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The use of 'the singing semi' sound in films


'The singing semi': Recording up at 3AM
Walter Murch Film-maker
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I woke up one night at three o'clock in the morning, startled awake by the realisation that I must get dressed and take my Nagra, which is the sound recorder, and I must go to the Coalinga Pass, in Los Angeles, we were living in Los Angeles at the time, and I must record something there. And so, I got out of bed, I started getting dressed, and Aggie said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm going out to record something, I'll be back in an hour.' And she knew enough about the crazy film business to say, 'Be careful, have a nice time.'

So, I jumped on the motorcycle, strapped the Nagra to the back of the motorcycle, and went off to the Coalinga Pass, which is the mountain pass between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles proper. And Route 101, the main North South route in California, crosses the Coalinga Pass. And, there's a bridge in the middle of the pass, which I knew about. And I positioned myself on the bridge, took out the Nagra, turned the Nagra on, and I heard the sound that without knowing what I wanted to hear, as soon as I heard I thought, 'This is exactly correct.' And there was virtually no traffic at that time of day. But coming from behind me, was a tractor trailer, a semi, I think in the States an eighteen-wheel truck, empty. And it was going somewhere, and it was going somewhere very fast, and it zoomed underneath me. I was on the bridge and the road was below, and it zoomed underneath me and rocketed down the other side of the valley, way off into the distance. And because there was no other traffic at the time, and because I was recording it, I heard it until it disappeared off into the far horizon, it was the only sound. And, it was making a sound that was perfect for what I wanted, which was a kind of a singing sound. Because it was empty, because it had eighteen wheels, the wheels were making a musical sound, and they were bouncing because of the emptiness of it, and so it was sounding... Way off into the distance. And, I got to the end, finally I couldn't hear it anymore and I turned the Nagra off. Got on the motorcycle drove home and crawled back into bed at four o'clock in the morning. And she said, 'Did you get it?' 'Yes I got it.' 'That's nice, dear.'

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Nagra, recording, night, semi, truck, sound, Coalinga Pass

Duration: 3 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017