Ever wondered what an abandoned insane asylum sounds like when you’re all alone? We did, and recently the Sound Librarian team had the unique opportunity to spend a fascinating two days recording at Aradale Asylum in Ararat Australia.
Adding to the interest and ambience is the complete lack of maintenance of the buildings from the time the asylum was shut down and a rather interesting twist of it being a popular location for police and rescue training (we found a number of interesting bullet holes).
Our goal for the two days we were there was to collect room tones from different parts of the campus.
Why room tones? A room tone or presence is the low volume sounds present in every room. Essentially a room tone is the environmental sound of a given room. Complete silence is incredibly rare in our world. Areas inhabited by people will have constant sounds of background traffic, electricity sources (like lights), machinery or voices. Even if there are no people, nature comes with its own set of constant noise, from animals and birds to wind or weather.
Each room will have a different sound to it, depending on the size of the space, the objects in the room and the materials they are made of.
Room tones are also an important tool when creating good game audio. Unlike in film or television, game dialogue and sound effects are not usually recorded in a room together with all the other low-level sounds found on a set or location. Most sound designers record each element individually and combine them together using a tool such as FMOD Studio, Fabric or Wwise. This method can lead to there being no room tone at all, and as I mentioned earlier, silence is not a normal state for the world. Even with sound effects and music, the absence of a room tone can give a sense of the game audio somehow lacking, even if the player can’t point directly to what is missing.
A somewhat spooky set of run down historical buildings seemed like a good place to start. Armed with a quad microphone surround sound setup we hid ourselves away from the world for a couple of days.
Over the two days of access, we would set up in each room, take a photo of the room as a visual guide, note the dimensions of the room and then use our trusty starter pistol to create an impulse and capture the impulse response for each room. This let us define the reverberant qualities of each room, meaning a sound designer can consistently layer additional sound effects on top of the room tone and add reverberation accordingly.
Finally, we would capture the room tone itself. Generally we’d leave the room, setting the mics to record for 5 minutes before moving on. The key things we had to look out for is to be aware of and minimise the noise we were generating ourselves, you’d be amazed how much footsteps echo in an insane asylum, and of the world around us.
Recording your own Room Tones
This is a time consuming process, make sure you’ve got something quiet to occupy yourself while you are recording. Something to read or play with on a tablet or other device is ideal as you don’t have to worry about rustling papers.
We were very fortunate to have understanding volunteers who were willing to pretty much let us in each building unsupervised and leave us be. They also understood the effect of outside noise, and were able to structure the lawn mowing they had planned around our needs. You won’t always be able to do this, but be aware of the environmental noises you’re likely to be capturing when choosing your recording locations.
A collection of room tones in the middle of a city could be perfect for a city-based modern day game, but would sound incongruous in a post-apocalyptic zombie game when most of humanity is supposed to be dead or undead.
We used a standard athletics start pistol cap gun for generating impulses, but any similar tool that can produce a sharp, loud sound will do the trick. Simply clapping or shouting probably won’t be as useful, however.
Choosing the right mics for the job is a relatively personal exercise. We used a series of 4 DPA 4023 mics set up in a quad pattern mounted into blimp shock mounts.
Because of the extremely quiet nature of the recordings the levels were set to 50dB which is higher than we would usually use on this device, but well within its noise floor. The impulse responses needed to be captured at a much lower level due to the extreme output of the cap gun combined with reverberation in the small rooms. So in each room the levels would be altered from 50dB for the room tone down to 3db to capture the impulse response.
This process did add extra time to the day as each room needed to involve a careful reset of the input levels across 4 channels, but it ensured we were able to capture both room tones and impulse responses for over 70 spaces over the two-day period. We also removed the wind screens as they were not required indoors and when capturing such low level sounds we wanted to remove anything that might have any chance of affecting the sounds being picked up.
In everything we do, we keep safety foremost. The buildings we were in were very old and crumbling in places. Always make sure you are aware of your surrounding environment and safety issues when doing location recording.
Wherever you are recording, it is important to make sure those around you know what you are doing. We made sure to get permission to access and record the buildings and also made sure that those present on the day knew what we were doing. This avoided interruptions and questions about the noise we were generating with the starter pistol and also ensured we were comfortable to get on with the job and not worry about what others were doing.
Many thanks to the volunteers at Friends of J Ward and staff at Aradale for unlocking the rooms and providing fascinating historical insights and to NMIT for allowing us access to the site.