The Adventure of a Leaftime

You Are Recording What?

I’ve been asked a few times, “You’re recording leaves? Why?” My short answer was because they are there. The long answer is because I’ve always needed some leaf-type sounds in my video game work. Whether it was for a fantasy forest ambient track sweetener, a tree monster, or a spaceship roaring low over trees, leaves come in very handy. So now the question is: What do I record and where do I record it? In this article I will detail, the best way I can, the adventure this turned out to be, what I learned, and how I put it all together.

Planning Stage: What? Me Plan?

I started with walking around the forest near the ranch and played with all the trees, bushes, and weeds. It may sound strange but I actually had a great time. I carried my PCM-D1 with me and recorded different plants and took photos so I could visually connect with what was recorded on this test run. This library was going to be a challenge, I thought to myself. How am I going to record things that barely make a sound? Will the weather be good for a clean recording? How loud is the background noise from the industrialized world around me? Since leaves sound different during the changing seasons, how am I going to make this a well- rounded collection? How the heck am I going to find the time since I’m swamped with video game work at the moment?

Now I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I wanted this to be a great collection of sounds, not just some stuff thrown together that did not make any sense. I took a different approach. Instead of recording everything about a leaf, I decided to just wing it and see what happens. Since my schedule did not allow me to drive around the world and record leaves from everywhere, I focused on the leaves around home. I never traveled more than a mile away from the ranch. I have many different types of trees, a large field of tall grass, and other plant life that just begged to be recorded. I began recording the bulk of the material in May of this year. I already had some recordings I made in 2007 that are in the library as well.

Patience is a Virtue

This is so true. I’m not always a patient person. When I’m out recording and there is an interruption, whether it’s a plane passing overhead or a bird chirping nearby, I get frustrated. OK, I’m learning… I have gotten much better over the years. At times, while recording for this collection, I waited outside for hours. Perhaps the wind was not right or there was a train going through town. Believe me when I tell you, lots of trains pass through North Idaho – over 60 a day I was told. Since I was attempting to fit these recording sessions in between my game work, that’s when my life got interesting. I had to develop ways to be ready to record at a moments notice. I had two recording set-ups with four sets of microphones that were always ready to go – sometimes I used a boom and sometimes a stand. My living room looked like a showroom for location recording.

The Adventure

I recorded over 50 hours of source material for Ultimate Foliage and most of it was air. Much of it I recorded at night when it was super quiet (except for the tree frogs chirping). Sometimes I would go out at 2:00 AM and rustle the leaves and at other times I would set two SD-702 recorders on two hour timers near the forest. I had to make sure the weather forecast was not calling for rain during the timer recordings for obvious reasons. These sessions did not really yield much material because the microphones were stationary and it was basically ambience. I got the best recordings when I was mobile and could follow the action around. I had some great sessions that resulted in some really cool sounds that I never thought I would get. Here are some of them.

Leaf Dancing
Weather played a huge role in this process. During late summer, the wind gods blessed me with some great gusting wind for days. The leaves were tumbling over my sidewalk and lawn so I used an AT-835ST on a long boom and held it over the leaves for about 30 minutes. I used this microphone because it’s not very heavy on a long boom, and it has a nice crisp high end that worked well on the leaf dancing. It was the middle of the day and there was some traffic on the road so I lost some great gusts to a semi truck driving by. All in all, I recorded a few takes, and I carefully edited the pieces together. I consider it one of the highlights of the library.

Tree Recording PhotoThe Trees Are Alive With the Sound of Music
The gusty wind that was around for a few days also yielded some great tree leaf movement. After I recorded the dry leaves, I walked around the ranch with the boom and held it, as far as I could comfortably reach, into the trees that surround the ranch. The wind was really gusting at this point, and it took a lot of effort to hold the 16-foot boom pole steady. The AT-835ST held up well because of its light weight. I used the 80Hz low cut filter on the SD-702 which helped to keep much of the wind rumble out. I ended up with many elegant wind and tree leaf swells that work well alone or mixed in with other elements.

I also wanted to capture just the leaves rustling in the trees without the wind. My goal was to have some leaf movement that a sound designer could layer under whatever wind tracks they wanted. Some of these are subtle swaying and some are violent shakes and impacts on the maple trees here. To get the right movements, I stood in the grove of trees and moved the branches by hand and at other times I strung a rope through the small maple tree trunks and pulled back and forth. The leaves were green for the most part. We were approaching the time of year when the leaves on the birch trees start to turn bright yellow and fall to the ground. The local squirrels also eat the seeds from the maple trees, and I worked around their lunch and dinner breaks. The squirrels need to survive a long winter so I gave them a break.

The Tree Monster

Tree and Sennheiser MKH-8040ST
This session is one of my favorites. I had a partially dead maple tree that I’ve wanted to clear out for years and now was the time. I cut the tree and laid it down gently so as to not break off all the dead limbs. Maple is a very solid wood when it’s dry so I figured I could really get some hard-hitting branch breaks and impacts from this tree. There were some live branches still on the tree so I first worked those for some large leafy tree limb movements. Next up was hitting the main trunk of the tree with some larger dry branches that I had broken off. These branches were heavy and gave me a workout, but I recorded some awesome swishes and impacts. I really liked the sound of a dry branch with a splintered top; I recorded some cool multi tonal swishes. I left the live branches with leaves for the deer to eat; they love maple leaves. The remaining dry branches I cut up and stored away as firewood.

Fern Recording PhotoMay the Fern Be with You
Another one of my favorite sessions was recording the sound of the ferns down by my seasonal stream. It’s very wet down there making it a perfect habitat for the ferns, and they remain green until the late fall. I recorded actions such as pulling out of the ground, swishes, rustling, and breaking the stems. Ferns have very rigid stems so that when bunches of them are broken together they sound really cool. I recorded the ferns with the Sennheiser MKH-8040ST rig. The high frequency content holds up well when pitched down even to extremes.

The Pond of Life
There is a small pond on the mountain behind the ranch and lots of cattails have grown up over the years. First I recorded wind blowing though the cattails with the Sennheiser MKH-8040ST rig, and I noticed that there were insects buzzing around also. The dragonflies seemed to like hanging out in the cattails and some of the rustling I heard was from them in the leaves. Quite a bit of it was unusable because of the friendly squirrels and someone honing his skills with a rifle. The problem with attempting to record these subtle sounds is that the other sounds can really screw up a take. Again, I’m learning patience.

Cattails and Sennheiser MKH-8040ST

The second time I went up to the pond the goal was to get some rustling cattails and some chopping with a machete knife. I decided to bring my Sanken CSS-5 and my Sennheiser MKH-416. Since I was recording in the muddy section of the pond, I recorded each action two times, once with the CSS-5 and then with the MKH-416. I had the CSS-5 on a stand to record the rustling and the machete from a medium distance and then switched to the hand held MKH-416 to get some close up takes. These microphones sound very different, and I’m glad I brought both. I decided against using the MKH-8040ST because of the off chance it could end up in the mud, an expensive accident if it happened.

Swish Me Baby!
Now I was at the point where I needed to spice things up a bit and see what I could do with taking branches and bundles of grass and swishing them past the microphones. I wanted to simulate many types of swishes and impacts that would occur in a gun battle, a tree monster swinging its limbs, running through a field or a swamp, among many other things. I tried to get as many possible variations as I could—fast, slow, close, far, etc. One time I got a little carried away and hit the video camera and it went down. The price you pay for trying to not hit a $3000.00 microphone rig.

To Dry or Not to Dry
Last but not least, I recorded some dry leaves. I had to wait a few weeks for the leaves to start falling. When I found out it was going to rain for days I had to act quickly. I stored some dry leaves for use later but never needed them as I managed to get everything I wanted recorded. The dry leaves were the trickiest to record. Most of the time, they don’t produce a very loud sound and when they do it can sound like white noise. I recorded dropping them from my 14-foot deck onto the lawn below and crunching them with my hands or feet. I then raked them up into a pile and re-lived a time in my childhood when my grandfather would collect all the fall leaves from the whole neighborhood (The sign said, “Leave Your Leaves Here”) and make a huge pile for his grandkids to jump into. One of my favorite sets of sounds is of a rake hitting the pile of leaves and making a great swish and impact as it slapped the leaves. I also dropped a cinderblock and my boot into the pile for good measure. I used the MKH-8040ST and CSS-5 sync locked for this session but ended up going with just the MKH-8040ST.

Final Destination

The editing and mastering phase of the library was also very challenging. I was lucky enough to get recordings that did not need any noise reduction. I just carefully used EQ and expansion to make sure they were good. One thing I did notice when I was editing was that listening at higher volumes takes away the setting in which you actually hear most of the rustling leaves in real life. I had to listen loud sometimes because I wanted to hear the stuff in the background, but then I went back to making sure it sounded good at the level in which it probably will be used in a production. Some of the tracks also sounded like there millions of tiny clicks. They weren’t clicks but just the way the leaves sounded sometimes. I ended up pulling some out by hand and on occasion used RX-2 at a very low setting. The RX-2 removed just the offending clicks and left the natural ones. I am amazed at how great that piece of software is.

The metadata part of this adventure was fairly easy. The only thing I was concerned about was adding the microphone name to the file name and description field. I decided to add it only when one mic was tracked along side another or used in the same session but on a different take. I wanted to let the user know why the same action sounds so different. If you use Soundminer HD or v4 Pro you can see the “Microphone” field contains the name of the microphone used. I hope this helps. I am still refining the metadata process and keep coming up with new ideas for it, but at the same time, I don’t want to make it too different from my other sound effects libraries.

It’s a Wrap

There are so many other things I recorded: apples falling from my tree, picking fruit, plum leaves, grabbing hops, and playing with dry field grass, that I could write 20 more pages. These round out what I think is a good start on my first collection of foliage sounds. This was probably the most challenging sound effects library I have made so far. It wasn’t so much physically challenging as it was technically challenging. Leaves in general can all sound the same. The sounds from fallen leaves are very subtle and not very loud. Whether on the ground or on the trees, recording them really depends on the weather being just right. As the year progresses, I hope to add to my leaf collection as the fall gets closer to winter. I still have many green leaves on the trees, and I await the first deep frost to help them change color and float to the ground.