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Crew Voices - Summer of Sound: The challenges of recording pristine interviews in cicada country

Sean, our sound engineer, is plagued by cicadas

DSC00493Sean Solowiej (left) stands sentinel as the crew interview Javier Mosqueda (right) a resident of the Hardy River, a tributary of the Colorado in Mexico. © Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

In the desert there are large bugs called cicadas. Here's what cicadas do: they buzz. It's a delightful buzz really, one that we associate with scenes of dramatic desert dehydration or illicit border crossings. Think Sergio Leone turning up the tumbleweeds to eleven.

So the cicadas start doing their thing around noon. Their song predictably waxes and wanes with the heat of the sun, for reasons that will make more sense to an entomologist than to me. But while it seems intuitively right to associate buzzing cicadas with the impossibly hot and dry, our friends at arkive.org, an online multimedia guide to the world’s endangered species, have just listed a new sort of cicada that lives in Great Britain.

What's all this about? Imagine you're kind of a simultaneous nature lover and audio mixer who has landed the dream job of recording sounds of the planet on expedition with Alexandra Cousteau. Fun, right? Cicadas singing will definitely make the cut. Then add to your job description interviews of amazing people who have made their careers studying water and the environment. Naturally you want to interview them outdoors instead of in their neatly upholstered cubicles. This is a nature show. And of course the barren desert landscape makes an ideal dramatic backdrop for just such an interview.

Now: we're all gathered around the fabulous Alexandra and our desert water interview expert. The lighting silks are in place, cameras set up, our lavalier microphones are clipped onto both Alexandra and the interviewee, shotgun boom mic dropping in from overhead will include a bit of the soft ambient sounds… everybody is warming up nicely in the sun, we're ready to start rolling and suddenly - zik zikzik zikzizkizkzizkzizzkzizizkzizkzizkzzki….. a symphony of cicadas!

As soon as the first one begins, dozens join in to demonstrate their relative masculine superiority (it's only the guys who do this). Suddenly Oscar Durand, expedition photojournalist, whose creative skills outmatch anyone on set, is applying his talents throwing stones into bushes to intimidate a few moments of silence from the bugs who are simply singing about finding a date in their own home.

Their song is appropriate to the location, so it would be natural to have cicadas buzzing on the soundtrack of our finished film. But because we edit our interviews down from an hour of talking to about a minute on screen, we need to be able to join together sentences that were recorded minutes apart. In those minutes the cicadas will have shifted their song from high buzzing to low clicking, and many more may have joined in. So the cuts we make between words will sound obviously edited due to the big changes in the background sounds. Birds, traffic, airplanes, and wind can all make similar troubles on the set, but the constantly fluctuating drone of cicadas, vibrating the air in pitches and tones all fairly close to that of the human voice, does the most to limit our editing options. Which makes the sweet editors give the audio mixer some dirty looks.

Here's a treat for anyone who has yet to bask in the sweet clicky lull of the Southwest at noon: click here to listen (or right hand click to save as).