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I'm no master at this, but people have asked me how I do it.
All others with experience in this matter are welcome to share their methods.
Obviously, this advice is only for adults, and is for educational purposes only and not to be followed or replicated in any way, etc. etc.
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1. MAKING A FIRE
Do it on a calm day, not a windy or rainy one. You are already gonna have to risk getting close to a fire to record it, so you want the best conditions possible in order to ensure your risk and effort aren't wasted.
Plastics, cardboard, paper, and dried yard trash (pine needles, etc.) will ignite and go up quickly. They only burn for a short time. This makes them ideal tinder/kindling and a person-sized pile of them will do a session. These materials burn fierce and hot, creating a strong updraft which makes a lot of the low frequency rumble. These low frequencies seem integral to realistic-sounding fire. Plenty of fires burn in conditions that don't produce them, but when speaking in terms of foley sounds, people do seem to be looking for rumble or some other sound to indicate rushing flames.
PAPER burns as well as you'd expect. If you have wadded or otherwise compressed paper, it will burn surprisingly hot and for a surprisingly long time. I have occasionally obtained good "bonfire" recordings just by burning toilet paper from an outhouse.
CARDBOARD is your bread and butter. It's thin enough to catch very easily, it's already dry, and you probably have some. Just lay it against the pile and it'll go. I usually put this on the outermost part of the pile, so it can help contain the smaller pieces and keep them from blowing away.
PINE NEEDLES and cones add a lot of crackle, especially when dried and fully opened.
LEAVES are amazingly noisy if you get the right kind and enough of them!
STRONG PLASTICS (especially bottles and jugs) add a lot of sizzle and mechanical noise from changing shape due to thermal stress. They'll dent themselves, pop, or tear, and when a hole is burned into them, you'll often hear hisses or whines from the escaping gas. This effect is present to an extent in boxes and other sealed containers as well, but it really jumps out of the plastic jugs, milk jugs, etc.
THIN PLASTICS, PLASTIC BAGS, & METALIZED MATERIALS do basically nothing for sound, but they do burn well! Don't neatly stack them or they won't fully burn. Bend or crumple them up.
WOOD is unlikely to be fully ignited by a fire like this unless the pieces are rather small. Pinecones are good. Actual logs or split portions can sometimes be very noisy, but they can also shoot out hot tree sap, explode, and other fun stuff. Wood has to be fully lit in order to get volatile enough to start making sounds. It also burns for a long time. It usually isn't worth burning wood just to get foley sounds unless you need a wood fire/fireplace specifically. Most of what I've said about wood applies to charcoal too, although wood pellets (like those used in a pellet stove) might make a nice sound since there's so many individual objects burning.
ROCKS shouldn't be put directly into fire as they can explode or crack as water or other things inside them boil. Even rocks that won't explode will likely be severely weakened and made useless. Concrete is a similar case.
PETROCHEMICALS (gasoline, naphtha, etc.) and FLAMMABLE SOLVENTS (such as ethanol) will make the fire suddenly blaze up, and if used wisely and safely in small amounts, you can use these to make flamethrower sound effects. But this is the Internet so I have to say you shouldn't do it. If you're using any of the other materials I've mentioned, you don't NEED this stuff to start a fire. Pine needles, flattened plastic, paper, etc. will get it going in no time.
HAIR SPRAY has been used by countless foley artists to make flamethrower sounds. Some deodorants, spray paint, etc. will also work. Spray these on a smaller flame like a lighter instead of sticking them right up to a bonfire. The combination of hair spray + lighter is safe enough to perform indoors, but of course I can not recommend this in a written guide, because I don't know what kind of blankets, insulation or other shit you have in the space where you might do such a technique. Maybe just do it outside at night when it's quiet - this sound will be loud enough to pick up from some distance away.
SOLID FUEL is something I really haven't worked with. Gunpowder is too dangerous and volatile. Those fuel tablets used by hikers and military personnel burn well, but probably don't make much sound because they're designed to be efficient and slow. I don't know of any solid fuel that is both safe to use and has the right characteristics to make a lot of sound.
CORNSTARCH will blaze up when thrown into a fire, and is fairly benign as far as the category of "things you can safely throw right into an open fire" is concerned. It's commonly done as a party trick. Flour will also work. The finer it is, the more flammable it is too. Do take care to have a well-ventilated area or else the room can fill with dusty air and turn into one giant fuel source. This results in a Bad Time.
SUGAR, when put into fire, will hiss and sizzle for a long time. It can really enhance the texture of a fire, simulating magma, lava, etc. Powdered drink mixes and any other powder that's mainly made of sugar should also work.
HAND SANITIZER seems worth investigating. It probably only makes a fine sizzle though.
FOAM MATERIALS (styrofoam, packing peanuts, polystyrene, etc.) ignite and burn well, and might produce an interesting sizzling due to all the individual cells they have, but I try to reuse rather than burn these materials.
ELECTRONIC WASTE is something you shouldn't ever burn. I tried it just for experimental purposes, and it didn't burn very well, nor did it make any good sounds.
METALS aren't going to contribute anything to a fire like this. However, the fire will burn all the ink off, leaving the metal looking nice and shiny. If you plan to smelt some drink cans down later, this is a good way to remove all the slag. That way you don't have to do it while working with the forge/furnace itself.
FINE-GRAIN METALS like thermite, steel wool, etc. are something I don't play with. They're dangerous and rather underwhelming IMO. If you want THAT kind of fire sound, just get on YouTube and ask around.
FERROCERIUM, like the flint from a lighter, may or may not be able to ignite in a fire like this. I'll try it next time. As I recall, you can also heat it with a lighter flame and then dash it onto a hard surface to create a shower of sparks.
FIREWORKS, M80s, etc. - you're on your own with these. All I can say is don't do them. Maybe those big sparklers would sound good, but DON'T light them as a bundle or they will all burn at once and near-instantly. Steve Wallis made this mistake once.
Generally speaking, any spray, mist, or liquid will create or be associated with a lot of hissing, boiling, and other such sounds. You can spray small amounts of water to make hissing and steam, as well.
I am usually just burning cardboard, plastic wrappers, and things like that. Don't go thinking I put crazy stuff in a fire every time. I'm just trying to make a knowledge base here with everything we know about fire, how to make it sound one way or another, and how to get a good recording out of that.
Don't breathe the magic smoke!
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Use a device with a condenser mic if you can. You want something sensitive which captures everything. A shotgun mic may work too but the essential thing to remember here is that fire is noise and you need all the noise for a realistic fire recording. You don't want to denoise it, gate it, or EQ it at all if you can help it, except to correct something that's really obvious to your ear or put the sound in a space (for instance, you might lowpass+reverb it to make it sound like it's in a fireplace across the room). Just try to work with the sound your device captures for you.
When starting fire, there's a brief period where the fire is growing, and making sound, but does not have a strong heat center yet. You can get your hand and mic/phone/device practically in the flames during this part.
This is the ideal time to capture fire recordings because it becomes fierce, but can still be closely approached. It's only blazing on the surface.
Typically, you have about 5 minutes from ignition to the point where you need to back off. This time is valuable, so you definitely want to record yourself lighting the fire and watching it rise. Have your recorder ready and in hand.
Once the fire has fully risen, you won't be able to approach it closely again for a while. You can only really get in close for a few seconds at a time during this part - not worth it unless you really need every last bit of audio. By the time it burns down to be approachable again, the fire will likely have gotten quiet.
Be careful when approaching the fire with the hand/mic. If you feel the skin on your fingertips start to stretch, or your mic/phone/device starts to feel the same temperature as your hand, time to back off for a while. Also, don't have a dead cat or windscreen on the device. It could go up if you get too close. Having recorded fires on windy days, I can say that a fire's updraft will tend to overpower the wind, at least in the area where you'll be holding your device.
You can move your hand/mic in circles, or zigzags, to continually dip them close to the fire for just a moment each time and get close recordings. Don't wear gloves. You want to be able to feel how hot your hand and device are. Phones will glitch out or eat inputs when they get too hot, for instance, so you need to take care about that.
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Basically, mix it like a pipe organ. Every pipe has a different length and a different spacing from the player/audience. This means each pipe is slightly out of phase with all the rest, creating small intermodulations which make the organ sound BIG. Treat each individual fire recording as a pipe - Give every channel or track a distinct location in the stereo field and balance your panning values.
Also don't be afraid to pitch shift or timestretch some of the fires so they'll sound as if they're burning at different rates. These tricks make the fire seem like it's massive and everywhere.
Bass-boosting one track, or bass-saturating it, or multiband-compressing it, should also add some goodness, but don't overdo them.
The best method I've used at this point can be heard here and consists of this process:
- Combine 5 flame sounds or cut your recording(s) into five parts, situated on five channels/tracks
- Pan them 40%L/20%L/C/20%R/40%R
- Shift the Center one up an octave and the two 20% ones down an octave
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4. NOT DYING
Have your tools (shovel, water hose, etc.) with you from the beginning. Don't leave the fire unattended until you've put it completely out.
When the fire is reduced to small flames or embers, scatter it and stir it up with a good stick, shovel or other long-handle tool. This may reignite some portions, so you may want to do it earlier, to get more sound.
Once it's scattered over a wide area, and is spread too thin to concentrate much heat, smother it completely with water.
Repeat these steps until no more smoke is rising.
Scatter the dead ash around as much as you can and water it down as much as you can, to dilute it and prevent damaging the soil. You'll probably get ferns in the spot where you had the fire, but it could take some months.
Don't lean or step on the ground near the fire or any object that's close to it. Don't park your car too close to it, don't cook over it... you know what, just never work with fire, okay? It's dangerous, it'll fuckin' kill you and burn all your Pokémon cards.
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Well, I hope this is useful for someone
It will never cease to amaze me how people blow all their money, fill their house with clutter, and amass stacks of gear just so they can do what any run-of-the-mill softsynth can do. But, you know, I can't just direct that at modular synth people. Sun Ra, Zappa, and a lot of other figures I admire(d) did it too sometimes, and I used to do it myself. I had all these amps when I could've just mastered one good multiband equalizer and used it to get most of their sounds.
Maybe it's an integral part of some creative processes, just having all the stuff around you and being reminded of it constantly. Maybe that helps them focus their attention or get ideas. I don't know because I spent a lot of time doing bad improv in secret until I got to the point that I could usually improv good stuff. It was quite an ordeal, but once you get that practice in, you can just pull out any kind of idea at any time. Maybe I'll do a thread about that one day if we get a decent number of interested performers on here. It's useful not just for music but for comedy, storytelling, and a lot more.
Here's a guy with a whole building of clutter, but most of this clutter makes electronic and/or mechanical sounds that nothing else really does. Look Mum No Computer. I can appreciate him having an entire telephone exchange system because it's a massive mechanical sound environment. You can put a mic anywhere in that room now and get a whole new sound. I'd much rather do that than try to dial the same sound in on a wall of faceless modules.
Well, back on topic...
The fire I made today had a tub of old clumpy sugar in it. That sizzled for the entire time the fire was going! Really good texture from it. It was really a steady hiss rather than an intermittent one, but still, that sort of sound can work to convey magma, lava, molten metal, etc. Probably helpful for people trying to make fire sounds for a foundry/forge.
I ended up doing two fires today. One recording was longer than the other, so I cut it and arranged it. This resulted in 3 tracks: 2 for the long fire (panned 50%L/50%R) and then the second, short fire in the middle. I stretched them all to be equal length, but did no other processing or pitch shifting, save for a touch of reverb from my mastering chain.
This ended up being pretty big and convincing sounding, while requiring a lot less work and a lot less postprocessing. I got way too close to the flames for these recordings. I was riskier than before, and thus was able to obtain more intimate fire sounds. In retrospect I probably could've stuck to the 20% panning values from before, and gotten a slightly more convincing sound - but this one does sound like multiple items are burning at once, so it might work for a burning village in a game/movie or something.
I can't make new fire recordings for a while because my area now has a burn ban in effect. So I made this instead.
Burn ban finally lifted, so I made a bonfire before sunset. Plenty of night sounds did still make it in though, so it's a pretty relaxing soundscape.
I only burned leaves this time, and this made a very noisy fire and a very approachable one as well. I was able to spend way more time near it with the mic as compared to previous fires.
I think it's good to record fire, it's a very difficult task. And not every microphone, recorder and record maker can handle this. I have not yet made any successful recordings of fire. Everything recorded on my recorder is VERY far from what I hear live. Sometimes recordings of fire, when listened to, generally resemble something completely different. They can even remember the rain. Therefore, I followed the path of sound perversions, creating the sounds of fire artificially, from various natural (and not so natural) sounds. Either way, it's always fun. https://freesound.org/people/newlocknew/packs/35394/
Yes, even the realistic fire recordings can evoke rain, crinkling plastic, various noise colors, etc. You could put crinkling plastic sound together with sizzling grease and any wind or air that changes directions a lot, and then have a fairly realistic fire.
The question of how to record realistic and quality fires is one I'm still pursuing, but so far the prime item of knowledge has been "get close". This is why I'm using a 10-year-old smartphone, a Motorola XT1254, to do recordings. No sense risking anything really nice on it.
The sun is rising, so I am about to make more fires to get rid of more yard trash. It has been years since I totally cleaned up the (rather big) yard, so there is still tons of material to use in fire-recording experiments.
This one lasted a long time, but not in a good way. It was low-temperature, damp and way too smoky. Like most previous bonfires, all the good audio came within the first 5 minutes. Everything after that is just scraps I've stitched together in post.
Well, now I know - if it's been raining, use leaves, not pine needles.
I had to build a burn barrel to stop animals from eating/scattering burnt things. I've only used it twice (Session 1/Session 2) but it has promise. It's more approachable than a ground fire, but the buildup is more gradual and not nearly as noisy or satisfying. It's more of an ambient rumble sound much of the time - more suited to indoor or urban environments.
One more barrel fire, and I'm off to vacation for a short while.
As mentioned in that sound description: "we get a lot of rumbling, rushing flames, and other similar sounds. I'll have to try combining these with the more open, noisier sounds of fires made on the ground. This is a bit of a reminder for me to do that."
I think that if I combine the ground fire sounds and the barrel fire, we could get new and different textures from it. All my stuff's CC0 so anyone's welcome to try.
I also realize my approach to this subject is getting less experimental and more drawn-out. I'll probably focus on posting unique & distinctive techniques and sounds from here on out, unless I get more questions of the type which caused me to make this thread.
So does anyone else like recording fire, water, wind, earth, wood, metal, or any of the other elemental forces? How do they relate to fire? Yesterday, I burned during windy conditions, but the wind only fanned the flames through the holes in the barrel. It was a pretty unique sound experience.