Though the last time I saw one being displayed in my neighborhood’s record store, Miami Vice’s first season was just about to end, but are there any technical difficulties in making “audiophile” gunshot / gunfire recordings?
By: Ringo Bones
Weird fact – even though sound effect CD’s featuring gunfire / gunshot recordings of widely varying sound quality are “more or less” are still stocked in most record stores around the world, not one of them claimed to be of audiophile or even of “hi-fi” quality. Politics aside, are there really technical difficulties in recording true “audiophile quality” gunshot / gunfire recordings that sound like the real thing when played in a well set-up hi-fi system?
Maybe 1990s era Madison Avenue hi-fi admen overlooked the hype and potential big money of advertising an audio product that has the seal-of-approval by either Mikhail Kalashnikov or Eugene Stoner as being able to reproduce the sound of either an AK-47 or an M-16 assault rifle in full auto mode with the timbre of the actual acoustic event. And, believe-it-or-not, the topic of how your hi-fi rig replicates the sound of a modern assault rifle firing 5.56-mm X 45-mm NATO rounds can generate “howls of derision” in either Twitter or Pinterest despite the howler being unable to fully articulate their derisions in an erudite manner using 140-characters or less.
Even though there are quite a “handful” of movies that got the gunshot recording right, like that “zombie apocalypse movie” 28 Days later where Cilian Murphy stars in, most gunshot / gunfire Foley – i.e. sound effects – used in movies are, timbre wise, far removed from the real thing. But are there truly “technical issues” that hamper in the creation of truly “audiophile quality” gunshot / gunfire recordings?
Recent figures of peak decibel sound pressure levels of most small arms widely used in most Hollywood action moves are as follows: small rifle = 140 to 145 dB SPL, medium rifle = 157 to 160 dB SPL, large rifle = 160 to 174 dB SPL, shotgun = 152 to 166 dB SPL, small pistol = 150 to 157 dB SPL, large pistol = 158 to 174 dB SPL. Most microphones are capable of recording sounds up to 130 dB SPL – but only with its built-in L-pad switched in when recording jet-engine level sounds, but in practice, most microphones commonly used in music studio recording sessions tend to distort badly when recording sounds above 110 dB SPL – even with peaks lasting just several milliseconds. And L-pads have a tendency to add an overall “grunginess” that makes most recorded gunshot sound effects sound “less-than-audiophile”.
Back in 2005, an episode of Discovery Channel’s Future Weapons were doing an episode on a new squad automatic weapon that uses 7.62-mm X 51-mm rounds instead of the older M-249 SAW that uses 5.56-mm X 45-mm rounds (I think it was M240L or the Mk 48) where presenter Richard Machowicz suddenly pointed out that they’ve just busted the diaphragm of their tubed ribbon microphone when recording the sound of the weapon. This highlighting the technical difficulties of recording sound pressure levels several orders of magnitude louder than a heavy metal rock concert.
When it comes to recording live acoustic events these days – either music or ambient sounds – it always more often than not boils down to a compromise of choosing between a condenser microphone and a tubed microphone. Condenser microphones are known for their openness and more air while tubed microphones have a nice EQ sound without resorting to using too much EQ during final mix-down that could result in unwanted phase shifts that makes the recorded sound acquire an unnatural electronic timbre. Stereophile’s recording-engineer-in-residence John Atkinson overcame this inherent live recording limitation during the 1990s with his “time-aligned microphones” that combines the air and openness of condenser microphones with that you-are-there timbre of tubed microphones, but I don’t think he’ll be recording audiophile quality gunshot / gunfire recordings anytime soon.