Starting an Ambient Recording Collection

After a good year and a half of building a collection of short ambient recordings from my travels, I’m finally getting around to uploading and sharing them.

Since college I’ve loved taking 35 mm photos, but the entire time I’ve taken photos my motivation wasn’t just to capture something that caught my eye; it was also to archive all these moments and share them with history, in a way. So why wasn’t I doing the same with sound recordings?

When I started recording ambiences, I began with the typical sounds: cityscapes and nature. Sounds that a photographer might call “wide”. My initial strategy was practical: I could use these sounds on future mixes. For example, why use BBC’s forest recordings when I have my own and I can add my own signature touch to a project in the process? Silly question: their nature recordings are inimitably awesome, but…

…Then my aim developed more as I tried to capture sounds that were one level beyond the typical. And the more sound recordings I took, the more I closely listened for details within these wide shots and even started becoming that guy who interrupts someone to point out a really gnarly-sounding creaking door. My ‘if-we-photograph-why-don’t-we-sound-record’ epiphany came back to me with much more resonance as I developed a fondness for specific, one-of-a-kind (and often fleeting) sounds in the world. In other words, there are sounds out there that are simply worth recording for the sake of recording them!

This more detailed approached made me want to record environments that maybe wouldn’t ever be used in a project because they have too many specific elements that rarely coincide, like the recording I grabbed at Piazza Enrico Bassano at dusk in Genoa. I started to rebel against the original pragmatic approach. The less practical the recording, the more potentially interesting, the more it contained its own story.

While I was at AES in Paris this past June, I stumbled upon a workshop called “Ambient Recordings of the Cretaceous Period.” We all know there’s no such thing, but I wondered for a second if there was actually a scientifically-faithful way to recreate dinosaur noises. And sure enough there is – one paleontologist/amateur audio engineer slowed-down and de-tuned recordings from dinosaurs’ closest extant cousins – birds. And the recordings were hypnotizing! I had jungle recordings of my own from Costa Rica, so I tried the same thing, only mine conjured Yoda’s swamp planet Dagobah after I sound-designed mine with lots of aquatic elements.

It’s fair to say, as an initial reaction, that a lot of these recordings are a bit boring – that certainly wouldn’t surprise or insult me to hear. But I do believe ambient recordings of even the most common events are snowflakes, particularly if you throw on headphones and let the recording wash over you and inundate you with details. Some recordings are tonal and moody (Baltimore suburb with no birds; NYC elevator); some are hypnotically rhythmic and repetitive (Bottling Plant); some are provocative and informational (Costa Rican bird called the Oropendolo); and some are simply relaxing and transporting (Costa Rican creek; Brooklyn daytime exterior.)

Well, I’m still in the beginning stages of this craft. I tend to only take recordings when I travel, but I’m starting to take out my recorder more and more here in New York, as well as recording “small” sounds here in my apartment. My water-heater, for example, sounds awesome when it turns on! And after experiencing AES’s immersion-oriented convention in Paris last June, I became more interested in ways to record atmospheric sounds beyond basic stereo or M/S. Next goal!

New Sound Design & Mix Reel

Greetings! I’m pleased to announce my latest sound design and mix reel is complete and available to share. It’s been a work-in-progress for the last couple years, but I finally settled on a solid blend of animation and narrative sound design, commercial/broadcast mix, foley, and basic dialogue editing. I even snuck in some composition work, as you can see from the titles; and three clips are from films on which I worked on set as production sound mixer, so this reel is quite a thorough sonic resume as recordist, composer, mixer and sound designer.

Check it out and enjoy!

“It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise”

Last Summer I had the opportunity to work alongside some mega-talented documentary filmmakers on a charming documentary project about Hilary Knight, the illustrator of “Eloise”. A major part of the documentary was co-producer Lena Dunham, a long-time admirer of Hilary Knight’s work and, by the completion of our filming, a dear friend of Hilary himself. Straight from HBO’s site:

“This documentary short finds Hilary Knight looking back on his life as an artist and his connection to the immensely popular Eloise books, written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Knight. For 60 years, Eloise – the precocious six year-old who lives in New York’s Plaza Hotel – has charmed her way into the hearts of young readers, one of them being actress/director/writer Lena Dunham, whose Eloise tattoo led to a friendship with Knight, a creative kindred spirit.”

It premiered in late March on HBO and, yes, I got to watch it with my family, after which I was given a very special applause when my name appeared in the credits.

New music!

This past January I completed work on my first feature-length score.  Director Chelsea Kane and producer Matt Pourviseh have very graciously allowed me (I dare say even encouraged me) to share some of the key music from the film, via my bandcamp page.  Check out the link above!

I was thrilled to work on this not only because it was my much-anticipated first feature to score, but because I felt I was really able to create a musical mirror image of the visual and written story, from micro to macro level.

Chelsea perused my soundcloud page before I was fully onboard, calling it “wildly eclectic”, and decided I was the right fit because she wanted the score to have substantial variety from scene to scene.  When I was about half-way through scoring I knew exactly she meant.  In the end, while staying faithful to the film’s mood, I went from clean guitars and sine-wavey drones, to brushed drum kits, hung out in synth land for a bit, and then closed with solo piano pieces.

On a side note, during the process I discovered how much I love synths!  Not just bassy, anxiety-producing dissonances for tense and ominous moments (which everyone uses from time to time), but also neutral, warm mid-range tones for transitional moments when there’s a fragile balance shifting in the story, as well as deep, scintillating pads in wide stereo for heavy, climactic moments of release between characters.  (Sure, it could be cheesy when done thoughtlessly, but when it’s juuuust right it’ll give you chills.)  I wonder, did 80’s movies from early childhood seep into my brain and, through time, create some sort of emotional, bottomless well of nostalgia from which to tap?

BALLET 422: Tribeca 2014 Premiere, Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, and Recently Acquired by Magnolia Pictures

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I’m thrilled to learn of Ballet 422’s nomination for best documentary feature at Tribeca Film Festival, and it’s recent acquisition by Magnolia Pictures!  I had the privilege of being the principal location sound recordist on the film back in the winter of 2012.  

 

Shot and directed by the talented Jody Lee Lipes (whose credits include cinematography on ‘Girls’ and ‘Tiny Furniture’; and director of SXSW 2010’s audience award winner ‘NY Export: Opus Jazz’) the film is a verite-style, fly-on-the-wall perspective of the “Artist at Work.”  In this case, the Artist is Justin Peck, the 25-year-old choreographer wunderkind and member of the corps de ballet; and the Work is the 422nd ballet at the New York City Ballet, of which we documented the conception all the way to its premiere in front of a sold-out audience at Lincoln Center.  Lipes has an affinity for directing films that explore the creative process, focusing on the artist deep in their work, and their struggle to realize their creative vision.

 

From my perspective, it was simply a blast to work on this.  Verite documentary work is a rush, pure and simple.  The journalistic feel gives the work meaning and purpose that isn’t quite present in your standard commercial/industrial gig.  (Narrative filmmaking is similar, yet entirely different…)  Not to mention the fact that it keeps me on my toes, and when I’ve nailed the ‘scene’, there’s a satisfaction that reaffirms why I choose this kind of work to begin with.  

 

There’s one example of this I recall, and it ended up making the final cut: right after one of the few full-orchestra rehearsals, Cameron, the orchestra’s pianist, pulled Justin aside behind one of the wings and quietly remarked that the orchestra wasn’t quite understanding how special this particular ballet was, and encouraged him to give them a nudge.  Kind of an unusual and ballsy suggestion, and Justin took the advice 100% and afterwards gave the orchestra a fairly untraditional pep-talk — somewhat sheepishly but none-the-less a courageous move.  The only source of audio for their covert convo was the hidden lavaliere mic Justin was wearing, because they were whispering behind a curtain (and frankly I’m not sure they knew we were rolling on them!) But we captured it and it made the cut, and it turned about to be a great moment in the story, as well as a key development in the character Jody was trying to portray in Justin.

 

At the premiere, at the end of the film, the moderator’s first comment was on the sound mix.  Though expressly impressed with the cinematography and editing, he observed the powerful role the music played in the storytelling, and how equal attention was given to sound as to picture.  Jody’s response began with a shout-out to myself, and to Mark Henry Phillips, the films incredible sound designer/post mixer, who took the dialogue and music I recorded and made it sizzle with life.  

 

I thank the producers Ellen Bar and Anna Holmer for bringing me on board.  I look forward to the next one.  Merde!

Film Composition Reel, 2014

It’s been years in the making, but I’ve finally put together a reel of my favorite composition work from the past couple of years. It showcases my work on primarily narrative film and animation. To state the obvious, I’m trying to book more work as a film composer! It’s hard to pick a favorite, so I’ll just talk about pretty much all of them. (No pressure to keep reading…)

The first track is from an intern project in my early days in post production, back in 2006 at Flavorlab. “The Team” was an animated series for SpikeTV, a sort of Archer pre-cursor. One of our early assignments was to sound design and mix a random episode. While I was at it I recorded this fun, psychedelic number.

The second track is an untitled piece for the international feature, “Once Upon A Time in Bolivia” (2013). Of the several others honors and awards, it won Best International Feature at London International Film Festival this past fall. Director Patrick Cordova hired me to sound design and mix it. In the process we realized this scene desperately needed a track that underscored the desolation, restlessness and ambiguity experienced by the two main characters in this pivotal scene.

The third track is from a short called “The Jacket”. A bit of a political/psych thriller.

The fourth track is titled “A Brunette” and I’m sort of “borrowing” the clip from Submarine (2010) because I love it and it’s precisely the kind of moment the track is written for. I have plans to shoot a music video for it with some friends, but until then, this is how I want people to listen to it.

The fifth track, two short little moments, are actually “vines”, animated by my friend Andy Basore for Illy, the espresso company. I wish I could’ve written an entire 2-3 minute track, but alas, a vine is only a 6-second loop.

And finally, the last track, for “Woo Woo” (2013). The first short film I fully scored from opening to closing credits. I like to think this track really strengthened my composition skills, mainly because it’s a bit unusual and it really nails the black-and-white period piece – it’s short, kind of wry, minimal and it’s as curious and introverted as the opening of the film.

If you’re still reading – I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to share it and pass it on! 2014 will be the year I truly take off as a film composer!

Best,
Brian

Advance Human Ability Campaign

In early 2013, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) unveiled their plans to raise $550 million for construction of a new research hospital as part of the “Advance Human Ability” Campaign. I had the privilege of working on production (dialogue recording and editing) of the three short films that screened at June’s groundbreaking ceremony. Above is my favorite of the three, titled, “Will”.

I was joined by Rob Bywater of Generation — a northeast-spanning branding agency that focuses on non-profits — and Brooklyn-based filmmaker/cinematographer Joe Tomcho. My friend Chris Ungco held down B-camera, media management and the millions of other details needed to keep this very dense production running smoothly. He also edited the films with Joe.

We conducted a series of interviews with patients, rehabilitation therapists, doctors, and the CEO herself. As the interviews rolled on, it felt like we were shooting a full-scale documentary piece and not merely a video for potential donors.

Not surprisingly, the stories told by some of the patients and doctors had the intensity and honesty to thrust you out of your bubble of everyday complaints and trifles, and force you back to ground level. I took it as an opportunity to absorb a new perspective, the way traveling does; only rather than expanding my worldview, I was brought back to the very basics I take for granted.

I won’t lie, there was one particular moment when the realness became almost too much to handle. At the end of the second day, Joe and Chris were grabbing B-roll of physical therapy before our final interview. I followed Chris into an active gym room in the percolating moments prior to a group work-out. There were a dozen or so small bicycles adapted for upper body aerobics. Most of the patients no longer had use of their legs. Above us the speakers blasted “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits. And I mean, blasted. That inimitable, cheery organ melody was a soundtrack to the positivity buzzing all around me, its sound bouncing off the glass and wood of that grand room. A lot of the patients were athletic-looking, active men, engaging each other, many smiling and upbeat, while others stretched and got loose and amped up. The whole thing was ten times more powerful than hearing all the stories combined of every patient here recounting how they became paralyzed. Because this was pure evidence of the resilience of the human spirit that everyone was talking so much about; and that I couldn’t say I had really ever witnessed so profoundly. And that completely knocked me out.

Thanks for reading and watching.

Roadkill Ghost Choir

Just about every outdoor shoot I’ve been on in the past two months has been a cross-your-fingers kind of day. What I’m referring to is the, ah, uncooperative weather we’ve been getting. And when I was hired by Ben Altarescu of Bows And Arrows – http://bowsxarrows.com – to record an outdoor performance of Roadkill Ghost Choir, that day was no exception.

The original goal, for both sound and picture, was to capture a performance in a way that felt spontaneous and natural; more akin to an NPR Tiny Desk concert than to a traditional and formal LP-bound performance. For that kind of performance, they asked for no more than a boom mic for everyone and a lav mic for the lead singer. Normally a seasoned sound recordist would go much farther than than, but the simple and raw sound that the boom-and-lav approach yields is precisely the point.

However – when we had to move indoors, the word ‘simple’ went out the window.

I immediately had a pow-wow with Ben and told him that an indoor recording of a 6-person band in a Fort Greene apartment would necessitate lots of mics. (Specifically we ended up with 6 channels total, the maximum for my Tascam recorder.)

He was completely on board and had the crew van re-route to my apartment where I grabbed just about every mic I owned, along with cables and mic stands. (I also grabbed my self-painted psychadelic Yamaha acoustic, which has just been immortalized by this video.)

The rest of the day was basically me shifting gears to recording engineer mode. I was covering music, not dialogue, so I had to bring back some of the very early skills I picked up years ago at internships. For example, figuring out how to maximize only six tracks when you have to record vocals, two guitars, a low tom drum, bass guitar, organ, trumpet and banjo. (Oh, and the other songs we recorded, but didn’t make the final cut, had a pedal steel.)

Enjoy the video – I personally think it turned out great considering the curveball!

UPGRADES!

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This past Wednesday (June 12) was my birthday and I bought myself a little gift.  I made my first foray into the production sound big leagues by upgrading to the Nomad 10 Recorder/Mixer.  

 

In one word, “gamechanger”.  There are many ways in which this little white box steps things up tremendously from my old kit.  At first glance, I’ve lightened my kit big-time.  I no longer carry two devices; now one device does the job of both mixer and recorder.  Look a little deeper (or rather, listen), and you see that it’s a device that records and digitizes sound in a way the other competing recorders don’t.  

 

And look even further and you see how forward-thinking it is with it’s inclusion of the propriety WiFi feature “Zaxnet”, which turns the Nomad into a veritable transmitter of information.  You can alter the trim settings on the actor’s mic-packs in the middle of a take, while you send stereo audio with timecode to two cameras, while you send scratch audio to a dozen people.  Traditionally you can’t do the former, and to do the latter you’d need to buy (and subsequently carry) even more equipment.  

 

Nomad’s patent-pending “NeverClip” technology allows signals to come in hotter than the 24-bit range and record clean, so long as you properly calibrate the mixer parameters they provide.  Being a 100% digital device, it’s mostly free of some of the limits of analog technology, the main one being “self-noise”.  Listen really closely to a very, very quiet recording from even a high-end analog-to-digital device and you’ll hear the noise floor, the hiss.  The nomad is basically devoid of that, being totally digital.  

 

The Nomad gets some heat in the sound community for not exactly being the most intuitive recorder.  I do agree, but I wasn’t going to let that deter me from enjoying the benefits of a superior-sounding and feature-rich recorder.  The price of being revolutionary is that, along with the good changes, a few tried-and-true methods will get toyed around with as well.  

 

And yet after this monumental upgrade, there’s plenty more to expand.  It’s both a sobering realization and an exciting motivator to work a ton and build, build, build.

SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY


Hello Again!

Yes, It’s been a while, but I wanted to wait for something big. Winter kept me busy with tons of great stuff — an Adult Swim pilot, a documentary with the NYC Ballet, a verite-style feature with a Soprano’s cast-member (can’t say who yet), and many other shorts, pilots, commercial spots — BUT all are still in the arduous process of post-production.

SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY, directed by Drew Tobia, is the first feature I ever worked on as the sole location sound mixer, back in January 2012, and it’s the second feature film I mixed and sound-designed in post. I completed the final mix in the wee hours of March 5 and it premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on March 10 to a very pleased audience who went on to vote and bestow it with the festival’s “Audience Award”.

I can proudly say I was the one-man-sound department from start to finish on this one! I found the post process fairly smooth, mixing the same dialogue I recorded one year prior. I certainly had all the inside knowledge as to why something didn’t work immediately, and where to find what I needed in order to patch things up. Though traditionally not a common workflow at all, a one-man sound department in the era of low budget independent filmmaking kind of makes sense.

I didn’t know ahead of time I would be the post mixer, but I always roll sound as if I’m going to be. Therefore, I was aggressive when it came to collecting sound effects on set. Ambiences and room tones were a gathered frequently, as well as highly distinctive sound effects that would work best in the final mix when recorded directly from the source on set.

A drama-slash-dark-comedy, there are tons of scenes that rely heavily on creative, almost eccentric sound design. And because the film frequently intersects serious and often over-the-top drama with raw (and frequently-nonverbal) humor, the sound design needed to act like a guide walking you through the constantly-dramatic lives of these three very-flawed principal characters.

Drew was insistent that certain scenes push the limits of abrasiveness, jarring-ness, bassiness, sometimes absurdity when humor was the focus. There are multiple “fight” scenes, for example. Some purely dialogue-driven, others very physical. For heavy drama we went with bass and heightened ambiences, to create a more point-of-view effect. Other times I simply added incidental sounds like sneaker squeaks and borderline cartoonish swipes. There’s even a scene where Mona, the main character, barfs endlessly on the sidewalk, after a meltdown at a party. But we don’t see barf everywhere; we mostly hear it splashing comically on the pavement. Sound design is the guide.

And I leave you on that note! Check out the trailer. (But please be aware it’s not intended for younger ears, not like any children follow my sound career…)

Best,

Brian