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Work With Watch You've Got

Updated: Feb 6

My great-grandfather was Sheriff of Wilson County, TN. He also served for a while as Chief of Police in Lebanon, the county seat, which meant at the time that he was also the town's fire chief.

An old, sepia-toned photograph shows the sheriff seated on the porch of the Wilson County Sheriff's Office, along with his three children.
My great-grandfather, left, ca. 1910, sitting with his family on the porch of the Sheriff's Office. Seated to his left is his daughter Annie, and standing behind is his son Perry. My grandfather is the infant on Annie's lap. The family lived upstairs, and the jail was on the ground floor.

Though he was long-gone by the time I arrived in this world, I met him through family stories and artifacts. There are tales of his thwarting a would-be robbery while a knife was held to his throat, and his antics later in life, sneaking out of the house and wheeling himself down to the fire hall in Maryville to mooch a candy bar or two from the local firefighters (he was diabetic and had already lost a leg).

Several years ago, my father gave me an old pocket watch. "It was your great-grandfather's. It doesn't work anymore, but if you want it, it's yours." I gladly accepted it. I didn't have much else on the watch, but it sat on the desk in my studio for years, silenced of whatever stories it had to tell, but a family heirloom nonetheless. And then, by chance, I had an opportunity to change that.

During the fall of 2020 (the season, not the pandemic), one of my series had gone back into production after months of shutdown in the industry. I was chatting with one of the show's hosts during some downtime, and he told me about his fascination with watches. He's a bit of a collector. I told him the story of the Sheriff and how I now had his watch, broken though it was. "I've got a guy," he said.

Fast-forward a few months, and a very kind, very skilled horologist in North Carolina had the pocket watch restored to tip-top (tick-tock?) condition. More than that, he found out a bit more about the watch's origins. It's an Elgin 315 Grade (15 jewels), 12 size, made in Elgin, IL, in the mid-1930s.

And it was ticking again!

An open-face pocket watch lays in front of a computer keyboard, its chain circled around it.
My great-grandfather's pocket watch, restored and fully functional.

Back it went to my desk, where I'd grown accustomed to its quiet presence.

Recently, I picked up some sound design and post mixing work for a local filmmaker. We sat in for the initial session, getting everything imported to Pro Tools and watching through for spot notes. "Right there," he said. "I want that ticking sound to grow louder and build tension. I just put something in there, but I'm not happy with it. See what you can do."

I grabbed the pocket watch that was sitting in front of me and wound it up. "This?" I asked. "Hold it up to your ear. Does that work?"

"It might! Try it and see."

So today, I wound up the Sheriff's old pocket watch and set up two microphones. I chose a RØDE NT-1A large diaphragm condenser, specifically for its low self-noise floor. I also reached for a Tellus active contact microphone from Oaka Instruments, which is very sensitive and very clean. I recorded into Pro Tools at 24-bit, 192kHz, so that I could really push the processing in post. Layering the two mics gives me a deeply emotional soundscape from the watch.

The watch hangs in front of a large studio mic, black tape wrapped around it to secure the contact microphone to its back.
Recording the pocket watch two ways: large diaphragm condenser and active contact mic.

This is the first time I've listened - really listened - to this watch so closely. I've heard it tick, but something about the intimate nature of this recording gave me a bit of a zen moment. It was more than ticking; the contact mic dug in deep, capturing every gear and every spring. Echoes from the past? Ghosts of those who came before? I don't know. In a way, it was like listening to the heartbeat of a man I never met, yet seemed to know. I got lost in the moment and let the recording go on for quite a bit longer than I needed.

The Sherrif's WatchSono Locus

It may or may not work for this film. That remains to be seen (or heard). Either way, I now have this recording in my sound effects directory, and a sound from my family's history preserved in fine detail.

The pocket watch sits atop a framed picture of the Sheriff and his three children.

EDIT: The recording worked exactly as I'd hoped in the film. A perfect tension-builder. You can watch the short, Secret City, on my WORK page.

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