Mike Technique and Sound Effects (Dec. 1974)

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When AUDIO's editor asked this amateur sound collector to do an article on microphone technique and sound effects, the first thing to do in preparation was to look up the word "technique" in the dictionary. After all, it does help to know what it means--which is "the best way of getting results." Actually the article is the product of some long years as a hi-fi bug and of the knowledge shared by some nice people en route.

Good recordings were made during the early 1900s on both cylinders and discs--even before the use of electrical recording commercially. The carbon mike has a long history, as have the dynamic and condenser mikes, and naturally they have undergone some changes over the years. The first electrical recordings were made with the telephone units. Kevin Brown low, in this book Parade Gone By (Knopf, $14.00), mentions a cutter invented in 1909 by Arthur Kingston for French Pathe which allowed direct talkies to be made. It used a series of microphone relays for driving the aerophone (compressed air) unit in the speakers. Cameron, in his books on movie projection, has given considerable data on the wide range of ideas for both films and sound.

Although the triode was invented in 1906 and Bell began development of it for amplifiers after 1912, speech had been transmitted over the Atlantic to Scotland and between Newfoundland and Ireland. The mike used in these transmissions had platinum electrodes, was cooled by a water jacket, and had a load current of 15 amperes. These were installed almost in the antenna line. There's more about all this in Read and Welch's From Tin Foil to Stereo (Sams/Bobbs-Merrill).

Acoustically, the first recording studios were considerably better than the radio stations, and conversion to electric recording was done quite easily. It was necessary to improve on the spring-wound and gravity feed turntables, although the latter could be taken on field work. Some wax lathes were taken in large trucks to do effects as well as on-location recording of orchestras. It is probable that more of this was done in Europe than in the United States if you exclude the Library of Congress and some musicologists.

The early radio stations were quite primitive, but in due time grew to a size proportional to the present-day TV stations. It was not unusual for the average station to have more than one studio-at least one capable of holding a modest-sized orchestra and actors. At the present time, the station may be little more than one announcing booth with a few turntables and tape-playback facilities. Any spare space is most likely to become offices, since remotes are taped. If the station doesn't have a network feed, it is more likely to use the remotes including local churches, which are sometimes of dubious quality, due to conditions beyond control, and occasionally a thankless job.

Vital to a small station's good management is considerable know-how in many fields. For example, until recently there were only two libraries of sound that could be fed directly through the console, if you exclude transcriptions and tapes, those from Standard Radio and Silver Masque (Engineer). The usual method is to have two turntables and three pickups for the ten-in., 78-rpm discs. Larger studios would have more turntables, placed in units or groups, and possibly some workable cueing procedure.

Tape is used presently, and it is much easier to work with unless cross-mixing is needed.

Prior to the use of recorded effects, studios relied on gimmicks and for voice such men as Brad Barker and Don Bain. More recently, of course, TV has given birth to such "voice personalities" as Mel Blanc and Joanne Worley, and "voice overs" are a standard practice in TV advertising to combine the "proper" voice and face.

Such skilled mimics have been around for quite some time, and a Boston paper of the 30s described a Count Cutelliani (sp?-Ed.) who used some ten gimmicks for effects.

The first professional library of 78s was made by the late Harry Gennett at the suggestion of Thomas J. Valentino. Gennett came from a Richmond, Ind., family which owned Starr Piano, and Valentino was a piano tuner at the time. After setting up the East Coast offices in 1932, Valentino handled much of the work there. Gennett also developed a new series called Speedy-Q, which were much better than the first set and had fewer rejects on auditions.

These carried a change of sound, or cue, on the spiral connecting a sound effect. A panel truck was used to go on location, and a sound film process, which could reproduce up to 8 kHz, was used for the master track. The series was stopped at the beginning of WW II, and Gennett's passing in the late 50s ended hopes for a revival.

In fact, most of the Richmond discs, along with those from RCA and Columbia, stopped at that period, though a few did continue. Valentino started his own Major series in 1936 and began importing EMI mood music prior to the war. Postwar, he commissioned his own mood music for mastering in New York City studios. He also began conversion of his 90 effects discs and mood music to LPs in the 60s.

This mood music, taped in Europe, possibly was under the composer's direction. The discs were mastered by Rein Narma at Gotham studio with a new amplifier cutter and had impressive sound. At present Valentino is retired, though his three sons continue the business.

Charles Michaelson took over the Gennett series and the Standard Radio library after Alex Sherwood retired. He was written up in the Saturday Evening Post during the late 50s and sold the EMI series for a while before giving up effects to go into TV films. I had read of Valentino and Masque Engineering in a book on radio production, and he and I had quite a few interesting chats until 1967 when I stopped going to New York City. Masque now operates under new ownership and supplies effects and sound gear for stage plays; Standard Radio works from the West Coast only. Valentino does have some special pressings for some plays, including music for The Glass Menagerie.

The RCA set, mentioned above, includes some 44 records, with the same sounds on each side of the disc, and sold for $1.50. Sound quality of the material was only fair to poor.

The Columbia series, all made in England, had 28 records and was a little better in sound quality.

Sad to say, the pioneer Gennett series of discs were not up to the standards of the Speedy-Q though they were produced by the same man.

Speedy-Q derives its name from the fact that the sound on the disc is not interrupted by the spiral connecting the changing sections but that the visual cue point, the spiral, also has sound. The first truly hi-fi discs were brought out by Masque Sound, and their trains and boats are very good.

Tom Valentino used the Fairchild 199 lathe and RCA sound on film in a station wagon to go on location.

His recording of news effects was spotted by the Dick Tracy cartoonist, Chester Gould, and used for a story line.

Valentino once told me that he had spent some $10,000 doing a chime series together with organ music at the Collegiate Church with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and that it cost him $1,000 to find the right place for the microphone. I later went to visit the late Col. Richard Ranger at his Ranger tone plant in Newark, N.J., on the day I received some fresh vinyl pressings from Valentino. While in the plant I saw the process of making those chime records (from the Rangertone organ) on a Presto cutting table. The disc was flowed on soft and had a blue color and was baked to a golden yellow after cutting.

There are a number of effects discs, besides Valentino's 16, including 15 from Audio Fidelity (there is no number 13), all quite well done; 14 from Elektra plus a three-disc set titled "Most Asked For Effects" and another three-disc set of mood music; three discs from Cook; nine from Offbeat, and some on Folkways including two of mood music and one of novel space sounds. Quite a few discs on other labels could be called effects recordings. These include Philips "African Asian Music," the Monitor disc on China (from a documentary film), one from Columbia on Scandanavia, and some from Capitol and Decca on Europe, Mexico, and Japan. Not too long ago I counted 28 bird discs, 24 of Indians, and some 33 train recordings listed in the Schwann catalog; there are probably so/ne others around.

Mike Placement & Use

Regardless of location, we have two rules to start with in regard to placement of mikes. The mike is placed off center of the studio and toward the dead or dull side. The usual height is five feet and working distance to start off-is about two feet. The mike least favored under these conditions would be the omni. The use of a cardioid or figure eight mike allows placements to be made to maximum advantage, supplemented by sound baffles, rotating vanes for acoustical control, or even isolation booths, as for a singer with orchestra.

The present-day mikes vary from small hand-held or even smaller lapel types to shotgun units for remote pick-ups and mikes on long booms to follow the action. Especially useful are the current condenser types which allow more mikes per studio thanks to their cardioid "spotting" of individual instruments.

The usual range of distance and height for a 25-man orchestra is five to seven feet, on up to 15 to 25 for a full symphony. If a single unit is used, the mike is often near the conductor or at least in front and not too far away. Placements for solo or individual instruments seem to relate to the sort of musical instrument and its sound level, and the mike generally faces the source of the sound. In strings, this is the F hole, the bell for woodwinds or brass, and the sound box of a harp. Woodwinds and treble strings can be miked at two feet, some further away, while brass should be further still, about six to 10 feet. A compromise for a grand piano is eight feet with the top open.

For a church organ, the distance should be half the length of the church if it is large, but much depends on the musical scoring and the choice of stops used. If there are too many stops in use, the sound will be muddy. If the organ is played at too high a volume, the echoes will be shrill.

AUDIO has carried several informative articles on mikes in recent years, including Jim Long's in Dec., 1972, to Feb., 1973, and D.L. Josephson's in Dec., 1973, and July and Aug., 1974. There is one book on sound effects, but most data on capturing them comes from factory bulletins, standard references such as the Audio Cyclopedia, the Frayne and Wolfe test, and those on radio production. Though now unhappily no longer publishing, the fine magazine Tape Recording gave many hints, including a good series by L. I. Farkus.

The number of mikes available today as compared to the earlier days is fantastic, with a virtual "forest" growing from RCA, E-V, Sony/Superscope, Neumann, and others. However, even in the old days there was a good choice from Shure, Astatic, Brush, and E-V, not to mention the imports via the mail-order houses from Telefunken and others. One midwestern sound service engineer has made a hobby of collecting mikes from the 1920-1940 period and presently has more than 300 of them. The poorer designs from the period all too often had response patterns in which the horizontal and vertical fields did not match up, and substitution of a new ribbon for the original may make very little difference. The present-day ribbons, including those from such European firms as Beyer, are made pretty ruggedly and some models even have replacement ribbons which the user can install. The ribbon is still a basic mike, and in general offers smoother response than a dynamic with a mild treble rolloff and less trouble with "pops" and "spritz." The present-day dynamic has developed from a speech-only mike into the all-round super-cardioids, such as the E-V RE-20. The transition point-for the E-V line at least would be the 650 "hammerhead," a literal grandchild of the 630-635 series and father to the 655C as well as the new cardioid series. The 650 has high output and almost flat response from 40 Hz to 15 kHz, while the 655 has a better bass, though not deeper, and treble response out to 20 kHz. Though a few complain of the E-V treble, I find only a slow rolloff at both ends relative to a good condenser mike.

Westrex introduced four dynamics from 1931 to 1939, and these include the 618A, the 630 "eight-ball," the 633 "saltshaker," and the classic 639 with ribbon and dynamic units. RCA offered several mikes in this period, the 88, a 50 series, the 44, and a 77 ribbon, and this 77 series were the first cardioids in movie use. Westrex and RCA also offered condenser mikes, but the first break came with the Cook-Capps low-cost units, followed in later years by the Stephens and the two Syncron mikes, these last being made by Cerwin-Vega. AKG and Sony have some fine condenser mikes, and I have a friend who likes the Altec 21-B introduced in 1950 for its wide range of response. Among the Neumanns, the U-47 is the quietest and the 201 the smoothest; another favorite is the U-67. AKG's 451E is also a good example of this type. Two key factors led to lowered costs of these mikes: One was the JFET, the other the electret principle, finally made practical.

In this brief space, it is difficult to give very many basic and firm rules, without immediately having to start listing exceptions. One thing I do recommend strongly is the use of headphones, since after you have worked with them for a while you will be able to "hear" the acoustics and sense the proper location for the mike from the nature of the sound to be recorded.

Once you've gotten your effect down on tape, there are some tricks you can do with speed changes and graphic equalizers. For example, a train or trolley will sound as though it is going into a tunnel if you increase the level at 320 Hz, and it will sound as if it is crossing a steel-beam bridge if you pulse the 2.5 kHz control. If you do both, the train will enter New York City and head toward Grand Central Station. It is also possible to make monsters of chickens by halving the speed and zebras of dogs by doubling the speed. I also had a tape of a storm at the seashore into which I added some variations at 640, 1280, and 2500 Hz that subjectively seemed to be rumble, whine and echo (sounds like some comedy team). If you feel ambitious enough, you might want to transfer your effects o disc, using either a commercial service or-as this collector has done with a home-brew "Rube Goldberg" cutter and table. Details on this will have to wait for another time, as hey are outside the proper scope of his mikes and effects article. However, if you're intrigued by such a proect but put off by the amount of work involved, let me tell you about Matthius Baldwin, a Philadelphia watchmaker, who in 1832 built a steam locomotive. The moral is, I guess, that there's still some hope for us amateurs. '.

(Audio magazine, Dec. 1974; A. R. Jourdan)

Also see:

A Microphone Primer: Basic Construction, Performance, and Applications Part II: Choosing and Applying (Jan. 1973)

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