I decided to ask him just how he went about capturing those intense sounds, what the perfect thunderclap sounds like to him – and what’s been the wildest experience in his many years of recording this dramatic natural phenomenon.
Hi Frank, when it comes to capturing the sound of thunderstorms, what are the best conditions to record in?
Sitting in my living room having a Single Malt Scotch with the microphones outdoors recording. Seriously though, the best storms to record are when the thunder and lightning happens on the leading edge of the storm. The leading edge is when the thunder is occurring with little to no rain or wind. This is very rare because the wind energy need to create the sudden thermal expansion needs to be present. Most of the thunder and lightning I record here in North Idaho is actually from multiple fronts colliding. These fronts can swirl around and change direction very quickly so there can be multiple leading edges. Sometimes there are very nice sounding storms with rain that I really want to record.
What does the perfect thunderclap sound like in your book?
I have recorded countless storms over the last 15 years and many of them have produced amazing and different sounding thunder. With the mountains, open fields and thick forests around here there are many types of sounds produced. From deep, booming thunder claps to dry lightning strikes I am always amazed at the dynamics of them. Some start out with a “peal” or soft rolling and then end up with a massive sonic shock wave similar to a sonic boom while others just have a heavy explosive sonic boom. These two are my favorites.
What kind of safety precautions do you take when recording something like this?
Lightning can be dangerous and even deadly. I met someone here who was hit while working outside and survived so I know first hand about the dangers.
I try to be very aware of where the storm is while recording and make sure that during the highest activity that I’m indoors and not in contact with the gear. Safety is the first priority no matter how excited I get when I know a good storm is coming my way.
Can you describe a typical recording session? What goes on, and what equipment are you using?
It all starts with checking the forecast for the week during the active thunder storm season. I use several Apps on my iPad and iPhone to track the lightning and the storms. I also keep an eye on the sky as well along with using my nose. Yes, my nose. The smell of the air here in North Idaho changes when the weather gets stormy.When I have enough time before the storm arrives I set up two Sennheiser MKH-8040ST microphone sets, one XY and the other ORTF. I place them about three meters apart under the trees in my back yard with each microphone rig pointed in a different direction based on what my weather tracking Apps indicate the direction of the storm will come from. I run about 75 feet of stereo cables from under the trees to the deck and then inside the house to my Sound Devices SD-702 or 744T recorders.
Sometimes I can sit out on the deck so I use just 50 feet of cable. I try to use the least amount of cable possible. I also set up a Sony portable recorder in another location, usually on the other side of the house as a back up. Here in North Idaho we get some wild storms that can approach from all directions. Some storms even collide over the lake for no reason unless the thunder gods say so.
Given that you can’t plan when a thunderstorm rolls in, doing a library like this must be a long-term process?
Yes indeed! I have perfected the art of waiting. Seven out of ten storms that roll in here don’t produce anything usable in terms of thunder and lightning. I do always get something usable though. Rain and wind are the usual things that come out of these sessions. Some years have many thunder storms while others have just a few.
I’ve been striving for this type of lightning my whole career. The thunder gods heard my request and they delivered!
2013 was a terrible year for storms while 2014 has been the best so far. I’ve been recording thunder for well over 15 years and I’ve never experienced a year like 2014. This is the year I recorded quite a few dry lightning strikes very close to the house. I’ve been striving for this type of lightning my whole career. The thunder gods heard my request and they delivered!
What’s been the wildest experience recording this library?
I’ve had two actually and they both involve very close lightning strikes and hand held portable recorders. The first was back in 2008 and it had been raining very hard all day. I heard the rain falling off the roof and it was coming down hard so I grabbed my Sony PCM-D1 and stepped out on my back deck then CRACK! Just as I stepped out the door there was this intense lightning strike just on the other side of the hill behind my house. I froze in place because I knew the Sony PCM-D1 was recording. I got a crazy strike that sounded like the thunder gods cracked a whip. It was the strangest strike I have every heard. It’s on my first thunder library.
The second one happened earlier summer. Again, I had just stepped out on my deck to set up my two MKH-8040ST microphone rigs and CRACK! – right over my head an extremely loud dry lightning strike came right out of nowhere.
I was not expecting one this close by at all. I was really upset that my main recording rigs were not running but since I had heard some rumblings earlier I placed a Sony PCM D-100 on the other side of the house and it got it. BTW, sounds recordist friends: The close strikes are extremely loud. Make sure you take care of your hearing if you are recording this kind of stuff.
You’ve done three thunderstorm libraries so far. How are they different, and have you learned anything from making the first two that came in handy for the 3rd one?
The first two thunderstorm libraries were recorded with different microphones. I mainly used a Sanken CSS-5 and a Audio Technica AT-835ST Stereo shotgun microphones. While they sound wonderful they had to be pointed in the direction of where the storm was coming in from for the best result. This meant I had to run out and change the position of the microphones on occasion. They also have a limited frequency response and do not capture the extreme low and high frequencies thunder and lightning can produce. I also used a Sony PCM D-1 and D-50 quite a bit for when I did not have time to set up all the gear.
This third library was recorded mostly with the Sennheiser MKH-8040ST line of microphones. These microphones capture the full frequency response of the thunder and lightning and the high SPL they produce with wonderful results. Again, when I was caught with my pants down I used a Sony PCM D-100 recorder which sounds great and goes well beyond 20k.
Also, I tried my best to keep the sounds as raw as possible. Recording thunder and lightning in any environment is extremely challenging in this noisy world we live in so I did clean up some of the files with RX-3 which worked really well.
Are you done with thunderstorm libraries, or do you think you’ll be doing more in the future?
I am sure there will be more in the future as long as the storms keep coming and I am able to set up the gear and record.
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