In this new interview by Barney Oram, he takes you behind the scenes on the making of his new library, and shares tips, tricks and ideas for capturing outstanding animal sound effects:
Interview by Barney Oram, images courtesy of Mattia Cellotto
What inspired you to create this and the previous library? Why animals specifically?
After having worked on libraries that are mostly focused on human made sounds I thought it would have been a nice challenge to try and record in environments where I had less control.
What I wanted to capture most of all was clarity in the form of proximity, dryness of the sound and ultrasonic richness
I wanted that to be a test to see whether I could deliver the same quality that is normally delivered for other types of libraries where variables are easier to keep in check. What I wanted to capture most of all was clarity in the form of proximity, dryness of the sound and ultrasonic richness.
Not all sound effects libraries come with a launch trailer, but this one does:
Watch the Animal Hyperrealism II trailer above
What was your recording setup for this library? Did that change since your previous library? If so, why?
For the first library I used a Zaxcom Maxx and a Sound Devices Mixpre10T along with Sennheiser 8040 and 8050 mics and a Sanken CO100K. The result were very satisfying but I couldn’t help but notice I was still missing part of the ultrasonic picture.
For Vol II I decided to try and create an experimental setup that featured not only a 384KHz recorder but also a 200KHz microphone by Avisoft, specifically the CM16/CMPA. With this microphone I was able to get a fuller picture for a lot of new animals. Here you can see another picture from Vol II featuring a Congo Grey Parrot.In the image you can see a selection that goes from 0 to 96KHz, which is the range the previous setup could capture. Above the selection you can see another 96KHz interval full of harmonics I could previously not capture.
Not all animals feature this kind ultrasonic richness but a lot of them made sounds with energy up to 120 to 150KHz, hence I decided to preserve the recordings at 384KHz for the animals that did.
How much planning goes in the average recording session for Animal Hyperrealism?
I would say anywhere in between two weeks and six months! The extremes of this answer come with good stories too.
For the short planning extreme it was January, I was starting to reach the amount of animals I wanted in the library but needed more variety to really wrap things up and feel good about it. At the same time a German student reached out to ask for a few tips with a recording project for university. It turned out he wanted to record a few animals so I almost jokingly said I should have come along for a win-win. One thing led to another and in 2 weeks I was his guest, recording in German zoos during the day and spending the evenings with his lovely family, being offered amazing homemade food without knowing the language enough to say more than a simple “thank you”. From complete strangers to friends in 2 weeks, I owe Kevin (the student’s name) a lot. That was a very random experience but it allowed me to capture some amazing bats and leopards which I didn’t even know would be at the zoo, more importantly it led me to meet a great sound enthusiast and to travel experiencing new things while doing what I love.
Animal Hyperrealism II
On the opposite side of the extremes, the six months one was more of a necessity than a deeply planned trip: last winter I realised a place not too far from home had alligators, at the time I was reading about Colin Hart’s experience recording them. I approached him and he shared a few tips with me (thank you Colin!) but when I approached the alligator center they invited me to wait for mating season as it’d be easier for me to hear the sound. We spent weeks exchanging emails to get the perfect conditions for both myself and the animals.
Alligators are amazing to record as they assume a very specific pose before bellowing – additionally the sound starts at a subsonic level, so you can see the water around them jump and can feel your chest vibrate before you can even hear a sound
In April it finally happened: the gators were amazing, definitely worth the wait. As a side note, alligators are amazing to record as they assume a very specific pose before bellowing, additionally the sound starts at a subsonic level so you can see the water around them jump and can feel your chest vibrate before you can even hear a sound, quite amazing to experience.
What challenges did you encounter?
I think the hardest part of recording animals is in the inconsistency of the challenges themselves. Sometimes an animal might be trained to perform sounds but the environment might not be ideal, other times the animal might be in water, might be flying, or in the case of bats you are never really sure you are even recording the right way as most of the content is ultrasonic. If the recording is successful the new challenge becomes to create a library where quality is consistent, where signal to noise ratio is similar for all recordings so that a sound designer knows what the bar is for the whole collection rather than a specific animal.
It took me days to stop flinching at a tiger’s every move, and now that I have I feel as if I removed “self-preservation” from my operating system
Understanding the animals themselves is a challenge, luckily most of the time I was helped by great keepers and animal trainers that knew how to act in the interest of the animals, to keep them as stress free as possible. Once you know the animals are safe it can take quite some time to convince yourself that you are too: it took me days to stop flinching at a tiger’s every move, and now that I have I feel as if I removed “self-preservation” from my operating system.
Why is ultrasonic sound recording so important for you?
The same way a high speed camera allows us to see what is faster than our eye can catch, ultrasonic recordings can tell us a lot more about a sound that has a story which unfolds too quickly for us to fully grasp in real time.
The normal answer to this question is “the higher I record, the bigger I can make the sound”, which is true in most cases as especially with animal sounds pitching down allows us to create something that sounds bigger than the original source, but there is more to it.
I recorded these small parrots in Italy that make very sharp and quick chirps. As I slowed these recordings down I could imagine the parrots getting bigger and bigger but I could also notice what used to sound like an innocuous chirp was now a complex territorial call with a lot of nuances to it I could not previously hear.
Did you have a chance to witness something truly special?
I think the best thing that can happen when recording animals is to not exist to them. Gordon Hempton sums it up amazingly: “when I listen I have to quiet, I become very peaceful, and I think what enjoy most about listening is that I disappear”. When you record things like electricity, rocks falling and other man made noises there is a sense of disruption of the ordinary, whereas when you listen to the daily call of a leopard or birds interacting with one another you slowly become part of the environment, silently witnessing the ordinary.
I think the best thing that can happen when recording animals is to not exist to them
This didn’t happen with every animal but in a few cases I briefly forgot what exactly I was doing there, it’s a strange feeling of just being at its simplest.
This happened while recording lion calls on the first library. It felt special as what you normally hear are big cats’ roars, growls, snarls, but very rarely one can hear territorial calls from a meter away, which are much deeper and vulnerable sounding. To get higher chances of making this happen I shipped an old blimp to the person that trained the lions so that after a few months, when I stopped by to attempt the recording the lions would not be bothered as much as they’d be familiar with the object.
At the beginning I could feel my presence being an obstacle to their natural being, specifically I felt that seeking eye contact seemed to disturb them, so I started slowly walking around calmly talking about my day and in a few minutes they started calling, so I slowly became quiet and pointed the blimp in their direction without turning to look at what was happening. From what I understand this is also Ann Kroeber’s approach to animal sounds recording: to be friendly, calm, quiet and to relate to animals with faith that there could be some chance of understanding peaceful intentions.
Do you have any personal favorites among the collection?
Yes! I think the bottlenose dolphins and the diana monkey from VOL II could be my current favorites. Mostly because recording them was so pleasant: dolphins are pretty much the perfect voice artists: they vocalise with the perfect pauses in between takes, they don’t move much nor mind being approached closely and they somehow seem to smile throughout. The diana monkey is a bit of a different story. I enjoyed the sound as like the dolphins’ it has great ultrasonic richness but what I enjoyed the most about recording it was that I had to talk back to trigger the calls. It felt like a normal conversation with certainty of answer to my every question.
Are there any interesting tips or techniques you picked up whilst recording this library that would be useful for others trying to record animals?
Yes, a few! Here are some tips in random order:
• Research the animals before you get to a location: Create a collection of sounds from the animal species and try playing back sounds from the same species at a distance until you can see the animal actively listening, then slowly move the speaker closer until the animal either calls back or loses interest/realises the call is not authentic. Be careful to select calls that don’t imply distress, check with an expert and don’t try more than 2 or 3 times, don’t barrage the animals with triggers, it won’t work.
• Surround yourself with experts: They will be able to tell you if it’s the right season for you to capture the sound you want. Even in the right season they might stop a day off and spare you from wasting a day waiting for something that won’t happen.
• Manage Expectations: Even better but less catchy: don’t expect! Not all animals can be trained and even when they are they can still choose not to do what you hope they’d do. Give yourself more time than you think you need, avoid blowing a large part of the budget on one session and think of anything you get as a gift. Recording animals shares a lot of elements with fishing, you could wait hours for something to happen and it could happen the second you think of giving up, so don’t, but also try and realise when something is clearly hopeless!
• We are not animal behaviorists: When in doubt ask. As recordist I tend to want a lot of variations for the sounds I capture but most animals need long breaks. Once you start recording do not focus exclusively on the animal, turn to the expert that is allowing you to record the animal and check for when it’s a good time to stop. This is truly important for getting any sound at all, for learning about the animal you are recording and to have more positive experiences while recording animals in general.
• If safe, follow your gut: Some animals might never get triggered by a recorded sound, try to build a sense for when this is the case. If it seems like a good idea, try talking to animals like parrots and monkeys, I got lucky plenty of times!
Mattia Cellotto having a bit of a chat with a Diana Monkey
• Check your eye contact: Big cats and other hunters do not react to sustained eye contact the same way we do, it has a different meaning that might change the atmosphere for the recording to worse. Additionally, if you think you are building the strongest bond humankind has ever had with an owl through eye contact, remember the owl is probably staring at something 20 meters past you.
• Try not to exist to the animals: Be silent, be respectful and kind. It goes without saying but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and focus on the task at hand.
So what can we expect in Animal Hyperrealism VOL II?
The library includes a variety of animal vocalizations, from alligators to lemurs, geese, bats, dolphins, leopards, a variety of birds and many more. This content forms one of the three sections of the library: the “raw section”.
In addition to that I have added a “cheats section” which contains sounds that could be used as animal vocalizations or layers for creature sound design but that aren’t that. This includes a variety of weird whistles, exercise balls, sneakers squeaking and other weird sources.
Lastly I included a “designed section” which tends to be the result of tests for me to see how far the sounds can be stretched and pushed through sound design. I do it to get a deeper sense of mastery for the specific theme I based my recordings on and to get an idea of the value the library ultimately has in the eyes of a sound designer. This is always the least comprehensive section of my libraries as I like to provide wildly flexible raw materials more so than pre-baked goods that could be less versatile.
Check out the full Animal Hyperrealism II library below:
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