We are honored today to have master sound designer, composer, recordist, mixer, and audio guru with us on Cinema Sound. Watson Wu has become a powerful personality in the independent media circles as well as big-budget games and narrative projects as the man who brings incredible soundscapes and immersion to the table. We’re lucky to have been able to catch up with him during his busy schedule.
Mark Edward Lewis: Watson, thanks for joining us!
Watson Wu: My pleasure.
MEL: Of all of the ways to make a living in media, what had you choose recording and sound design/mixing?
WW: I Love sound design and recording because I can do so at almost every location I’m at. Sound to me is just
another form of music. I usually have some kind of recorder and MS Stereo microphone system so it’s unlimited for me to capture great sounds to work with. Moreover when compared to writing music, it’s a faster turn around and is far more profitable. Some of the best part of what I do is that I get to travel and meet interesting people who own very interesting vehicles and other toys (to record). If I only worked inside a studio, I wouldn’t have the frequent opportunities to do so.
MEL: Was there an inciting incident which pushed you over the edge?
WW: Early in my career I was writing music for a puzzle based game and the client asked if I can also do some sound design work. Fortunately I already owned a portable field recorder and a few mics so I gave it a shot. I have always liked recording and fell in love with chasing after specific sounds at several locations. Sound design to me is like writing string quartet and other symphonic types of music. There are layers upon layers of elements to craft unique sounds.
MEL: That’s a fascinating analogy. As a fellow composer, crafting a string quartet is a complex and multi-disciplinary endeavor. What do you consider when layering or even recording sounds you know you’re going to layer?
WW: I seek after just ok sounds, sweet sounds, as well as some distorted sounds. These include the lows, medium, and high frequencies. Over-Record is what I do so that all of the possibilities are available for design and mix work.
MEL: Tell us about your gear and what has you rely on it in the field/studio.
WW: This will take a long time to answer, LOL!
MEL: I was hoping you’d say that!
WW: Large size kit:
Sound Devices 788T-SSD 8 track recorder and two 442 mixers.
Medium size kit:
Sound Devices 744T 4 track recorder with either MixPre-D or USBPre2 mixers
Small size kits:
Tascam DR-100mkii 2 track recorder, Tascam DR-60Dmkii recorder, Edirol R-44 4 track recorder, Olympus LS-11 handheld recorder, and two Zoom H2n handheld recorders.
A huge variety of several different brands like Sennheiser, RØDE, Neumann, Pearl, DPA, Shure, Audix, Crown Audio, Oktava, Heil, Soundfield, etc. They are all types such as shotgun mics, MS stereo mics, pencil mics, lavalier, handheld dynamics, stereo mics, 5.1 surround sound, and ambisonics.
My preferred rigs are mainly MS Stereo pencil or MS Stereo shotgun mics. Why record in mono when you can instead use the same blimp containing a stereo mic?
Remote Audio NH7506 (for extremely loud sounds like gunfire, race cars, aircraft, or just best isolation for critical monitoring)
MEL: I think that’s most recordists’ dream kit, and it’s an interesting mix of recorders. You’ve got a venerable list
of great recorders in the Sound Devices boxes, but you only use the H2n from Zoom. Any reason why you’re not using an F8 or H6?
WW: I find that the H2n is really the only Zoom that can handle really louds quite well. I’ve recorded medium and distance gunshots, race cars, muscle cars, motorcycles, and aircrafts with both of mine. If you don’t record close perspective extreme sounds, the F8 would be a great recorder to have.
MEL: Are you recording at 192kHz?
WW: Most of the time I’m recording at 24/96. If a job requires 192 or I need to do a lot of pitch/stretching/designing, then I’ll do so.
MEL: When you’re in the field, what’s the most important thing to remember when recording sound effects?
WW: When I’m on location to record sfx, I always find out where unwanted sounds are at. I then do my best to avoid that area such as move everything away or turn my back against that source. If the location is noisy, I’ll keep my recording levels low and do closer mic placements to capture as clean as possible of the specific sounds. Yes, we often use [iZotope] RX and other ways to get rid of unwanted noise, but I prefer to capture the best clean sounds even if I have to record several takes.
MEL: What’s the secret to recording gunfire/transient sounds like gunfire?
WW: Having high-end recorders or mixers with built-in analog limiters is the key to record extremely loud gunfire sounds. This is followed by using high-end microphones like the ones I mentioned in my kit. I heavily rely on my Remote Audio headphones so that I can monitor the gunshots. A nice location with some kind of back-stops, hills, mountains, etc non-flat areas will result in nice reflections.
MEL: Would I be right in saying that you’re using the limiters to take out some of the transient nature of, say, a gunshot so you don’t lose the fidelity of the bandwidth? I mean, after all, a gun shot followed by a reflection off a hill has probably a 110 dB dynamic range.
WW: A very fast responding analog limiter (like from a Sound Devices 442 mixer) will let me record all or most
of the extreme sounds that a microphone can and will capture. Most mixers and recorders respond too slowly to correctly record all of the loud transients from gunshots. When you don’t use a good analog limiter, recorded gunshots just sound like boring popcorns bursting even when you use high-end microphones. Think of this: If your fishing with cast nets, the school of fish makes up what to be an entire gunshot. The mixer or recorder you’re using is the net. If your inexpensive net has only large weaves, you then can only catch large fish. If your net is of high quality with tight weaves, you’ll be able to capture everything including small and medium size fish. Moreover, certain schools of fish swim very fast and can tear through an inexpensive net. With a high-end net, all of the fish will be caught.
MEL: When you’re working with a filmmaker as a sound designer, what the most important thing you keep foremost on your mind?
WW: The most important thing is to stay on task. In between recordings and designing I’ll go over the shot list and make sure I’m not missing anything. I often question myself saying “Am I missing anything” “Are there better or more interesting ways to record or create these sounds”?
MEL: You’re obviously super organized, then. When we did Marvel’s Avenger’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. we had hundreds of sounds we had to both create and alter from the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]. My issue was always at what point to bring in the clients to audition what we were doing. You must manage thousands of sounds. What’s your protocol for auditioning your work to the client? After layering? Each layer?
WW: This depends on the client. Some want to hear it right away, some want to hear it after the 1st rough mix.
MEL: You work in everything from features to games. When it comes to sound, what’s the biggest difference when designing a sound scape between games and narrative media?
WW: Games and film or TV all require high quality sounds. To me games are far more complicated to work on. For example, in Baby Driver film, we were recording according to specific shots. When the red Subaru WRX sports car did a fast reverse 180 into a 270 drift, we recorded that several times until I liked what we captured. In games, we typically have to record everything and have several versions for design work. When you drive a car in a racing game, you often times can choose where to go and how fast you want to drive. If I decide to do a right turn followed by a fast left turn, tire skids for example will be triggered to play out loud. This non-linear form of entertainment has almost endless contents so there are more recordings and design work to be accomplished.
MEL: Tell us your favorite/scariest/daring recording experience.
WW: One of scariest sessions I did was recording chimps and orangutans for an EA game. Some of them peed towards me; some would spit, while others were curious and friendly. The alpha male however, absolutely hated me and clearly showed it. He screamed, jumped around, and slammed a 55 gallon drum and it flew several yards away! Fortunately the industrial strength steel cage kept me safe from the unbelievably strong apes.
MEL: Oh man! Did you wear the wrong deodorant or something?
WW: I don’t know…maybe it was the garlic egg rolls I had for lunch. [laughing]
MEL: Do you ever consider the music when designing your sounds/how to you mix so that every element gets maximized?
WW: Yes, this is why I use multiple mics to capture the same sounds. Some mics capture a lot of lows, some capture mainly highs, and some for mids. This allows me to mix according to what the music is doing so that I don’t have to fight for frequency space.
MEL: What’s an example of a mic you might use when you knew the music was going to have a ton of lows? Highs?
WW: I own a lot mics, but one of the newest mics I’ve acquired is a Pearl MS 8 CL MS stereo mic. It allows me to capture incredible highs, mids, and some lows. The recordings from this microphone let’s me remove unwanted frequencies, alter the pitches, etc that the overall mix space is still clear and pleasant-sounding without fighting the music.
MEL: If you could have independent filmmakers know one thing, what would it be?
WW: Great sounds can enhance viewer experience. Bad sounds can ruin a film. Budget more for sound and do so early on in the project. Last minute thoughts about sound can lead to rushed jobs then you have to spend more money to fix the problems. Always hire competent sound guys with professional gear.
MEL: More true words have never been spoken. Watson, what an honor to have you with us! Thank you.
WW: You’re very welcome.