Steam Whistle Madness

I have a tremendous ability to get obsessed with projects and go down the rabbit hole. In this case it is a massive collection of steam whistles and culminates in the release of REA_017.

I first got the bug when I went to go record the amazing new year’s celebration over at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.[1] That night was magical for a number of reasons. Who doesn’t want to hear steam whistles in Brooklyn? And who even thought that is still possible? Conrad Milster, Pratt’s Chief Engineer, puts on this massive celebration and he is a real gem of a human being. I managed to get out to Pratt in 2012 for the event, and I was truly enamored. Conrad was kind enough to blow some whistles early in the evening before any of the festivities started:

Notice the car rolling by at 20 seconds in. You can’t hear it at all. You learn quickly that when a​ steam whistle​ blows​ it is really damn loud and puts out an​ ​extreme amount of pressure. An 18-Wheeler ​can roll ​by and it ​won’t be heard. The whistles output the kind of pressure you feel in your chest​ -​ the kind of pressure that yells “bring hearing protection!”

From that moment on I was on the hunt. It is relatively easy to find whistles but​ it is considerably more difficult to find a steam boiler to feed them. Not every whistle collector has a steam boiler or steam train in their backyard.

In 2013 I started conversations with my friend Rudy Trubitt, head of audio at Lionel about a collaboration. Rudy is always looking for new material and he also has close ties to the railroad community. After some exhaustive searches Rudy made contact with The New Hope Valley railroad in North Carolina.

New Hope Valley set several days aside so I could come down and record. We ended up recording an insane amount of whistles on Saturday from 4pm until about 11pm, and then the next morning from 8am until about noon. The location couldn’t have been more perfect.

The New Hope Valley Railroad is in a rural part of North Carolina, the tracks are set back from major roads, and it is surrounded by tall trees. Those tall trees created some truly lovely reflections for the tails of the whistles. The only thing better would have been a massive canyon, but those are a bit harder to find on the east coast. The only interference​? ​ An ​oc​c​asional cow moo.

Steam Whistles are challenging to record not only because of the high amount of sound pressure level they output but because of the diversity of sounds that need to be captured. We made sure the whistles were performed in a variety of ways and captured 6–8 perspectives per take. The iconic sound of a steam whistle heard in most films is a distant perspective. I wanted to make sure we captured those extremely well, and also provide some creative room for sound designers to play.

Some of the closer perspectives are unusual: you can hear the sound of air being ripped. The diaphragm is also on the edge here as well.

My favorites are the takes from the figure of 8 microphones which are completely off-axis with no proximity effect.

And who doesn’t like a nice stereo image?

Toot toot!

You can pick up a copy of REA_017 Steam Whistles here and a bundled product with Antique Engines here

Many thanks go out to Rudy Trubitt, Justin Drust and Kelly Pieklo for their help and support with this collection.

Melliflous Drone

In NYC it is almost winter, which, among other things, means heating units are running overtime and the air is getting dry. I work in an environment that is chronically parched and charged with static. The last thing you want around lots of electronics is static.[1]

Overhauling our hvac system is not an option right now, so a temporary solution was needed. Humidification – STAT! Last year I headed out to our local hardware store and discovered EA1407.

EA1407 is heading into his second winter and he’s working hard. His industrial size fans are spinning at F2 and keeping our work environment’s humidity at a balmy 35%.

The other day I was filling EA’s 14-gallon buckets and I noticed his rather mellifluous drone. This is a recording from EA14017’s interior:

And this is from EA1407 exterior:

Clearly, EA is one of those rare breeds that can sing all day while he works. James Cameron[2] and Stephen Hawking[3] might be concerned about the machines, but I’m glad EA1407 is on our side.

Recording Geek Note: Rig consists of was recorded with a pair of DPA 4060s tracked to a Sony PCM-M10 with a Sound Devices MP–2 as a front end.

The Rabbit Family And A Love Letter to Animal Bells

Last week I released The Rabbit Family over at Rabbit Ears Audio, which has prompted a bit of self-reflection. I started this little blog back in 2007 and it is still chugging along. Somewhere along the way it spawned a small business, Rabbit Ears Audio. Both of these sites are very much a labor of love and are creative outlets which I feel lucky to have. I started this blog in order to push myself out the door with my gear more frequently. I later started Rabbit Ears Audio in order to work on my craft with a deliberate purpose.

Rabbit Ears Audio’s primary focus is building collections that are not only useful, but off the beaten path. I run this business in gaps, among numerous other responsibilities, and when I launch a new collection in Rabbit Ears Audio’s growing library, I want it to count. Some of the collections have instant “sex appeal,” like Rockets, Jet Turbines[1], or Antique Engines. And then there are the collections with considerably less sex appeal like Typewriters and Animal Bells.

It is the less sexy ones I seem to love the most. I’ve written a fair amount about my love of typewriters. Animal Bells, however, is the true hidden gem in the Rabbit Family. I’ll never forget the sessions for Animal Bells:

For weeks my pal John Loranger kept sending me pictures of all of these crazy looking animal bells made of everything from brass to oddly shaped gourds. I kept asking him where these photos were coming from, but he just kept teasing me with more photos. When I saw a cow bell big enough to crush the neck of even the strongest Swiss cow, I harassed him until he gave it up.

It turned out that John and his family rented a vacation home, and the house showcases an insane private collection.[2] I tracked down the owner of the house, and made arrangements to record the entire collection over a weekend.

The location wasn’t too far from the home of another old friend, whom I dragged along to perform the bells. He performed the hell of out of those animal bells. Some of the actions include:

  • Short Rattles
  • Medium Rattles
  • Long Rattles
  • Repeated Rattles
  • Animal Meander

My favorite move is the animal meander. I’ll never forget coaching my old friend to “be the goat,” or to “trot like a sheep!”[3] We were on the floor in hysterics many times during those sessions.

I love those animal bells. There is not a ton of “sexy” there, but there is a whole lot of raw power.[4] They might not be flying off the shelves every day, but when you need a goat bell … you need a goat bell.

I’m often asked about the financials of REA, and whether or not running this little business is worth it. I’m never really sure how to answer those questions. I’m sure if I calculated the cost of my time and ran the numbers it wouldn’t make sense on paper, but it has never been about a balance sheet. All I know is that I have a collection of content that is as sexy and just as unsexy as it gets. It has been fun so far.

Lets hope the Rabbit Family keeps growing.

  1. Who doesn’t love a Jet Bike and a Jet Cart?  ↩
  2. I love collectors and gearheads. The guy who owned the place was both. He had a crazy collection of animal bells and crazy audiophile gear. It was meant to be.  ↩
  3. Do sheep trot?  ↩
  4. Iggy knows what I’m talking about. There were also times where I felt as if we were working on the set of “Altered States.”  ↩

The Harbour

This post comes via guest contributor, Rob Bridgett. Rob is a Sound Recordist and Game Audio Director based in Canada. Rob also is the proud creator or 2 sound libraries over at Rabbit Ears Audio, which can found here. –Michael


I’ve been living in St John’s, Newfoundland for almost two years now and am constantly finding new things and new places to record. Michael asked me recently how the harbour sounded, having seen some of my pictures on instagram, so I thought I’d indulge and dig through some material.

St John’s is a small city situated on the Eastern-most tip of North America on the remote and beautiful island of Newfoundland. The downtown core itself is NOISY (with the Harleys & classic cars revving on show during the summer, and non-stop snow clearing in the 4–6 month winter season) The harbour here is the focus for much of the downtown bustle, and it is very busy; with coastguard traffic, cruise ships, plenty of smaller fishing boats and a lot of import shipping. There are a couple of shipping terminals, but by far the biggest and most busy is the Oceanex terminal to the west of the harbour. Back to that shortly, but the first recording here is one from the 2014 Sound Symposium Harbour Symphony.

Every two years the harbour is blasted by the sounds of co-ordinated (scored) compressor ship horns between 12:30 to 12:45 each day of the symposium. (Interestingly, that is not the only time you can hear this, as during the Fall cruise ship season, whenever a cruise ship leaves, an improvised farewell harbour symphony is performed by all the vessels in the harbour as the cruise liner leaves – it must be pretty awesome to be on a cruise ship to hear this) The recording here is an excerpt from day 9, from a secret spot I have found which is far enough away from background traffic of downtown, sheltered from the high winds yet close enough for clear horns, wind effect and some gorgeous reverberation from the bowl-like harbour.

The second recording is taken from a similar location, sitting among the rocks at the shoreline on what is known as chain rock. From here, when the fog descends, which it often does, the fog warning horn at Fort Amherst Lightstation can be heard echoing around the harbour.

The next couple of recordings bring us back to the busy shipping areas of the city, with a couple of mid-distance recordings of the Oceanex terminal. It sounds like this 24hrs a day and never seems to stop. The site is characterized by reversing beeps of giant industrial fork-lifts and cranes, as well as heavy container movement sound.

Moving into some closer perspective recordings, along most of the waterfront, and fairly accessible to the public, are multiple boat moorings – many of these boats employ water pumps which have loud diesel-based engines – both tracks 5 and 7 are of these noisy pumps. There are a lot of overtones and low frequencies present the further away you are from these, but the sound of traffic in the city makes this difficult to record cleanly (at sociable hours).

Track 6, probably one of my favorite industrial sounds, is a recording of a giant stack of refrigerated shipping containers (known as ‘reefers’). These things are arranged into a huge 4×4 stack, like a Marshall backline, and sound like the back-end of enormous refrigerators (which is exactly what they are!). There is a sickening high-pitched whine, that I don’t think you’d be able to tolerate for very long if you worked or lived near to these stacks. Thankfully the sound doesn’t carry too far and is fairly localized.

The island also has an equally interesting natural side – once you get a few minutes walk on some of the trails out of the town and into the coastal villages like Quidi Vidi along the East Coast Trail or along to the coastal south side hills, you are away from everything man-made. Inland is very peaceful, with little air-traffic, whereas the coastal areas vary from peaceful to insanely rough. The weather is constantly changing hourly, many hurricanes and tropical storms track through as they leave North America… but I’ll save some of those more nature-based recordings for another time.

Most of this ambient material is recorded with the Rode NT4 via a Mix Pre-D and tracked to a PCM D50 at 24/96. Anything requiring closer more covert recording is done with the D50 alone.

La Escalera de Incendios

I’ll admit I have a problem. Isn’t that the first step?

Over six months ago I started recording sound effects for a feature that required a significant amount of New York City ambiences. The film required quad ambiences from elevation; this meant that I would be spending lots of time on rooftops. My experiences doing this are partially documented here, here, and here.

I’ll admit I can be a bit obsessive. I’ve been recording on rooftops in quad since November of 2013 and I’ve only just stopped. In several months I have gathered a diverse collection of ambiences that spans the following content:

  • City Din
    • with people (light voices, drunk voices)
    • with sirens
    • construction
    • heavy traffic
  • Rooftop Mechanicals
    • with distant traffic
    • with sirens
    • intense HVAC and mechanicals

The list goes on and on: somehow I have accumulated 267 Gigabytes of raw material.[1] Soon this material will end up in a library at Rabbit Ears Audio.

A month ago I was raving about all of this to my pal Kris Fenske, and he said, “You know, I live between a Police Station and a Firehouse,” and I said, “No F’ing Way!” and he said, “Yes way.” Kris’ place was just what I was looking for: A fire escape just high enough to record specific commotion of the neighborhood. When Kris was going to bed or just relaxing with some Pinot Grigio, he would put the rig out on the fire escape and wait for the magic to happen.


I’m here to tell you that la escalera de incedios de Kris delivers the goods.

Police Sirens:

Fire Truck Sirens:

Drunk People:

Recycling Trucks:

Late Night Taxi:

Distant Thunder:

Those are just a few of the wacky things happening outside of Kris’ place in the middle of the night.

These last several months have been very special for me. I’ve managed to hear and see New York City from unique vantage points. I often froze my butt off[2] for long periods of time, but it was damn thrilling to see 1 World Trade from a 10 story building in Soho. It was even more thrilling to see the variety of The Empire State Building views from eight different locations. Each time I was up on a roof, it was just me, the rig, and NY. Just me and NY.[3]

Recording Geek Note: Rig consists of Schoeps CMC5′s with MK4 capsules setup for double ORTF. It was tracked with a Cooper CS 104 feeding a Sound Devices 744T. Only the front pair were used in this blog post.

  1. It is at 24/96 but it still manages to fill 3.5 Pro Tools timelines. Are we having fun yet.  ↩
  2. I tried to get the majority of the recording done during winter because even New York City has song birds.  ↩
  3. Now it has to be just me and pro tools and 267GB of material that is not going to finish editing itself.  ↩