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Adventures in Recording: The Traveler Brings Back the Outback

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Sound design artist Tim Stutts recently brought his Traveler to one of the most remote areas on Earth: the Northern Australian Outback. What began as a routine sound design project soon turned into a whirlwind odyssey, with the Traveler at the vortex of the entire experience, serving a variety of roles throughout the project's workflow -- as a surround field recorder, as a studio interface for surround mixing, and finally as an on-demand playback system for stage performances. Tim's assessment? "I have been very pleased with the Traveler."

Tim continues:

I have enjoyed reading stories about other Traveler users on the MOTU web site. They inspired me to take a serious look at the Traveler as a state-of-the-art remote recording device. I discovered that it is just that, but also a whole lot more. I hope that my unique and successful experience will inspire other users to take advantage of the Traveler's incredible flexibility in a variety of situations.

It all began earlier this year, when a colleague of mine from California Institute of the Arts, John Villa, contacted me about working on a multimedia project surrounding the Wardaman Aboriginal people of Northern Territory, Australia.

Over the past twelve years, John had made several trips to the region to study Didgeridoo and learn more about the unique culture of the Wardaman. The initial idea was for John to take another trip by himself with a camera, some mics, and a digital sound recorder to document his discoveries. When he returned, he would then employ my sound design services for all of the audio post-production, due to my background in film post and my experience as a sound designer. The goal was to produce a documentary-style stage presentation entitled “The Sounds and Visions of Dreamtime", which would then go on tour across California at various festivals.

After a few dizzying weeks spent researching location recorders and microphones, John made the decision to ask me to fully take over the sound recording responsibilities for the project and to join him on the trip. I began to shop around for various recording solutions. We had decided to experiment with surround recording, using an array of microphones, so we immediately determined that we needed to record with five microphones. Also, since we would be far away from electricity for days at a time, reliable battery-power would clearly be a must for us. And finally, the ability to stripe timecode for synchronizing film and audio recordings would also be an essential requirement.

Fortunately, we discovered the Traveler and quickly determined that it was the most cost-effective solution, thanks to it’s four mic preamps, four-pin battery power capability and SMPTE time code features. We purchased a Traveler, along with a 10-hour Bescor lead-acid battery, an extra battery for our 12” Powerbook G4, a Hoodman screen protector to prevent glare on the Powerbook screen, and a Pelican case. Before long we had an extremely flexible and mobile recording setup.

Within a month John and I left for Australia. Carrying the Traveler / Powerbook combo on the plane was easy. After a 13 hour flight we arrived in Sydney and took a second flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. From there we drove to the Wardaman land, located deep within the bush. I stayed there for a week, recording music and making field recordings on the Traveler.

A typical recording session would go like this: I set up the mics in a surround pattern, launched CueMix, and then recorded into Digital Performer for an hour at a time, gathering the ambient sounds of the water, fire, plants in the wind, numerous birds and insects and other ambient natural sounds. Later, we would use these recordings to immerse the listener in the bush environment.

The Traveler has a lot headroom, which allowed us to keep the noise floor low, even with quite sounds. Remarkably, it would run for a full day off a single battery charge, eliminating any kind of change-out stage in production.

One night, an Aboriginal elder took us far into the outback and left us alone there. I set up the Traveler to record the sounds of dusk and left the rig out all night, waking up early to capture the morning birds. It could not have been any easier.

After returning to States, I decided to continue using Digital Performer (Version 4.5) for audio post-production, since it had proved so useful during production. I set up the Traveler in my studio, connected it to a surround monitor set-up, and began editing directly from the field recorded sessions, which improved workflow tremendously.

After listening to the recordings in a studio environment for the first time, it became immediately apparent to me that the recording process had been a success. The recordings were totally effective in the surround realm. There were few issues with phasing and no need to set up delay lines. Most importantly, the realism was absolutely stunning. For example, birds would occasionally fly above the mics while recording, and their movement within sound field - almost felt a presence rather than heard as a sound - was faithfully reproduced and completely life-like in the studio.

Once the recordings had been mixed, I began to add sound effects, recorded during the trip here and there, for additional realism. At this point in the project's workflow, Digital Performer's surround effects processing became essential, especially the reverbs and delays. I used the surround panners on each of these channels to plot out movement for each effect, and in no time they had integrated effectively into the mix.

Using these mixing techniques, I generated ten separate looped segments for the different bush environments, each approximately three minutes long - and in 5.0 surround - to be used in our live presentations later on. The 0.1 (LFE) channel was a low-frequency summation of the surround (n) channels. Next, I sifted through some of the other recordings I’d made and extracted mono sounds to be manually panned among the five channels throughout the live performance presentation.

When it came time to pull all of these sound elements together, including more than 400 still images and videos, I quickly eliminated the idea of using Powerpoint or Keynote, given the limitations of these programs. I needed a way to construct a performance palette that would allow me to view and control the playback of all media, with surround sound, throughout the performance. Most importantly, it needed to be reliable and as CPU-efficient as possible. I turned to the Max/MSP and Jitter bundle from cycling 74, object-oriented software that allows users to build custom patches for a variety of audiovisual applications. For audio playback, I chose the Traveler for its reliability, portability flexible I/O and outstanding audio quality - all crucial characteristics for a live performance situation. Max/MSP had no problem recognizing the Traveler and allowing me to configure appropriate outputs. After connecting the video output from the Powebook to a projector, I was all set for live performance.

"The Sounds and Visions of Dreamtime" toured across California in September 2005, with performances at venues in Big Sur, Yosemite, and Thousand Oaks. John and his teacher, Bill Harney, a respected Wardaman leader from Australia, performed live on Didgeridoo, along with the sound enhancements and video projection that I controlled independently from a position off-stage. Throughout the presentation, Bill told stories of his people, and I called up the appropriate images and soundscapes. At one of these performances I even used the Traveler as a live mixer, connecting the mics from the stage to the mic pres and feeding them directly out to speakers. The fine-tune trim knobs on the front panel were invaluable for maintaining appropriate audio levels.

All and all, I have been very pleased with the Traveler, especially with its ease of operation in conjunction with Digital Performer software. In my research and experience, I wasn’t able to find another audio interface that even came close to the features and flexibility needed to perform at such a high level during all stages of the project: production, post-production and performance.

Tim Stutts offers post-production and sound design services.