By Michael Hanish
I would bet that just about anyone reading these words is building and/or maintaining an audio library of some sort related to their work: sound effects, environments, music and backgrounds.
Clips that are used in one project often fit a specific need in another. For me, at least, audio clips seem to multiply of their own accord, like dust bunnies. There are loads of libraries and resources out there… some better quality than others. The clips that I have found the most useful and have re-used the most often were ones I have recorded myself, especially with environmental tracks.
Many libraries and/or collections I have looked at over the years have contained unique and interesting sounds, but somehow they didn’t have enough flexibility to always blend well in my mixes, or fit my immediate project needs without a lot of extra work. But that might all be changing, at least thanks to one library I have become familiar with recently.
Twice in the last few months I had the opportunity to work with libraries from Pro Sound Effects, and I have been pleased and inspired. Their NYC Ambisonics package ($119) has nearly seven hours — 53 ambiences, almost 43GB — of New York City ambiences, recorded at 24-bit/96kHz in both stereo and B-channel broadcast WAV formats. B-channel is a four-channel surround format that can be read through the included SurroundZone2 plug-in (more about this below) and remixed into stereo, mono or a wide range of surround formats (5.0, 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.0, 7.1).
Tracks were produced and recorded by David Forshee and Laura Cunningham using a TSL Products SoundField microphone package. The offering is available for download after purchase, or can be shipped on a USB drive for an additional $40 plus shipping. A free downloadable (1.8GB) sampler with two full ambiences and the SurroundZone2 software is available on PSE’s website.
A PDF of the track list shows a wide range of environments from many locations around the greater New York City area, from light traffic and an elevated subway train in Astoria, Queens to a rain storm in a cemetery in Greenwood, Brooklyn to street sounds and pedestrian walla on the Upper West Side and the West Village in Manhattan, as well as sounds from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and the Staten Island Ferry.
Track lengths range from a bit under two minutes to over 12 minutes, with the average between nine and 10 minutes. All are full featured, clean and detailed enough to form the basis for anything from the creation of a whole environment to the sweetening of a scene with problematic audio.
The SoundField SurroundZone2 software plug-in (VST, AU and AAX versions available), which is supplied, is basically the control panel for all four capsule SoundField microphones. Somewhat similar in concept to a one-point stereo microphone, this configuration is designed to capture a three-dimensional audio scene from a well-defined (sonically) central point location, with none of the phase or time issues common when using an array or separate and spaced microphones.
The other huge bonus to using this technique and format for recording is that the that central point and channel balances can be redefined and/or remixed within reason in post to better match the visual characteristics and quality of a particular scene.
Input controls applied by the software include a high-pass filter (80Hz), gain adjustment (-30dB to +10dB) and toggles to maintain the correct (as-recorded) 3D spatial orientation of the channels (left-right and up-down), with bar graph style metering. The Output section mixes the file to any of the formats mentioned above — from mono and stereo to any of the surround formats up through 7.1 — with the routing dependent on the plug-in format (VST/AU vs. AAX) and host.
Controls include output level for each output pair or single channel (dependent on output format) with -30dB to +10dB adjustment, Mix Orientation and Width and Polar controls. Mix Orientation, in effect, allows one to reposition the microphone in post by adjusting rotation, tilt or zoom (virtually moving closer to or farther from the sound source) using a very easy to understand graphical display. Width and Polar controls affect the rear channel patterns (and thus the entire sound field width) by changing between cardioid, hyper-cardioid or figure eight patterns. In practice, it is easy to hear these parameters change the width, focus, and feeling of immersion in even a stereo mix output.
Using this library in a couple of small post projects and experiments was even better than I imagined or expected. Since New York is one of those iconic cityscapes, what viewers can expect, to a certain extent, is to personify a city — these sound environments can be used in many ways to jazz up, recreate or otherwise impersonate a city scene, especially when it’s undefined. And since these files are so clear and detailed and contain so much information, I was able to mix them in for suggestion as well as for more concrete documentation.
I mainly used Adobe’s Audition software — my current workflow of choice is Adobe Premier-based — for both scene mixes and to prepare or pre-mix files for insertion into the NLE. There were no bumps or unexpected gotchas in this workflow because of the wide compatibility and ease of use of the sounds and software. There is not a whole lot more to say about the use of the NYC Ambisonics library, and that is meant as high praise. It all sounds great and works well.
I also recommend that while you are at PSE’s site, either checking into the NYC Ambisonics sampler or buying the full library for the extremely reasonable price you investigate their other offerings. Pro Sound Effects has been developing interesting and useful collections and libraries and very flexible and very affordable ways of making them available for all levels of budget and use.
Michael Hanish is the owner of Free Lunch Media, a video/audio/multimedia production house based in Guilford Vermont.