The Making Of Thunderstorm 3 Part 1

October 7, 2014 – Frank Bry

In this article I will reveal my secrets and techniques to recording decent thunder and lightning. Many, many years and sleepless nights have gone into perfecting the art of recording the thunderstorm and I will finally share. But first, I want to share a little history and tell you how I developed these secrets and techniques. It was not so easy at first and here’s the story I’m still alive to tell. Part 1: Live and Learn.

I recorded my first thunder clap back in 1992 in Seattle. I was a wild young man living downtown in an apartment building and used to run up the 5 flights of stairs to the rooftop and stand outside during the storms. I only recorded one clap back then but I kept trying, and trying, and trying. When I moved to North Idaho in 1997 I attempted to record more storms even though I had no idea what I was doing. I was renting a house in the country and many storms passed through and I tried to record every one of them. I would run outside with my gear and crouch down behind my car to hide from the rain and thunderous booms like the car was going to protect me. I would also set the microphone out on the covered doorstep or place it out a window. Well, these techniques yielded some decent results I was always striving for the perfect lightning strike or thunder clap. For some reason I was not that concerned for my safety as I was totally obsessed with getting the perfect recording. Stupid me, I have learned a lot since those days and the older I get the wiser (the jury is still out on that one) and safer I try to be.

Flash forward to my days living in my mountain cabin in the thick forests of North Idaho. While living there I further refined my techniques recording thunder and lightning. After recording from the front porch, the cabin windows and right out in the front yard (yep, stupid me) I figured out that it was almost always dry under the tall fir trees we have here. Hmmm… I had a bright idea! What would the results be if I placed my microphones and recorder out under a close knit group of these trees? So, That’s what I did for a while until a heavy rain storm came one day and the drips from the branches hit the gear.

mountain cabin location

The mountain cabin location used during 2000-2004. Was very quiet there.

What now? Well, I devised a system of wire hangers, window screens and bath towels to hang a few feet above the microphone. This rig hung from a branch about 8 feet up the tree. I cleared away all the low branches and presto! I had my rain cover. It worked really well until the towels got soaking wet but by then the lightning and thunder portion of a storm had passed and I could run outside and grab the gear without the threat of being hit by lightning.

OK, I solved one problem but now I have another. I could not monitor my HHB PortaDAT DAT machine during the storm as I was inside the cabin having a scotch or two hoping for the best. How do I protect myself and the DAT machine from the rain and the wind during these storms and keep the levels at the correct setting? After some head scratching I noticed my studio was 50 feet away from the group of trees I was using. Long cables I declared! That was easy. Now, how do I get the cables into the studio so I can kick back in the comfort of my sound proofed audio studio and record the show? Not so easy: drill some holes though the wall and install some XLR plugs to feed the signal inside. I installed a weatherized junction box on the outside wall with the XLR jacks safely inside. I had to make sure the XLR jacks would be weather proof during the long winters we have here.

vintage gear

Some older gear used over the years. A DAT and a FR-2 recorder. AT825 Microphone and Sanken CSS-5

I recorded thunder at the cabin for over five blissful years. I got some fantastic recordings some of which can be found on my first Thunderstorm HD library. During this time I briefly used a Shure VP-88 but eventually changed my main microphone to a Sanken CSS-5 and my recorder to a High Definition Fostex FR-2. I also used this rig for everything else I was recording at the time. The FR-2 was my first HD recorder and the Sanken CSS-5 was my first microphone that had a mortgage on it. My quest for the perfect thunder recording was not over. In fact, it was just beginning.

Flash forward again to 2005 and a new home studio. I moved from the mountains, my long hair now short but with my beard intact across the river to a wide open location that sounded great during thunderstorms. I had one issue: I no longer had my fir tree friends to protect my recording gear from the harsh effects of Nature’s Fury. It took a bit of trial and error but I finally found a way to record from the safety of my kitchen with the microphones set outside at the front entrance facing North. There was a 24 inch roof eave that hung over the entrance and it protected the microphones enough from the rain. Unless there was heavy rain and very strong wind gusts, which can happen quite e bit here, the location worked for the most part. Well… except for the rain drips off the sides of the metal roofed house.

recording locations 2012-2013

Two locations used in 2012 and 2013. Waiting for the storms.

Head scratching again, I must have looked like I had dry scalp or something during this time. I had to devise a way that I could quickly set up some sort of barrier on each side of the microphones. To the left was my wood deck and to the right was my concrete walkway. Water drips sound great on those surfaces but NOT during my thunderstorms. So I found some 3×4 foot pieces of plywood and set them up on the corner of the house held in place by cinder blocks. I placed a towel over them to help absorb the sound. Basically, these plywood sheets extended the side of the house out a bit to block the sound of drips hitting the ground. It worked for the most part but it was still not enough. During the winter it’s not a good idea to have rain gutters on a house with a metal roof. So, to slolve the rain drip issued I installed 10 feet of removable gutter to direct the water South away from the North facing part of the house. Yay! It worked! I was so happy to have a fairly good location to record thunderstorms and I recorded many.

The best sounding and cleanest storms rolled in at night when there was no traffic, birds and other environmental noises that get into the recordings during the daytime. During thunderstorm season which runs from April to October I had my gear at the ready. From the first clap I heard way off in the distance to “record ready” was about 4 minutes for the most part. Sometimes a storm would slowly approach and I had the chance to set the microphones out on the front lawn or on the other side of my garage. These slow moving storms had little rain at the beginning and I had plenty of time to gather the gear up and move to my preferred location. I have been caught off guard many times with fast moving storms as they seem to come out of nowhere and the first couple of claps are always the cleanest.

Ready to flash forward again? OK, here we go! For the last year I have been recording in a third location. Not very far from where I was previously so I knew what to expect in terms of the sound of the thunder. This new location does not have any gutters… Phew! No more dripping sounds to deal with! To my surprise I found a group of trees 75 feet from the back of the home, very near the large covered deck. I have my fir tree friends back and a couple of new cedar tree friends. I have two locations under these trees to set up my microphones. There are low hanging branches and I devised a horizontal frame with small wood sticks on these branches to suspend moving blankets over the microphones. I run two 75 foot, 5-pin XLR stereo microphone cable across the lawn onto the deck and into the house where I can sit comfortably with my single malt scotch and record.

recording location 2014

My current location for recording thunder. MKH8040-ORTF, MKH8040-XY microphone rigs

This latest thunderstorm library is mainly recorded with two stereo sets of Sennheiser MKH-8040ST microphones one XY and the other ORTF. I place them about three meters apart under the trees in my back yard with each microphone set pointed in a different direction based on what my weather tracking Apps indicate the direction of the storm will come from. I use two sync locked Sound Devices SD-702 recorders. Sometimes I need to quickly separate the microphone rigs and I can move one with the cable and recorder to the other side of the house easily and quickly. I grab the recorder, run out and grab the microphone then run to the other side of the house with everything still attached and operating. I have used my 744T at times but I like the flexibility of two recorders for distant placement. I have found that moving fast has it’s advantages as I have grabbed sounds I otherwise would have missed. When possible I set up my Sony PCM D-100 on the other side of the house and actually recorded one of my favorite dry lightning strikes with it. This summer was very active and some great storms rolled in.

Well, that’s it for Part 1. That is my story so far about the actual locations and rigging used to record these bad boys. I absolutely love recording thunder and lightning storms, I’m almost obsessed with it. Just ask my wife, she always asks me “Get anything good today?” I reply “I hope so, I can’t wait for the next one to come”

The ultimate goal for a sound recordist/sound designer is to record decent sounds you can design sound with correct? Part 2 of this article will focus more in depth on the recorders, spatial aspects of each microphone I used and the final editing/mastering techniques I applied to each and every thunder and lightning strike I recorded. Fun huh?

Until next time, be safe out there recording. Thunderstorms can be dangerous, even deadly. Take care of yourself. It’s the most important thing… Well, a wicked dry lightning strike comes in second in my book. Namaste. -Frank

Thunderstorm 3 HD Pro • Files: 118 • Download: 3.36GB • Price: $175.00 USD.

ASoundeffect recently asked me a few questions about the recording of the collection and below is the interview.

What does the perfect thunderclap sound like in your book?
I have recorded countless storms over the last 15 years and many of them have produced amazing and different sounding thunder. With the mountains, open fields and thick forests around here there are many types of sounds produced. From deep, booming thunder claps to dry lightning strikes I am always amazed at the dynamics of them. Some start out with a “peal” or soft rolling and then end up with a massive sonic shock wave similar to a sonic boom while others just have a heavy explosive sonic boom. These two are my favorites.

When it comes to capturing the sound of thunderstorms, what are the best conditions to record in?
Sitting in my living room having a Single Malt Scotch with the microphones outdoors recording. Seriously though, the best storms to record are when the thunder and lightning happens on the leading edge of the storm. The leading edge is when the thunder is occurring with little to no rain or wind. This is very rare because the wind energy need to create the sudden thermal expansion needs to be present. Most of the thunder and lightning I record here in North Idaho is actually from multiple fronts colliding. These fronts can swirl around and change direction very quickly so there can be multiple leading edges. Sometimes there are very nice sounding storms with rain that I really want to record.

What kind of safety precautions do you take when recording something like this?
Lightning can be dangerous and even deadly. I met someone here who was hit while working outside and survived so I know first hand about the dangers. I try to be very aware of where the storm is while recording and make sure that during the highest activity that I’m indoors and not in contact with the gear. Safety is the first priority no matter how excited I get when I know a good storm is coming my way.

Can you describe a typical recording session? What goes on, and what equipment are you using?
It all starts with checking the forecast for the week during the active thunder storm season. I use several Apps on my iPad and iPhone to track the lightning and the storms. I also keep an eye on the sky as well along with using my nose. Yes, my nose. The smell of the air here in North Idaho changes when the weather gets stormy.

When I have enough time before the storm arrives I set up two Sennheiser MKH-8040ST microphone sets, one XY and the other ORTF. I place them about three meters apart under the trees in my back yard with each microphone rig pointed in a different direction based on what my weather tracking Apps indicate the direct of the storm will come from. I run about 75 feet of stereo cables from under the trees to the deck and then inside the house to my Sound Devices SD-702 or 744T recorders. Sometimes I can sit out on the deck so I use just 50 feet of cable. I try to use the least amount of cable possible. I also set up a Sony portable recorder in another location, usually on the other side of the house as a back up. Here in North Idaho we get some wild storms that can approach from all directions. Some storms even collide over the lake for no reason unless the thunder gods say so.

Given that you can’t plan when a thunderstorm rolls in, doing a library like this must be a long-term process?
Yes indeed! I have perfected the art of waiting. Seven out of ten storms that roll in here don’t produce anything usable in terms of thunder and lightning. I do always get something usable though. Rain and wind are the usual things that come out of these sessions. Some years have many thunder storms while others have just a few. 2013 was a terrible year for storms while 2014 has been the best so far. I’ve been recording thunder for well over 15 years and I’ve never experienced a year like 2014. This is the year I recorded quite a few dry lightning strikes very close to the house. I’ve been striving for this type of lightning my whole career. The thunder gods heard my request and they delivered!

What’s been the wildest experience recording this library?
I’ve had two actually and they both involve very close lightning strikes and hand held portable recorders. The first was back in 2008 and it had been raining very hard all day. I heard the rain falling off the roof and it was coming down hard so I grabbed my Sony PCM-D1 and stepped out on my back deck then CRACK! Just as I stepped out the door there was this intense lightning strike just on the other side of the hill behind my house. I froze in place because I knew the Sony PCM-D1 was recording. I got a crazy strike that sounded like the thunder gods cracked a whip. It was the strangest strike I have every heard. It’s on my first thunder library.

The second one happened earlier summer. Again, I had just stepped out on my deck toe set up my two MKH-8040ST microphone rigs and CRACK! right over my head a extremely loud dry lightning strike, came right out of nowhere. I was not expecting one this close by at all. I was really upset that my main recording rigs were not running but since I had heard some rumblings earlier I placed a Sony PCM D-100 on the other side of the house and it got it. BTW, sounds recordist friends: The close strikes are extremely loud. Make sure you take care of your hearing if you are recording this kind of stuff.

You’ve done three thunderstorm libraries so far. How are they different, and have you learned anything from making the first two that came in handy for the 3rd one?
The first two thunderstorm libraries were recorded with different microphones. I mainly used a Sanken CSS-5 and a Audio Technica AT-835ST Stereo shotgun microphones. While they sound wonderful they had to be pointed in the direction of where the storm was coming in from for the best result. This meant I had to run out and change the position of the microphones on occasion. They also have a limited frequency response and do not capture the extreme low and high frequencies thunder and lightning can produce. I also used a Sony PCM D-1 and D-50 quite a bit for when I did not have time to set up all the gear.

This third library was recorded mostly with the Sennheiser MKH-8040ST line of microphones. These microphones capture the full frequency response of the thunder and lightning and the high SPL they produce with wonderful results. Again, when I was caught with my pants down I used a Sony PCM D-100 recorder which sounds great and goes well beyond 20k.

Also, I tried my best to keep the sounds as raw as possible. Recording thunder and lightning in any environment is extremely challenging in this noisy world we live in so I did clean up some of the files with RX-3 which worked really well.

Are you done with thunderstorm libraries, or do you think you’ll be doing more in the future?
I am sure there will be more in the future as long as the storms keep coming and I am able to set up the gear and record.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions.