Jason Strawley and Andrew Garraway make up Blackguard SMG, an Orlando, FL-based sound effects recording duo that have been working together for more than 20 years. Pro Sound Effects is the main outlet for their work, but they have also been contracted to record for AAA games and feature films. Their Pro Sound Effects recordings have appeared in numerous movies, TV shows and video games.
Waves Wind Water Vol. 2 is Blackguard SMG’s fourth Ambisonic ambience library that they’ve produced for Pro Sound Effects, following
Waves Wind Water, Biophony and
Pacific Northwest. The original
WWW features recordings from across the US, and their goal with
WWW2 was to build on this success while raising the bar.
The latest release includes more and better recordings of bigger waves, stronger winds and characterful water. All recordings are free of man-made noise and other unwanted distractions. Iceland, in fact, proved to be an ideal location for capturing such recordings.
According to Jason Strawley, the duo use a Sennheiser Ambeo, which gives them the ability to deliver B-Format for immersive media, 5.1 for post, and stereo for YouTubers.
“Ambeo allows us to bring one mic and generate all of these assets without complicated - and heavy - mic bars, multiple stands, careful measurements, etc,” Strawley explains. “We’ve recorded in different surround formats over the years and Ambeo is the only thing portable enough for the tough locations we tend to record.”
They’ve achieved positive results with Ambeo’s sound quality, which preserves and delivers both low-end power and high-end detail.
“Upon decoding to 5.1, the surround image is immersive and accurate,” notes Strawley. “Peers that have tried other Ambisonic mics are consistently impressed with what we get from Ambeo.”
The duo have exposed their Ambeo to some incredibly-harsh conditions over the years, ranging from the Florida Everglades in the summer to northern Iceland during a blizzard.
“It has held up beyond all reasonable expectations, oftentimes stuffed in a backpack or hand-carried out in the elements,” Strawley notes.
Some of their preferred accessories include a three-meter, 12-pin extension cable; the Cinela Piani Ambeo Windshield Kit; and Sound Devices’ MixPre 6 II.
“The 12-pin to four XLR fanout cable is a sensitive spot in the setup,” Strawley explains. “I find the fanout cable to be susceptible to a high amount of handling noise. The best way to avoid this is keep the fanout completely within the sound bag, which means you will need a long enough 12-pin extension to connect to the mic, run down the stand and into the bag.”
Strawley says the Cinela Piani Ambeo Windshield Kit has proven to be a game changer, helping to considerably reduce wind noise.
“It handles near gale-force winds with ease,” he notes. “We pushed it to its limits — and a little beyond — in Iceland, and I was honestly amazed at where that limit is. The shock-mount is incredible and the conn-box eliminates virtually all handling noise. Pricey, but worth every bit.”
Strawley also recommends checking out the Piani Kelly Rain Cover, which allowed them to confidently recorded behind waterfalls and exposed in the rain, knowing that the mic would be protected and the sound quality would be preserved.
Sound Devices MixPre 6 II is a well-suited companion for the Ambeo.
“The sound quality is impeccable and the Ambisonic plug-in makes recording as easy as possible,” he says. “Direct conversion to B-Format saves a ton of time in post. Linking the gain for all four inputs ensures good imaging. Binaural monitoring gives us the confidence we need in the field.”
Strawley says he’s read some complaints on message boards about first-order Ambisonic recordings' ability to form a stable, immersive 5.1 image.
“I believe that with careful mastering, it is possible to achieve excellent results,” he counters.
He’s come to a number of conclusions through trial and error.
“I use iZotope Neutron for EQ duties,” he explains. “First, it supports multi-channel formats, which rules out many other EQ plug-ins. Next, it is a phase linear EQ, so it won’t mess with the time alignment of the four channels - very important if you want to preserve that immersiveness! Finally, it has a dynamic EQ function, which is magical. I like to use a low-shelf EQ set to dynamic mode to take care of intermittent bursts of low energy (like in wind or wave recordings) without sucking all the low-end power out of the rest of the recording.”
Specific to the Ambeo, he’s found that the units has some buildup in the mid-500Hz range.
“I like to scoop out 4.5dB in this area to compensate. Be sure to use a light touch and listen carefully. If your EQ notch is too narrow or too deep, some negative artifacts will be introduced. Never apply EQ without good reason, and be mindful of the how and why.”
When it comes to noise reduction, he relies on iZotope’s RX.
“Rule #1: never apply broadband noise reduction to an Ambisonic recording! There’s no quicker way to add artifacts, chirps, swirliness, whatever you want to call it. I limit my RX use to a few surgical functions when performing Ambisonic mastering. First, Spectral Repair, set to a conservative setting, can remove unwanted birds, ticks, clicks, pops and so on. Don’t expect it to completely remove every unwanted sound. You may have to concede that an unwanted sound will remain slightly audible or you may need to cut around it. Listen carefully and look carefully. If Spectral Repair is cutting a hole in your spectrum, discerning ears will notice! I also use De-Plosive to take care of intense low-end energy. Be sure to set the frequency threshold based on the source material. Avoid the temptation to use De-Wind. It’s designed to remove wind noise from voice recordings — not wind recordings! It will leave musical artifacts all over the place near the cutoff frequency, which is tolerable in location dialogue, but never in a nature recording!”
Whatever plug-in a user decides to employ for decoding B-Format down to stereo or 5.1, Strawley says there are some important universal things to consider.
“First, be sure to monitor in whatever format you are decoding to,” he explains. “This will require that you do separate passes for the 5.1 and stereo versions. Do not assume that the settings for one decode will work for the other. They often don’t! Next, be sure to rotate the image all the way around to make sure you’re achieving balance and focus. Despite my best efforts at mic setup, I rarely use zero degrees for the optimal ‘viewing’ angle. Also, play with the different pickup pattern simulations. The best sounding configuration will vary from one recording to the next - sometimes omni works best, sometimes it’s cardioid or supercardioid. Finally, don’t be afraid to mess with the mic spacing angle, especially in the stereo render. Don’t be dogmatic — sticking to tried and true stereo mic’ing methods — the best sounding result may be something unexpected.”
Strawley recommends listening to the place being recorded without headphones on – that is, once you’re confident the recording sounds ok.
“Make a note of how the location sounds to your ear,” he notes. “ What frequencies stand out to you? What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? How does it feel? Take a photo on your phone. Look at that photo while mastering to assist with the recall. It really works! Plug-ins are great but your memory of the location may be the most valuable tool in your mastering arsenal!”
Iceland gave the audio pros more sounds and opportunities per day than anywhere else they’ve ever recorded.
“There is no such thing as a perfect field-recording location, but Iceland provided more than its fair share of ‘Goldilocks’ situations,” says Strawley. “As a field recordist, you are always avoiding air traffic. Due to its low population, Iceland has relatively few local flights, and due to its northerly location, few international flights pass overhead, so one would be hard-pressed to find a better location in that regard.”
The Icelandic weather, however, can be extremely unpredictable.
“We were extremely fortunate in that we got a large swath of warm, calm days when we were on the South coast,” he recalls. “In fact, it was so calm that we started to get concerned about the possibility of recording any wind at all! But, as visitors to Iceland are fond of saying, ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.’ So in true Icelandic fashion, we got absolutely blasted with wind and snow in the highlands. If we were not specifically prepared to record wind, we probably would have lost about four days of recording without proper wind protection.”
Ultimately, Iceland gave them a chance to record streams, brooks, waterfalls, bubbling mud pits and rocky shores.
“We’re so grateful to have had the privilege of recording and experiencing such a magical place,” Strawley concludes.