the dirt, but while out there I also was able to get nice desert wind blowing through sagebrush, distant crows, insects, and even cars and trucks driving by on a dirt road. None of that was my reason for the long drive, but I was able to get some good material not related to my original recording quest.
I always have something close at hand to record with wherever I go. You never know when or where you might encounter an interesting sound. I usually carry a small bag in my trunk with a hand held recorder in it all ready to go at any time. I make sure the battery is charged up, and that way I can grab it and be recording in a minute or two. When I go on car trips with my family, I usually try to also carry a bigger bag with my “serious” recording gear, which has a large stereo mic in a Rycote blimp with a Windjammer, headphones and extra batteries and long mic cables. If I’m walking around all day somewhere, I wear my belt pouch with a hand held recorder in it. You can even get a nice external mic that will plug into your smart phone’s charging or data port with an included recording app. All that would fit into your pocket nicely!
Be patient. You might spend all day somewhere, and only end up with a couple of usable sounds. I’ve been trying my whole life to record the “ultimate” thunderclap, and I’m still trying! The conditions have to be perfect, with no wind, no rain, no traffic or dogs barking, and your recorder set at the right recording level to avoid clipping or distortion. You also have to try and not get killed doing it. It’s my personal challenge.
Learn good editing and metadata skills. After recording, you need to make your sounds usable to editors, and tag the sounds with lots of useful metadata. I always try and remove unwanted sounds and mistakes from my recordings, like mic handling noise, clicks and pops, useless rumble, or anything that would make it hard for myself or another sound editor to use. You really don’t want low frequencies sounds in your bird recordings, cars going by in wind tracks, or people asking you dumb questions while you are trying to record crowd noises. Many times I have to edit out someone coming up to me in a public area saying “what are you recording?”. Cleaning up the sounds should you record, editing them, and tagging metadata is an arduous but necessary task.
What is your go-to field recording equipment?
My favorite rig is the tried and true Sound Devices 422 with a Neumann RSM 190i M/S mic. I carry the mic in a Rycote blimp, covered with a Windjammer fuzzy when I’m outside. I usually record at 96 kHz and use an M/S to X-Y converter on the recording. If it’s strictly a mono sound I’m after, I’ll leave it in M/S mode, and use the center firing super cardioid mic element routed to one or both channels of the recorder.
I also really like the Zoom H6. It gives me multiple mic inputs in an interleaved file format. I recently used it to record some wooden wagon wheels. I used the forward facing XY mics on channels 1 and 2, with a small windjammer over them to capture the overall sound in stereo, plus a Sennheiser 416 in a blimp and windjammer focused on the wheels on channel 3.
My smallest rig is a Sony D50. It has fairly nice on board electret mics, and is easy to carry. I wrap the mic element in double layer panty hose, then put a small windjammer-style cover over it. This keeps most low grade wind noise from getting in the recording.
A Sennheiser 416 in a Rode hand held blimp with windjammer is still a great sounding microphone for mono isolated sounds. I love that mic. It never needs any EQ, and is also perfect for Foley work. The slight frequency rise around 10kHz and smooth low end never disappoint. It has low handling noise, low self-noise and a nice presence at 10kHz, which then rolls back flat out to the upper end.
I also have a pair of Rode lavaliere mics for close mounting on cars to record “steadies” and so forth.
A pair of old Electro Voice RE-16 dynamic mics, and a pair of EV 635A omni dynamic mics are useful for recording catastrophically loud sounds exceeding 130 dB that would destroy the elements of an expensive condenser mic. I’ve used them for close mic recordings of 500 lb explosive charges in a strip mine, and on a mic stand less than 50 feet from the nozzle of Space Shuttle engine test firing. No limiters or compressors were needed, just some in-line 10 dB pads inserted before the mic pre.
An analog Nagra 4S is also kept in working order and available for that vintage sound. Some of the best sounding recordings I’ve ever made were done on it. It gives you the warmth of analog, the benefits of physical tape compression on loud sounds, and the ability to keep operating at any temperature, even sub zero. A few years ago I was recording the sound of wind blowing through pine trees during a snow storm high up in the Utah mountains. With wind chill, the temperature was about 6 degrees Fahrenheit. After about 20 minutes, my Sound Devices digital rig quite working, and needed to be thawed out in the cabin. The Nagra kept rolling and recording! Of course, I froze up not too long after that as well. As long as someone will still make tape and D cell batteries, it is a viable recording option!
Is there one piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?
No. Not really. Considering I started my sound design career using reel-to-reel tape recorders and editing with razor blades, I’ve decided that all audio equipment are just tools. I’ve changed my tools over the years as technology changed, but what never changed is my desire and ability to capture and create sound. In most ways it’s easier now than it has ever been to record and edit than it was formerly, which I’m grateful for.
And finally, what would be your best advice to those just starting out their career in sound design?
I’d say learn to listen to the world around you, and try and learn from people whose work you admire. Don’t copy them, but learn from them. With today’s technology, its too easy to sit and stare at waveforms going by all day, but that can make your creative process visually oriented, instead of sonically oriented. After all, the audience doesn’t care about waveforms! Close your eyes sometimes and just listen to what you’re doing. Trust your ears. A really smart Academy Award winning film mixer once told me, “If it sounds good, it is good”.