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Taking location recording to the Extreme

Watson Wu, an award winning American composer, sound designer, and sound effects recordist for video games, film and TV talks to Behind the Glass about extreme recording. Wu has worked on titles including Baby Driver, Mercedes-AMG ad, Assassin’s Creed, Transformers, NCAA Football, Madden, The Need for Speed franchise, and his other credits include Lexus, Daniel Craig's A&E Documentary, 71 (the movie), The Voice, G4TV, It's Me or The Dog, Australia's Got Talent, NBA, NHL, U.S. Army ad, and many more.


Wu, known for recording power boats, high end sports cars, motor bikes, military vehicles and guns actually began his career as a composer. “While writing music for a game, the client asked if I could design some sound effects for them” he said. “I tried and just fell in love with the process of recording my own sources, editing, and then designing the effects for games. After several titles I also got the chance to work on film and TV. The rest is history.”


We asked Wu to explain the differences between recording for film and video games.  “Film is linear so the exact sound will be heard every time you watch the same movie. I often get the shot list wanting specific perspectives recorded over and over again so that the sound editor can pick and choose what’s best for the scenes. Game sounds frequently change due to how the person plays. Borderlands 3 has a unique weapon system that can produce tons of gun sounds. I used multiple microphones that sound different from each other so that the designers would have an abundance of sonic options to create from.”


One of the earliest high end games Wu worked on required recording super loud race cars. “That session caused so much ear ache which led me to purchase the right recording gear to better deal with those extreme sounds. I love to do experiments which lead to more jobs of dealing with loud sounds. Since then I’ve worked on Mercedes-AMG ad, NASCAR Heat, Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands, and other major titles.”


When capturing extreme sounds there are many challenges to the process. “The biggest challenges I face are microphone placements from the sound source. Often times mics can reach further than we hear so placing them in particular perspectives can yield great results” added Wu. “When I’m recording external perspective revs of a motorcycle, I won’t stand right close to the exhaust, but will record from 10-20 feet away then point the shotgun mic at the motorcycle. This is so even when the scene shows a close shot of the exhaust. When the motorcycle is extremely loud, the microphone can be pointed perpendicular to the exhaust or towards the ground. This is sometimes done to avoid unwanted distortions. There are great distortions versus unwanted distortions. Vehicle sounds often reflect off of the road so this means you don’t always have to point at the motorcycle during the capture of Passbys.”


One of the most challenging sounds to capture is that of a motor boat. “There are limited areas to secure microphones on a watercraft to counter unwanted wind noise as well as preventing them from being soaked from waves. When I record sound of cars, one of the External Perspective takes I do is called Approach, Stop, and Away. Well, it dawned on me that boats don’t stop when you shut off the engine!!”


Capturing the sounds of a high end sports car also has its own challenges. “When the wind passes over the body of a vehicle, there are areas that won’t be as affected from turbulence. These are areas where you can conceal the microphones with cloth based gaffer tape, like Pro Gaff, to better secure the mics inside a windshield kit. Zip ties are also great to use, especially on a boat. The mics I use can often withstand some water and violent bumps.”


One of Wu’s most challenging projects to date was for the game Planet Coaster. “Recording roller coasters for the Planet Coaster game has been the most challenging project so far” added Wu. “Cars go forwards and backwards so I had to figure out a better way to capture rides that traveled at all 360 degrees. Even though roller coasters can travel 60 plus mph, the cars I’ve recorded sometimes travel pass 200mph. So, speed isn’t really the issue. Tight concealment of microphones was the key.

Of course taking Less Drowsy Dramamine while riding on and recording onboard sounds (sounds from rider’s POV) helps! Whilst capturing onboard sounds (while riding on the coaster), I could not wear my headphones to monitor the recordings so the playback and adjustments were made at the end of the ride. I was able to take my time to listen and adjust the levels without a soul to rush me. It was literally ride with recorder strapped to me, stop and listen/adjust, and repeat. I did this about 10 times per ride. Sound Designer Matthew Florianz from Frontier Developments said that I got the ultimate fast pass. He was right!”


Another other great session was for Call of Duty Modern Warfare. “I had the pleasure to work with Infinity Ward sound designers. It was great to capture how gun and explosive sounds echoed inside and outside urban environments. Gunshots sound so different from inside a prison versus inside a residential home.”


We just had to ask if anything had ever gone wrong during a recording! “Many things have gone wrong during some of my sessions” said Wu. “A Ferrari on a dyno stopped running because the car computer wanted to be on a road vs being static on a rolling dyno. Because of that I decided to record on the road. Yes, I was freaking out because there would be no way I could afford to repair that high end Ferrari. During a Red Bull rally race car session, the violence of being tossed around riding onboard broke my battery cable. Without this $2 cable, I was not able to continue to supply power to my portable 8 track field recorder. This is why I bring backup recorders with different battery options to continue the needed session. That was the most violent ride I have ever ridden in. After an hour of getting out of that speedy car, my hands were still shaking. I LOVED IT!”


“I have also had somewhat intimidating looks in the past. On one occasion someone called the police about a suspicious looking guy walking around carrying strange looking equipment. The police came and asked me what I was doing. I smiled and showed him my recording gear and we had a great chat about movies and sounds in movies. He was a nice officer.”


As for kit, Wu has a vast collection of mics. “I own over 50 mics and some multi-track field recorders. My favorite lavalier mics are DPA 4061, 4062, Shure TwinPlex 47, Rode Lav, and Countryman B3. I use particular ones depending on the loudness as well as the size of the space. While 4062 and Shure TP 47 can handle being bounced on, they are too booming sounding for car cabin captures. Rode Lav and Countryman B3 do a better job for those non-extreme sounding areas. My favorite MS Shotgun mics are Sennheiser 418s, Pearl MS 8 CL, Neumann RSM-191, etc. I don’t believe it’s enough just to use mono. For best use of time and when I’m holding a shotgun mic, I very much prefer MS (Mid-Side). This way I can either use the mono (Mid) or later mix both Mid and Side into narrow or wide stereo. When I went to Iceland, the Pearl MS 8 CL was one of the two mics I brought. It’s small, clean sounding, and can also take a beating from loudness and from bad weather. Favorite mono shotgun mics are Neumann 82i, Rode NTG5, DPA 4017b, Rode NTG8, Rode NT3, etc. I prefer these mics because they reach quite far and can isolate very well. The Ambisonic mics I use are the Rode NT-SF1, Soundfield SPS200, and Soundfield ST-450mkii. All three are fantastic for all kinds of situations. The software plugin allows you to narrow in for mono, widen for stereo, tilt to isolate that bird on a tree, rotate, and the ability to export to 7.1 etc surround wave files. Soundfield SPS200 was the other mic I brought to Iceland. It’s compact and can fit into various windshield kits.”


“For car sessions I prefer small lavalier mics to record engine and cabin sounds. Lavalier mics are concealable when bigger mics can’t fit inside. DPA 4062 and Shure TwinPlex 47 can both handle really loud engine sounds. Sometimes I use an ambisonic mic to capture more cabin sounds from either Rode or Soundfield brands. Most of the time I use handheld dynamic vocal mics to capture exhaust sounds. They mostly capture close proximity and do well to reject unwanted direct wind and road noise. Rode Microphones & Sennheiser are some of my favorites.”


As to where to the place the mic? “I sometimes do experiments to see what a new mic can and cannot do. Sometimes my car contacts will let me know when they are going to get new tires. They would let me record burnout and drifting sounds until the older tires have worn out. This is one of the good ways to learn what mics can do well and at what perspectives. I think of this practice similar to doing many rehearsals before performing in major concerts.”


Other kit Wu uses includes the 8 track recorder would be the Sound Devices 788T-SSD. “This Beast has survived being tossed on a yacht (while I was puking off the side, for Just Cause 3 game title). It also survived being tossed around in stunt cars for Baby Driver film. I love the clean preamp and the adjustable display so that I can quickly look down to see what’s going on without having to change menu settings. Right now I’ve been using a lot of my Zoom F6 recorders. Not only can it record in 32 bit, but it is a Very reliable and portable 6 input recorder. I only need one 10,000mah USB Battery Pack to power it for an entire day. For portable stereo, the Lectrosonics SPDR 2 input recorder has been fun to use. I’ve rigged it on the belt of a Harley Davidson owner to capture Onboard sounds and have also placed it on top of the mast of a ship to capture sail sounds.”


As for bags and headphones Wu usually uses the K-Tek Stingray bags for his recorders along with their backpack to transport various items. “If I had had their bag during the Rally Race Car session, I believe my $2 power cable would have been saved. All of their bags are well thought out and extremely well made before.” As for headphones, “When the weather is too hot, I prefer the Shure SE846 pro earphones. They are expensive but well worth it for extreme recordings. I’ve used them to record helicopters when the rotor wash wind blew off my regular headphones and when I have to use mosquito net over my head. Remote Audio High Noise is my favorite to record weapon and other loud sounds. They protect my ears from extreme loud sounds also do well for playback in a very noise environment. The Audio-Technica M50x headphones sound great for subtle recordings. They are probably the best deal for great results.”


As technology allows us to do more with sound we asked Wu how he sees sound developing. “Audio has become more complicated over the years. A contact of mine worked on the 1980s Miami Vice TV show. It started with only mono, then to stereo. Most of my projects today require a lot more channels using wide frequency modern mics and recorders for best mixing options. If we were to fast forward in time, we would clearly hear focused sounds even in a noisy environment. This means the microphones can be adjusted to capture more of what I want vs everything else at the same location. I am waiting for that day when I can reject the lawn mower and capture the single pure bird sound.”


As for upcoming sound designers and recordists, Wu has the following advice. “I recommend over-recording with mono and stereo microphones. Today memory cards and power options are inexpensive so record a lot more than what you need. Record from different angles and at different distances. Get to know the sweet spots for each of your mics. Use some of your profits to acquire better gear. I used to think that gear had to be expensive for best results. This is not so. I’ve capture better sounds using a $100 microphone vs one priced at $1,000. It all depends on the situation along with microphone placements.”