Category Archives: Sound Engineering
The Director’s Guide to Sound Part 3: Why it’s hard to find a good production sound mixer (who’ll work for food and credit)
Smalltime indie filmmakers seem to have less trouble finding a Director of Photography (DP) who will work without pay than a production sound mixer. If you think about this purely from an economic standpoint, then considering the DP probably has invested two-to-three times as much in his equipment, it makes one wonder why this is so. Naturally, I have a few thoughts.
Economics aside, DP’s are the rock stars of the crew (after the director at least). The actors and other crew members look on them and their SUV’s full of exotic gear with reverence and awe. Cinematography is high art. Audio is engineering. Everyone wants to be a DP. It’s the sexiest crew position. They meet with the director and producer in the preproduction planning of shots over lattes, and then they meet after the shoot to review the raw footage—while the sound guy is home testing his cables and adapters.
As for the finished product? People notice great imagery captured on perfectly lit sets. And all those exotic camera moves: the dolly shots, the jib shots, the steadicam shots, pushing in and pulling out, rack focus… Most everyone walks away from a movie thinking about how beautifully shot it was. On the other hand, aside from having a great music score, people usually only notice the sound if it was terrible. Frankly, being the DP for a movie shoot is a high honor and privilege. Being the sound mixer is—well a job.
Production sound mixers in the indie world are a rather mixed breed. On the one hand, you have those knowledgeable, experienced and well-equipped mixers who actually find decent paid gigs now and then. A serious sound mixer probably owns a formidable arsenal of audio equipment including a timecode-enabled multitrack recorder, plus a field mixer, maybe a backup stereo recorder, at least three boom microphones: a long shotgun for outdoor distance work, a short shotgun for close-up outside work, and a hypercardoid for inside work, plus maybe three or more wireless body mikes. Then there are the accouterments like sound blankets, stands, memory cards, shock mounts, cables and adapters, good headphones, and scads of other bits of gear to aid in getting the location sound recorded. All told, even a small-market indie sound mixer might have invested between five and thousand dollars in his gear bag.
And on the other hand, there are those eager newbies just starting out, with maybe a single economy shotgun microphone and a cheap stereo pocket recorder and a boom pole in their gear arsenal. They’re hoping with enough unpaid gigs that they can start building credentials, acquiring more gear, and eventually start getting paid gigs and maybe just make it into a career. These are the guys who will gladly work for food and credit on almost any production—even with the cheesiest screenplay and the most pretentious director. But they might not get you that pristine dialogue you’re hoping for though. In fact, you might find out after the shoot that all the dialogue needs to be dubbed in post, perhaps because there was just too much noise and hiss in the recordings, or maybe some dreaded echoes from using the wrong microphone for the situation. It’s like hiring a guy with a $150 Handicam whose credits include a bunch of funny/silly home movies published on YouTube and shooting his sister’s wedding, to be your DP and hoping for good results.
Everyone who invests thousands of dollars of their savings into an equipment arsenal plans and expects to pay it all off eventually, and once they’ve built up enough creds, they deserve to do so. So they can begin to pick and choose which projects they will work on pro-bono, and which ones they expect to be paid for. The sound guys I know who will sometimes work for free, typically tell me there are several things they look for before giving up a free weekend (or three) to work on someone else’s production.
- It’s for a good cause. Everyone has an altruistic streak in them, including the guys with big equipment investments. If some filmmaker is trying to create a film to bring awareness to something like child abuse, bullying, poverty, discrimination, corporate greed, and so forth, even people who normally would expect to be paid for their time and equipment usage, might line up for a good cause pro-bono.
- They have to know or at least have heard good things about the director. Face it, nobody likes to work for an asshole—not in the nine-to-five world in which most small-market cast and crew live and breathe during the week, and not during their weekends and evenings. Directors who take advantage of the kindness and generosity of the people who are willing to kick in their services for free, soon enough find that nobody with any skill is going to want to sign on to work for them.
- They have seen the script and feel it is a good one. Usually (though not always), the prospective sound mixer as well as prospective DP, want to know something about the production in advance. As director, you have to do a little pitch of your concept. Nobody wants to waste their time on a poorly scripted, ill-laid out film project. If any senior crew asks to see the script before deciding, think of it along the same lines as if some studio exec was interested in financing you and asked you to present to them enough information to make a decision. If a DP or sound guy are willing to work for you for free, then they are in fact making an implicit investment in you. Everyone who pours their heart and soul into a production, wants to believe it is going to be a good one, and maybe, just maybe one that will get recognized at a festival (or get a zillion hits on YouTube)
- The cast and crew on board so far are good. Just as nobody wants to work for an asshole, no one really wants to work side-by-side with lots of other assholes either. On the sets I’ve been on, the cast and crew tend to reflect the director to an extent, ergo, a skilled and affable crew don’t usually gravitate onto sets overseen by unpleasant and/or incompetent directors. So don’t be surprised if a prospective sound guy asks who else is already on board.
- It seems like it should be fun. This one applies to everyone on the cast and crew really. Twelve-hour days can grind anyone down. Many of the people you meet on set work at a day job to feed and clothe a family perhaps, and then work on filmmaking on weekends and evenings to fulfill their artistic passions and maybe find an opportunity to switch careers if things go well. If the shoot can be broken down into a few more shorter days, then make it so. If an expensive location has been secured for an entire Sunday from dawn till dusk, then the director and or producer needs to find ways (within the budget) to keep stress levels down and make things pleasant and even fun.
Craft services is one of those make or break niceties for the cast and crew that should not be overlooked. It is often in fact the biggest part of the budget. When people say they’ll work for food and credit, the quality of the craft services table is one of those things they’re talking about. One of my peeves is the pizza and soda for every single meal thing. Yes it’s cheap and easy, but after a while it just becomes a part of the grind, rather than a break from it. There are other cheap and quick ways to do meal breaks. And beyond bottles of water and bags of chips, you make things like tissues, aspirin, antacids, granola bars, caffeinated and un-caffeinated drinks, and other comfort things available. And where’s the frakking coffee? Most everyone likes to have a decent cup of hot coffee on set now and then. You’ll end up sending a production assistant out during the shoot anyway, so just plan on it. Have a big pump thermos or two of coffee available at all times! One thing that irks me is getting the munchies after lunch, and looking over at the table and seeing a couple of bottles of water and maybe one little bag of Fritos left over. You’re better off buying too much stuff and taking it home for your family, than having a poorly-stocked table. Trust me on this one.
Don’t skimp on taking good care of people who are actually saving you loads of money by NOT charging you. Some filmmakers provide little mementos of the shoot like keychains or tee-shirts to the people who slaved away for several days. Others invite the cast and crew to a pre-screening. This is a really nice touch. Whatever you do as a filmmaker, do not take lightly your implicit obligation to make the cast and crew as comfortable and happy as is in your power.
* * *
So to the question of how to attract a knowledgeable and skilled sound mixer with good quality equipment without paying him? Beyond the prerequisites: known/good director, quality screenplay, good bunch of folks also on board, etc. Here are a few thoughts gleaned from sound mixer acquaintances that filmmakers should pay attention to:
- Treat the sound mixer with the same respect as the DP. Treat him or her as a valued senior crew lead. Don’t treat him as you would the production assistants who move things around and fetch food and drinks. Don’t just send him or her a crew call sheet saying to show up at 7:30 a.m. for a twelve-hour day broken up only by a break for pizza and soda. Invite him to the preproduction shot planning meetings out of courtesy (or at least send him the shot plan so he can study them and prepare). Ditto if he asks you for an advance copy of the script. You shouldn’t even wait for him to ask for these, since it is in your best interest not to wait until just before calling “action” to have to tell him what the setup is: the lines, the blocking, that this is a dolly shot and the actor is walking left to right and whispering and then shouting. A good sound guy is going to ask for all this info in advance anyway, so if he doesn’t, he might not have all that much experience after all. Invite him to view the dailies if you show them to the producer and DP. Assessing if the production sound is good is just as important as the picture. Introduce him, along with your senior production people at festivals, if you get that far.
- Talk to him. Pay attention. When he shows up, go over and say hello and talk about what’s going on and where you need him. Let him know that just as the DP is the head of the production picture department, the mixer is the head of production sound. Don’t make him feel like a commodity. Unless you are behind schedule and very much need to deal with a crisis, at least take a few minutes to make the sound guy feel like an important senior member of the crew. Know that there are sound issues just as their are picture issues. While you’re asking the DP how stray light coming through a window might affect an interior shot next to that window, ask the sound mixer if any exterior sounds (distant dog barking, large air-conditioning unit, traffic, etc) will either. The dialogue can be dubbed in later if the shot is really needed, but the location sound is compromised. Ask the sound guy his opinion.
- Have a boom operator at his disposal. Mixing production sound requires a lot of focus on selecting the right microphones, placing them well, and then monitoring levels while the recording is in progress. Expecting the sound mixer to also hold the microphone boom pole really detracts from his other responsibilities and it shows. You cannot perform either task well if you have to perform both tasks. Those behind-the-scenes photos you see of an all-in-one sound man holding a boom and with the recorder in a bag over his shoulder are typical signs of an ultra-small crew production. Unless you’re doing a documentary or a guerrilla shoot, and intentionally need a very small crew, don’t take chances on this. Trust me again on this one: if he looks down to check his levels, his aim with the microphone may drift. And if he has to adjust a level, he needs to hold the boom with one hand. And if he doesn’t pay attention to the levels, then he might get some things recorded too hot (clipped out) and others beneath the noise floor. One more time: it is a risk to have one guy do both. And don’t just offer up a totally inexperienced and unmotivated production assistant merely because he or she is unoccupied at the time. If the sound mixer wasn’t able to bring his own boom operator, then find someone who really wants to operate the boom and learn more about production sound. There’s nothing worse on set audio-wise than having a first-time boom operator who would rather be on the camera crew, who doesn’t pay attention, and lets the boom mic drift away from the speaking actor’s mouth and face toward the wall (or worse).
- Offer him leading credits.The leading credits are where the important people go. Even the costume designers and production designers who invest little or nothing out-of-pocket, and don’t really have any more hard-earned skill than sound mixers, get leading credit. In a Hollywood movie, with the hierarchy and all, the production mixer gets lumped in on the final credit roll with the rest of the sound guys (and there are a lot of them). But in your little indie flick, you could just put “Sound………JOE BLOW” on the same page as the Costume Designer and Set Decorator. If you don’t want to put it in the leading credits, give him a static page by himself early in the trailing credits. Hey, he’s working for credit only after all, so try to give him better than you do to the production assistants who go out for the pizza. He wants to have his name recognition for the next prospective filmmaker looking for a sound guy.
Word gets around about various filmmakers and how they treat the crew. Directors who treat unpaid crew like day laborers eventually get a reputation, and find not many experienced and skilled crew willing to work for long unpaid hours for a person that doesn’t seem to care about anyone else. Realize that other than a run-and-gun or documentary, you really can’t make a film without a number of crew members. And you really cannot make a great indie film without having both a top-flite cinematographer and sound recordist on the team.
Consider this: a Hollywood sound mixer makes about $325 a day and then charges you rental on his equipment. This is likely to add up to around $500 per day to hire a sound mixer and his gear. An experienced Hollywood boom operator makes about $250 a day. If they opt to work for you without pay, these guys are literally saving you thousands of dollars for a short, and many thousands of dollars for a feature (even at a much lower non-Hollywood scale rate). Don’t take them for granted. Make them feel important. Don’t forget the little things like respect, politeness, a please and a thank you here and there. It goes a long way. If you take them for granted, then for your next production, you might just find yourself accepting that inexperienced newbie with his Radio Shack pocket recorder and $99 microphone and untrained ear, and wind up with dialogue that sounds like it was recorded over a telephone.
So after my recent letdown at a Dave Mathews Band concert where ten musicians on stage all bled together into a sonic stew, I was curious about Eric Clapton, since I had tickets for the April 3 Clapton concert in Raleigh, and I knew he would have a fairly large band on stage.
Clapton pulled it off right! First of all, despite Eric himself looking like a tenured English Lit professor, the man can still rock. He has lost nothing. I vaguely remember him from a front-row seat at a performance in Knoxville, Tennessee back in the early seventies. In the nearly forty years since I first saw him play on stage, he has become more well-rounded. His acoustic set was beautiful, especially Wonderful Tonight, but also Layla and Tears in Heaven. His tonal expressiveness on his signature Martin 000-28 acoustic guitar was impressive, and his vocals (the acid test of time for a musician) were still right on.
But when he got to the electric part of the performance, his nine-piece all-star band really pulled it together. Eric’s guitar virtuosity has just gotten better and better. His command of the fretboard both slow and fast was impressive. He even played slide on one tune (first time I’ve seen him do that). He is truly deserving of the accolades and the positioning at or near the top of nearly everyone’s top ten guitarists of all time list.
Doyle Bramhall II played aside Eric, and Doyle is no slouch either. Doyle is well-known among blues and blues-rock aficionados. His dad played with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doyle has played with Roger Waters’ band, and now has been touring with Clapton for while. He didn’t just stick to laying down a rhythmic backdrop for the master to play against. Doyle himself stepped out and proved he is a great guitarist as well. He too commanded wondrous tones and scintillating riffs. I was amazed when I noticed him playing his left-handed Stratocaster with it strung upside down (fatter/lower strings on the bottom) as he bent high notes down. I’d only seen him play before on the 2010 Crossroads DVD. He lived up to expectations.
Then there’s Willie Weeks on bass. I had remembered Willie’s impressive bass on a performance of Rocky Mountain Way from the Joe Walsh Live album. At the Clapton concert, Willie was animated and energetic and put himself on my personal top ten bassists list.
Chris Stainton on has had quite a lengthy career on keyboards, having had prior collaborations with Clapton, as well as Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Roger Waters, Joe Cocker…(he played piano on the Who album Quadraphenia). He got a huge ovation for one of his solos with Clapton.
Then there’s Paul Carrack on organ. Carrack also has had a storied career with the likes of Roger Waters, The Eagles, Elton John, and B.B. King. Paul sang beautiful lead vocals on Tempted, How Long and one of the encore numbers High Time We Went.
Steve Jordan was a maniac on drums. His mix of energy and temporal precision kept the performance moving and grooving (sorry – I had to say that once). Jordan’s cv includes working with Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and being the drummer for the Saturday Night Live Band back in the seventies.
And as if two guitarists wasn’t enough, there was Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar as well as a lap slide guitar. Leisz has played with the Eagles, Jon Fogerty, Allison Krauss, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, et. al.
Rounding out the band were the duo of female backing vocalists: Michelle John and Sharon White.
Overall, this was a band of accomplished and experienced musicians. So how did they sound playing together? Freaking fantastic. Compared to other megabands I’ve seen in the past, I could hear every single instrument at all times. The PNC Arena is a huge indoor arena, but well-known for having pretty decent acoustics.
The audio engineers and the mixer at the Front-Of-House console were all undoubtedly at the top of their game. But I’m also crediting Clapton himself for being able to come up with a musical arrangement that kept all the sounds from bleeding into a morass of indistinguishable tone, and yet allowing each musician to shine at the right time.
As a devotee of the local music grind scene, how often have you been to a bar or small club and thought that the band had great original material, played and sang well, and had the audience really going, but something was just really off about the sound that really took a lot away from the performance? Maybe you could barely hear the lead guitar (and the keyboards were hurting your eardrums). Or maybe the tone of the vocals was too flat. Maybe the sound was echoing around and blurring into a sonic stew. You may have chalked that experience up to poor room acoustics, or a lousy sound system, or maybe a bad “mix”. Maybe it was a combination of the three? But what does all that really mean?
Truth be told, unless a band is at the national tour level (where a crew of expert audio engineering professionals toils to get the best sound out using top-of-the-line equipment), they are going to have to address sound issues at nearly every gig. They will need to take responsibility not only for creating the sound, but for getting their sound off the stage and to the audience. Smalltime local bands typically face a myriad of challenges doing this. Let’s take a look at some of the main issues involved.
First off, the acoustics might really be bad. Live music venues run the gamut from neighborhood bar or coffee house to arenas, stadiums and gigantic outdoor fields. Sound reinforcement systems for the latter can become enormously complex. They need to deal with many complex issues that smaller club bands don’t have to—such as delaying the mix signal sent to loudspeakers farther from the stage, so that the audience doesn’t hear the sound multiple times: first from the nearest speakers and then from speakers positioned at regular intervals, all the way to the stage speakers. This is because sound waves travel much slower through the air than the electrical signals that represent them do on cables. I’ll touch on some of the more advanced features of larger sound systems, but have no intention of going into intricate detail on how the Rolling Stones’ sound setup works. In this blog, we’ll be looking more at what bands face when performing in smaller venues: like bars, coffee houses, and dance clubs, with the intent that live music aficionados reading this might gain a little more understanding of what local bands face on the grind circuit.
Most clubs that were designed with live music in mind have had at least some thought go into the room acoustics. Places like plain old bars, and converted warehouses and the like, might have been constructed with materials and surfaces that reflect, refract(break up) and/or absorb sounds at various frequencies such that some some of the sounds coming from the stage are a bit dead, while others reflect into uncontrolled echoes.
A club owner who is serious about converting such an establishment to make it suitable for live music, will have ponied up significant dollars for appropriate acoustic treatment. You can sort of tell by glancing around if the venue has been designed with music in mind. If you see a lot of bare hard surfaces (like concrete, glass, hardwoods, ceramic and metal) and things like industrial pipes and ductwork that are not covered with some sort of fabric, then you can probably expect there to be issues with the sound. Nobody is expecting a bar to have acoustic properties on a par with Carnegie Hall, but if having live bands is a staple of a venue, the owners should have invested at least a little in addressing the most blatant acoustic flaws. As a last stopgap, running the final mix through a graphic equalizer can allow the sound engineer to fine tune any offending frequencies.
As for live sound reinforcement systems (PA systems), they come in all sizes and types. And a system could cost anywhere from about just under a thousand dollars for the basics, up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions for major arena events). Let’s consider what they need to accomplish by examining the needs of the typical performing band.
There are two types of sounds created by the band: electric and acoustic. The electric sounds are the electric guitars, acoustic-electric guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups installed), electric basses and electronic keyboards. The acoustic sounds are instruments like acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, horns, strings, drums, and of course vocals.
The electric instruments are typically sent to a collection of amplifiers and speaker cabinets behind the performers known as the “backline”. In a small enough venue, these are usually adequate enough for the electric guitars, basses and electronic keyboards to be heard throughout the bar. The vocals and most of the acoustic instruments will need to be miked and amplified through a PA system. In a small venue, the drums are often loud enough on their own to not require any further amplification.
Some PA systems have more capabilities than others. The most basic operation of the PA system involves having vocal microphones on stands on the stage, plugged into cables that connect to a mixing console located either on the stage or in front of it, where somebody is tasked with mixing the levels and equalizing the tones that then get sent to an amplification system, and finally to the loudspeakers you see on either side of the stage. That’s a simple “vocals-only” PA system in a nutshell.
If the mixing console is in front of the stage (also known as front-of-house or FOH), there is usually a person dedicated to operating it. This person usually (but not always) has an understanding of audio engineering and/or acoustics. A knowledgeable and dedicated sound engineer is like another member of the band in that he or she can really make or break the performance. Bands know to treat the sound engineer with respect and courtesy. Sometimes however (especially in restaurants and small bars) there is no house PA system, and the band needs to bring and operate their own. If you see a little mixing console right on the stage that one or more band members keep going over to and adjusting, and two smallish loudspeakers on tripod stands, then you know this is the case.
If the club is big enough, then the drums and even the backline amplifiers may need a boost to be heard well. In this case, special microphones may be set up over the drums, and in front of the amplifier cabinets and run back to the mixing console. With more inputs into the console comes more control over the overall mix, but it also comes with a cost of more complexity and more expense. If the backline amps are not miked into the console, then each band member is responsible for setting his or her instrument level right on the amplifiers behind them. And that imposes its own set of issues.
In order for the musicians not to get into a competition to see who can play the loudest (not generally good for the performance), they typically rely on a friend (or friendly bartender or even the club owner) to relay to them that something needs adjusting. They just cannot tell from their unique perspective on the stage, what they sound like as a whole to the crowd.
And then there is a little problem with the drummer in that he has no backline amplifier. He can only modulate his loudness by attacking the drums harder or softer. Although drummers in local bands usually know to do this from experience, it means they have to impact their performances to get their sound at the right level in the mix.
To play well, each musician has to be able to hear his or her individual performance, but in a good combination with the rest of the band. And this is difficult (if not impossible) to do on a stage crowded with performers and a row of backline amplifiers and cabinets—each blasting out but one instrument.
Which brings us to one of the optional additional capabilities of a PA system: the monitors. Some PA systems can route a special variant of the house mix back to amplified speakers on the stage in front of the performers (known as monitors or wedges) so the band members can hear approximately what the crowd hears. Some mixing consoles can route more than one monitor mix back to the stage, so perhaps the front man (lead vocalist or lead guitarist) can hear a little more of his own performance over the rest of the band. On high-end tours, each performer is likely to be fed his or her own personalized mix.
In a very large concert venue, you might even notice some engineers sitting at a second mixing console on the side of the stage. This secondary console is dedicated entirely to providing individual monitor mixes to the performers. These engineers closely watch the performers for hand signals indicating what they need in their monitor mix.
Some mixing consoles can also feed a multi-track recording deck to capture the performance. Or there might even be a third mixing console just dedicated to recording the performance.
Sometimes (especially at higher-end performances on large stages), in lieu of the big monitor wedges scattered around the stage, you might see musicians wearing in-ear monitors. These sophisticated earbuds give the musicians a carefully controlled personal mix and (importantly) allow the musicians to move around the stage at will, without being glued to a spot in front of their own amplifier cabinets or behind a stage monitor wedge. The lead vocalist and lead guitarist particularly enjoy the freedom to move around at will. Vocalists can then use a wireless handheld microphone or wear an over-the-ear wireless microphone freeing them up from having to stand in front of a microphone stand. The guitarists and bassist might opt for wireless connections for their instruments to their amplifiers or even straight into the console. You won’t see the stage cluttered up by amplifier cabinets and floor monitors (unless a performer wants to show off his Marshall Stack as a prop). At a recent Buddy Guy concert I attended, Buddy walked slowly up one aisle of the theater all the way to the back, across and then back down the other aisle, all the while playing a guitar solo. He gave much of the audience a unique experience of being able to be right next to him as he played (a big roadie of course accompanied him).
In summation, there are a number of factors influencing the quality of the sound coming from the stage to the audience. First off (obviously) the band has to perform well. Then they need to have their sounds mixed, equalized and amplified properly to get a consistent (and good) combination of their instruments and voices projected into the venue. And lastly, the venue needs to have at least a basic acoustic treatment to ensure sounds aren’t either being overly soaked up or echoing around wildly. It doesn’t take much to detract from a band’s otherwise dynamite performance.
Having started my involvement in filmmaking as a “sound guy” doing both production mixing/recording and post production sound editing, ADR and re-recording mixing, I have seen some changes over time with respect to the role of a dedicated sound person either in production recording or in post production. For some filmmakers, whether or not to have a dedicated production sound mixer has always been a modus operandi: some filmmakers tend to want to keep the production crew small and tight, and avoid the need to sync up sound files to video or film clips at the beginning of post production. Many filmmakers feel that there is no longer a need for a dedicated specialist to rig microphones and monitor levels. And on the post-production side, the primary editors have gained skills in sound editing, sufficient enough to warrant eliminating the need to lock the picture and then send it to a post sound person. There is some merit to the arguments that the entire filmmaking process can be tightened up by not having a dedicated sound person on crew. But there is also potential peril.
On the production side, it appears more and more often that a semi-experienced production crew member (sometimes a Production Assistant with nothing else to do) holds a boom microphone plugged directly into the camera. Technology is definitely a driver. In the early days of filmmaking, film cameras had no capability to record any sound at all—not even a guide track. And yes, I do go way back: to high school film class projects using a Bolex 155 (Super8) and college-level classes using a Bolex R16. And for sound, we used now-antique Nagra IV’s). When you hear a geezer talk about doing it “old-school”, pay attention and you might learn something about the history of filmmaking! We slated (both head and tail slates) liberally, and were fully expecting drift in those days. Post production was a completely different looking animal, replete with mechanical flatbed editing machines. We did the best we could to sync the soundtrack, but out-of-sync soundtracks was just par for the course in the early days of indie filmmaking and the audiences expected it. Not anymore! Nothing can kill the artistry of a film more than an out-of-sync soundtrack with crappy-sounding dialog.
But these days, camera sound recording capabilities have gotten so good, with 16 bit x 48 kHz audio file capability, XLR breakout boxes and physical gain control knobs built-in to many video cameras (almost nobody shoots to real celluloid anymore) that microphones are often just being plugged straight into the camera. There are even devices like the Sound Devices PIX series of recorders that can record both high definition video and multiple channels of high fidelity sound—in perfect sync! This alleviates the painstaking task of syncing video and audio in the first phase of post production editing. It also allows for instant review of a shot with both picture and sound already in sync (in the old days of Hollywood, the production mixer got the sound tapes to the editor at the end of each day’s shooting and then an assistant editor would do a quick and dirty sync up in order to show “dailies” to the director before going off for a few hours of sleep. In the Indie world the whole concept of dailies has been replaced by rewinding and playing back the footage from a video camera after each apparent “money” shot, to see if it really is the “money” shot, or if a safety take should be done.
If there is a “production sound person”, his or her role is often relegated to setting up lavaliere body mics and holding a boom-mounted mic plugged into the camera. The camera operator often is assigned the task of setting the initial audio levels. If there are no external gain controls then there is pretty much no hope of the camera operator making even a casual adjustment to the levels. While this strategy does “tighten up” the process of shooting a movie, it is not without issues and risks. First of all, the science of acoustics is complex, and while the person rigging the microphones for a low-budget Indie production doesn’t need to be an acoustics engineer, he or she should know the basic concepts of reflection, refraction and absorption of sound waves (as well as the DP needs to understand the same for light waves) in order to select the best microphone and placement technique and positioning. Nothing kills the quality of a a movie like echoic “sounds like it was recorded in a tunnel” dialogue. And then there’s a risk with the audio gain levels not being monitored and actively adjusted while the camera is rolling of clipping and dropouts when the dynamic range of a scene is wide (i.e. there’s shouting and whispering in the dialogue). It is asking too much of the camera operator to actively monitor audio levels while at the same time framing, focusing and moving the camera. At the very least, an external field mixer device should be used between the microphone(s) and the camera to allow a dedicated person to manage the audio levels. Using the automatic gain control setting on the camera’s audio inputs is not a good option for serious dialogue recording (except in guerrilla style run and gun and documentary filmmaking) as the sound often sounds artificially pumped and deflated. And finally, having a production sound specialist on set who understands the fundamentals of acoustics is a common-sense valuable commodity. This person will know which microphone to use in which situation, when and where sound blankets are needed, and where microphones should be placed to record the cleanest, clearest dialogue and minimize phase cancellation effects that can complicate post production and even ruin the dialogue to the point of requiring ADR sessions. You wouldn’t ask a Production Assistant to decide where to place a light or to style the lead actor’s hair. You shouldn’t relegate production sound duties to someone who is either under-qualified or too busy with the camera.
Technology is a driver as well on the post production side of things. Video editing software suites now include rather sophisticated sound editing and mixing capabilities. And the editors themselves are expanding their skills to include at least basic sound editing and mixing techniques. Often, the entire post production sound process is performed by the primary editor. Even when audio and video are not synced up in the camera or an A/V recording device, software such as PluralEyes makes an easy task of syncing the audio clips to the video clips using automated waveform analysis—as long as at least a crude guide track was recorded to the camera’s built-in microphones. The Indie post production sound specialist is without question becoming a rarity, just as jack-of-all-trades editors are becoming more commonplace. Very specialized audio problems such as difficult to fix noise in the audio track, may be turned over to one of these audio specialist for fixing. But even with noise removal, software applications (such as Noise Ninja, Lightroom, DeNoise, iZotope RX, etc.) are becoming more sophisticated each year. But sometimes, it takes a skilled human touch (and ear) to really polish and hone a professional soundtrack. Plus, the picture editor has so many other important tasks throughout post—often also being responsible for visual effects, title design, fixing things like shakes—without changing the timeline, and other tasks. It is often just good common sense to lock the picture and send it along with a rough soundtrack to a post production sound person for tuning and sweetening.
In conclusion, filmmakers should make a determination prior to the beginning of the production phase concerning what the needs of the production are. If the emphasis is on speed and agility (often the case in documentary filmmaking) and a small tight crew is a necessity (shooting in very confined conditions – like on a boat or in a car) then plugging one or two microphones into a camera with an external breakout box or an external A/V recording deck may be the best way to go. On the other hand, if you have the time and space and budget to have several camera and lighting guys on set, as well as maybe a script supervisor, makeup artist, hair stylist, set decorator, costumer, assistant director, production manager and a few PA’s for running gopher errands, then you really have little excuse for not bringing a dedicate production sound specialist on board to ensure the best quality audio is recorded on location. As for post production—you have the luxury of do-overs in post. If an audio editing attempt fails, the picture editor can simply undo and try again. Dedicated post sound guys may be called in for special problems and tasks. Filmmakers should always remember that sound is half of the artistic presentation, and that despite great writing, acting, directing, and cinematography, poor quality sound can ruin the entire feel of the movie. Filmmakers should not overlook the value of having sound specialists on board both during and after the production shooting.
RG December 2012