I thought it was an interesting idea, a great chance and we could even create a sound library of Guinea pigs’ sounds. My preliminary research showed that Guinea pigs are social animals, their vocalizations palette is very versatile and uncommon, sometimes they sound like extraterrestrials, if you ever met those aliens in person, you know, and even resemble the chatter of the legendary R2D2 droid. They are domestic animals and no special permissions are needed to get access to them. It seemed there would be no difficulties that occur while recording more serious and dangerous animals. And there are so many breeders of Guinea pigs around, that it would be easy to find someone who will allow to record their animals.
Having briefly discussed the technical details with Jay Jennings, I started scouting for recording locations. It looked like an easy plan: “I came, I saw, I recorded”. I would call 3 or 4 breeders, find the friendliest one, ask them for a permission to set up my mics for 2-3 days of unattended recording, coming in to change batteries and record some details with mics aimed with my hands. How big was my surprise when neither the third nor the fourth and even the tenth breeding house expressed their desire to collaborate.
We were getting refusal after refusal:
- can’t admit you because it’s our home
- can’t admit because we are afraid of COVID-19
- can’t admit you because you may infect our pigs
- because we have no time
- because we have other plans…
It appeared that it’s much easier to arrange a recording session with wolves, foxes, lynx, even lions than with the ubiquitous Guinea pigs.
At last, one of the breeders accompanied their refusal with an advice to stop inventing a wheel and take the recordings of these rodents’ voices off YouTube – there are tons of this stuff there. But you and I know that those recordings are useless for professional sound design in terms of quality, usage rights etc. We planned to make a multichannel recording of both very close and close perspectives including the ultrasonic-capable Sanken CO-100K mic.
Then we decided to rent the pigs. After another round of phone calls, we found a couple of options, but still their time terms didn’t fit our requirements of ten pigs in 2 weeks.
We’ve been struggling for 4 days already, but haven’t even started our recording work, and it looked more and more like the mission was impossible. We lost our hope, then we lost our mind. We decided to acquire Guinea pigs as our own home pets. But we already had a rabbit, 2 red-eared terrapins and 5 adopted cats, so getting Guinea pigs on top of that seemed an absolutely crazy idea.
Studying classifieds, we found out that from time to time some Guinea pig owners have to travel or plan a home renovation and they would like to find a temporary home for their pets. After some negotiations we had 3 candidates: a very vocal 3-month-old young girl Diva and 2 male friends Boba and Biba. Me and my middle daughter Olga (then 13) jumped in our old trusted Subaru Legacy Wagon and drove some 100 km to pick up Diva.
She didn’t disappoint us. When I made a harsh manoeuvre overtaking another car, we heard some sort of police siren from the back of our car. This emergency sound repeated 2 times more during our journey. This day we also picked two furry guys – Boba and Biba.
While we were carrying them down a stairway, they produced a lot of squeaking and that special rumbling sound we then struggled to get an isolated recording of.
After a few days we acquired 6 more voice actors: a cute lady Zhika, that seemed a bit shy and silent,
2 more ladies Sheltie and Ula – both in rather peculiar fur coats,
a joyful guy Busa
and one-month-old sister Runaway and brother Pirat.
This busy company was rather vocal during arrival and I set up a Nevaton MC50 quad mic in the middle of the room filled with cages for a night just to get the idea of the nocturnal activity of our new guests. To my surprise and disappointment, they were almost silent overnight and the day after.
We tried to provide the best conditions for our pets with fresh vegetables and daily walks in the grass of our lawn under the meshed covers of their cages. By the way, Guinea Pigs may be a great lawn mowing machine. The pigs accurately eat grass and you just need to move the cage covers to a fresh spot from time to time. Only after 2 weeks of acclimatization our guests started to talk again. We felt so happy that the pigs were not rented and we didn’t need to return them immediately and had enough time for recording.
Then came another surprise. Guinea pigs appeared to be very difficult animals for recording clean vocals. A rather heavy body on short stiff legs with large claws, being in sporadic movement, was causing constant footstep noise and bumps when being recorded in standard cages for rodents. We tried to record while one of my family members was holding the talent in their hands or on their lap, but this worked only for static activities of single animals. Nevertheless, we’ve recorded some clean squeaking and eating sounds. By the way, the guinea pigs chewing vegetables if slowed down 4 times sound like monsters crashing bones and flesh with their gigantic jaws. Also, we discovered a very funny effect. If you cuddle lightly a guinea pig or even rub him/her the wrong way, each stroke causes a squeak as if you were rhythmically squeezing a rubber squeak toy.
Still, we had to invent a way to record the animals in motion, especially in groups. Through a lot of experimentation, trial and error we developed a special enclosure with walls made of bass trap panels, blankets and with a multilayered cover on the floor to minimize the movement noise. It was a real difference in the vocals to noise ratio. Nevertheless, group recordings required an enormous amount of surgical work in Izotope RX due to collision bumps.
Some peculiar discoveries happened during our sessions. We noticed that the girl Diva makes a loud whistle-like call asking for food when she hears the sound of vegetables being cut, so we tried to use the sound of cutting to provoke this call. But things appeared to be even more complex, Diva wouldn’t react to a simple vegetable crunching sound. For the successful result the cutting sound had to be preceded by the sound of the fridge door being opened! Only this combination guaranteed the call from our talent.
Changing the number of our actors at the sound stage we were able to cause different sonic activities. For example, we have friends Boba and Biba, they are used to be always together in one cage. Remove Biba, and Boba starts calling his friend with loud squealing calls. Then put Biba back and the two friends start talking as if they haven’t seen each other for a year and producing the very low frequency rumbling sound to establish who of them dominates on this territory. This low frequency rumbling, also often used by males as a mating call, was so valuable to record and save in postproduction, and again no low-cut filters could be used on these recordings, any low frequency bumps had to be surgically removed in RX.
It appeared that not only wolves click and clack their teeth to scare an opponent. An absolutely black-furred female Zhika was clicking her teeth very frighteningly to get rid of annoying male admirers.
Everything these animals do – they do it very fast , so when they scratch themselves or shake their body flapping their fur and ears also sound very interesting. So, I scanned again through days of recorded material and collected several clean takes of both activities and included them in the library.
By the way, similar to recording wolves, we didn’t provoke negative emotions or conflicts of our talent, we recorded their social life, and if a conflict was emerging, we separated animals as soon as possible. After several weeks, when I felt confident that we succeeded in recording a comprehensive collection of guinea pigs sounds, our furry actors returned to their owners.
In the course of developing our approach to Guinea Pigs we had a great collaboration with Jay Jennings regarding the choice of mics and mic perspectives, broadband denoising and other processing aspects, especially at the start of the project. I’ve been sending him some sample recordings and he replied with comments, sometimes we would exchange examples of applying different denoising settings and choose the best option. It was Jay’s advice to keep as much low frequency content from the extreme closeup perspective as possible and to include a normal closeup perspective in the library for users who need a more natural sound. Luckily, the production of Jay’s project took longer, so I had time to record every interesting sound of these funny animals. This project appeared to be a very exciting animated feature “The Bad Guys” and it is a real honour for me to take part in such a wonderful gig! I was rather surprised when I discovered that the film is so fast-paced, that Jay used even sped-up recordings of my guinea pigs!
I used a custom rig with the combination of Nevaton MC59 C (cardioid), Nevaton MC59 Twin (a mic with two cardioids back-to-back facing left and right at 180 degrees and Sanken CO100K mics for the EXTREME CLOSEUP of group recordings. The Nevaton cardioids in LCR configuration give a fantastic impression of a listener being inside the guinea pigs group havoc. For single pigs, being small point sound sources, I resorted for the mono recordings. For the normal CLOSEUP perspective of single animals either another Nevaton MC59 C was used or just one channel of Nevaton MC50 LDC. For CLOSEUP of groups – Nevaton MC50 in stereo.
Of course, the extreme closeup recordings are the best source for slowing or pitching down to design sounds of fantastic creatures. Nevaton mics have effective frequency range up to 40 kHz, so one can slow down Nevaton recordings with confidence down t0 half speed. If slowing down to quarter speed is necessary, Sanken CO-100K becomes indispensable, because it’s frequency range extends up to 100 kHz. Those ultrasonic components of 40 kHz – 80 kHz fill the audible high frequency range of 10 kHz – 20 kHz when slowed to a quarter speed, thus preventing the resulting sound effect from sounding dull and muffled.
Ultrasonic stuff was not necessary for the film Jay Jennings was working on, so this was the area of my solo creative and experimental work. I also made a lot of blending decisions while making the stereo mix files, combining normal audible range and ultrasonic range components. I changed my mind several times, each time redoing at least a half of the library’s content. I ended up doing processing, editing and mixing at the normal speed, ½ speed and ¼ speed looking for the best processing options for each sound to make it equally useable both at normal speed as well as sped up or slowed down even by -90%. Sometimes I thought I would never finish the library.
Working a lot at ¼ speed yielded another observation. It seems to me that Guinea Pigs live in a much faster tempo than humans. Scenes between them develop and come to their culmination and final in an overwhelming tempo. The pace of their vocal communication is also much faster, thus their trills may be difficult for us to recognize their emotions and even seem mechanical. Try to slower them down, especially 4 times, and their emotions become extremely obvious. Listen to the attached examples and feel the difference:
Squealing 2 normal speed
Squealing 1 quarter speed
Squealing 2 quarter speed
Recently I received this testimonial from an award-winning supervising sound editor Dillon Bennett, that proves the above observation, “I was very grateful for this library as it totally saved the day in “His Dark Materials”. For the end of episode 4 of the final season there is a really emotional and heartbreaking scene between the main Character Lyra and her daemon Pan – who is in the form of a Pine Marten. We had a large library of sounds we had recorded and made for Pan’s animal vocalisations but nothing that carried enough anguish. Myself and the sound designers all tried new and different tracks to make it work but nothing was doing it. Happy to say that a half speed Guinea Pig was exactly what I was looking for! It’s actually the most commented on sound in this season from audiences and the producers.”
Here are the compilations of a number of typical sounds of guinea pigs that I mentioned in this article and even more. I present them at normal speed, 1/2 speed and 1/4 speed:
My by-product of this workflow of editing and processing audio in a slowed down state is the technique, applicable to dialogue and music editing, I describe it in this short blog post: Editing Audio at a Quarter Speed
To conclude this story, I’d say that making animal sound libraries, while being an extremely tedious task, is also very emotionally and mentally rewarding. Animals are very clever, each one has their own individuality, and getting to know them, their relations in the collective, starting your own relations with them opens up another bit of the mystery of the World. Working with animals always gives me an opportunity to feel myself a part of the bigger World where all creatures are connected with each other and everyone’s life has some bigger sense, bigger reason. These may seem some pathetic words but I really feel more alive and more human myself after such recording sessions.
I want to thank God for the creative opportunities I regularly meet in my life; Jason Jennings for giving me the idea of recording guinea pigs, his advice and fruitful discussions; sir John Leonard for his help in finding the right English terms for the filenames and metadata; my wife Natalya, my kids Anastasia, Olga and Alexander for taking care of my furry actors, endless support and patience, and you, my listeners and readers for your time and attention!