Once upon a time, I was involved in a small and vastly underfunded theatre company's production of a play by one of the world's greatest living playwrights. There wasn't an awful lot of sound in it; in fact, there was one effect, and the playwright concerned, who was directing his own production, resisted the suggestion that a bit more sound might not go amiss. So, always sensible of the financial vicissitudes of subsidized theatre in the UK, I forbore to accept a fee and provided the effect, as required, attended one rehearsal, and rather forgot about the show until it became a huge success and transferred to London's glittering West End. The producer, rather understandably, decided that my contribution didn't merit a transfer fee, but in the spirit of camaraderie, actually put my name in lights on the marquee above the theatre along with the rest of the creative team. On the West End press night, the author/director and the artistic director of the small theatre company were outside the theatre, observing the crowds, and the director remarked on my name in lights on the marquee. “How much did we pay John for that sound effect?” he asked. “Um, nothing, I think,” replied the artistic director. “What! But it's absolutely pivotal to the plot!”
I have to say that, when I first started in theatre sound, way back in the last century (I love being able to write that), I really didn't think that it would lead to a point where I would have my name up in lights and my contribution described as “pivotal” to a play by one of the world's greatest living playwrights. I had three theatres to run, each one producing a new play every four weeks, and a department of one — me — to make sure that everything was perfect. The sound effects library was minimal, consisting of half a dozen Audio Fidelity LPs and some 7“ EPs from the EMI library. The BBC sound effects vinyl discs were just about to be released, and I still have the copies that I bought at 30 shillings (about $5) as each one came out. That gave me three or four productions-worth of effects, and then I got bored with the same old thunder, the same old seagulls, and the same old clock. That actual clock — at Merton College, Oxford — now sounds so familiar to me from countless theatre shows, TV programs, radio drama productions, and feature films, that it destroys any degree of credibility I might have in the ensuing entertainment. I once took over a show that had been on Broadway for a while when it came to the West End and had to replace almost all the effects, because the great John Kilgore, in a similar attempt to get away from all of his familiar effects, had resorted to the then little-known (in New York, anyway) BBC sound effects library to source sounds that weren't familiar to his audience. The Merton College clock was the first to go once the show hit London and my tender ministrations.
My frustration with the dearth of decent effects led me to purchase a second-hand reel-to-reel portable tape recorder — an Uher 4000 Report L, a decent microphone with a foam windshield and some good solid headphones — and to take to the streets and the countryside to try to build up a library of my own sounds. This turned out to be a time-consuming and extremely expensive pastime, but I got hooked and have been collecting ever since. The recording kit is now digital, and the microphones are multi-channel surround units, with specialist windshields that cost more than my first recorder did, but the passion for collecting great sounds still remains as strong.
Of course, things don't always work out as you want. My very first attempt to record a replacement clock saw me shivering on a winter midnight clear, waiting for the chosen timepiece to strike, only to find that the bells were disabled after 11pm until 6am the next morning. I spent an interesting few hours in the company of a small, Scottish, and very angry Tank Corps sergeant while he tried (and failed) to start the 50-year-old Sherman tank that I'd arranged to record. And somewhere in the archive there is a recording of frantic scrabbling and muffled cursing, as the bit of California coastline, on which I was standing in an attempt to record the perfect sea, decided I should be a bit nearer to the ocean and disengaged itself from the mainland with me on it.
There are also the interested observers, who, seeing my microphone, headphones, and recording equipment cannot resist asking what I'm doing, usually in the middle of what would have been a once-in-a-lifetime take. I nearly brained a TV cameraman who, spotting me in full recording mode at a heritage steam railroad recently, decided that I'd make a great addition to his documentary and filmed me in close-up, while exhorting me not to move or to look at him as the one near-perfect recording opportunity of the day puffed away into the gathering gloom. His profuse apologies, when it finally dawned on him why I was so angry, were somewhat diluted when he ruined another take by forgetting to turn off the alarm in his SUV while putting the camera gear away. He stayed away from me for the rest of the day.
But it's not always other people who screw up a take. After many months of badgering, I finally managed to get the owner of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX combat plane to agree to a close-up recording session and arrived at the airfield on the day of a series of test flights with all systems ready to record. Quite a lot of the time was spent being polite to various passers-by, this being a public space, and explaining what was happening as the whole world, with some exceptions of course, loves a Spitfire. Most of the takes were okay, but I was still short of a really good low pass, and at the end of the day, Carolyn Grace, the plane's owner and main pilot, took off to give me a private display. I'd forgotten to secure the microphone stand after moving it to a better location, and the backwash from the propeller knocked both it and the backup recorder to the floor. As I struggled to get everything back in order, Grace took off, at which point all the battery power decided that it was a great time to give up, and as I ran back from the car with a backup set, I was just in time to miss her carrying out the perfect low-level pass, especially for my purposes. Never mind, there's always next year.
These days, with such an enormous variety of effects available from the big libraries like Sound Ideas and Hollywood Edge and the wealth of material available online, I'm still amazed to hear that Merton College clock, or the dreadful, fake BBC thunderclap — you know, the one that goes “dum dum dum dumdumdumdum splat, thud, rumble” and is always used in low-budget horror movies — but I guess some people are just plain lazy. I'll keep on recording and looking for new places and things to record, but I'll have to stop writing this now because I have to go and record a powerboat for an upcoming show. The guy who owns it is being really helpful, but then I haven't told him about the bit where we have to drive it hard onto a sandbank.
By the way, I did finally manage to record the perfect sea, but I'm not telling you where I found it. I've been told by people who've heard it that it's from the Caribbean, from the west coast of the US, from the east coast of the US, from the French coast, from Wales, from Cornwall, and in fact, from pretty much all over the world, but no one ever gets it right. I hear it every now and again on TV programs, as it's now part of one of the big effects libraries, and I'm glad it has that worldwide appeal. But one day, I'll find a better sea, and I'll record it in surround and high-definition digital, and it will become the universal sea for the 21st century, and I shall have fulfilled my destiny.
If you want to help Carolyn Grace maintain her Spitfire, visit www.ml407.co.uk. Then you'll be able to buy a copy of the CD I made for her of the sounds of the Spitfire — worth every cent.