Soundtracks – where do they begin?

Many elements go into the creation of a good documentary soundtrack, but one key ingredient is great location sound2013-05-03 06.53.22.

I confess I feel a bit sorry for location sound people because they only get feedback when the soundtrack is BAD. As a Director I’m guilty of rarely saying “sounds great” – because we take great sound for granted, ironically, as if it is a natural occurring phenomena. Yet there is an enormous amount of skill and talent required to obtain great location sound.

In a film about songbirds, you can imagine how important location sound is to the final soundtrack. On The Messenger documentary we primarily worked with Jason Milligan. I truly believe that Jason has “dog ears”. By this I mean an aural range beyond the average human.

A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e. recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambient sound.

Because the birds would be different everywhere we went, we had to ensure that we recorded the unique sounds of every place we filmed.

Here’s a sample of an ambient track of Purple Martins songs and calls that Jason recorded for us while we were filming with Bridget Stutchbury and The Purple Martin Conservation Association in Erie PA.

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple Martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

One of the very special audio events we recorded was in Ithaca New York during fall migration.

We were filming with Bill Evans, who designs and constructs his own microphones dedicated to capturing the night calls of migrating birds. A wonderful scene with Bill Evans is featured in our upcoming documentary SongbirdSOS to be aired on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. Below is a sample of the these night calls our sound recordist James MacDonald captured that evening.

Listen carefully, each species of songbird has a different call. They are only a fraction of a second long, and happen randomly ever ten seconds or so in this recording.

 

James MacIntosh records Bill Evans and friends.

James MacDonald records Bill Evans and friends.

Back in post production, all of the elements of location sync sound and ambiences have to be edited. The first step is to  sync all the sound – matching back to the picture, then the sound is imported into the edit suite. When our picture edit is locked – the edited sound is exported back out to another sound editor, who polishes it, takes out the umm and ahhs and clicks and pops, and prepares it for the mix. A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambiences. Phil often mixes and merges these “categories” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape. This is all done on the computer – and here’s what the soundtrack layouts looks like.

Phil Strong

One of the most important ingredients of a great sound track is music.

During our editing process the picture editors often work with temp music. This means pulling music that has the right rhythm, pace, emotional tone / feeling and / or instrumentation from one’s own music collection and cutting it into the soundtrack temporarily.

In creating The Messenger soundtrack composer Phil Strong worked in tandem with the picture editing process, often creating music for the scenes as they evolved.

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Composer and sound designer Phil Strong and Picture editor Eamonn O’Connor at a spotting session in Phil’s studio.

 

 

More on Jason Milligan http://www.documentarysound.ca/

Jason Milligan is a two time Gemini Nominated Sound Recordist (for “The Take” and “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida, and Company”) based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who specializes in recording sound on location for Documentaries, Lifestyle, and Reality Programs.   Jason has travelled extensively around the world and worked in Argentina, China, France, India, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Saudi Arabia, St. Vincent, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Songbird Documentary on CBC Nature of Things – March 19

Our team has been working on this multi-faceted project for almost five years and the first of two very different  international co-production documentaries is set to debut for Canadian viewers on CBC-TV’s The Nature Of Things, March 19, 2015 at 8 PM.    

Narrated by Dr. David Suzuki and directed by Su Rynard, The Nature of Things SongbirdSOS is an artfully-shot TV documentary about the mass depletion of songbirds in the Americas. It depicts an alarming thinning of populations that has seen declines of many species since the 1960s.  According to  York University’s  Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, who is featured in the program, we may have lost almost half the songbirds that filled the skies fifty years ago.

Hazards affecting songbirds include glass-enclosed high-rise buildings that account for up to a billion bird deaths annually, light pollution that disorients birds’ migratory flight paths, lost breeding and wintering habitats from rain forests to wetlands to boreal forests, oil pipelines and farm pesticides.

Pesticides

Tree Swallow in Saskatchewan

There’s unforgettable real-time front line research in SongbirdSOS. Michael Mesure of the volunteer army FLAP  (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Canada shows the toll on birds on a tour of particularly lethal Toronto buildings. Erin Bayne takes us into the Boreal Forest north of Edmonton, Alberta  to witness the impact of industry on North America’s biggest bird nursery.  In Saskatchewan avian eco-toxicologist Christy Morrissey discovers lethal neonicotinoids in the spring wetland water supply, ahead of its annual application by local farmers. In a revelatory sequence, Bridget Stutchbury equips northern Purple Martins with micro-chip backpacks that reveal the secrets of their oddly-non-linear migratory journeys to South America and back.

And there’s a glimpse of hope for the future, as Costa Rican coffee farmers learn from ornithologist Alejandra Martinez-Salinas about the benefits of pesticide-free shade-grown (and bird-friendly) coffee.

Over the course of a year, following the seasons and the birds, Director Su Rynard and the team set out on a journey of discovery.

“We discovered that the causes of songbird declines are many, and the solutions are few,” states  Rynard. “Yet everywhere we went, we met passionate people who are concerned and are working for change – as this is not just about the future of birds, it’s about the health of the planet too.”

SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. is pleased to welcome Bird Studies Canada as a National Outreach Partner for a Social Impact Campaign for this project.

Check out some related stories on the CBC Nature of Things website. 

Press Release about the CBC TV Nature of Things March 19 broadcast

 

 

Creating The Messenger Soundtrack & Music Sneak Peak

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The music and sound design for The Messenger as well as our upcoming CBC TV Nature of Things program is being created by Phil Strong. Phil and I have worked together for a number of years on a variety of projects. He’s an incredibly creative and resourceful person, and often collaborates with his partner Laurel MacDonald.  Stay tuned — you will hear Laurel’s incredible vocals in The Messenger soundtrack.

A great sound track has many elements including the sound recorded on location, additional ambiences and effects, sound design and music. Often these are delegated into distinct departments, except when working with Phil. He often mixes and merges these “categories.” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape.

On this project, our budget and timelines are punishing, so we have been burning the midnight oil. Recently on one of these cold winter nights, Phil played a new track for me, which I absolutely loved. It’s quite fantastic, and the sound is really unique. I asked Phil how he created it….

“I wanted to create a kinetic, rhythmic, texture… the sound I was after is much like fiddlers as they hold down several strings and bow across them, varying the angle of the bow to create a harmonic rhythm. So I called my musician friend Sarah Shugarman, and we recorded several variations riffing on this idea. I later arranged these into a song order.”

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Would it be a stretch to say that this idea was inspired by the subject of the film — songbirds themselves?

“Because the strings on a viola/violin form an arch, they cannot all be bowed at once. The bow has to change angle to get each string. Rapid bowing and angle shifts (are not unlike the flapping movement of a birds wing ) – and create a flowing series of notes – a harmonic rhythm – without needing rapid movement in the left hand.”

 

Violin Quadruple-Stops

 

So, if you want to try this at home, Phil Strong shares how this is done.

“Here is the music for a set of “quadruple stops” which represents all the possible combinations a player can make holding down all four strings. “Stopping” a string just means shortening its effective length by pressing it against the finger board with your finger (the effective length of a string [and tension] determines the “pitch” or note). A quadruple stop means that all four strings are pressed down with each of the four fingers in the left hand.”

 

 

We call this piece of music “Boreal theme”. Here is a taste of what is sounds like.

 

Below are me and Phil working in his studio.

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Here’s Phil, Lauren and my Mark Bell having a late dinner after a long day in the studio. Mark is a contemporary artist (painter) and he’s donated  three really beautiful paintings to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Phil and Laurel also created memorable soundtrack for my dramatic feature film Kardia. You can hear some of the music on the Kardia web site.

More on Phil:

Phil Strong has produced acclaimed albums and soundtracks with his partner Laurel MacDonald, and notably Cape Breton singer, Mary Jane Lamond. Lamond’s CD, Landuil, which was arranged and produced by Strong, won the 2006 East Coast Music Award’s “album of the year”. Phil assisted John Oswald with his various Plunderphonics artworks and from his mentor also gleaned the art and dynamics of dance composition. He received several dance commissions and found his stride in this asynchronous form. In 1999, Phil scored the soundtrack for Nest, the first of 9 major works he created with Toronto Dance Theatre. His work on TDT’s Timecode Break earned a Dora Mavor Moore award.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Andrew Farnsworth

The SongbirdSOS film crew ventured to  New York City to film with Andrew Farnsworth, a Research Associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology during the  annual  911 Memorial Tribute in Lights.  While there with some volunteers from the New York City Audubon , we also found out more about the exciting and ambitious Bird Cast project, which aims to provide a window into the world of migration at a scale previously unimaginable.

Farnsworth is hopeful, as are his collaborators, this new vision of migratory behavior could ultimately be used to prevent the deaths of millions of birds. In this video clip,   Farnsworth explains how cool 21st technology is changing migratory bird research.

 

Andrew Farnsworth grew up in the greener and quieter suburbs of the city where he now lives, watching the seasons – and weather and most importantly birds – change. Throughout his childhood Andrew says he would wonder about the calls of passing nocturnal migrants, fully aware of the identities of some species and be completely befuddled by others.

As did many students of migration, he read with great interest about the ways to grasp the otherwise unfathomable magnitudes of birds migrating under the cover of darkness, occasionally seeing glimpses of their shapes while watching the moon or by the lights of tall buildings.

When we caught up with Andrew at the 911 Tribute last year,  he and members of the Audubon Society were situated on a parking garage roof in Manhattan, at the base of the lights, observing and monitoring the powerful beams for bird action.  Our director Su Rynard and the SongbirdSOS crew documented the evening, filming from dusk until almost dawn.

While the powerful lights provided a spectacular opportunity to observe and film migratory birds, the dangers were also apparent. That night they had to shut the lights down several times, which allowed migratory birds that became trapped and circling in the lights, to disperse.

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Andrew said the prospects for this year’s Tribute in Light were intriguing. Unlike many previous years, a frontal boundary was approaching the region and generating potential for a large flight of migrants to coincide with the memorial. Thankfully, the passage of the front did not occur until several hours after sunset, and the potentially large number of migrants getting caught in the light did not become a reality that evening.

According to Andrew, “Some birds did fly through the beams on the night of the Tribute, though mostly at high altitude and without stopping and circling. Of interest was the peak in numbers after the winds strengthened with the arriving air mass behind the front.  Many seemed to hold off and made their migratory passage through the city the following night, long after the tribute lights had been extinguished.”

Andrew’s also been working on another pilot project that many who track birds will recognize as a long standing goal to create a device to record, detect, classify, and post to a website flight calls of migrating songbirds.

He is doing that in collaboration with other scientists at the Cornell Lab and he encourages volunteer citizen scientists to get involved by contributing their recordings from low-cost but effective microphones like those designed by acoustic monitoring pioneer Bill Evans.

Farnsworth continues to post weekly BirdCast forecasts for four regions of the US based on forecast weather and previous eBird data to give birders a sense of what species will be on the move and in what numbers. There are also weekly analyses for these same regions, highlights from eBird data of which what species actually occurred and what the radar looked like at a typical peak hour of nocturnal movement

The scenes in SongbirdSOS at  the 911 Memorial Tribute site are quite beautiful. If you’d like to know when the film is screening near you, please join our community. 

 

SongbirdSOS featured on Green Divas Radio

su-rynard-portrait-songbird-sosDirector Su Rynard escaped from the edit suite to discuss SongbirdSOS on The Green Divas Radio Network.  (Su’s interview starts 22 minutes into the show) The Green Divas Radio show is a one hour weekly digital radio broadcast, which offers listeners low stress ways to love and live a  deeper shade of green.  Host Megan McWilliams and her partner Lynn Hasselberger consider themselves women with a mission for a more sustainable healthy planet. Humour, credible information and some awesome publishing and marketing skills are what The Green Divas bring to environmental issues.  You can hear the podcast featuring Su talking about our film in the Green Divas link above or through iTunes.

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