April 1st 2020 Update: It's been exactly a year since we heard from sonic revolutionary Ewan McCree, so we decided to reach out to him to hear how his project is coming along - and he sure had some surprising details to share.
If you already read this exciting story last April, you can skip straight down to the latest info by clicking here. Otherwise we recommend you simply continue reading below, so you’re fully in the loop.
Interview by Asbjoern Andersen
Hi Ewan, just what is the problem with sound effects today?
There’s a wonderful selection of sounds out there, particularly from the independent sound effects community. But, with them being pre-recorded, it puts them at a disadvantage to the expressive performance of, say, a Foley artist. Now, I know there are various software solutions to add randomization and variation to sound effects, but I’ve spent decades outdoors and I know nature always provides a better solution than we humans can come up with.
So what’s your plan?
Being a wildlife recordist here in Australia, I’ve come across a rich and diverse selection of very – very! – vocal animals. But in terms of vocalizations, many of them are one-trick-ponies (and some of them are literally ponies), with a very recognizable set of expressions.
Listen to the hiss of a scrub python and you go ‘well that’s a scrub python’, hear the crawly sounds of a female redback spider and you go, ‘that’s so a female redback spider’, or the squishy sounds of a stinging jellyfish and you’ll instantly go, ‘that’s a stinging jellyfish if I ever heard one’.
But it so happens we have an animal here with incredible vocal abilities – one that can effectively transform sound effects as we know them: The lyrebird. You’re probably familiar with mockingbirds’ impressive abilities when it comes to imitation – but wow, does the lyrebird take the cake and peck at it too.
Those birds can imitate everything from the sounds of laser guns, chainsaws and steam trains, to coffee brewing, jet planes taking off, hand combat, and even wrestling matches. They do it so convincingly you literally can’t tell the difference between their performances and the real thing, and this is where it gets incredibly exciting:
Since it’s not a recording, but an actual performance, they add some incredible variation every time they perform a sound, ensuring that things never sound stale or repetitive. It’s mind-blowing.
How do you plan to take on conventional sound effects?
Over the past 12 years, I’ve been breeding lyrebirds for performance purposes. I’ve been studying the sound community closely for a while, and have noticed that libraries are often released in genres such as Sci-Fi, Whooshes, Gore and EMF. That gave me an idea: Instead of trying to teach the birds the most common sounds out there, I created very distinct sets of sounds that I wanted each bird to learn. And it worked.
I now have targeted lyrebirds that are experts in, for example, deep, thunderous whooshes and braams
I now have targeted lyrebirds that are experts in, for example, deep, thunderous whooshes and braams, whereas others are better at the sounds of, say, spacecraft docking at distant outposts orbiting an icy planet. In other words, I’ve got Sci-Fi birds, Whoosh Birds, Gore Birds etc, offering targeted sound effects with a unique edge.
So you’re planning on selling those recordings?
No. I’m offering the birds themselves as an outright replacement for existing sound effects libraries. At my soon-to-be-launched web shop, you’ll be able to pick the exact bird or birds that match what you’re after, just as you would any sound effects library. You can also buy flocks of birds, or bundles, if you like.
On checkout, you then pick your preferred cage and your choice of bird seeds, and I’ll ship everything anywhere in the world. If you’re local, I’ll simply set them free and tell them to walk over to your place (they don’t fly) – they’re that intelligent.
Now, I know we’re dealing with live animals here, so to ensure they end up with someone who actually cares for animals, I’m asking customers to add a short note to their order, detailing an act of kindness they’ve carried out towards animals at some point in their life.
Maybe you once saved a dog that fell through the ice, perhaps you pet every single cat you meet, or you just love hamsters, almost more than life itself. I’ll then evaluate your story, and if it sounds convincing and caring, I’ll ship – otherwise those birds aren’t going anywhere.
BBC legend Sir David Attenborough, mesmerized by the lyrebirds’ sound effects abilities
What if you don’t have exactly what people are after?
I also breed-to-order. Simply contact me 1-2 years before you need the specific sounds, outlining the types of sounds you need (please include examples), and an intense training regimen is set in place to prepare a bird that can perform exactly those sounds.
I also breed-to-order. Simply contact me 1-2 years before you need the specific sounds
Isn’t that a bit cumbersome compared to, say, downloading a sound effects library with enough variations included?
I mean, you’ll need to have cages, feed the birds and generally look after them..
People who keep a pet generally tend to live longer than those who don’t, so there’s that. They also liven up the place in a way very few sound effects libraries do, and they’re upgradable in a way no sound effects library ever will be.
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How can they be upgraded?
Want to expand the sonic range of your birds? Simply send them back to me for a couple of weeks, and I’ll put them through intense training that’ll teach them a number of new tricks. It can also be done on-site at your place, where I send you an MP3 player and a tiny headset. Mount that headset on the bird and leave it there for a few weeks – and voila, that’s a whole new slew of sounds added to its already-impressive sound effects repertoire.
Any other advantages?
For walla and loop group performances, I have flocks of birds for hire to help out with that. Outline the scenario and setting you’re after, and I’ll put together a custom flock for you.
Most of my birds are bi-lingual, so that’s a big advantage when you’re using them to create, say, the atmosphere of a Berlin railway station, with a train from Moscow coming in
Most of my birds are bi-lingual, so that’s a big advantage when you’re using them to create, say, the atmosphere of a Berlin railway station, with a train from Moscow coming in.
The birds are essentially sound designers too, so I foresee a huge breakthrough there as well.
How can birds do sound design?
Well, who hasn’t met a client who said: ‘I love that sound of ocean waves you did there, but can you add more of a roaring sound to it, almost like an angry lion”? That’s where the birds come to the rescue:
By mounting the aforementioned tiny headset on the bird, and playing back recordings of waves and roaring, angry lions for periods of up to 48 hours at a time, the bird will think long and hard, interpret and ultimately do a mashup of those sounds, exactly like your client requested.
And, just like that, no more angry clients – ever.
Any problems using those birds for sound?
They do tend to peck at the microphones, so I always recommend protecting your gear with windjammers, cages or similar. Also, if you leave them roaming free in the studio, be advised that they seem to have a fondness for nesting in piles of tangled cables. Finally, I know there’s a lot of love for cats in the sound community – please remember to keep them separate, as I offer no refunds if your birds fail due to cat encounters.
Well, that’s manageable – and overall, it’s sounds quite incredible! What’s next on your roadmap?
Well, like ravens and crows, lyrebirds are some of the only birds that can use tools. And, uniquely in the animal kingdom, they have incredible timing, so last year, I started breeding what I call a batch of Foley birds.
An example of crows using tools. Lyrebirds can do that too, and more
They are quick learners, and with their practically unlimited vocal skills, keen ear for sound, great timing, and the ability to use tools and props, I think it’s safe to say that birds are the Foley Artists of tomorrow.
With just a few weeks of training, they are impressively apt at using most DAWs. Before shipping them to your place, I offer them basic Pro Tools training, and lately, they’ve shown a fondness towards REAPER too.
And add their mashup and sound design skills to the list, and I see a lot of audio pros who might want to consider a new line of work. Good news, though: I’m always looking for helping hands with the breeding and training, so drop me a note if you want to be part of the next big thing in sound.
Hi Ewan, how are things progressing with your plan to change sound as we know it?
In many ways, it’s going great. The lyre bird training is coming along nicely, and I’ve been surprised to find just how reproductive those birds are. Over the course of the last year, I’ve gone from 6 fully-operational birds, to roughly 60,000. It’s a staggering number.
That’s great news – any idea when the birds will be ready to face the world?
Well, not everything has been going as planned, to be totally honest. I first realized something was up when I was visiting some friends for a barbecue down in Wollongong a couple of months back. We were just sitting around sharing a few stubbies when I heard what sounded like a laser blaster going off… And a few seconds later all hell broke loose.
There were sounds of explosions coming from the front yard, we could hear what sounded like gigantic robots trampling all over the place – and when I heard the distinct sound of a snowspeeder whizzing by, and a distant call of what could very well be an agitated tauntaun, I knew exactly what was up.
When I heard the distinct sound of a snowspeeder whizzing by, and a distant call of what could very well be an agitated tauntaun, I knew exactly what was up
You may have read the news that Disney is re-reissuing the first 3 Star Wars films in 2023, and as a powerful tribute to Ben Burtt, they’re doing a Very Special Sound Edition – and… you guessed it: My bred-to-order lyre birds will be doing the sound effects. Here’s something you probably also guessed: Yes, what I was hearing was the birds doing a 1:1 reenactment of the Battle of Hoth.
And they did it perfectly, it’s not that.. My main concern was that they were supposed to be back at the farm and in their cages, not sonically taking down AT-ATs in my friend Mark’s backyard.
Imagine my surprise when I found the cages open, and roughly 60,000 sound effects-trained lyre birds missing
So what were they doing there?
I was asking myself that very same question, so I rushed back to the farm to check on the rest of the birds.
I don’t know if you can relate to this, but imagine my surprise when I found the cages open, and roughly 60,000 sound effects-trained lyre birds missing.
That’s not good?
No. And lately I’ve been hearing stories from around Australia of strange sounds seemingly coming out of nowhere, so it sounds like they’ve wandered a lot further than I would like. Some describe the sounds as trumpet-like, while others have likened them to sounds of fighter jets, angry rodents and everything in between.
An Australian family reacts to the strange, trumpet-like sounds of the runaway lyre birds
I’m also getting word from my field recording friends that they’ve been hearing some really strange dawn choruses around the country lately. Oftentimes, the glorious morning song of birds like the Splendid Fairy-wren and Great Crested Grebe would be marred by the lyre birds’ jarring sonic renditions of arm wrestling, coffee brewing and everyday household doors opening and closing.
What’s more, I’ve also found out that the birds are passing down their sound effects skills to their young ones, so mornings in Australia may not sound the same for the next few decades or so.
What’s your biggest concern at the moment?
Just after the original lyre bird story broke, I was contacted by renowned film composer and sound magician Hans Zimmer. He’s been working on the soundtrack for sci-fi film Dune, and, as he told me, he ‘needed a bigger braam’.
He’s generally credited for coming up with the original braaaaaaaaam sound heard in countless trailers for movies such as Inception – and with everyone else imitating that sound, he wanted to take things to the next level.
That’s why he’s ordered approximately 43,000 birds trained to perform what Hans and I call ‘The Mother of all Braams’. To give you an idea of the power of the bird braaaaam: When my friend Haakon – who lives some 16,000 kilometers away in Oslo, Norway – called me up asking me about the ‘horrible noise’ during our small-scale trial runs with the birds, I knew we were onto something, at least in in terms of volume.
That’s why Hans Zimmer ordered approximately 43,000 birds trained to perform what Hans and I call ‘The Mother of all Braams’
The latest I’ve heard is that those 43,000 birds have been spotted marching towards Sydney. Several Sydney suburbs have already been savaged by this unbearable flock, and I honestly dread what’s going to happen once they reach the city center.
Is there just no stopping them?
Well, here in Australia we’ve got a good track record of stopping nuisances like dingos with the massive dingo fence running across the country – so maybe a lyre bird fence could be the way to go. Alternatively, I’ve thought of building a gigantic net, similarly to what the Ocean Cleanup Project is using to capture plastic in the ocean.
McCree envisions dragging a net like this across Australia to capture the birds
I’ll then drag the net across huge parts of Australia to get those runaway birds once and for all. We may end up netting a rather large selection of what I’d call secondary wildlife, people, shrubbery and the occasional caravan – but that’s a small price to pay to stop this menace.
I’m sure we’ll get through this in the end – and if all else fails, well, I’ll retool my webshop to selling bird traps and cookbooks, as I hear that those lyre birds make for a great stew.
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