Production sound mixers around the globe are discovering an ever-changing landscape when they are asked to capture on-set dialogue in challenging environments while utilizing technology that is rapidly evolving. Moreover, these audio pros are working on sets and locations saturated with RF signals that offer a unique set of issues, and they must find methods of working with the new HD camera setups that capture both audio and video.
That said, the mixers who are responsible for capturing the actors’ dialogue tracks (most foot, door, car, explosion and gun noises are replaced in audio post-production) are providing some of the best sound ever in film and television, thanks to an assortment of digital recorders, mixers, wireless systems and other equipment needed on the set.
Indeed, the latest uptick in digital tools –– from digital audio workstations to mixers and recorders –– has enabled mixers to record dialogue and save time and money in post-production. Case in point: Heath Ledger’s scenes in The Dark Knight were recorded so well on set by the production’s sound team that no additional dialogue recording sessions or fixes were required after the actor’s untimely death.
Determining the most crucial tool needed for great audio is a bit like trying to solve the chicken-and-egg riddle. Most mixers working in the field know that they must utilize the best equipment (that they can afford or is available) to get the job done. One thing working in their favor is that manufacturers have dedicated ample research and development dollars to create exceptional technology ––it is now just up to personal preference.
Peter Schneider, VP at Gotham Sound & Communications, Inc., a leading rental house in New York City, reports that mixers already have a few favorites. For recorders, the Sound Devices 788T, Zaxcom Fusion and Aaton Cantar are on top of the list. “Those three are being used on reality shows where there are seven to eight people that they are looking to track,” he explains. “Shows like “The Hills” or “The City” where there is no sound cart and the mixer needs to record multi-track basically over the shoulder.”
While the 788T and Cantar are also being used on larger sets, Schneider adds that many sound mixers are utilizing multiple Fostex 824 recorders with back up software like the Metacorder or Boom Recorder to capture audio on film sets.
Over the years, recorder technology has evolved from analog tape to DATs to digital, and, while some miss the warmth of analog (especially when recording sound effects), there’s no doubt that digital is now the only way to go. “It’s very clear to me that [non-linear recording] is the way we should be working,” says production sound mixer Drew Kunin. “The entire industry is very much taken to the concept of non-linear recording and the way we can directly input into editing programs, whether it’s Avid or Final Cut. The whole process becomes so much more streamlined.” He adds that the move from DAT to digital was fairly rapid because the old technology was not beloved: “It wasn’t like film or the Nagra. People were dying to get rid of DAT machines, and the advantages are so clear-cut, both economically and efficiency-wise.”
The move to digital audio workstations means that mixers have become more like computer techs than audio pros. “We’ve redefined our work,” says Richard Lightstone, CAS. “All of the four major manufacturers have systems that we use to record onto hard drives in multi-track situations. We’re much more computer savvy than ever — playback now comes off computers. It’s a brand-new world and that has its problems when you do these remote-type shoots where you have to compress the package but still deliver the sound like we can now.”
Using the proper recorder is crucial for these mixers because the goal is to capture the cleanest audio without adding effects or EQ-ing the track. “You don’t want to do anything in production that makes it more difficult for or cuts the options of the people that are working on the movie in sound editorial,” says Jeff Wexler, CAS. “Everything that I do is designed to serve the movie, including all of the people in post-production.” Keep in mind that an on-set mixer needs to listen to the track via headphones. “It’s not the perfect listening environment to make critical decisions on what you’re doing in terms of equalization or filtering,” he says. “If you make a mistake and take out some low end on the production track, which is the master, it will be thin when the people in post-production get it. There is very little they can do to bring that low end back, so I have not served the production by doing that.”
Yet, there are times when a collection of ambient tracks provides interesting color for projects like documentary films. “Multi-track recorders, like the [Sound Devices] 744 that I use, gather a lot of interesting incidental material,” says mixer Dan Gleich. “It’s a lot for the editor and filmmaker to comb through later, but I’ve often found that in my notes I’ve written down things that are happening off-camera. I’m able to cast a wider net, and, especially in documentaries, production sound is tremendously important.”
Of course, recorders are just part of the toolbox. Mixers are unique in their choices of on-set microphones, but all agree that the key requirement is the mic’s ability to pick up a voice in a sea of noise. While there are dozens upon dozens of microphone manufacturers, the ones most consistently named by production sound mixers are Sennheiser, Sanken, Danish Pro Audio (DPA), AKG and Neumann.
No matter the type of job they are recording, mixers from coast to coast prefer using boom microphones to get necessary tracks. A track recorded via a boom mic is richer and deeper, and better able to capture the actor’s performance as it mixes with the ambiance of the environment.
When working on a set where film is being used, boom operators know what it takes to help production sound mixers get the job done. However, according to Lightstone, boom operators who work on sets with HD technology can experience some physically daunting days. “With HD, the director can keep going back over takes,” he explains. “Each reel is 40 minutes, so [the director] can keep trying to get the scene right, and that puts a lot of stress on the camera operator, the focus puller and the boom operator. You work a lot more intensely for a longer period of time.
“From a health point of view, boom operators are being forced to hold a boom for as long as half an hour between takes,” he continues. “That’s an incredible stress and it’s going to wear people out a lot earlier. Also, because sets have been built differently and because we’re shooting more on location, the portable boom on a stand with wheels is almost impossible to get on the set. So we’re faced with a whole different style of working that has created a lot more stress on every department, frankly.”
The easy answer for this problem (though not the best for getting good sound) is using a wireless microphone with a wireless transmitter and receiver. Schneider from Gotham Sound believes that the use of wireless systems is one of the two most important things production sound mixers have to master in the next year. (The second is increasing their knowledge of how the new crop of HD cameras will work in editorial, especially when it comes to matching the time code between recorder and camera.)
When it comes to wireless systems, names like Lectrosonics, Sennheiser, Shure, Sony and Zaxcom top the list. Lightstone uses Lectrosonics SM transmitters with two racks of 411 receivers, but he’s now looking to upgrade to a pair of Venue widebands. Drew Kunin added a Lectrosonics Venue System to his cart in 2008. “It was originally made by Lectrosonics for installations in churches and theaters where you would mount one in a rack and then put the transmitters on a performer,” he explains. “It was an economical way to get a lot of new wireless technology, and the new system is powered for portable use.” Zaxcom, a company already well known by mixers, is becoming a more popular choice on set as it continues to improve its line of TRX wireless microphone transceivers.
Another tool making the transition from analog to digital is the mixer itself. There are many that continue to utilize consoles, such as the Cooper Sound Systems 208 and the SONOSAX SX-S. Schneider reports that Gotham rents a fair share of analog boards from Audio Development, but the demand is growing for digital boards from TASCAM, Yamaha and Professional Sound Corporation, who have been working on the Solice audio mixer for some time (the original November 2008 release date has been pushed back to an unannounced time).
To be sure, mixers across the board are going to be watching gear, technique and workflow developments closely over the next year, especially as more and more shows are filmed and recorded in HD. There are already a handful of mixers who have found ways to always capture pristine production sound, even while working with the physical limitations of HD shoots where the camera is basically tethered to the recorder.
Of course, while an HD shoot is a challenge, it is a welcome one. After all, production sound mixers will continue to deliver pristine audio as their work processes improve and as manufacturers continue to release products that will make everyone’s job easier.
Audio Development www.audio.com.uk
Gotham Sound & Communications, Inc. www.gothamsound.com
Sound Devices www.sounddevices.com