Andy Martin and the Northwest Soundscape project interview

By now you have probably heard of Andy Martin’s Northwest Soundscape project. I am very intrigued by it so I decided to reach out to Andy and ask a few questions regarding his project and also talk about his work in game audio.

Andy-Martin You can find more about Andy Martin and his work @
Official website
The Northwest Soundscape project
Twitter
Facebook
Soundcloud
Youtube

Brief list of credits

The Northwest Soundscapes project, Grim Fandango, inFamous

Thank you for taking time to do this interview Andy. Could you please introduce yourself and briefly introduce your project?

Hi, Zdravko! Certainly. My name is Andy Martin. I’ve been a commercial, television, feature film, and video game sound designer for over fifteen years. My credits include video games such as Grim Fandango and the inFAMOUS franchise and animated TV and films such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

I’m also an active field recordist. For my work, I’ve always sought out the most unique recording sources I can. Since moving to Seattle in 2007, I’ve been slowly recording and documenting my way around the Northwest. Most of my recording trips have been for my own collection and sound design projects, experimenting and learning differing recording techniques, and were not planned for commercial packaging. I want to return to previous locations and explore new soundscapes to document them properly.

The Northwest Soundscapes Project itself is a year-long series of field recordings from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The series is divided into two libraries: Natural Location Open Air Impulse Responses and Natural Soundscapes of the Northwest. The Pacific Northwest is an area that covers roughly just North of San Francisco to the Canadian border, from the ocean coast to the Eastern edges of Washington and Oregon. If you’ve ever heard the term “Cascadia”, it’s somewhat synonymous with the region. The focus for this project will be primarily in the states of Washington and north-central Oregon.

Rather than just being “another ambience library”, the Natural Soundscapes collection has three goals:
1. environmental variety,
2. length — up to 30 minute long individual recordings, 3) comprehensiveness — multiple times of day at every location, covering at least dawn, mid-day, and dusk.

In your project you mention that Northern Americas wilderness is getting more and more endangered. How will your project help protect wild life and nature of Northern America?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I hesitate to answer. I speak cautiously here to avoid making impossible promises I can’t keep. I truly have no idea if this project will help protect wildlife and soundscapes of the Northwest. The sad fact is that humanity encroaching more and more into what once was pristine wilderness. We’ve already decimated giant ancient forests, destroyed once plentiful populations of wildlife, and now we fill the air with the sounds of planes, automobiles, GUNFIRE and electrical power lines, and more. The behavioral changes of wildlife dealing with the presence of humans and human-generated noise is now well documented, but there isn’t enough motivation to do something about it.

My hope is that by focusing on the wild soundscape that remains we can draw attention to the impact we humans have had and continue to have on nature. By showing just how difficult it is to find and document soundscapes in this manner, sans human noise, we can bring attention to just how little is left and inspire others, especially younger generations, to take a stand to help reduce our sonic impact.

You will also record impulse responses. Could you share more about the process of recording impulse responses in wilderness?

It’s not any different than recording an impulse in any structure, in terms of playback and recording sine sweeps. The biggest challenge is power. How do you drive a speaker without power? There’s a simple answer to that: a 12V battery pack and a power inverter to convert from DC to AC with enough power to run the speaker full load for several hours. Other equipment, including computers and recorders, run off of their own batteries and with generally the same or better lifetimes. As long we carry enough to last 1 – 3 (depending upon the destination) days, we’ll have enough to last between trips to recharge.

If everything goes according to plan, when can supporters expect the recordings?

The plan is to have rolling delivery as editing and mastering is completed. There’ll be a delay of a 1-2 months between recording and delivery of each batch. The goal is to have the full library completed, edited, and mastered by June of 2017.

Considering there will be a lot of files and quite big in size, could you tell us more about how will supporters access files?

It’s the size more than the quantity that is daunting. We’re investigating solutions for secure online delivery as we speak. Fortunately, we’re still several months off from having something for backers to hear, so we still have time to prepare.

Equipment for this kind of project is very important to record sound as thoroughly as possible. Could you tell us more about the equipment you are using?

All Natural Soundscape recordings will be multi-channel recordings made with Sennheiser MKH and MKH8000 series microphones via a Sound Devices 744t recorder at 192khz sample rate and 24-bit depth.

All Natural Location Open Air Impulse Responses will be recorded with the same microphone configuration, but the 744t will act as a backup recorder, passing through via an AES digital connection to an interface on my MacBookPro laptop.

I’ve been an ardent supporter of Sound Devices recorders for a while now. My main recorder has long been a 702, but I’ll be upgrading to a 744t for this project. I find the robustness of the Sound Devices build and the low self-noise of their preamps to be perfect for really quiet ambiences.

I use Apple’s quite brilliant Impulse Utility to generate a 50s sweep and deconvolve the result. The sweep is played back via an Adam A8X speaker from multiple locations to achieve a true-multichannel impulse response, not simple single-point setups. This means a full sweep will be played for each channel of the response — one each for front left, front right, rear left, and rear right — with the speaker moved for each setup and all four channels recording every time. In convolution reverb-speak this is called “true-multichannel” (“true-stereo” for a stereo down-mix).

I’ve been experimenting with various ambient recording techniques for a while now. Most of my stereo recordings were made with an Omni Mid-Side configuration. The omnidirectional/ mid component is a Sennheiser MKH8020 and the bidirectional/ side component is a Sennheiser MKH30. The result is a wide and detailed stereo field.

I’m really fond of Sennheiser microphones for their extended high range, low noise, and overall clarity. Currently I own a pair of MKH8020 omnidirectional microphones, an MKH30 bi-directional, and one MKH8060 hypercardioid/ short-shotgun. With this Kickstarter campaign, I aim to upgrade to include a pair of MKH8040 cardioid to use for channels 3 and 4 for the quad recordings. I’ve made recordings like this in the past and am excited to do it on this project.

There’s a been a lot of talk about Ambisonics recording techniques lately. After the recent 2016 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco I made the decision to supplement this project with Ambisonics recordings. I think there’s a real strong future in Ambisonics for documenting and recreating soundscapes, especially for any kind of virtual reality or 3D audio spatialized program. The technique is sound and has quite a bit of research and age to show for itself.

Most people think of Ambisonics as being the latest fad when it isn’t. It’s been around for forty years! The problem isn’t with the technique, but with the microphones. Most ambisonic arrays have issues with self noise, decreased frequency range (compared to Sennheiser microphones) and a lack of the sensitivity needed for quiet, soundscape and ambient recordings. Any Ambisonics recordings I make will only supplement this project, not replace it.

Let us talk about your work for a moment. You worked on a legendary adventure game Grim Fandango. How did you get involved with the project and what were your main tasks?

I don’t want to overstate my contributions to Grim Fandango. It was my first professional video game job. Until then I’d worked for a couple years’ primarily in film and television and had recently been assisting Randy Thom. I believe that linear experience was the very reason why they brought me on. My primary responsibility was to provide sound design for the rendered cutscenes — scenes like the introduction with Manuel Calavera on stilts acting as a grim travel agent, or Manny poking the eye of the giant squid submarine with his scythe, anything not part of the in-game experience. So really, in my first interactive entertainment experience, my duties were the non-interactive portions! The in-game sounds were handled by the amazing crew already at LucasArts, including Nick Peck, Julian Kwasneski, Clint Bajakian, Jeff Kliment, and more. The fact that Peter McConnell was providing music for most of these scenes just made my job even easier!

You also worked on Infamous game which I am assuming is a lot bigger in terms of productions. What were the main obstacles you faced during the production of the game? (if there were any)

There were definitely obstacles! Not the least of which was the sheer size and scope of the project. Sucker Punch hadn’t ever tried to make a project of this size, had never create an open world game. Most of the obstacles were simply in conveying to the team that we needed to more than just simple “play sound” hooks.

On your website I see the term “Audio Monkey” next to your credits. Could you tell us a story about the meaning behind it?

When recording or listening to or experimenting with sound, I really don’t feel like I’m working. I’m enjoying myself. But that’s not quite right. I can’t really express the feeling I have, but it’s one of both fulfillment and necessity. Watch monkeys flinging themselves from high tree branch to high tree branch in search of tiny fruit. They have equal parts amazement, determination, and excitement on their faces. It’s quite clear that they love the act of the leap, but also that it’s simply something they must do in order to retrieve that fruit. That’s how I feel working as a sound designer.

How do you perceive sound in your everyday life?

I don’t think I ever been asked a question quite like this before. I’ll need to think on it.

Sound grabs my attention. Sometimes I’m like the classic dog that immediately comes to attention when there’s a squirrel around. More often, though, I’m more like my daughter’s pet rats when they find something new. When they hear a sound they stop and turn, side-to-side, figuring out where it came from. Then they go investigate from the side of the cage. When they investigate a new object or bit of food, they have a tendency to go directly to the thing that’s grabbed their attention. They grab it, pull at it, maybe chew on it, and then they run away with it to a little den in the corner of their cage and don’t emerge until they’ve thoroughly examined this bit of food from all angles. They nibble it from all sides, shake it, sniff it, poke it, stuff it into a corner. I want to know every way a sound can be made. What happens if I take this thing I’ve found and poke it slightly harder? Slightly faster? Slightly slower?

Other times, though, it’s much more meditative. My mind races too much to meditate. I can never quite find that calm place that relaxes so many people. Except when I’m out in the forest, or on the beach, or in some place without humanity. Human sounds are so distracting to me. But out somewhere with birds calling in the distance or even dancing around me, with a soft wind blowing or light rain falling, somewhere with falling leaves and creaking trees… all these things relax me and I can simply let myself go.

Back to the Northwest Soundscape project. How can people support you project? Will the library be available for sale later on?

The best way is to simply go to http://northwestsoundscapes.com or directly to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/soundeziner/the-northwest-soundscapes-project and click on Back This Project!

Not everyone can afford to back immediately, though, and that’s okay. If it’s a project that interests you, spreading the word via social media (#nwsproject) or word of mouth will help grow attention and help bring in funding just as much as a direct contribution.

For the duration of the campaign, http://northwestsoundscapes.com will forward directly to the Kickstarter campaign page. After the campaign is complete, it will revert to a blog and travelogue for the project but will also have a storefront link for anyone who missed the campaign, offering the same early-bird buy-in discounts as the Kickstarter, but without the extra Kickstarter goodies (sorry!).

Finally, once the whole project is complete next year, the entire library will be packaged up for sale commercially.

Could you share any tips or tricks for the people wanting to get into field recording?

My favorite tip is to simply record. The more you record — and listen to what you’ve recorded! — the more you come figure it all out. Don’t worry about the quality or expense of your recorder or your microphones. Don’t worry about whether or not you have the best, most pristine equipment. Just record.

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. I firmly believe the same to be true for sound: the best recorder is the one you have with you. If you hear something interesting, but don’t have a Sound Devices-and-Sennheiser rig handy, don’t fret! These days nearly everyone you meet has a mobile telephone capable of at least limited audio recording in their pocket. Record your sound. Document it. Play it back and think about what you could do differently next time. Is it a sound that will still be around? Record it now and return later with a better recorder and microphone.

I won’t say what, but I’ve used sounds on the last three inFAMOUS titles that were recorded with my iPhone. I didn’t set out to record them with my iPhone, but it’s what I had handy when the moment arose. In the context of their use in the game they worked just fine.

If you do have a recorder and microphones, even if just a handheld recorder like a Zoom H4n, plug your headphones in and listen. Point the capsules at something interesting and manipulate it. Move the microphone around the object or through the soundscape while listening to find the best angle. One of the easiest mistakes to make is to look where you’re recording and without listening. Many people make the mistake of positioning their microphone with their eyes and not their ears.

Finally, deliberately put yourself in a position to record a surprise. A fun experiment is to hang microphones or a recorder out a window all day or all night, recording whatever comes by for a few hours. The resulting recording will be long, but now you’ll have the fun exercise of deciphering what you’re listening to. Without the visual cue to tell you what’s going on, your brain will work up all kinds of surprises for you’re hearing.