May 15, 2019 – Recording on Thunder Mountain (Thunder Volume 1)

Ah, I remember, August of 1988. President Reagan was still in office.  Typewriters still ruled unless you could afford a computer that saved files to 5&1/2” floppies and an expensive state-of-the-art dot matrix printer.

So my pal and one-time fellow effects recordist Doug Hemphill knows I seek thunder.  Just so happens he has the number for one Doc Holmes of the Langmuir Labs Lightning Research Center based out of Socorro New Mexico.  Good tip right?  Not exactly…

So I go to NM with an eye to record thunder.  And anything else that crosses my path (I got some excellent rock material on the mesas) along the way.  First I try following storms.  Nope.  That didn’t work.  Time to hire my local buddy to take me to the thunder Nerdvanna of Socorro New Mexico.  He’s got a pick up, a tent and two sleeping bags (cloth bags; bad move – they got wet, and at 10k’ it gets cold) so off we go.  We used paper maps back then.

We get to the research labs offices and I get to speak with Doc Holmes who was running the place at the time.  He tells me “Well, we’re having a pretty dry summer this year but you’re welcome to go up to the outpost and hang out with the guys for as long as you’d like.”  Not exactly what I was hoping for but hey, it’s something.  Right?  Wrong.

It turns out the humble gardener overheard our conversation along with my stated goal of recording thunder as close as possible.  He’d been with the lab from its beginning.  He follows me out to the parking lot where my pal awaits.  He says “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”.  “Sure” I say.  Why not?  Good info often comes from the least likely places.  He tells me “You know, we never really meant to put the lab where it is; we had to due to our comms gear.  We really wanted to put the lab on Mount XXXXX; you should check that out.”   “Thanks man, I will.”  So which do I pick?  The intellectual pride of the scientist or the humble gardener whose ego isn’t at stake?  Yep; the humble every time.  Never fails.  The “expert” lacked the humility of being able to tell the truth that they (the Lightning Research Lab) had to live with their second choice.  I don’t admire that trait; intellectual pride.

So out comes my highly detailed USGS topographical map and I plot a course for Thunder Mountain.  We get to the mountain and drive up the beat-up dirt road many miles.  When we get to the ~8,000′ mark (topographical map, remember? Be prepared.) we find the most amazing sight: a sub-peak of the main mountain that were you to draw a 700-yd radius from the top and encircle the ‘peak’ every single tree, without exception, stood dead with the tell-tale single burn mark near the base of its trunk.  That means lightning!  We set up camp, with a storm approaching no less, ~150yds below the ‘line of doom’ and I hang my Schoeps MK-4s in ORTF stereo under a pine branch.  Drag is I had to keep piling on an insane amount of additional pine branches to act as rain diffusion; can’t have that “splock” sound on my zeppelins.  I get very wet.  The same zeppelins (Rycote) that had on them not only the WindJammers, but the ‘socks’ underneath as well; no way am I going to get burned by wind.  Been there, done that.  Well, aside from the rain, now utterly gone thanks to Izotope RX (shout out to Mike Rozett!) it was like shooting fish in a barrel for two days.  Find where the thunder/lightning is probable and wait, don’t chase; that’s the secret.

Then comes the moment.  I’m in the zone, utterly concentrating on the meters and using the intensity of any given lightning flash as my ‘clue’ as to how loud to anticipate…  And WHAM!  First mine and my buddie’s hair stood on end; we gave each other the “Scooby-Doo” look, then, in the twinkling of an eye, the tent was full of purple-ish light with massive SPLs with the near instant smell of much ozone.  Having since done my research re lightning strikes, I learned that having one’s hair-on-end is a sign you’re about to be hit.  Now present-day in Izotope RX 7 Advanced, I can easily see the EMPs (they’re perfectly straight vertical lines from 0Hz all the way up) and measure the milliseconds until the sound.  The thing is: they overlap.  So there you have it folks; the single closest recorded lightning strike – to my knowledge (and I’ve looked into it) – ever in recording history.

After the second storm was over and gone (the one where we got the close strike from ~12′) we heard the strangest sound. Big heavy hooves.  What?  I get out my little 8mm video camera and open the tent: a whole herd of cows milling around!  What the heck are they doing at this altitude?  Well, one cow was rather enamored with her reflection in my pals pickup truck drivers’ side mirror.  So much so she pushed it clean off.  I have it on video; somewhere deep in storage.

During the storms I was utterly in ‘the zone’ and just so happened to be way potted down on my (then cutting-edge) Sony TCD-D10 DAT recorder; the first model, down to around 2 on the rotary pot.  I thought “There’s no way I got that close one clean.”  I was wrong.  While there was some over-modulation (now utterly gone) it was basically intact.  On return to LA and hearing it on proper monitors I was elated that this particular strike was essentially in the pocket. Hallelujah! I was a happy camper.  Now I’m the ‘father’ of a film cliche as it’s the single most overused thunder effect on the planet.  To me using something sparingly increases its’ value.  Oh well, things could be worse.