A Fountain of Sound Ideas - Brian Emrich (Sound designer/musician)
“I had this idea of creating deep space sounds with a hydrophone
and underwater speakers,” says Brian Emrich. He’s describing his
cutting-edge sound design work for The Fountain, a new film by Oscar- and Golden
Globe-nominated director Darren Aronofsky. “I first made a CD of sacred
Hindu chants and om’s on my computer, then I constructed a floatation
device to suspend the two speakers underwater equidistant from the hydrophone.
The CD was played into the speakers and recorded through the hydrophone.”
How’d it work out?
“Apart from standing in freezing water half naked for several hours,
the idea was a success. It produced only one usable sound, but it was exactly
the sound I was looking for. It’s one of the most important sounds in
Emrich, who is also a psychedelic trance musician known as Psilonaut who also
loves Three Dog Night, has worked on Aronofsky’s two previous movies,
as well—PI and Requiem For A Dream. For the latter, he launched solid
fuel model rocket engines into water and recorded those bubbling sounds with
an underwater mic to create sounds for some of the movies’ painfully realistic
heroin injection scenes. Brian’s other credits include sound design for
Phone Booth, One Hour Photo, Wonderland, The Matrix Revisited DVD, and a host
of high profile commercials for Nike, Gatorade, Calvin Klein, MTV, and Propel
RED: Let’s start by chatting about your overall approach to miking. How
does it change from genre-to-genre or artist-to-artist for you—or does
BRIAN: My main miking occurs in the field. Whatever the project might be, I
will decide what mics and approach I’ll take. For example, on a recent
Nike World Cup spot, I needed to capture as much soccer activity as possible
in one day of recording. Using a stereo shotgun mic on a handheld shock mount,
I went to a high school soccer field and recorded all kinds of foot and ball
movements on different terrain. When I need long passes of environmental ambiences,
I’ll use a stereo mic with a wide field and mount it on a tripod to capture
clean passages. Also, I was in Guatemala last year for The Fountain and needed
to get jungle sounds and howler monkeys. I would often venture off into the
jungle, set up my rig, walk away, and just sit for an hour or so in quiet until
I had enough sounds captured. I kept my fingers crossed that the monkeys wouldn’t
walk off with my gear!
RED: Talk a bit about your audio chain and tracking with EQ and compression.
Does it change depending on whom or what you're recording?
BRIAN: My chain normally consists of a high-resolution digital audio recorder
with either shotgun, stereo shotgun, or cardioid stereo condenser mics with
a proper windscreen cover. I then dump my recorded files into either BIAS Peak
or Pro Tools to edit and organize. Sometimes I’ll need to EQ some of the
low-end noise that is common with recording outdoors, but usually that’s
it. Then it’s a matter of cutting in my sounds in Pro Tools to a QuickTime
picture that I’m working to. Of course, if a certain project requires
specific needs, I’ll have to process my sounds further with plugins to
get the desired effect.
RED: How do you choose which microphone you'll use in a given scenario? What
are the three most important criteria you look at when choosing a mic for a
BRIAN: I need several different types of microphones for all my applications:
Stereo mics to capture outdoor ambiences; shotguns to get a more focused field
on Foley type sounds indoors and out; contact mics if I need to actually “get
inside” an object, such as a mechanical or electrical device; and a hydrophone
[underwater microphone] if I need to capture underwater ambiences.
RED: Using a track you’ve recently recorded as an example, describe how
you set up a mic to record with it.
BRIAN: We needed the sounds of Mayan spears flying through the air for a scene
in The Fountain, so my partner Craig and I bought small practice golf balls
that resemble mini whiffle balls. I skewered a few of those onto the shafts
of hunting arrows and had a friend shoot them with his bow into a practice target.
We had a stereo condenser mic on a stand about six feet from the bow aiming
directly across the arrow’s path to capture a left-to-right movement,
and a shotgun mic at the end of the path aimed at the target about four feet
away to capture the arrows’ impacts. My partner also hand held his two
directional mics in an X-Y position a few feet away from the bow to capture
the release of the arrow. All mics in this situation need to have windscreen
covers to minimize any outside breeze and possible surges from the arrows. The
end result was an exaggerated “whooshing” sound that fit well to
RED: We like to ask about crazy sounds you've gotten in the studio. Maybe you
planned those, or perhaps they were accidental. When have you tried a weird
idea that seemed like it absolutely wouldn't work, technically or creatively,
but then it did?
BRIAN: This might be hard to describe, but I’ll try. I have this homemade
office desk sculpture from the ‘70s made of clear epoxy resin, small stiff
steel wires, and pennies. Each penny is contained inside a semi-sphere of epoxy
with a wire attached. The wires all go into a small epoxy base, which it stands
on, kind of resembling strange plants or mushrooms. Still with me? O.K.—when
you shake the entire thing lightly, it creates an amazing musical flexi-tone.
I had the idea to try and record it with a contact mic just to see if anything
worthwhile might come of it. I placed the mic onto the base of this sculpture
and lightly shook the sculpture while pushing down on the individual penny stems.
The mic picked up vibrations and resonance through the epoxy as if it was inside
the epoxy. I then pitched the final recording down an octave in Pro Tools and
the result sounded like huge pieces of flexible glass or plastic material! There’s
a scene in The Fountain that I was having trouble tackling where this sound
effect ended up fitting in as if it was planned—but I had just stumbled
upon it on a whim.