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.
The comparisons are obvious. The sound mixer is responsible for recording the sound for a film just as the Director of Photography is responsible for recording the picture. There are similar technical issues involved. Whenever I have to train a new boom operator, I tell him or her to think of the boom microphone as a “camera for sound”—you aim it correctly to frame the sound properly. And you move in and out, sideways, up and down, back and forth, with the camera to match the perspective. You have close up dialogue and wide angle dialog. It might not be as technically complex as being a camera operator, but the finished film quality is very dependent on the boom operator doing his or her job well.
And just as stray light can ruin a camera shot, stray sound can ruin the dialog. The sound mixer needs to scout the set, listening for air conditioner rumble, refrigerator hum, exterior traffic noises, and so on, and then think up solutions using sound blankets, or perhaps attaching omnidirectional body mics to get a closer, cleaner sound than the boom could get. Sometimes the choice of microphones and microphone locations can be daunting. The sound mixer has to come up with a sound plan, just as the DP helps the director come up with a shot plan. Sometimes, the perfect shot would put the actors in a position where a sound problem cannot be fixed (e.g. in front of a window where there is a dog barking outside in a neighbor’s yard). The director might decide to move to a secondary choice or might opt to shoot as is and loop the dialog later in an ADR session.
When I do production mixing on an unpaid gig, I tell the director I want to be including in pre-production meetings, and I want to see the shot list and storyboards so I can prepare. I do not want to just show up at crew call time and then have to ask the director or assistant director or DP just moments before the director calls for quiet on the set, what the blocking is, who the principal speaking actor is for a particular shot, and so on. If I’m being paid, I politely suggest this, but in the end, my reaction will be yes sir/no sir. Money does talk.
And speaking of money, I hear all the time that one reason DP’s should be paid is because of the substantial equipment investment they have made. Now I don’t disagree with that one, but have to tell you filmmakers that the production sound guy is right behind the DP in terms of equipment investment. Here’s a personal short list of mine (doesn’t include the innumerable cables, adapters, sound cart, folding chair, etc., and expendables like batteries):
Ten grand worth of gear to do a good job recording production sound on a variety of production types. And as mentioned, this doesn’t include all the miscellaneous accessories, adapters, cables, stands, cart, chair, batteries, etc. So we’re well over ten grand for a moderately sophisticated non-Hollywood production sound setup. And you do need this stuff to do a decent job. And sound guys have a lot of technical details to learn and to take care of. So when I argue that the sound guy should be paid if the DP is being paid, there is a very good reason for it. Now granted, a good DP possibly spends 2-3 times that much for his cameras, lenses and all those lights. But the issue is the same, if to a differing degree.
My own personal rationale for doing production sound (and I tell everyone who asks if I’ll work sound for them) boils down to one of three reasons:
- (a) I’m being paid for it.
- (b) It’s for a good friend who has done favors for me in the biz (found me paid work, etc.)
- (c) It’s a great script, it tells a wonderful story and/or sends an important message, the director treats me as a respected senior crew chief, includes me in pre-production planning meetings, location scouting, shot planning and/or other creative capacity such as script review, or maybe throws me an acting part (I am an aspiring actor as well). The one thing I don’t tolerate well is a director who lumps me in with the guy who brings the coffee or the gal who moves the chairs around.
For this latter option, it sort of implies I know the director and know he or she is talented and respectful. I always ask to see the script before I decide. I don’t want to waste my time and gear on a crappy home movie-ish shoot with a crappy script. And I will send my comments on the script back to the director to see what his or her response is (I am a writer as well). I am absolutely prepared to have a director tell me that they just want someone to do sound only and nothing more. That’s perfectly fine with me, but I will generally pass on working for free under those conditions.
In essence, a director can pay me in one of three ways: cash; being a good friend who has done favors for me; or including me as a respected senior creative team member or giving me an acting part. I don’t work for free, but I do have alternative payment plans.
Truth be told, I do see the Director of Photographer as far more of an artist than the sound guy. The DP really creates the image the director is looking for in telling the story. He or she uses light, exposure, camera motion, focus pulling, and a myriad of other techniques to set a mood and evoke a feeling in the viewer. The production sound guy just works tirelessly to faithfully record the on-set dialog and sound effects. So the latter (though invaluable to the finished art form) is more technician than artist.
But my parting thought is that any director who thinks he or she can get good production sound by having an idle production assistant aim a $150 shotgun mic screwed onto a boom pole and plugged into a Radio Shack pocket recorder is delusional. You will get what you pay for. That beautifully framed and lighted shot, that acting moment that took twelve takes to get right, that touching story beat, might just be destroyed by having the dialog sound like it was shot inside a tunnel.
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