Ducati: Capturing Motorbikes in Italy for A New Opera
The sounds produced by performance vehicles are amongst the most challenging yet awe-inspiring sounds to record. They are loud, bold and visceral. They can frazzle microphones and leave recording gear and rigging for dust. Capturing the raw, exciting sound of such beasts, such that when played back at relatively low levels at home does justice to the thrilling, thunderous roar of an engine as it can be heard in the real world, is an art form.
When Ducati approached us to capture the sound of their new beast, the Panigale v4, the first Ducati in history to feature a four-cylinder engine, we quickly realised this was going to be a seriously demanding undertaking which would require meticulous preparation. It’s safe to say that recording a motorbike travelling at over 200mph comes with it’s own unique set of challenges. When it comes to recording super cars, there are established practices that are proven to yield good results; mic placement in naturally wind protected areas such as above the exhaust or in the engine for example. High performance motorbikes however offer no such get outs, essentially consisting of an engine and two wheels, so we would have to really throw out the rulebook and experiment with what would give us the sound we were looking for.
Adopting an experimental approach is not ideal on a production shoot, with limited time allocated for sound that often gets squeezed. So prior to our trip to Italy, we headed up to Ducati HQ in Silverstone for a day of testing with the current model, the Panigale 1299. At this stage we also enlisted the help of sound recordist Simon Koelmeyer. Simon brought with him extensive experience of car recording from shows such as Top Gear and The Grand Tour.
We had two main problems. Firstly, where do you mount a recorder securely on a machine where every piece of faring is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible? Secondly, how do we rig our microphones so that they are protected from the wind, but still offer a recording with rich harmonic content?
After numerous tests with different mic’s and placements, we found a couple of sweet spots. Just underneath the riders boot seemed to offer us an exciting perspective of the exhaust note, with the boot itself offering some natural wind protection. The second was inside the faring, capturing the clatter of the pistons and rasp of the engine. These two together offered a nice blend across the frequency spectrum. Along with this we had two more perspectives, one on top of the chain guard at the rear, and the last with a contact mic placed near the fuel tank for some low frequency rumble.
We found the space between the handlebars a perfect fit for the Sound devices 633 recorder. This could be securely tied with multiple cable ties.
PRODUCTION SHOOT – MUGELLO RACE CIRCUIT
After our day of tests, it was time for the real thing. The location was Mugello race circuit in Tuscany Italy, the home of the Italian Moto GP.
Day one was dedicated to filming with the Russian Arm, and presented us with both a technical and a political challenge – how do we mount microphones onto a carbon fibre arm that rotates at all angles, and how do we navigate the worried looks from the Russian Arm operators as we bind our microphones to their equipment? Ultimately, our only choice was to add a new mounting every time the car returned to the pit lane, with no time to review what was being recorded in between runs.
As the day wore on we got the sense it could be a frustrating day for us – as anticipated, filming went long into the afternoon past schedule and we were eventually given the bike for principal sound at around 4pm. Given the limited daylight and track time left, instead of rigging the bike with our on board microphones which would take considerable time, we concentrated on capturing some up and past perspectives on track. We were well drilled for this and got plenty of usable material which gave us something to smile about as we turned in for the night.
Day two began with more setbacks – the bike wouldn’t be available for sound until late morning. We took the chance to setup a stereo pair close to the Mugello mountain range to capture some of the epic reverberant sound bouncing off the mountains. At this point we thanked our pre planning at Silverstone as time was getting squeezed but we knew how to get some good results fast. Finally when we did get the bike around 11am, we started off with some on track perspectives.
This consisted of Simon and I sitting in the boot of a car, holding our boom poles with mics attached, as we directed a trailing rider through various overtaking manoeuvres… this was one of those great moments where you remember this is just a day at the office! It also meant that we could be extremely close to the moving bike and yielded some of the best results.
When we returned to the paddock, we began rigging up for on board recording, starting off with securing the recorder between the handlebars, which attracted many concerned looks from the Ducati team… It turned out the geometry of the v4 was ever so slightly different from the 1299, meaning that the recorder just snagged the windscreen when mounted in this way. So we had to think of another solution, and fast. We then examined the tailpiece and realised that if we removed a bit of the outer faring we could find a reasonably flat surface on which to mount, and given there was no other option opted for this.
Our on board mic positions also needed considerable trial and error. We developed a system where we rigged up, asked the driver to do two laps, then return and grab the SD cards straight into the laptop for analysis. There was a great moment where on run 3 the bike came in and the recorder was slightly off to the side and needed securing. Simon and I looked at the complicated binding of cable ties, and after a short pause grabbed the old-fashioned gaffer tape and bound it until it wasn’t going anywhere!
By the fourth run we had got a to a really good place, using the exhaust, engine, tail piece and contact mic perspectives, and we ended the day feeling confident, but excited to hear how the bike would sound back in the studio.
The brief from the very first conversations on this project was to capture the bike completely authentically, so the objective was to harvest everything we had recorded as fully as possible. Fortunately as we had many different perspectives on and off the bike, we had a wealth of material to choose from. It was incredibly rewarding to have a palette of sounds entirely of our making… and to see the job from beginning to end in this way, with a client incredibly enthusiastic about the importance of the sound.
Thanks to everyone at Ducati, Blackboard, and PAG for making this project happen!
CREATIVE AGENCY: Blackboard Berlin
MUSIC AND SOUND
SOUND PRODUCTION: Simon Koelmeyer, Joe Wilkinson
SOUND DIRECTOR: Joe Wilkinson
SOUND DESIGN: String and Tins
PRODUCTION COMPANY: PAG
DIRECTOR: Alberto Accettulli
CAMERA: Fabrizio Accettulli