Tuesday, August 4, 2015

MKH 50 or MK41? Beef or Chicken?

If you're trying to decide beef or chicken for your wedding, sorry, this is not the place, I have no insight for you. I lied! I lied!!!! In fact, beef and chicken are poor representations of the Sennheiser MKH 50 and the Schoeps MK41. I apologize to everyone. It's always a good sign when the header includes an apology...

Anyways, this is the battle of them all right now, it seems. Arguably, the two best and most popular hypercardioid microphones for use with dialogue on a boom pole, or a pistol grip or heck, I don't care what you do with it, frankly, it's none of my business. I personally love to use hypers for indoor talking heads, or working with improvisation; they are great microphones to use when you're sure you can get them within about 2 feet of the speaker's mouths if not closer. I won't lie, I do get pretty excited when camera gives me 10 inches. No one seems to know which mic to go with, the Sennheiser MKH 50 or the Schoeps MK41. I know plenty of people have gone with the Schoeps because, well ... it's a Schoeps, and Schoeps is Schoeps, because well... they're Schoeps. Still with me? No? Good.

The MK41 may have also won some sales due to it's small size and it's convenient swivel mount. I'll say this now, the MK41 with the CMC6 powering module costs a good chunk more than the Sennheiser MKH 50, another very popular hypercardioid microphone, in case you've never heard of it and skipped my first two terrible paragraphs. So a few of us sound nerds (Michael Moote and Allistair Johnson) got together and A/B'd the two microphones for our own secretive pleasure. The end. No podcast, no video. That is all. Good bye... Until 6 months later, I gave in. You're welcome. Below are a few of those tests. Give them a listen, see what you think, keep reading for my own opinion and experiences or don't, again, I really don't care what you do; you clicked on this page and I have already won :)

WARNING!: This will be the darkest microphone test you'll ever listen to. Sorry for the content, don't think about it all night.

It was our general consensus that despite the two microphones sounding extremely similar and great at that, that the MKH 50 was a bit more bassy, had slightly longer reach and we felt the Schoeps MK41 may have had a slightly wider pickup. Below is a comparison of the two with a TV on in the background to see how the mics dealt with background sound, particularly voices.

Again, it was tough to tell the difference, but if anything, it seemed to us as though perhaps the MK 41 had better isolation of the intended sound source but slightly more coloration of off axis sounds, however, that's really for anyone to decide; it's so close. For kicks and giggles, we also decided to compare these two mics to the Sennheiser MKH 60 to see how they'd mix with it and compare to a supercardioid. With all this political talk going on, I've ran out of opinions on things in general. So you're on your own for this one.

After performing these tests, fellow Mixer Allistair Johnson who was present with us, albeit watching Breaking Bad, decided to purchase a Sennheiser MKH 50. My stubborn keister waited maybe 4 months to add a hypercardioid to my kit but I also went with the MKH 50. Oh, look, one more opinion popped up: I find the Sennheiser MKH 50 to be THE go-to interview mic. It's great for those indoor sit-down interviews, good for b-roll ambience in or outdoors and great for tighter shots for narrative. Compared to the more direct Sennheiser MKH 416 and the Neumann kmr81i, the 50 seems to noticeably reject background sound more when placed as close as 10 inches from the mouth (standard talking head frame). I've used the 50 on 2 person interviews and in a quiet environment, it sounds ok. I would have preferred something a bit wider so I could place it closer to their mouths while staying on axis though. I also used it in a 2 person interview in the middle of a live loud restaurant and understandably, it was not a great mic for that situation (unexpected change of locations) but it did still make the voice sound good in the lively restaurant.

I used the Schoeps CMC441 recently on a documentary shoot and I really felt the 41 had less range than what I'm used to with the 50, but once in there, it does sound sweet. Also, for your reference, when purchasing a powering module for the MK 41, the CMC6 is the newer module and has improved greatly upon the CMC4 which I did experience quite a bit of RFI from it on my documentary shoot. Schoeps claims the CMC6 is stronger against interference with its "low impedance and balanced form".

BONUS BATTLE! Before we played with the MK41, we had a Wild Card round with the 50 against the less popular, more affordable Neumann KM185. You'll notice the differences between the mics more in this test than you did between the 50 and 41.

The 185 didn't sound too bad when about 1 foot from the mouths, but once we moved the mics away, it became very clear that the MKH 50 had noticeably more range making the 185 a potentially difficult mic to use in narrative or documentary; really anything but talking heads. The 50 sounded more bassy and sexier to me as the 185 sounded more natural but a bit tinny. Mr. Moote claimed it made his voice sound "nasaly" but that could just be a poor man's excuse for a nasally voice :)
I used the 185 on a shoot when I was doing some b-roll ambience and it was fine for that; it had a wide pickup pattern, sounded natural and had very little off axis coloration. However, I felt that the MKH 50 would mix better with my Neumann kmr81i than the Neumann km185 would. I have the recordings of an A/B/C comparison of the 50, 416 and Neumann kmr81i, perhaps I'll share them one day but for now, you'll have to take my word for it. If these tests don't satisfy you and you think I'm full of crap, this site has some other great samples of these mics and others as well: www.keystone.net courtesy of Dan Brockett.

Also, to answer the other deep question half of you have; Beef, all the way, go with Beef. Some of my hungry friends and I recorded a video of us eating beef and chicken but our fat fingers couldn't seem to press the stop button and the tape rolled out or something technical. Enjoy.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Lectrosonics SRb vs UCR411a SxS test HrGA Bagalllo...3.1

Many Sound Mixers use Lectrosonics wireless systems in their audio bags on location. Many are currently using the single channel UCR411a receivers but many also use the dual channel SRb's. It's tough to say one is a "better" choice than the other or is more industry standard but we ran some side by side tests comparing the two.

Lectrosonics claims that the "SRb is very similar in range to a 411a and definitely better than an SRa. In very tough RF environments, 411a is still superior." So, a few of us Sound geeks got together in Brooklyn, NY and ran this side by side test in Block 20 using an SMQV going into an SRb and a UCR411a set to the same frequency. Below are the two tests we ran; the first being a romantic long walk down the block with the lovely Sound Mixer Allistair Johnson roughly 100 feet with line of sight. The SRb is the left track and the 411a is on the right track.

With the second test, we sent our other victim, Sound Mixer Michael Moote around the corner and across the street, risking getting hit by a bus apparently. The SRb is the left track again with the 411a on the right track.

The major differences between the Lectrosonics UCR411a and the SRb are physical and design; The SRb is dual channel as opposed to single channel, acting as two receivers in one unit; this unit is not double the size of the 411a, rather it is smaller in weight and volume. It also costs much less than the cost of 2 UCR411a's making it arguably much more efficient than the 411a, especially being in similar quality as an RF receiver. However, the difference in design and quality is highlighted by the addition of a high quality front end tracking filter on the UCR411a. 

The SR series receivers and the 401 receiver do not have a front end tracking filter. When it comes to range, it's not the receiver that gives better range, rather, the transmitter and many other factors that come into play. However, the design of the receiver will effect the capture of that signal, and how that signal is amplified, processed and sent into the mixing/recording device. The front end tracking filter of the UCR411a with its high power gain stages "produces a receiver that is unusually immune to single and multiple interfering signals close to the operating frequency and in addition strongly rejects signals that are much farther away." So in other words, the difference in quality between the SRb and the 411a should not be found in range, rather in situations where you have DC-DC power converters running physically close to your receivers and wireless transmitters in the same block also physically close to your receivers. Also, if there is a facility such as a TV station, Military base, airport, cell phone testing facility, etc., you may have more RF issues with the SRb than the UCR411a. In addition, with the FCC taking away more and more of our frequency bands from us Sound Mixers, we are being forced to run more wireless in the same block. The UCR411a would be better with this as it has added individual (12) transmission line resonators with variable capacitance to keep out the RF noise. This allows "each resonator to be individually tuned by the microprocessor for any user selected frequency in a 25 MHz band."

In our test, we had the SRb and the 411a going into a SD 633 running off of a battery distro system in the bag. Nothing else in the bag was powered on. We did have our cell phones on us and were set up next to a telephone pole on the sidewalk in residential Bedstuy Brooklyn, NY during business hours. So this may not have been the most challenging setup to test the front end tracking filter of the UCR411a but we did notice differences in the two. The 411a seemed to hold a usable signal a bit longer than the SRb. The SRb also dropped out completely at one point and seemed to have RF noise more consistently when both receivers were having major RF issues. In my own experiences owning an SRb and a few UCR411a's, I do not notice many if any quality differences in the field working primarily in NYC. They are both top of the line units and with a thoughtful design in your bag, it should not be too difficult to avoid having any hops in the same block as your body mics and to keep the battery distribution system as far as possible in the bag along with your cell phone powered off or not in the bag at all. I am currently on a show where we have SRb's in the bags with SMV transmitters for hops and IFBs. I haven't had any issues yet but the Sound Supervisor told me he lost signals from the SRb's in the past with this setup because of the transmitters. I told him that's the difference between the two. With that said, I have run 7 UCR411a's in the same block in the same bag with another 7 in the same block in the other A1's bag on the same set and we had several major intermodulation issues with our own units being in the same block. So the 411a's front end filter is not a perfect solution to intermodulation at this time, but then again, who's idea was it to have 14 body mics in the same block running simultaneously in the same room in Midtown Manhattan?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Lectrosonics and Sennheiser G3 Sitting in a Tree (Wireless Compatibility)

Some people don't think Sennheiser and Lectrosonics units can play with each other but that is false. I was recently on a shoot where I needed to use a plug on transmitter in a busy RF environment. This was a last minute request from production so I had to make due with what I had which was a Sennheiser SKP100 plug on transmitter Range A with its EK100 G3 receiver. I also had a Lectrosonics UCR411a in Block 20 which overlaps with Range A. I used the SKP100 with the UCR411a to help eliminate as many RF issues as I could and I had no problems in the field that day.

In order for the UCR411a to receive the signal from the Sennheiser unit, I changed the compatibility mode on the UCR411a from "400" to "M3" meaning "emulation 3". I then decided to test this theory side by side for us curious folk to see the difference between the G3 receiver and the UCR411a using a Sennheiser SKP100 transmitter. The G3 Rx is on the left track while the UCR411a is on the right track. Please use stereo headphones to hear hear the difference.

I was very surprised how well the SKP100 did. I walked quite far onto another floor of the building, landing as far as above the back corner of the unit across from the apartment unit in which I started. A hospital is a few blocks away from here as well. Regardless, it is clear that the UCR411a, albeit not perfect, captured and processed the signal much better than the G3 receiver in terms of RF. I also performed the car key test in that as well. In case you're unfamiliar with the key test, if you jingle a set of metallic car keys in front of the microphone on a wireless system, the high frequency supersonic sounds the keys produce (peaking at around 30 kHz) tests the wireless system's input limiter, and its compandor's attack and decay times.
"On a system that fails the key test, however, strong sibilants won’t have a clear, open quality but will instead have a muffled sound as if someone’s EVALUATING WIRELESS MICROPHONE SYSTEMS hand has been put between the mouth and the mic." ~ Lectrosonics.com
Many wireless systems fail this test which results in almost unnoticeable, but apparent distortion of the higher frequency sibilants in the sound source you are trying to capture whether it's music, voice, ambience, sound effects, etc. The Sennheiser SKP100 going into the Lectrosonics UCR411a passed this test quite well, however that SKP100 going into its Sennheiser G3 receiver failed this test miserably. So you'd think the Sennheiser G3 receiver is what is not up to par here, but stay tuned for the test below. So if you don't need the range of Lectrosonics, do keep in mind that the quality of the sound being processed by the Sennheiser wireless is not up to par with Lectrosonics and I'm refusing to go more into detail on other differences in sound quality between the two.

I then did the same test using a Lectrosonics SMQV as opposed to the Sennheiser SKP100 in order to see the difference between the SMQV and the SKP100. For these tests, I wish I was in a more challenging RF environment, for once in my life, but regardless, the test is below and again the G3 is left channel with the UCR411a on the right channel:

Both receivers received the signal similarly in this test. The SMQV seemed to transmit a stronger signal than the Sennheiser SKP100 but not by a long shot in this scenario. However, I used to use G3s even along side Lectros before upgrading to the Lectrosonics primarily for more range and am very confident that in a more challenging RF environment, the Lectros would quickly and clearly outperform the G3s in range if not in more categories. But what is interesting about this test is that both receivers didn't seem to have an issue with the car keys. Previously, the G3 receiver failed miserably, but with the SMQV transmitter, it was fine. So in some cases, it's better to mix the two systems rather than using, well, G3 Tx's with G3 Rx's. And there we have it, the two brands not only playing together but arguably playing together better than with themselves. I may lose street cred for saying this, but they are in fact, sitting in a tree, K I S S I N G.

Soon I'll be testing the Lectrosonics UCR411a with the Lectrosonics SRb and comparing the two in depth.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Wireless Transmitter Power Table

There are plenty of other specs to compare when it comes to wireless transmitters but one of the most significant is looking at the amount of power a transmitter can output while sending a signal to the receiver. Lets compare a few tiers of common wireless units in the sound field: Comtek m-216 IFBs send an audio signal outputting 10mW (milliwatts) of power. Sennheiser G2s use 20mW, G3s: 30mWZaxcom QIFB option of QRX100 (older version) along with some older Lectrosonics units send signals at 50mW. Some of the older and even newer Lectrosonics send signals at 100mW. The most common Lectrosonics transmitters these days are the SMV series. "V" meaning "variable" as in a variable power. The SMQV can send signals at 50mW, or 100mW or even 250mW, which is pretty much only necessary for very long distance in crowds such as the national anthem on the center of a football field at a stadium with tens of thousands of fans with their phones, coaches with their headsets, security with their walkies and officials with their wireless mics. For the record, the Zaxcom TRXLA2 can output variable power of 25, 50, or 125mW. Of course, the more power it outputs, the quicker it drains batteries.

IFB Transmitters:

Comtek M-216: 10mW
Sennheiser EW 300 IEM: 10, 30mW
Shure PSM 300: 10, 20, 30mW (selectable)
Zaxcom QRX100 QIFB option: 50mW
Zaxcom ZaxNet IFB200: 75mW
Zaxcom TRX900Shure PSM 900, Shure PSM 1000: 10, 50, 100mW (selectable)
Lectrosonics IFBT4: 250mW

Body Transmitters:

Sennheiser EW 100 G2: 20mW
Shure FP Series: 10-30mW (varies by region)
Sennheiser EW 100 G3: 30mW
Shure LX Series: 50mW
Zaxcom TRXLT2, Lectrosonics LMb, LMa: 50mW
WisyCom MTP41, MTP40, MTP40 Lite: 10, 50mW (selectable)
Lectrosonics SSM: 25, 50mW (selectable)
Lectrosonics UM400a, UM200, SMd or SMDa, MM: 100mW
Lectrosonics LT: 50, 100mW (selectable)
WisyCom MTP40S: 10, 50, 100mW (selectable)
Zaxcom TRXLA2: 25, 50, 125mW (selectable)
Lectrosonics SMQa: 250mW
Lectrosonics WM, SMV or SMQV: 50, 100, 250mW (selectable)

Plug-On (Boom) Transmitters:

Sennheiser SKP100, SKP3000: 30mW
Sennheiser SKP300: 10, 30mW (selectable)
Lectrosonics HM, UH400a: 100mW
Zaxcom TRX742: 25, 50, 125 mW (selectable)

Radio Frequency: Go Long!

So much can be said about wireless technology in location sound operations, so I'll keep this discussion fairly focused. When discussing the quality, strengths and differences between a wireless system, most make comparisons at the transmitter level, which makes sense; the transmitter is the one with the signal that needs to be sent through a field of obstacles. The transmitter is comparable to your Quarterback and one of the most important factors of that Quarterback or Transmitter is the power it can send a signal (Click here for my table of power outputs for popular wireless systems). However, what is often overlooked is the Receiver.

I used to use Sennheiser G3s as my body mics due to their value with a professional quality in an affordable price. But it was too often that I would lose a signal once someone leaves the room or turns a corner or sometimes is just surrounded by a bunch of extras. So I upgraded my wireless systems to Lectrosonics using primarily SMQv's as the transmitters and UCR411a's as the receivers. The 411a's are Lectrosonics top pride in quality receivers. They are simply bullies in the RF field. However, they do cost a pretty penny and are very bulky in an already heavy bag I lug around. So, in order to save space in my audio bag and save my back from unnecessary strain, along with relieving my bank account, I considered investing in Lectrosonics' SRb dual channel receiver. Instead of buying two more 411a's, I've got 1 SRb sitting in the bag saving more than 4x the amount of weight (~1.5lbs saved per SR) and more than double the space. But I don't like to compensate quality. Lectrosonics claims that the SRb is a comparable equivalent to the UCR411a in quality, but not equal to. The 411a has a front end filter of 11 MHz wide as compared to the SRb being a full block of 25 MHz wide (narrower is better), with no tracking filter. So I A/B compared the two in a walking test with a few sound buddies, Mike Moote and Allistair Johnson.

SMQv @100mW in car behind car,
411a on me, clear signal
We threw a DPA 4071 on Allistair connected to an SMQv in block 20 and configured an SRb and a UCR411a in the same frequency to see who would drop out first. We sent Allistair on a walk outside and down the street in Brooklyn, NY. I'd say he got about 150-200 feet before the SRb started having some bad hiss and clicks. After only a few more steps, the UCR411a would consistently have minor hissing from the weak signal. We sent him further including around the building corner and they both started having dropouts. Consistently the 411a had a stronger signal and a bit more range. In some circumstances, that hiss from the 411a may be usable if it's a crucial scene for reality or documentary as the SRb's signal may not have been usable. However, in most of my applications, once we started hearing that weak signal hiss, both were unusable in my eyes and we only started hearing that just maybe two steps further. So, already having a few 411a's in my bag, I decided to invest in an SRb, which will become more necessary when the FCC bans our use of blocks 24 and up, limiting us basically to blocks 20-22. I've been told that running wireless in the same block is better quality through an SRb rather than two 411a's as they'll play nicer when they're designed to (I hope someone can confirm this for me) and when you have 4-6 body mics, a wireless boom, 4+ monitoring IFBs, and 2+ wireless camera hops all being limited to 3 frequency blocks, everyone will need to play nice in the tiny play pin to which the FCC will be limiting us. However, there are plenty of creative ways to fight RF.

Other than setting up Shark Fins, the best ways to keep a strong signal may be the obvious methods of keeping transmitters and receiver antennas pointed up and high in the sky. It's obviously important to keep the distance of the two at a minimum but some may not realize how much getting closer helps. If I can get my receiver twice as close, i.e. from 50 feet away to 25 feet away, that does not double my signal strength; it quadruples it. So even if I can only get 5 feet closer, that's in a sense getting 10 feet closer and could certainly make the difference. Another thing many people don't realize is when setting up your transmitters at the beginning of the day, some people line them up side by side. Try to avoid doing this.
If you do this, make sure only one unit is on at a time or that the antennas are aligned head to toe, alternating; Tx 1 antenna pointed north, Tx 2 antenna pointed south, Tx 3 antenna pointed north and so on. Otherwise, the transmitters will mess each other up even when separated, sorry for a lack of technical terminology here. Turning phones off and staying away from heavy currents such as ballists are a few more obvious things to remember but when it comes to IFBs, I found a method I started using pretty regularly.

Working on a feature film, we had some locations where our video village was watching the scene from downstairs. Camera ran a boat load of BNC down the stairs but I had to send them a wireless feed for sound. I was using Comtek 216s. These only emit 10mW of power to send the audio signal. This is 1/25th of what my body mics can do. So, I took the term "wireless hop" and used it literally. Instead of sending my signal through the floor which has plenty of interfering wires and insulation in it, I sent a signal to the bottom of the staircase using a Sennheiser G2 at 20mW, and connected that receiver to a Comtek m-216 transmitter which then sent the signal from the staircase to the room next door at video village. Problem solved, and I used this method on other sets where video village was outside or at the other end of the building.

Whatever is more important in your situation, difference in size, range, or price, there are nearly endless specifications when it comes to wireless technology in this field but finding creative ways to get that signal from your Quarterback to Receiver as clean as possible is always in play.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

SD 688 Preview

Sound Devices just announced a new mixer/recorder earlier today: the SD 688. It's part of the 6-series mixers and is basically 2 664s placed in the same package with some of the firmware of the 633 and a few other options and features. The 688 is only in pre-order phase right now but around St. Patrick's day (March 17, 2015), it should be available for shipping in the US. I'm not here to tell you everything about it because obviously I don't know more about it than what you can find online but I will tell you my opinion of it and where I think it fits in the industry, being a SD 664 mixer myself.

First off, the big difference in the 688 and any other SD mixer is that it has 12 true inputs without the necessity of an additional fader controller such as the CL-6 or CL-8. It has 6 mic inputs and 6 line inputs (for which you would need to boost the gain tremendously or buy pre-amps for each of the 7-12 inputs and the faders for these are miniature similar to the ch 4-6 on the SD 633). The 664's ch 7-12 mixing capabilities without the CL-6 are very unfriendly and remind me of mixing on the Tascam DR-680 having to hit a button then sharing a tiny knob with 6 inputs to mix. The 688 looks like it's meant to go in the bag as opposed to being designed for table/cart use. Twelve inputs is simply too many for bag work. Try mixing AND MANAGING 12 inputs yourself on a reality show and possibly booming as well. It's not how the industry works, nor should it work. Anything more than 8 inputs in the field definitely means more than one field mixer. So, with that, the SD 788t sounds to me to be the largest SD mixer needed for field work. However, the 688 costs about $1,400 less than a 788 and seems to actually be a much better design, including the cleaner menu system. With the 788, many bag mixers add a CL-8 onto it in order to have faders for the inputs rather than just gain knobs which is going for another $1,221 (brings you to about $2,621 price difference from 788 to 688) and adds 35% of the weight of the 788 from 3.75 lbs to just over 5.07 lbs without batteries. This is heavier than the 688, only at about 4.87 lbs and the 664 at 4.75 Lbs (All heavy for a bag in my books. The SD 633 is 2.56 lbs naked giving you 6 inputs more or less).

So the 688 has 4 more inputs than the 788, weighs 0.2 lbs less (with cl-8 faders) and essentially costs roughly $2,600+ less and seems to have more new features and a cleaner menu system. However, it does cost about $900 more than a 664 and weighs 0.12 lbs more but essentially has double the faders without having to purchase a CL-6 (another $1,221 and 1.34 lbs) meaning if you need more than 6 inputs with faders, it's more affordable and more beneficial to use an SD 688 than an SD 788t or an SD 664 with CL-6. However, the 688 has more innovative features that are more or less new.

The SD 688 has mix assist which sounds like a great feature but I'm curious as to how helpful it really is and how much its algorithm/intelligence works similarly to a real sound mixer. I mean, the Zoom H4n has auto-mix and that really only is like an abusive limiter generally playing the levels low on the safe side. The 688 also has 8 direct outputs which is more than a 664 (6 direct outs) and they can be adjusted through the menu system as pre or post-fade.

But one of the biggest innovations to the SD 688 is the SL-6 which won't be available until Summer 2015. The SL-6 is essentially a 6 channel wireless system with a BDS system built inside. You can place an NP-1 battery in the back of this and power multiple additional units from the SL-6. This SL-6 also cleans up the bag, loses cable weight and saves time on shoots with rental gear by virtually having no cables going from the SL-6's 6 channels of wireless to the 688. This is great, however, it does add weight to the bag (not finding a number anywhere) and only houses 6 channels (3 SRb's for example); this is a 12 input mixer, so if all 12 inputs are being used, I'd imagine at least 10 of those are wireless, so you would still need to have a few more receivers somewhere else in the bag and hook those up to the mixer with cables and hook it up to the SL-6 for power.

There's a few other little features that the 688 has that are new such as Power Safe, and Quick Boot. One of its features, though, is the capability to record 192 kHz WAV files which is not possible on the 664 and only possible for 4 tracks on the 788. Anything above 48kHz is not at all useful for standard dialogue recording, only for sound effects and possibly ambient recordings and when recording those, I would not think a 12 track or even a 6 track mixer is necessary. The SD 633 can do this and that might even be a tad overkill for those types of jobs.

Regardless, as a 664 user, when I first heard of the 688 I was worried it might make the 664 obsolete but from the sounds of it, I think it's much more likely to make the 788 obsolete as the 664 is a bit lighter, and more affordable and still can record 12 tracks with 12 inputs and has the option of using a CL-6 too, if needed for a short shoot, although this would cost a little more than $300 purchasing price more than the cost of a 688 (I'd rent a CL-6 in these cases). Some may still prefer a 788t over the 688 for cart/table use though if they're using a CL-9, which as I mentioned before, anything over 8 inputs is more common for table/cart setups. For what I do, I'm sticking with my 664 but if I have to mix a reality show that's renting, I'd hope to see 688s with the SL-6 from now on rather than a 788, as long as there's still 2 or 3 field mixers if necessary instead of handing me a 688, 12 wires and caffeine pills.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Playback and the Angry Inch: Sound for Musicals

You don't want to know how long it took me to think of that title, I'm not a pro-titlemaker. If you can think of something better, please, entertain me. As I was saying, every now and then I'm asked to mix location sound on a Musical film or commercial. Musicals can be real fun and exciting to work on; they're so much different from standard genres particularly logistically.  What I often notice, though, is hiring managers on low budget musicals sometimes expect a 1-man-band sound person to also run playback. That thought is as silly as Pierce Brosnan's musical number "S.O.S." in Mamma Mia! Seriously, it's bad

Just because music is sound, does not mean it is the responsibility of the Sound Department, let alone the Sound Mixer. With that logic, ask the Steadicam Op to choreograph and pull ropes for stunts during the scene he is shooting because it's visual. This is the Music Department. If you want to put the Playback Operator on the call sheet under Sound Department, I won't attest, but my point is, when there's playback, there needs to be a Playback Operator. The Sound Mixer is far too busy to coordinate the songs, beats, metronomes and all playback with the Director and Choreographer while mixing and recording the scene. And to think I've been asked to do this all while booming myself. People make a living out of playback.

I've been the playback Operator on a musical feature film, I've been a PA on network television using playback and I've been the Sound Mixer on a few musicals along with plenty of non-musical films that require playback for certain scenes. If the budget calls for it, you have a Sound Mixer, Boom Operator, Sound Utility and a Playback Operator when necessary. The Playback Operator owns or rents a playback equipment package; an entire station at a cart or table. The Playback Operator works directly with the Director and the music department on when they want playback to start in a scene and when to stop. This conversation also involves the Sound Mixer to a certain degree to ensure everyone is on the same page and location sound is recorded in the most effective manner; what sound is usable, what is not and what is needed. The Playback Operator attends rehearsals in pre-production and creates a proper metronome of the song in a computer program to get talent in rhythm before the song actually starts.

Our friendly Playback Operator (Not Really)
In my experience as a Playback Operator, we've had a slightly smaller budget. I was doubling as a Sound Utility and Playback Operator. I had a table, a small pre-amp mixer, professional loudspeakers and a laptop using Audacity to create the proper metronome and play the songs. I got the appropriate songs from the Music Department in pre-production, some were edited during production and we kept in constant contact on having the proper files. I coordinated very closely with the Director on when he wanted the song to start playback and when to stop. This is far too much to ask a Sound Mixer to do him/herself. It's not even a question of being cheap during production with expectations of spending a bit more in post; it's physically impossible, unless perhaps you're Vishnu, but I bet Vishnu might charge accordingly.

When mixing musicals, for microphones, I like to use Neumann on the boom with DPA 4071 (used in Les Miserables) as my lav mic for vocals to help catch the full range of the voice whether it's loud belching or whispers. Neumann is fantastic for baritone and the choice for Beyonce, Celine Dion and The Beatles. For instruments and band-like scenes I may use stereo microphones, usually cardioid, or a DPA 4061 or 4071 on a string instrument.

On Ultra-Low budget musicals I've seen the AD department take a laptop or a phone and playback the song through cheap consumer speakers. There was no metronome, music was sometimes distorted and I'm sure the ADs were putting aside some very important work they could have been tending to. But it seemed to work for what we needed. When it comes to musicals and playback, communication is key but it requires a plan, preparation, proper hands, and realistic expectations.