I Can’t Help if You Won’t Listen

I got this email the other day:

Hi Mike,

My name is XXX. I’m close friends with ZZZ.
This coming Saturday I’ll be shooting a short interview/PSA .
They referred me to you in regards to renting or borrowing a mic for my 5D Mark II. 

Is that something you might be able to help with?

Best Regards,
XXX

I tried to explain that a 5D is not capable of recording professional quality audio and that in order to get good sound you need a second system or better yet, you need to hire a sound person:

Hi XXX, 

I believe the 5D has a 3.5 mm, tip-ring-sleeve jack that accepts mic-level signals from external sources. My mics are all XLR and require phantom power so they will not work with a 5D. With a 5D or a 7D or really any DSLR camera you need to have second system sound to get good audio. That means you need a mic and a separate recorder at a minimum.

Thanks,
Mike

Of course they don’t want to hear that their camera is a piece of shit when it comes to recording audio, because everyone knows that audio is simple, right? They don’t get that their camera costs less than one Lectro system or a couple of microphones and you need to know what you are doing to use it. So needless to say, my advice was not appreciated:

Hi Mike,

 Thank you for the information.
I’ll keep searching for a 5d solution. 

Cheers,
XXX

Ouch, that was a little bit cold.  I guess this person isn’t listening to me or just doesn’t like what I am saying. It’s true, though.  You need a second system, there is no such thing as a 5D solution. Why ask for an expert’s opinion if you aren’t going to listen to that opinion?

I actually felt bad so I looked around the Internet and found an article where someone uses a Sound Devices 302 and a Zoom to record to a 5D.
http://pandauprojects.com/resources/recording-broadcast-quality-audio-on-the-canon-5d-mark-ii-dslr-camera/

They make it work by turning off the AGC, overriding the pre-amps on the 5D and sending a line level signal from the 302. It actually does record to the 5D with the levels set to one click above off. You still can’t monitor levels and the article clearly states that you need a back up system, hence the Zoom and very clearly discusses the limitations of the 5D. I was hoping the person might actually read it and maybe they would believe it sonce another photographer wrote it and possibly realize, “hey…maybe I should think about hiring a sound person….I guess it might be more complex then I thought…”

So I get back:

Thanks Mike,

I was able to pin down another option through a friend and colleague of mine XXX. You
Might(sic) know him, he’s in XXX’s circle as well.  A great photographer too.
Turns out he has a setup for the 5D that he’s willing to loan.
Thank you for the links and information.

Warm Regards,
XXX

Probably a battery powered microphone with a 1/8th inch jack. Good luck with that, XXX, I am sure your client will be happy when the hiss from the microphone drowns out the interview dialog. I’m sure you can fix it in post.  I just can’t help you if you won’t listen. I’m glad we are at warm regards rather than cheers, though.

 

Sea Glass

Last night we we had our principal photography wrap party for Sea Glass, my thesis film made in collaboration with my partners, writer/director Caitlin Hofmeister and producer/production designer, Jeri Rafter.  I was producer, sound mixer, production accountant and am the principal editor and sound designer for the movie.

This short film represents a paradigm shift for the University of Montana’s MFA program.  Though not the first film made collaboratively, it is the first time that three grad students had such well defined and differing roles in a thesis project.  Because of our work together in 2011 on Winter in the Blood, we knew that we could work well together and all make large contributions creatively without stepping on each others toes.  It took some discussion with our professors to convince them that our partnership would actually result in all of us being freed up to work even harder and be more creative and would result in a much higher quality film than three separate “magnum opi”.  The best argument?  This is how movies are really made.

I am truly proud of all aspects of the film.  We did things right.  We took the time to find great locations, fantastic actors and raise money to rent HMI’s.  We took the time during production to get great performances.  I took time to make sure the audio is as good as possible (of course).  We had a talented and dedicated cast and crew.  Time will tell, but I feel like this film is going to be special.  The showcase will be May 10th, 2012.

An Open Letter from your Sound Department

originally published on filmsound.org

written by John Coffey, with help from Randy ThomJeff WexlerNoah TimanMike HallJohn Garrett, Scott Smith, Rob YoungMike FilosaWolf Seeberg,Darren BriskerCharles Wilborn,Todd RussellBrydon BakerLarry LongGlen TrewDave SchaafCharles Tomaras, Klay Anderson, Brian Shennan, Hans Hansen, David Marks, Bob Gravenor, Von VargaMark Steinbeck, Carl Cardin, Eric Toline, Joseph Cancila, Stu Fox, Peter DevlinMatt Nicolay and many others.

This letter is being written by audio professionals to help directors and producers understand how good sound can be recorded on the set. We want to help you make the best film possible.

For this piece, we will not discuss the topic of mixing itself, as this is the “hocus pocus” part that you trust us to do so well.

We want you to have information that will enable you to evaluate what is interfering with good sound, before a hasty decision is made that can harm the quality of your film’s sound. To help you make your decision you need to know about some of the obstacles that we sound people face, before we can even begin to get usable production sound on the set.

This is after all, the age day of digital sound. Theaters have wonderful THX (the audience IS listening) and SDDS with 5.1 surround. Home audio is often better than many theaters as a sophisticated audience demands DVDs with 24 bits. Yet, today’s sound at it’s source on set is suffering like never before.

THE PROBLEM

We, the sound crew, are the ones that you depend on to create and protect YOUR original sound tracks during production.

Unlike the work of the majority of the people who are working for on-camera results, the mixer’s efforts can not be “seen” on the set. Almost no one hears what the microphone picks up. Too few are sure just what we do. Only the most obviously bad noises are even brought up for discussion.

Included in our job is to monitor the sets for unnecessary, accidental, ignorant and sometimes even malicious actions or lack of actions that may compromise your sound track. To emphasize this point: WE DO THIS SO YOU WILL HAVE THE BEST TRACKS POSSIBLE; IT IS NOT FOR US.

We are too often frustrated by the state of conditions that now exist on most sets. Many times we are expected to solve all sound problems alone. Instead, this should always be a cooperative effort with the assistant directors and other crafts.

Sound mixers are often perceived as pests or even a hindrance to the film’s progress. We don’t like being put in this untenable position because it is humiliating and unnecessary. We don’t like to be considered adversarial to the rest of the production and we certainly don’t want to be the “sound police”!

A mixer on a tough show, who fights alone to get you good sound, stands a good chance of burning out from all the excuses and defenses put up. It’s hard to put it all out there without support. The temptation is to cave into the pressure and just go with the flow, and no good can come when that happens.

The problems that we face may lead you to believe that good sound cannot be achieved without set disruptions and added costs. This would not be necessary if reasonable measures are anticipated and endorsed by you both in pre-production and during production.

We know the limitations of our equipment. For example, microphones are just tools, they don’t make miracles happen. If on-set audio problems are not dealt with immediately, they will only be back to haunt you again in postproduction.

You can help us do a better job for you. Good sound can most often be achieved by using reasonable preparation to avoid pitfalls.

We need your understanding and your backing.

Continue reading “An Open Letter from your Sound Department”

The Secret of Good Sound

Getting good sound is not a secret.  It’s simply understanding everything about your role and performing your role very well.

The sound recordist’s role:

  1. Placing the microphones.
  2. Operating the recorder.
  3. Making sure the recording quality is good.

That’s it, really.  If you do those three things right you will get good sound.  The problem is doing those things right takes a hell of a lot of knowledge, experience and skills.  The other problem is what works on one shoot doesn’t necessarily work on other shoots.

1. Placing the microphones:

  • In general, you need to place the microphone as close to the talent as possible.  This is very important.
  • Start with the mic in the frame and make your DP yell at you. Move it slowly out of frame so YOU know where the frame ends.
  • When booming, boom from above with the microphone angled downward aimed at the talent’s mouth.
  • Know and follow the dialog.
  • Know the blocking.
  • Line up the mic with some reference point so you can keep it close to the talent through whatever blocking happens in the shot.

2. Operating the recorder:

  • Use balanced cables for your connections
  • Bit rate set to at least 16 bits, 24 bits is better
  • Sample rate at least 44.1, preferably at least 48kHz
  • Set the level as high as possible without clipping.  Peaks should be about -6 dbFS
  • Know your recorder

If your recorder doesn’t have these capabilities, you need a new one.

3. Making sure the recording quality is good:

  • LISTEN.  To everything.  Most important.
  • Good headphones are a must. (closed ear pads)
  • Play some of the clips back, verify levels.
  • Communicate issues immediately.

Simple, right?  Not exactly, but that’s the secret in a nutshell.  Use the right mic, get the mic close, set the levels correctly, follow the dialog and communicate issues.

Upcoming posts are going to go into specific details about:

  • What microphone to use and why.
  • Recorders, mixers, accessories.
  • Boom Technique.
  • Headphone reviews.
  • Acoustic properties of rooms and treatment.
  • Audio theory 101.

Other topics:

  • Synching second system audio.
  • In-camera audio recording.
  • Audio bags and accessories.
  • Editing audio.
  • Audio Software.

And, of course, anything else you want to see discussed on Production Audio Pro.

Pity the Poor Sound Recordist

I think in some way DP’s (Directors of Photography) have it easier than sound recordists although I know all my DP friends are shaking their heads right now.  But consider this – if you don’t like what’s in the frame, you can just move the camera or come in tighter – problem solved.   Unfortunately there is no such thing as a zoom microphone. You still hear what’s not in the frame.  Even though bad sound can ruin a move MORE than bad video, no one really notices or appreciates good sound.   They only comment when there is a problem.  So why do it?  That is a great question.  Here’s why I love production audio:

  • It’s an art – you have to be an artist.
  • It’s challenging, every set has different issues.
  • Audio equipment doesn’t become obsolete every three years.
  • You are right in the action with the director, the camera operator and the actors.
  • Good sound can make or break a movie and good directors and producers know this.

The other thing about audio I love is it is often a one-person job.  Although you are part of a collaborative production unit, on a small production or indy film, a single skilled person can boom and mix at the same time.  You have great responsibility for your work, since there is no one else to blame which I find very rewarding.  You have to be good to survive.