Mar 24, 2013

Canadian Screen Award for Best Sound in an Information/ Documentary Program or Series

2013 started out on high note for me. I was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Sound in an Information/Documentary Program or Series for "Museum Secrets", "The Imperial War Museum" episode. I was nominated along with from the left Melodie Vaughan, Gary Vaughan and Richard Spence-Thomas. We were the sound team for that particular episode of Museum Secrets, both post and location.

To my absolute surprise we won. I was unable to attend the gala dinner held at the end of February as I was working in the Caribbean on the island of St. Maartin. (It was one of those winter gigs that are hard to say no to.) I was, however, quite tickled to win. The photo above was taken a few weeks after the Screen Awards Gala at Kensington Communications' launch party for Museum Secrets Season 3.

In my role as location sound recordist on 'Museum Secrets" I attribute a good part of my success to my use of the Super CMIT boom microphone manufactured by Schoeps. This microphone has allowed me to work in challenging audio environments and still come away with useable and clean sound. While shooting in museums around the world we are often in back rooms and restoration areas. For visual and content reasons producers and directors want to shoot in these areas and no one is about to turn off ventilation or climate control systems while priceless artifacts are on display or being worked on. The Imperial War Museum episode is a prime example. Right after the opening credits the active interview with Martin Boswell in the storage facility for military uniforms was one which would have been impossible without the Super CMIT. The background ambiance could only be termed as a dull roar. The Super CMIT set on the maximum filtration was not able to dispel this roar entirely but it was able to reduce the noise floor to where useable audio was able to be recorded so it could further be cleaned up in post. For reasons like this the Schoeps Super CMIT has become my interview microphone of choice.

Here the Schoeps Super CMIT is shown side by side with the Schoeps CMIT. The Super CMIT is the top microphone.

Aug 4, 2012

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As a sound recordist I have often done battle with wind. This conflict reached a pinnacle during the filming of “The Burrowers” for CBC’s the Nature of Things in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan in 2010. There were times when those prairie winds whipped up with such unbelievable force that my Rycote suspension and wind jammers were clearly not up to the task of recording clean audio without that telltale rumble. As a consequence for the past two years I have been actively looking for an alternative to Rycote. For years  Rycote have owned the market for wind jammers and microphone suspensions. The company’s products are ubiquitous in the kits of location sound recordists so it seems somewhat like heresy to state their product is somehow inferior and not up to the task but I strongly feel this is the case.

Rycote has stuck to the same patterns and designs of windscreens for decades, only modifying materials used and streamlining some mounts. I sensed that over the past few years there has been a drop in the quality of their products. I was never really a fan of their Lyre mounts as they were not an improvement over what went on before for handling noise and balance. The fact that they were a universal mount for a multitude of microphones had little attraction for me as I preferred to have individual mounts and zeppelins for all the microphones I own. I looked at it as more of a marketing ploy to push more product. I was also annoyed that Rycote in a recent corporate consolidation ceased to have a Canadian distributor preferring instead to have a North American distributor,  Redding Audio LLC located in Wallingford, Conneticut in the United States. This move saw a drop in service for those of us in Canada and an increase in hassle if wanting parts as there was no longer a Canadian warehouse. We are now at the mercy of a network of resellers who seldom stock more than the bare essentials if even that.

A couple of years ago I started hearing about an Italian company called Cinela. I managed to buy an OSIX mount for my Schoeps CMIT microphone that also fit my Sanken CS-3e. The mount was a beautiful work of art with two fine wire arcs under tension suspending a microphone. In terms of handling noise it was the quietest mount I have ever owned. What was frustrating about the OSIX mount for the CMIT and Sanken CS3e was that Cinella had no windjammer or zeppelin  for the mount. In periodic e-mail exchanges with the company they stated that they were working on a system for exterior use but that it wasn’t ready yet. This went on for several years. Fortunately for much of the time I was engaged as a sound recordist on shows that relied a lot on sit down interviews so I was able to put the OSIX mount to good use.

The net can be a most useful source of information. For sound recordists the motherlode has to be the site jwsound – . It is a discussion forum with 5, 152 sound professionals literally from around the world. As a source of information and a fount of lively discussion for all film and television audio related matters it has no equal.. Earlier this year while perusing various chats on this site I came across an announcement that Cinella had come out with a new mount and wind protection for the Super CMIT, the CMIT 5u, and the Sanken CS3e. Right away I went down to Trew Audio in Toronto to inquire about this as Trew carries the Cinela line of products. Imagine my surprise when Tyler Wade, who is the manager there, said he had one in stock. Turns out it was the demo unit. Tyler didn’t even have a price. I was so excited I took the demo unit and the 3 furs Tyler had.  The Cinela windjammer, called the “Piano” ships norally with only 2. I ended up buying the third as well. To date I mostly use the medium fur. Since this purchase I have not experienced winds of the type I encountered shooting “Mighty Ships” or “The Nature of Things” in Saskatchewan. What I find most remarkable about the Cinela Piano is the total transparency. There is absolutely no colouring of the audio. Numerous times I have fired up the boom and have to generate some noise myself to establish that the mic is live.

 This is a photo of the structure of the Cinela Piano zeppelin uncovered. The mic in the photo is one of my Sanken CS3e's.

The handling noise is reduced by the mount having a floating suspension.

The contact point with the boom pole allows for cushioned horizontal movement.

The mic is held in 2 plastic arcs by 2 strong elastics. This view shows 1 of the 2 arcs. The elastic on this arc can be seen just to the right of the arc. Contact to the mount below and to the boom pole is kept to an absolute minimum.

Here's a shot of the 3 furs that I have for the Piano. On the left is the medium length fur, in the middle the short fur, and on the right the long haired fur for really heavy winds.

The Piano comes in a kind of hatbox soft case. I had Clydesdale of Pickering, Ontario build me a travel case into which the hatbox goes. Yes, it is a little bulky but it is solid.

In conclusion, the Cinela Piano is the best wind protection I have seen and heard to date. It is about twice the cost of a Rycote mount with windjammer. I paid close to $1,500.00 for my Piano with 3 furs and an extra mount. Normally the Piano with 2 furs and a single mount retails for about $1,200.00. The Piano is not as versatile as a Rycote mount. One cannot simply slip off the zeppelin and use it indoors as one would a Rycote mount. Deconstructing the Piano and changing mics can be an involved process that might take a good 3 to 5 minutes. Since I own 2 Sanken CS3e’s, I keep one in the Piano and the other on a Rycote mount with a softy or foam cover for indoor work when doing docs. I have also become adept at swapping out the Sankens for the Schoeps CMIT or Super CMIT when necessary. By paying close attention to call sheets I can usually anticipate what mic I need when and where. Despite this hassle, the Cinela Piano is simply the best mount and windjammer I have worked with.

The Cinela Piano at work on the Arno River in Florence, Italy in the summer of 2012 while on a shoot for "Museum Secrets" which is broadcast by History Television in Canada.

Apr 13, 2011

Further Adventures In Audio

In late 2009 I found myself in Los Angeles again working on Carlawood, Season 2 (a comedy/reality series featuring Carla Collins and produced by Lone Eagle Entertainment.) It was during Season 1 of Carlawood that I began using the Aaton Cantar on a regular basis. During that first season of Carlawood the audio requirements were not onerous. Most of the time I was running only 2 or 3 channels of audio, meaning a couple of wirelesses and a boom. DVDs of the audio were burned each day for the edit suite to access should they see fit. Most times the editors deferred to the audio feed that was sent to and recorded on the camera (a Panasonic 900). The director, Paul Kilback, was very experienced and organized. He would spend time scouting locations when we were down so time wouldn't be wasted on shoot days figuring how best to deal with a location. He also devoted several days to shooting "B" rol during which times I was able to record several stereo ambient tracks at locations like the beach at Malibu, the boardwalk in Venice, and the overpasses of the 101 highway. I used a Saken CS-5 stereo boom mic.

Season 2 of Carlawood saw a change of directors as Paul was not available. The new director, Craig Goodwill, was younger and used a different approach in dealing with the rigors of comedy/reality television where an episode a week gets shoot. On several occasions I found myself running 5 wireless mics in addition toswinging a boom. The mix to camera was being recorded on channels 7 and 8 on my Cantar which pretty much accounts for all the conventional inputs of the Cantar. While I have worked on productions where I have used up to 18 channels, I was usually working with a number of assistants and working off of a cart. As for off the shoulder documentary style shooting 6 inputs plus a mixdown of 2 tracks is as far as I would want to venture.

While I haven't bought myself a good handheld PDA device to access the Cantar via bluetooth, I have been making audio notes electronically very slowly by using the scrolling wheels of the Cantar. There were times when scenes and action were changing too fast for me to keep current with the electronic notes in the field. I didn't really sweat it. When turning over my DVDs of the recorded audio I also turned in a handwritten set of notes. From pre-production meetings I heard from editors that they would prefer handwritten notes as they were not accustomed to using the PDF files and other meta data contained in the audio DVDs. Most days were suitably active and long that I didn't feel like always playing the day's takes on Majax which is Aaton's browser/player software and making corrections to the meta data using my laptop. I would burn the audio DVDs, make some handwritten notes and then set the batteries on charge as I was going out to dinner. There are only so many hours in a day and why obsess over things people are going to ignore anyway.My fellow Cantarist Ao Loo does his corrections and updates on Majax and has been known to print out the PDFs and turn them in to editors with his audio DVDs. In Los Angeles during my 9 week shoot I didn't have a printer with me so this has to remain an option to be exercised in the future.

This brings up an interesting point. When does the day end for us? So much of location sound recording involves data management. This is in addition to actually recording the audio. So far I have been fortunate enough to have jobs that are well paying enough to justify spending the extra time shaping the notes that accompany the DVDs I burn. Also, most of the shows I work on seem to have a delay built into them. The editors don't actually start cutting the footage until some 6 weeks after it is shot. What this means is that I'm never under huge time constraints in getting my package together for the editors. There have of course, been exceptions, but so far I have bit the bullet and done the extra work without complaint.

In recording sound for television we seem to be in a period of transition. For years we used to record all audio directly to the camera either via a cable connection or by a wireless link. Now with the advent of small and reasonably priced multi-track hard drive recorders, backing up an audio mix sent to the camera via a wireless link becomes a no-brainer. I now never really overly worry about hits and RF interference with the link to the camera as there is backup which I can monitor. Also, there are iso tracks that the editors can access if they choose to, over working with a 2 channel mix that is sent to the camera.

The most liberating in all this is the unhindered ability to record ambient or wild tracks. I have particularly felt this when I started recording wild tracks with my new Sanken WMS-5 surround sound 5.1 microphone. In the photo the Cantar is set up for recording prairie ambiance with the Sanken WMS-5, 5.1 stereo mic. I find when doing 5.1 wild tracks it is best to set the mic up on a stand, hit record and take a few steps back. If you are too close to the mic you will probably hear yourself breathing on one of the tracks.

I have recently finished work on a 1 hour wildlife documentary that aired on CBC on the series "The Nature Of Things." The episode was titled "Return Of The Prairie Bandit." We essentially shot for a year in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, documenting the life of black-footed ferrets that were bred in zoo and released into the wild. As ferrets are nocturnal animals, and make very little sound in the wild, I busied myself with making ambient recordings while the cameraman and director were out with their night vision lenses in the various dog towns where the ferrets live. My thinking at the time was that the 5.1 recordings would form an acoustic base for a lot of the footage being shot at night as well as for the various other "B" roll daytime visuals. I found that in the fall and winter the environment was remarkably quiet on the prairie. Aside from the wind, the most distinct sounds I recorded were coyotes howling in the distance. I did recordings in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound and found that the stereo mic is easier to handle and to set up and is way more forgiving for handling noise.

Here I am recording a 5.1 track with the Sanken WMS-5 5.1 microphone. Over my left shoulder deep in the distance are the rest of the crew shooting scenics.

From my first experience with the Sanken WMS-5 microphone I think I will use it with my Cantar in a mixer bag dedicated for that function rather than using my regular bag with all assortment of cables and wirelesses. This will make the set up cleaner so I won't have to root around my regular bag unplugging and plugging cables until everything ends up in a tangled mess in the field. It will also lighten the load carried into the field. When using this mic, I am recording for extended periods of time, not just grabbing a track here and there on the fly. I'll see how it goes. Assimilating new gear into your work flow is often an evolutionary process.

This was my usual field kit for the "Return Of The Prairie Bandit." On the left is the Sanken CS3e and on the right is the Sanken WMS-5, 5.1 stereo microphone. On the prairies wind protection is of paramount importance. While Rycote fur and zepplins are quite common for boom mics I am constantly amazed at how many Holophone 5.1 mics are out there in use. By comparison with the Sanken the Holophone sounds cheap and tinny and it doesn't have any wind protection worthy of mention, making it totally impractical for any kind of wilderness shoot.

One problem I've run into with the Sanken WMS-5 is trying to make a short cable for it so I can plug the mic in at the base of the handgrip of the suspension mount that it sits on. Fortunately for me I had ordered an extension cable with 12 pin tajimi connectors on it in case I wanted to run the mic up a long boom pole. In order to make the short cable for the Sanken WMS-5 I had to cannibalize the 12 pin tajimi connectors on the extension cable I had bought. It seems 12 pin tajimi connectors are incredibly difficult to come by. The problem seems to be with North American distributors, in this case Marshall Electronics who have none in stock and are evasive about when they will have them in stock. It's been my experience that these companies often won't order more stock until they have enough orders to justify a shipment from the manufacturer in Asia. If that is the case they are doing their customers a huge disservice. During times like this I don't mind paying a premium for a part I really need. The last thing I want to hear is that it is going to take 6 months to a year to get the items you want.

I understand manufacturers like Tajimi Electronics of Japan often need distributors for their products in various parts of the world and often give rights of exclusivity to sell that product to distributors in a given area. I also think it behooves manufacturers like Tajimi Electronics in this age of internet to sell directly to customers even if it is at a premium rather than directing them to a distributor who delays in ordering a part until they have enough orders for a shipment.

In addition to working on the "Nature Of Things" episode following the release of the black-footed ferrets into the wild in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan I have concurrently been working on several episodes of a new series for History Television titled "Museum Secrets." One of the privileges of working on a series like "Museum Secrets" is access to iconic artifacts and locations. Here I am in the lit up Sistene Chapel after hours just before we began setting up.

For the most part "Museum Secrets" has fairly conventional requirements for audio as experts and historians walk and talk through various parts of the museums involved and in some cases locations related to the topic that are not in the museum.

Here's a shot taken during an interview in the Sistene Chapel ground level. We later shot an interview on a scaffold that reached quite close to the fabled ceiling. That interview on the scaffold made this episode quite challenging for me from an audio perspective. We erected a scaffold some 10 meters in height from which Bob Lang (co-director of the episode) could interview Maestro Maurizio de Luca, Director of Restorations of the Painting Laboratory of the Vatican Museums. The idea was that they would be closer to the ceiling frescoes painted by Michelangelo. There was only room on the scaffold for the camerman, Mark Caswell, Bob Lang, and Maestro de Luca. The challenge presented to me by Bob Lang was to have Maestro de Luca hear the questions he proposed to ask through the translator and for him (Bob Lang) to hear the translations.

The simplest solution for me was to put a remote speaker on the scaffold at the feet of Maestro de Luca that was powered by a 9 volt battery and send audio to it via a wireless with line level cables. I used a small Sound Devices Mix Pre by the speaker to receive the signal and boost it. The feed to the wireless came from my Cantar foldback outlet that I use for my Comteks. My Comtek cable is split so I was sending Maestro de Luca's responses on one side to the translator. The other side of the cable was sending the translator's speech to the speaker on the scaffold. This was so the translator could hear the Maestro's responses and the Maestro could hear the translator. Because the 2 feeds were separate there were no feedback problems on the scaffold with the Maestro's lav. I tested the whole concept at home where I have a loft style indoor balcony. Everything worked fine. What I didn't count on was the degree of resonance and echo in the Sistene itself. It rendered spoken instructions shouted from the floor to the top of the scaffold almost unintelligible. At the last minute Bob Lang made an executive decision to do the interview in English, deeming the Maestro's command of English sufficient, and thus also acknowledging the North American television audience's disdain of reading subtitles. Broadcasters in North America seem to prefer interviews in English even if it is a little stilted and accented to having to use voice overs or subtitles. It sometimes works but often compromises passion and articulation when speakers can't elaborate in their native tongues. As for me, I was off the hook with my set up in this case as it was not used even though it was in place.

A second and more curious audio challenge occured on our second trip to Rome to film at the Vatican. We shot a stand up with an art historian not currently in favor with the Vatican in a church (Santa Maria Sopra Minerva) for which we had no permit in front of a Michelangelo statue of a nude adult Jesus that had been covered up by the Vatican after the sculptor's death. Since the shoot was not sanctioned and had to be done surreptitiously the choice was made to use the Canon 5D which is essentially a still camera that is capable of taking some incredibly good quality video footage. At first it was going to be a visual only type of scene with the art historian walking through the church and standing by the statue and voice over narration was going to cover the content but then in conversation with the director I expressed the feeling that we could record sound if I plugged a wireless into a Zoom recorder I had with me.

I always carry a small recorder around with me for recording street ambiences in foreign cities. This is the small device I currently carry for fooling around, the Nagra ARES-ML. It's a bit better built than the Zoom and has a better microphone. The one really bad feature about the Nagra is that it only records to internal memory which can't be removed instead of to an SD card. This makes it awkward for downloading the recorded sounds and certainly sets a ceiling for the quantity of audio that can be recorded.

I had originally purchased my first such device, the Zoom, some years ago mainly as a toy. I would take it with me to record street ambiences in places like China and Japan. I was impressed by the small size and the inexpensive price. I wasn't sure how I was going to use these wild tracks, perhaps as some kind of aural sculpture, a testament to my itinerant work life. While the Zoom was a great machine for the price, I wasn't really taken with its internal menu which can be confusing and counter-intuitive, its cheap plastic body which can transmit a lot of handling noise if using the built-in mic and I had also come to dislike its windsock which I felt was ineffective.

In the van on the way to the church I was madly trying to access the settings in the Zoom which would allow me to plug in my wireless receiver. When I finally got everything set we were in front of the church. Then my batteries died in the Zoom. I had to madly dash into a tourist shop where I bought 4 of the most expensive AA batteries I had ever paid for and proceeded into the church having hit record.The walk and talk had already started. The others had gone ahead of me. The agreement had been we would all go in separately to attract less attention. I managed to convey my concerns and we redid the beginning. The result was fairly good given the chaotic and haphazard nature of the prep.

The Canon 5D has come under a lot of criticism for its use as a video camera by a lot of audio, video, and film professionals, many of who deem it unsuitable for serious work. Without delving into compression of its picture, its lack of time code etc., I have come to the conclusion that it has a definite role in the making of serious documentary films. When a crew has to resort to guerilla tactics to get the job done it seems ideal. I think I have to refine my technique with the Zoom recorder a bit to get comfortable doing this kind of shoot on the spur of the moment. To this end I bought the Nagra ARES-ML recorder which has a better internal microphone than the Zoom and switching menus is a lot faster. It, needless to say, also cost a lot more.

Since writing this I have been back to Grasslands National Park working on an episode of CBC's "The Nature Of Things." Here I am loaded up for work. During the shooting of "The Return Of The Prairie Bandit" we had to hike in to our locations. There was a strict no vehicles policy in the park to preserve the native prairie landscape. I am also wearing my snake gators should we startle some rattlers on our way to visit the black-footed ferrets.

There had been an unusual amount of rain in the spring in southern Saskatchewan in 2010 and the park was a robust green. During the fall and winter the prairie was eerily quiet except for the wind. Now there were birds everywhere. I was able to capture some very exciting sounds with my Sanken WMS-5 surround sound microphone. One evening I stayed by the river and recorded a symphony of frogs. For my trips into the field I took only the Sanken WMS-5 and the Sanken CS-3e. I stopped bringing the stereo Sanken CS-5 due to the fact we had to hike cross country to our locations and there is only so much that fits into backpacks and onto slings.

This picture illustrates how we got all of our equipment to our locations in Grasslands National Park. This picture is taken in the summer when the park was still in a verdant state due to the heavier than usual rainfall. Nature documentaries can be physically punishing.

Before our spring trip to Saskatchewan for the "Nature Of Things" we had one trip in winter. In preparation for that I sent my Cantar back to Grenoble, France to have heating coils installed into the main LCD display panel.These heating coils would draw their power from the main batteries powering the Cantar. LCD panels have a reputation for slowing down as the temperature falls and finally disappearing. My friend Ao Loo told me of how he had a winter shoot in Quebec City and when the temperature dipped below -30˚C, the display on his Cantar X1 disappeared. The unit still worked but it was impossible to change input grids and deal with metadata. Since I live and work a lot in Canada I felt this mod was a prudent measure to take. Aaton did the work quickly and I had my Cantar back within a month. The jobs I did during this time I performed with my SQN and Sound Devices 744T recorder which I had thankfully resisted the urge to sell. Life is certainly a little more stress-free with a good backup kit. What was surprising in all this was the amount of money spent on shipping the Cantar to and from Grenoble. Over $600.00! I am now convinced that the next time I need some bigger overhaul of the Cantar I will write Aaton and ask them to give a time slot when they can schedule the work and fly there myself and holiday until the deck is ready for pickup.

This is a shot I really like that shows the vast emptiness of the prairie in the winter. Here it almost looks like the sea. I am holding up a wireless receiver to get better line of sight reception from the distant wildlife biologist.

When the heating coils were installed in my Cantar, a temperature sensor, Techset20 on the unit, was activated, which shows the temperature of the display and of the hard drive. This past summer I also spent some time working in the desert in Egypt where the ambient temperature reached +52˚C. I remember nervously eyeing this setting and seeing the display reading reach +62˚C and the hard drive temperature hitting +92˚C. Everything worked just fine but it certainly begs the question as to when these things turn to liquid.

This was our base camp in the field in Grasslands National Park during our summer shoot there. The winds were strong enough that one of our tents blew away one day. It's probably in Montana.

When we first started filming ferrets in Saskatchewan I hung back and let the camera take front and center. It was important that we get a lot of good and interesting footage of the ferrets in the wild. Filming wildlife can be tricky and tedious. At all times we were accompanied by Park personnel or a qualified wildlife biologist. Needless to say I wasn't about to swing a boom too close to animals and scare them off. As our shoot days piled up and footage of the ferrets accrued I became more adventurous in my audio recording techniques.

Ferrets are nocturnal animals. You wouldn't know it from this snapshot I took with my small digital camera right at dawn after being up all night. I guess this fellow was keeping extended hours as well. At any rate to find ferrets at night in the dogtowns where they live wildlife biologists would use spotlights or very strong lamps to scan the terrain. Prairie dogs are active during the day so only the ferrets and badgers would be up and about during the night. With the swath of light cast by the spotlight one could pick out the reflective flash of ferret eyes. I should note here that the spotlighting was always done by trained personnel, in most cases wildlife biologists, working under a special Parks Canada permit. Once the ferrets had been spotted our crew would be alerted and with our night vision lenses in place we would steal up to the site and roll. Usually the closest the cameraman Mark Caswell could get was some 30 to 40 feet away.Even at these distances the boom was totally ineffective so I would busy myself with getting general ambience a little away from the rest of the crew. One day Travis Livieri, Executive Director of Prairie Wildlife, suggested to me it might be interesting to see if we could capture some audio of the ferrets in the wild. I went out spotlighting with him and he pointed out a mound where he was certain a ferret pop out of. With his help I planted a small lavaliere microphone by the edge of the hole and camouflaged it with some grass and buried the wireless transmitter it was attached to under a thin layer of soil. Before doing that I had placed the transmitter in a zip lock plastic bag to protect the unit.

Sure enough later that night not only 1 but 2 ferrets popped out of that hole. I was able to capture a few minutes of their chatter and footfalls before they took off for another mound. I also had some technical difficulties. When I was burying my wireless by the mound Travis had placed a ring over the mound that had cables attached to a device that read the microchips that had been embedded into the released ferrets. The ferrets that were originally released in the park were bred in captivity and all of them had microchips embedded in them with a unique bar code and serial number. The idea being that when a ferret stuck its head out of the mound, through the ring, the reader would scan its number. If there was no number then it would be cause for real excitement as that had to be an animal born in the wild. My problem was that after several minutes of golden audio I started getting some kind of electronic interference. At the time I was unable to pin down the source. The cables to the reader ran right across my microphone cable, also the signal was not as strong as I had originally hoped. I had perhaps covered my transmitter with a little too much dirt spurred by Travis' concern that the ferrets might make off with my mic. In any case the audio that was recorded was promising enough that we decided to try again.

The following night I went out again with Travis. This time we buried 5 wireless mics in a series of mounds. Travis wasn't sure which mounds would be the most promising and this way we could follow a ferret if it left one mound for a look and see in a neighboring mound. This setup was a rousing success even though the ferrets were not as vocal as on the previous night. I was able to capture footfalls and the noises of scurrying as the ferrets ran around. I ran 4 of the wirelesses into the mic inputs of the Cantar and for the 5th I used line level cables running it into the line level input. I reserved the 5th mic input for the boom.

Sometimes it is best to record wildlife ambiance from the relative safety of a vehicle, especially amongst herds of bigger animals like bison. I was quite surprised by the reach of the Sanken CS-3e in picking up snorts and farts of the bison. Once in awhile it's a privilege to work out in nature and record sound as it occurs in nature undisturbed by man made background noise. As an urban dweller I know that I have become far too tolerant and accepting of the din of 21st century life. I am totally taken aback when dropped into the wild and listening to that great gaping silence that is not silence at all but a rich aural tapestry of life before man. In Canada we a truly privileged to still have large areas of land relatively undisturbed by man.

Documentary crews are very lean and keen. On the left is the DOP of "Return Of The Prairie Bandit" Mark Caswell. In the center is director Kenton Vaughan. I must say that working on that project with them both was one of the peak experiences of my professional life.

Interspersed with shooting "The Nature Of Things" in Saskatchewan I also spent a considerable amount of time on the road with "Greatest Tank Battles." I have probably mentioned that this show from an audio perspective is not overly complex. For me most of my activity revolves around green screen interviews with veterans and historians. Over the past 2 years I have had to deal with variables in terms of the locations where we shoot the interviews. Most interviews are shot in hotel conference rooms and quite often we find ourselves setting up a green screen in the home of a veteran, especially if they are frail and too infirm to travel to a location. The variables I have to deal with are ambient sounds that are found in most modern buildings emanating from ventilation, heat, or air conditioning systems. My frustration builds when we are faced with a location where there is audible air flow and no way to control it. Quite often these systems are centralized and maintenance people are unable to shut down a specific location in a building. It was therefore no small wonder that I was intrigued when Schoeps announced their new Super CMIT digital microphone.

Here are the Schoeps CMIT 5u on the bottom and the Schoeps Super CMIT digital microphone on the top. In size, weight, and appearance they are quite similar.

In Schoeps' own literature they explain the technology of the Super CMIT thus: "The Super CMIT 2U has one capsule positioned behind its forward facing interference tube, plus a second capsule that is aimed in the reverse direction. At frequencies below 6 kHz the signals of these two transducers are analyzed and compared by a digital signal processor using technology from illusonic (patent applied for). It can recognize sound energy arriving from discrete directions, deduce whether its direction of arrival is persistent or not, and distinguish such energy from diffuse arriving sound.

"This information is then used to focus on the discrete sound energy while suppressing the diffuse sound. Thus the 'reach' of this microphone is greatly increased without artifacts or colorization of the sound.

"Above 6kHz the signal from the forward facing transducer is used without further processing, since the interference tube's effect is already optimal at that range.

"The Super CMIT is the first microphone in the world to offer such high directivity while maintaining such high quality sound."

I have more often than not been on the bleeding edge of technology and I impulsively ordered the microphone without really thinking through what I was doing. I remember Alex Bernardi of Audio Services in Toronto asking how I was going to use the microphone and I nonchalantly assured him that it was going to be my main interview mic. He nodded and mumbled something about it being a very tricky mic to use and I passed off his unease as no big deal.

At any rate the vaunted microphone arrived some 6 weeks later when I was in the throes of a shoot abroad, which was fortunate because there were a couple of cables to be made before I could fire up the microphone. I promptly ordered the cables over the phone - a 3 pin XLR to AES in/out and a 12 volt DC power cable that I could connect to the 10 volt phantom power supply that came with the mic. Yes, that's right! 10VOLT PHANTOM POWER. The power supply that Schoeps sends out with the mic is with an AC adapter that plugs into the hirose socket on the power supply. Since the AC adapter was regulated to 12 volts, Javed, the bench tech at Audio Services in Toronto decided it was prudent to regulate the power flow of the hirose cable that I was going to use to power the power supply from a V lock camera battery to 12 volts as well. Sometimes these camera batteries when fully charged can be up as high as 16 volts and I wasn't about to get cavalier in dealing with higher voltages.

When I finished my shoot abroad and picked up my cables and mic and too them home to find out what the Super CMIT sounded like I was not only totally underwhelmed but felt the first stab of panic that this was not going to work at all.

This is Cantar #602 (me!) with the digital in/out cables attached. The yellow sticker stating "This journey 1% finished" was something I got at a Facebook conference in Toronto I was working. I think it aptly describes my working relationship with my Cantar.

At any rate, after hooking everything up and selecting the proper input routes and turning on the digital power in the Cantar, I could hardly hear the microphone. Holding the Super CMIT close to my mouth like an announcer holds a hand mic I could make the mic peak at around -30dB, far too low for anything useable that could be introduced into a mix. I phoned Audio Services in Toronto and talked to Javed, the bench tech. He told me that there should be a gain built into the microphone and that by tapping each of the 3 filter switches twice each quickly, the gain would increase by 10dB. I tried this and nothing happened. Going over Schoeps' web page it appeared that a firmware update was required for the mic to be able to do this.

This picture shows the digital AES jack of the Cantar on the underside of the unit with my in/out digital cable.

On my behalf Audio Services turned to the Schoeps distributor in Canada, a company called Elmatron to find out about the firmware update. What transpired then completely boggles the mind. The people at Elmatron didn't know that the Super CMIT could have the gain activated by the filter switches, let alone that there was a firmware update that was clearly announced on Schoeps' own web site. It took the incompetents at Elmatron a week to find out that yes, indeed, there was a firmware update and it had to be done at the factory in Germany and that the update was free of charge except for the shipping. At my insistence Audio Services shipped the microphone directly to Schoeps with explicit instructions for them to ship the microphone back to Audio Services. It didn't make sense to me to have to deal with a third party in Canada. It would only prolong matters. I have since also found out from the people at Trew Audio in Toronto that they consider Elmatron completely incompetent and useless and that they get all their current information for Schoeps products from the Schoeps U.S. distributor. For Trew this is easy, as their head office is in Nashville, Tennessee. As for myself, I have long had an aversion to assholes, especially if they are difficult and obtuse. In future I will most likely do any major purchase of a Schoeps product through a European distributor. Easy for me to mouth off like this but I also have an EU passport and address and have done this in the past, most recently when I wanted a KT Stuart bag for the Cantar. The quotes in Toronto I got were so obscenely high so I ordered the bag directly from KT Systems UK and had the bag sent to Estonia where I have an address and picked it up on the tail end of a European gig. I could have purchased 3 bags in this fashion for the price I was quoted in Toronto for 1 bag. Normally I am willing to give any local supplier or distributor 20 to 30 points above manufacturer's price for the trouble of ordering, securing, and landing a product but there comes a point when marups get out of hand and you get the distinct feeling you are being hustled and fleeced or in Elmatron's case dealing with people who are stupid and unhelpful. These days the internet is a great leveler in terms of accessing information and pricing. That still however leaves the question of warranties.

In my expeience most warranty work on audio products is usually done at the factory which means you still have to absorb the shipping costs but more importantly regional jurisdiction has no real importance. Professional audio equipment used currently in cinema and television is a fairly specialized niche market and there are very few authorized shos that do any significant local warranty work. You will still end up dealing with the factory and whether you want to involve the local distributor or not is entirely your decision.

In our work camera crews travel with a lot of gear. I find that on travel days I work as hard as on regular days humping gear and dealing with airline personnel and customs officials with carnets. It never ceases to amaze me that most production companies have no comprehension of this fact and try to cheap out on rates for travel days. I have a Margussound carnet for my equipment and usually charge a modest fee on a per folio basis during trips. Considering that an audio equipment carnet costs between $800.00 and $1,000.00 to open for a production company and involves a fair bit of paperwork there are still production companies that balk at paying my per folio charge. I have never made money off of my carnet and run it on a cost recovery basis figuring that I am saving production companies money and hassle by offering the use of my carnet. These days I get quite militant. You don't want to use my carnet, fine. Here's my equipment list, you get the carnet, and you eat the total cost.

Here I am in a quarry in England shooting the blowing up of a van and the set-up of that for "Museum Secrets." It was at times raining quite heavily. My rain poncho has a window on the chest so I'm able to see what I'm doing with my Cantar. I also have the rain cover over the boom mic. It's an effective cover to soften the sound of raindrops on the zepplin and can be periodically just wrung out when it becomes too saturated with water. I've also used it to good effect on dramas when the rain machines get going and drench everything. Ironically I bought it from Location Sound in Los Angeles where it hardly rains at all.

I finished the year 2010 by mixing a feature film, "Margarita" shot on the Red camera. On these kinds of projects audio is essentially double system, although in this case I did send a guide track to the camera. To my knowledge, the only time anyone aid attention to the guide track was the camera operator who, during a few scenes where the actors on wires were quite distant, listened for lines so he could judge camera moves by the dialogue.

Earlier that year I had purchased an Ambient Trilevelsync Lockit box because I was getting offered too many projects where the Red was the camera of choice. Reds are notorious for their lack of ability to maintain accurate time code. I have always found this perplexing. How difficult can it be over the course of some 30 plus builds to come up with an accurate timepiece? At any rate the Ambient worked flawlessly and neither time code nor synching were ever a problem.

For this feature I used the Cantar as a recorder and mixer. It was essentially a small scale project with only 5 principal actors and I never felt under equipped having only 6 plus 2 chanels to work with. I ran the mix tracks from the Cantar into a Sound Devices 744T as a backup recording. Most of the shooting took place in a large Toronto house. To facilitate ease of movement and quick turnaround I ran a wireless boom for the duration of the shoot without any hint of trouble. I worked with a wonderful young boom op, Sean Koch, who has come to film audio from music mixing. He had done some boom work on several features before this and had good focus and set etiquette. I was particularly impressed by his fluency in technical matters and his astute ear.

What was also refreshing was that I didn't have to submit to post a mixdown on track 1 for rushes as was the case when shooting film and using aging telecine transfer facilities for rushes. This is a bit of a problem with the Cantar as one has to perform a polyrotate function when burning or transferring data and this seems to take up significantly more time than a straightforward burn or transfer of data. This is something with which I have had no experience but seems to be a topic of hot debate on the Cantar User's List. I, for the most part, have worked on projects using electronic based acquisition formats. With "Margarita" I would simply dump my audio files on to an external hard drive at the end of each day which I would then give to the IT guy who dumped it into his computer and transferred it to the edit suite. For the most part an editor was working throughout the shoot doing a quick and rough assembly so production was always aware of inherent problems and a reshoot could be scheduled if necessary.

On the left in this picture is the DAC C462 external digital gain and 10 volt phantom power supply that I now use whenever I use the Schoeps Super CMIT digital microphone and the Cantar. It was manufactured by Lake People in Germany and cost about 1,000 euros. It can also be used as an A/D converter if working with analogue mixers. The unit itself is bigger and more awkward than I would have liked when working out of my bag with the Cantar but otherwise functions quite well. It is however, a bit of a power hog, consuming 800 mA per hour which means a large V-Lock camera battery will last just over a half day running just this. Beside it on the picture above is the 10 volt phantom power supply that comes from Schoeps when you purchase a Super CMIT microphone.

This is a view of the XLR jacks in the DAC C462 put out by Lake People. The hirose connector on the extreme left is something I had added on by the bench tech at Audio Services in Toronto. The power supply that comes with the unit is A/C only and is plugged in via a flimsy friction fit mini plug which is totally inadequate for reliable work on location unless one is working off of a cart in a totally controlled environment.

Towards the tail end of "Margarita" my Schoeps Super CMIT came back from Germany with the new firmware upgrade. I brought the mic to set one day to show my boom op Sean and he was totally amazed by it and wanted to put it to use right away. I was dead set against this. Firstly, while the Cantar has a digital input, it doesn't have a digital gain. The DAC C462 hadn't arrived yet. I felt in a drama situation where the dynamic range of actors can be quite significant during the course of a single scene, it would be crazy to use this mic coupled with the Cantar. Also, there was the issue of having to use a hardwire as it was pointless trying to send a digital signal over an analogue wireless system. On our set it would have been a huge headache trying to run cable. We were working in an old ansion and not on some studio floor. I did howver do some tests and wrote to the Aatechs at Cantar.

"Happy Holidays, I hear there is lots of snow in Europe this year.

"I got my Schoeps Super CMIT microphone back from Schoeps where it was getting a firmware upgrade. Now by clicking each of the 3 push buttons on the microphone tube twice each, in sequence, the gain is increased by +30dB. When used with my Cantar this brings the level of the mic up to something that can be useable and introduced into a mix. Since the Cantar doesn't have a digital gain this is a crude way of recording sound but is perfecty feasible for sit down interviews.

"I set up a mock interview in my house yesterday with the Super CMIT. I ran a lav on channel 1 with the digital boom on channels 5 and 6. To give the mic a real test I turned up the fan of my Wolf gas stove to its highest setting and turned on the air exchange system in the house. Combined, this was louder than most environmental noises I encounter during my work. With the Schoeps Super CMIT set on preset 2 I got a clean recording from the filtered boom. I ran all the tracks through Majax to be able to better judge each track on its merits. To my ear the Super CMIT seemed colorless and clean and not nearly as warm sounding as the CMIT 5u. Perhaps this is indicative of some kind of analogue/digital prejudice of mine.

"During a second take in addition to the above mentioned noises I had somebody with a vaccum cleaner working some 3 meters from the subject being interviewd. Again the Super CMIT was on preset 2 and I could hear sonic artifacts and pumping as the mic tried to settle on the voice and suppress the other noise. Clearly this time the noise was a little too aggressive and close but the sound was not as bad as I expected. I have seen and heard post production houses do worse at trying to rehabilitate sound from situations like this.

"As a reult of these tests I am ready to use the Super CMIT with the Cantar for sit down interviews. For the past 2 years I have been engaged on 2 television series for History Channel that involve very long green screen interviews in one case and interviews in front of a rear screen with a projector for the other. For sit down interviews I use a light stand with a boom pole holder that holds the boom mic above the subject. The gain during my test could easily be adjusted by the distance between the mic and the subject.

"When my Super CMIT came back from Germany last week I was finishing up work on a feature film. I brought the microphone to set as my boom op was curious to see it. He was amazed by the sound and its ability to defeat surrounding noise. In fact he was so amazed that he wanted to put it to immediate use. It took considerable effort on my part to dissuade him. I was nervous about the fact that there was no digital gain on the Cantar. Drama being drama, the dynamic range can be huge from very quiet to very loud. Also, we were filming in an old mansion and I was using a wireless boom for ease of work flow in making our scene changes faster. I wasn't about to start laying down cable down cable all over the place. I was also afraid of digital handling noise. Yesterday, while setting up my mock interview I in fact heard that digital pinging that is indicative of ultra low frequencies overloading preamps. This, coupled with no digital gain, I think I would avoid using this microphone with my Cantar in a drama. For drama, as we inch forward into the realm of digital microphones I may look into a different recorder/mixer setup. In fact a supplier in Toronto, where I am based has offered to let me take out a Sound Devices 788 for a test evaluation in the new year. I originally bought the Cantar because I was doing a lot of expedition type documentaries and it is by far the most rugged piece of kit I have ever used. I know from experience because my SQN and Sound Devices 744T were constantly in the shop for repairs. This year I shot in -28˚C weather in Canada and +52˚C in Egypt and the Cantar never faltered. I will keep using the Cantar for documentaries and will be using the Super CMIT with the Cantar for interviews that are conducted during the making of these documentaries. Therefore it would interest me greatly if 10 volt phantom power could be implemented from the Cantar. That way I could avoid having to pack both Schoeps' power supply and the large V-lock battery I use to power it. Here's hoping you can make it so."

That was the kind of year 2010 was. Intensely busy with a lot of technical challenges and new tools to play with.

Here we are shooting an interview outdoors on the prairie for "Return of the Prairie Bandit." The lighting setup is simple but effective.

Ambiance is always important to record. Here I am in the Vatican Gradens by myself doing just that.

Recording ambiance in the desert. I generally try to get away from the rest of the crew and the noise and chatter they make. I find that better than constantly yelling for quiet while they are shooting scenics.

Here I am in +55˚C heat. Not much shade around in the Valley of the Kings. I must say that all the equipment worked flawlessly in the heat and sand in Egypt.

As a post script to the above, I spent 3 weeks in Athens in March 2011 for "Museum Secrets." I used the Schoeps Super CMIT with the Cantar to great effect for interviews in noisy museum environments where we have little or no control. The Super CMIT is most effective with constant noises such as the hum of ventilation or traffic and not effective at all with random noises like the loud chirping of birds or car horns.

I have not heard back from the Aatechs at Aaton about implementing 10 volt phantom power. Since I was able to borrow a Sound Devices 788 and CL-8 from Audio Services in Toronto for evaluation, I found that unit to be most effective and impressive when working with the Super CMIT. It does 10 volt phantom power and has a built-in digital gain. A minor cavil is that the preamps on it don't sound nearly as good as on the Cantar. Since the Super CMIT has become a vital part of my sound package I might have to consider switching over to the SD 788 and CL-8 for a large part of my day to day work for ease of work unencumbered by external gains and power supplies and retire the Cantar for use only during expedition type documentaries that would be too punishing for the much more flimsier Sound Devices built gear. It's a shame since the Aaton Cantar is a superb piece of equipment built to withstand all kinds of challenges but they seem, as a company, hesitant and reluctant to advance into the digital realm with their audio products.

Aug 14, 2009

Perspectives On Some Audio Fundamentals


For the past year I have had the good fortune to work on a History Channel series titles "Greatest Tank Battles." From an audio perspective it is not overly complex but it has given me ample opportunity to ponder the fundmentals of recording a sit down interview.

In the first picture you can see my boom pole holder that will attach to any light stand and work with a very light counterbalance - in this case a Porta-Brace refillable sandbag I own into which I usually put one of my extra Cantar batteries. The light stand is also mine. I never like to borrow if I don't have to.

The audio for the series is anchored by interviews with veterans which are recorded either in front of a green screen or done "in situ" on the actual battlefields. I have always been a firm believer in double mic'ing at every opportunity. This means using both a lav and a boom mic. In the case of "Greatest Tank Battles" the technique is that of a hostless interview in which the questions being asked by the director are not used in the final edited version, only the responses. This allows me to place the boom on a stand over the subject. The interviewer is mic'ed for reference only in the edit suite. I generally split the tracks I send to the camera with the lavs on one channel and the boom on the other. All tracks are individually recorded on my Aaton Cantar X2 and I burn a DVD of this audio for the editors.

Double mic'ing makes for a much richer total sound. Lavs alone sound thin and give little sense of space. A good boom mic always sounds better than any lav I've ever heard. Lavs will only sound better in hostile audio environments due to their proximity to subject where one is using them to pick up voices. Also one can never know for sure how people behave over long interviews. I have seen some subjects fidget with their hands, cracking knuckles right across from where I've placed the mic. Too often in a fit of emotion or pique people clutch their chest with their hand producing audible crackles and pops from the lav. For the History Channel series on tanks I've also had to deal with veterans who have a chest full of medals which clink and clang whenever they shift in their chair. The lav is the most susceptible for picking up this kind of unwanted noise.

My usual documentary boom mic is the Sanken CS 3e short shotgun. I love that it is a very tightly directional supercardioid. I have friends who are rooted in drama that complain about the noise floor of the Sanken compared to their Shoeps capsules. They have a valid argument except for the fact that few docs are shot on studio sound stages. On most docs that I have worked the shooting goes on in very hostile locations for audio where the noise floor of the mic is the least of your worries. Also the Sanken has a tremendous reach which means I don't have to be literally on top of the subject to capture that rich fat audio. In other words, I don't have to crowd the frame. That said, the Sanken is TOTALLY unforgiving if you are off axis and its dynamic range is only suitable for speech. While it is clearly not the mic for every situation I feel its plusses easily overcome its minuses in many situations I'm faced with. So much so, that I own two. Actually, I bought the second when the first one went down and was sent to the factory in Japan for repair which ended up taking some six months.

While I started using the Sanken CS3e as the interview boom mic for the "Greatest Tank Battles" series, I early on wanted to switch over to the Shoeps CMIT 5u short shotgun.

The CMIT 5u is one of the sweetest sounding boom mics I own and is one I use for most sit down interviews. I haven't quite got used to using it in the rough and tumble of shooting verite. Perhaps, because it comes with push button filters on the tube of the mic which when using a full Rycote zeppelin are a pain to manipulate and because it doesn't have quite the reach of the Sanken CS3e I still use the Sanken as my dominant mic.

Earlier this year (2009) the Shoeps CMIT 5u started sounding a little off especially when I plugged it into my Cantar. I took the mic to Audio Services where the bench tech examined it and declared that there seem to be traces of moisture on the filament. Since the mic was only sparingly used we deduced the moisture must have come from condensation when packed for flight. Since I fly seemingly almost all the time the explanation seemed plausible enough. It was decided to send the mic back to the factory in Germany to bring it back up to spec. I also e-mailed a wav file I recorded of the mic to give the bench techs in Germany a sample of the digital artifacting I was hearing.

When the mic came back from Germany I immediately plugged it into my Cantar and heard that digital rumble whenever I moved my hands on the boom pole. Once again I contacted the Shoeps people with my concerns. They came back with a thought provoking e-mail:

"We listened to the... sound file, and it sounds very strange. It sounds like some digital effect but there are no digital components in the microphones (sic) signal chain. On the other hand the noise is away if the customer switches on the low cut filter. So we have another idea. Shaking the microphones (sic) the way that the customer does causes very high low frequency noises. This may overdrive the AD converter of a following recording unit. In the worst case the AD converter may produce such noises. The effect is away if the input is not overdriven any longer, for example a low cut filter prevents these signal peaks.... For mobile recording of voices we always recommend to switch on at least one of the two frequency filters."

I also passed along my concerns and the e-mail from Shoeps to the Aatechs in Grenoble, France where the Cantar is manufactured. Their response was all knowing:

"All this is coherent with the user manual p. 16 instructions about avoiding ultra-low frequencies to the preamps. We will add Shoeps CMIT 5u and the Neumann KMR 81 to the sensitive mic list. Thank you for your thorough report."

I felt like such a fool. There are days when you can't seem to see the forest because of the trees. I had become so used to working with my Sanken Cs3e's and my Sanken CS5 that don't generate ultra high low frequency handling noise to overload the AD converters in the Cantar that when I was confronted with this problem I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the fault was with the mic while conveniently forgetting to throw some filtration on the Cantar. I now know that when I use my Shoeps CMIT 5u or my Neumann KMR 81 I go to the 60 Hz -6dB setting on the Cantar input. Also, never underestimate the value of reading and then re-reading the manual.

Dec 26, 2008

Rechargeable 9 Volt Batteries

For years, in my work as a soundman, I would use and have to dispose of alkaline 9 volt batteries. When traveling on longer documentary projects I would have to budget for batteries and then pack according to my perceived needs. I almost always erred on the side of caution and usually added 30% to any estimate.
This resulted in more weight in the equipment cases.

Only once in the last few years did I actually run out of batteries in the field. That was in Southern China in 2007 and it was pretty scary as reliable alkaline 9 volt batteries were impossible to buy. Most merchants in electronic malls sold only zinc carbon batteries and some rechargeable lithium batteries that were better but had nowhere near the umph needed to power my Micron wirelesses.
This is a photo of some of the stuff bought in China that didn't work so well with my equipment. I was surprised at not being able to buy a decent 9 volt battery in China. The green ones are rechargeable lithium batteries while the Eveready is a zinc carbon 9 volt.

The zinc carbon 9 volt batteries would power my older 300 series Microns for around 10 minutes and last only 3 or 4 minutes with the diversity 700 series Microns. The Chinese lithiums lasted in the neighbourhood of 20 minutes with the 700 series. I somehow stumbled my way through the final 2 days of production by cabling into the camera instead of using a wireless link, thereby cutting down on my wireless use and also by saving the batteries for actual takes instead of having the talent wirelesses up all the time. It was not an experience I want to repeat!

Prior to this I had been experimenting with 9 volt batteries for some time as I was involved in several documentary medical series where we were filming surgery in hospitals. As a rule Micron transmitters only lasted 5 to 6 hours with an alkaline 9 volt battery and quite often the operations went on for a good deal longer. Since operating theatres are quite noisy with a lot of ambient clatter I would come to rely on pinning a lav or two on the principal surgeons and have them talk their way through the operation. Surgery being what it is I couldn’t very well tap a surgeon on the shoulder and tell him to stop for a second while I change the battery in his transmitter when it went down.

My experiments with all sorts of 9 volt batteries yielded nothing but frustration. No battery was as strong and reliable and long lasting in the Micron wirelesses as the Duracel alkaline 9 volt battery. Trouble was they were not good enough for what I wanted to do. While talking this problem over with Alex Bernardi, the proprietor of Audio Services (1545 The Queensway, Toronto, Ontario M8Z 1T8 – 416-251-5409), the possibility of rebuilding the Micron transmitter was broached. Alex had a machine shop cut down a 700 series receiver into which he inserted the electronics of the transmitter which now had a bay for 2 nine volt batteries. The resulting transmitter would go for 10 to 12 hours on the 2 batteries and was barely a half inch longer than the standard Micron 700 series transmitter.
This view shows the transmitter with the battery carriage slid open exposing the 2 battery compartment.

I have to salute Alex for his energy and resolve in finding solutions for vexing problems. Much successful work in sound relies on equipment that is custom built for a purpose rather than store bought generic products. That said, I must also state that while Micron (the British firm) puts out an incredible product in terms of quality, they are impossible when it comes to refining or upgrading or bringing out new products and accessories for their line of wirelesses. For years I have waited for a butt transmitter that can be attached to hand held microphones among a long list of other things. It’s like waiting for a corpse to pass wind. This state of affairs has made me start looking and adapting other wireless systems into my kit.

This is a view of 2 Micron transmitters. The one on the left has a battery compartment that holds 2 nine volt batteries. The one on the right is a regular sized 700 series Micron transmitter. Notice how worn the face plates of both wirelesses are. I have been trying for the better part of a year to get replacement face plates for these wirelesses from Micron so I can actually see what frequency I have these units tuned to. This is just another example of how unresponsive Micron can be when it comes to certain types of service. In fact, I will have waited so long that I won't need to replace these face plates as I have to send the units back to the factory to be reset to a new frequency band. As of February 17, 2009 these units will be illegal to use in the United States on the frequencies they currently occupy. Since I work in the U.S. fairly regularly I feel obliged to comply. Fortunately Audio Services in Toronto has a policy of supplying replacement units for Microns bought from them when they are in the shop. That was the kind of service that attracted me to Audio Services in the first place.

These are the new iPowerU.S. rechargeable 9 volt batteries. They come in plastic caddies which makes travelling and handling them very easy. On the bottom right you can see a partial view of the charger.

The rechargeable 9 volt batteries put out by iPowerU.S. ( are the first rechargeable batteries that have worked in my Micron wirelesses with any degree of satisfaction. They will power my Micron wirelesses approximately the same length of time as the Duracel alkaline batteries. That said, they are still not a perfect replacement. The Duracel alkalines when they were on the verge of being exhausted would trigger a warning of blinking lights in the LED display of the Micron wireless. This would allow me to change the battery in the unit during a break rather than having it crash during a take. The iPowerU.S. batteries do no such thing. They die suddenly, without warning, as do all lithiums. They are however, a reasonable solution for the moment, of powering wirelesses without the hassle of carrying extra boxes of alkaline batteries on trips and then dealing with their disposal.

Sep 13, 2008

Adventures In Audio

On the beach in Malibu with my new Aaton Cantar shooting a comedy/reality series with Carla Collins produced by Lone Eagle Entertainment and set to be broadcast on E Canada in January 2009. The director is Paul Kilback (a 2008 Gemini nominee) and the cameraman is Mark Caswell.


This summer (2008) I started using 2 pieces of equipment I am quite passionate about and rate very highly.

While working in Los Angeles I had occasion to visit Location Sound (10639 Riverside Drive, No. Hollywood, CA 91602) It was the largest retail outlet for professional sound recordists that I had ever seen. I took in a cable for repair and bought a 12 foot LOON boom pole. While at NAB in Las Vegas I came across the LOON booth and made a mental note to look into securing a pole for myself. Loon Audio is based in Whitefish, Montana and distribution of their poles in Canada was sporadic due mostly to their expense, I suspect. When I saw them at Location Sound I couldn’t resist temptation. Besides, they were having a sale on these poles. Since I mostly work documentaries I opted for the 12 foot internally cabled pole with a basemate and wing. The basemate allows one to rest the pole on the ground perpendicularly during intervals while working and the wing is an attachment made for wirelesses or cables that is parallel to the base of the pole allowing for stress-free coupling. The pole is incredibly light and strong and very quiet in terms of handling noise. This is the first pole I have owned with an engraved manufacturer’s serial number. Clearly, it’s a great replacement for my old Vdb pole.

The second piece of kit I acquired this spring was the fabled Aaton Cantar X2. This is an 8 track recorder with mixing capability.

For several years I was content working with my SQN Series IV mixer and the Sound Devices 744 T recorder. I even had Audio Services in Toronto (1545 The Queensway Toronto, Ontario M8Z 1T8, 416-251-5409) remove the Subsidiary I/O B from the SQN and make a cable using that connector so I could have 4 direct pre-fader outs to use as I needed. The 744 T was made to integrate well with the Sound Devices 442 field mixer which has direct outs but at the time I was not particularly fond of the 442 which I thought was inferior to the SQN in sound quality, limiters, and metering. For that reason I decided to adapt the SQN to work with the 744T.

Over the years the SQN Series IV mixer has served me well. I can only recall one incident in Togo, Africa where it faltered a bit. One of the two meters began to act up and it seemed as if two of the four channels were a bit weaker. I remember at the time trying out a boom mic which I sent across both the left and right side of the mixer and one side being definitely a little weaker. The sound quality seemed O.K. though. Togo is located very close to the equator and is very humid. The shoot was fraught with a lot of technical difficulties that were attributed directly to the humidity from camera problems with moisture on DV Cam tape and water in lens.

The Sound Devices 744T was never nearly as reliable as the SQN. Soon after acquiring it I was working on a drama in southern Ontario. The unit started acting a little flaky. At first from time to time the display would freeze requiring me to disengage the battery to power down and then reattach the battery and re-boot the unit. The frequency of these of these freeze-ups began to increase from once or twice a day to several times an hour. Since I was working out of town in a farming community several hours from Toronto it was not convenient or easy to have the unit replaced. As I was on the phone with Audio Services for a replacement unit, I re-booted the recorder and a small puff of white smoke literally emanated from the 744T after which the unit didn’t respond at all. With a DOP ranting about losing the magic hour light I had no alternative than to fire up a non time code DAT machine and finish my day.

The 744T was dispatched to Audio Services who then shipped it to Sound Devices in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Thankfully, the 744T records to a removable flash card as well as to its hard drive so I was able to recover the audio that had been recorded up until the unit went down. I was impressed by the quick turnaround. I had the unit back in 48 hours. What I was less impressed about was the fact that no one would talk about what exactly went wrong and I never did get an explanation of what the problem was. After that incident I never had another problem with the 744T. I used it for making a feature film in 2006 and while everything worked out and the producers and post house were happy with the audio I had the nagging feeling that I was using the 744T to its maximum capacity. There were a couple of occasions during the making of Finn’s Girl that I felt I would have been more comfortable with 6 tracks. How quickly we’ve moved on from a 2 track universe!

In early 2008 I started work on an EPI/Discovery Canada series called “Mighty Ships.” The first project I was on was with the cattle carrier Becrux on a voyage with 17,000 cows going from Darwin, Australia to Jakarta, Indonesia. It was fiendishly hot and humid. On the heels of that shoot I was sent to Portsmouth, England where I boarded another ship, the Faust, carrying cars and heavy equipment bound for America on a voyage across to North Atlantic. It was after this voyage that I had a small break in work and I took all my gear into Audio Services for a check-up. Nothing per se was wrong with the gear. There had been no malfunctions and everyone had been thrilled with the audio recorded. It’s just that I find it prudent after an expedition type shoot to have the equipment given a closer look at by bench technicians to make sure everything is performing to spec. In this case the bench technicians found traces of salt water in both the 744T and the SQN. Mind you neither piece of gear had been exposed directly to water but there it was nevertheless. I suppose had I not had the equipment checked it would ultimately have failed or performed erratically.

During this time I got the sense I was hitting a technical wall in the doc world with the 744T. EPI/Discovery had started making moves to record audio in the field with 5:1 microphones. At first on scenic shots they used the Holophone H2Pro and the Zaxcom Deva IV.

I once worked on an EPK years ago on the set of a feature film called “Honey.” It was one of those EPKs that seemed to go forever. In the end we logged several weeks on the set making a behind the scenes documentary for the DVD release. The sound for the actual film was being recorded to a Deva and it seemed to be always down or having some sort of problem with post. Since then I have always been spooked by the Deva and I have found that its box like shape and weight totally unappealing and inappropriate for slinging in a bag on a documentary.

For the first project that I was on for “Mighty Ships” things had been modified somewhat. The Holophone H2Pro had been replaced by the Holophone H4 Super Mini which was mounted onto the camera (Sony 900 R) replacing the camera mic. Because of its size and box-like shape it brought on howls of protest from cameramen. The H4 has a head that looks like a small rugby ball with 6 mics in a standard surround sound speaker configuration which are fed into a Dolby Pro-Logic encoder which outputs the audio as a stereo signal with a left and a right. As a camera mic the H4 has several design flaws. It is big and boxy which affects the balance of a camera. The stereo signal comes out from a stereo mini plug that is placed at a right angle to the unit and is easily sheared off or knocked out, as happened on the first day of the shoot. Fortunately I was able to jury rig something together with a 90 degree stereo mini plug. Suprisingly there is only a crappy piece of foam intended for wind protection. On the ocean there is usually a fair bit of breeze, even on the calmest of days. For the shoot I recorded a lot of the ambient sound using my Sanken CS-5 sereo mic just in case everything off the Holophone was crap. While it wasn’t surround sound it was at least stereo.

A much better surround sound microphone to use would have been the Sanken WMS-5 which has way better separation and which is compact in size, being built into a single body housing suitable for mounting on a camera or a boom pole. Besides, there are necessary accessories like wind jammers available for the WMS-5.

I have often wondered about the wisdom of recording ambient sound during scenics off of a camera mic. It seems to me that quite often there is a lot of chatter going on between the cameraman and the director and or assistant. It’s usually about what filters to use, a discussion of how post just doesn’t get what they are trying to do, where to have dinner etc. Many directors I work with simply won’t have the camera mic on at all having been burned by inappropriate comments inadvertently recorded onto a camera mic. When I record ambient tracks for scenics I find myself standing well out of audio range of the cameraman and director.

For reasons stated above, I started seriously thinking about revamping my equipment package so I could better deal with the rigors of documentary projects. I had been seriously considering the Aaton Cantar but was hesitant having heard that there was a fairly steep learning curve involved in mastering this machine. My fears were somewhat mollified when I went to the NAB Conference in Las Vegas in April of 2008. I spent a solid 90 minutes at the Aaton Booth talking with a technician and going over the Cantar. On my return to Toronto I ordered a Cantar and #602 arrived about 6 weeks later. My friend and fellow sound recordist Ao Loo who was one of the early Cantar owners in Canada advised me to take things slowly. He said he started by using the Cantar on simple jobs that didn’t really require many of its features just to gain confidence in handling the recorder in a low stress environment. This was exactly what I did before embarking on a 40 shoot day shoot in Los Angeles earlier this summer.

My biggest concern with the Cantar was with the line out and the use of a line out booster. Much of my work is in documentary and low budget television series where the work flow of editors is set up to use the audio recorded to the camera. If I was to switch to the Cantar on a regular basis the audio sent from the line out of the Cantar would have to resemble that which I was sending out from my SQN mixer over the years.

I tried out 3 line level amplifiers that all work. Audio Services built one for me that sounds pretty good although to my ear it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Line-Out Booster +12 built by Aaton for the Cantar. That said I don’t think anyone in an edit suite would really notice the difference especially since most audio recorded to cameras is only of the 16 bit 48 Khz . variety. On the plus side the Audio Services built line level amplifier has a hirose connector from which I can power 2 wireless transmitters that I use to send to the camera and it only costs about 1/3 of the cost of the hand coiled line out booster sold by Aaton.

Audio Services built me another line level amplifier that sounded the best of all. It however, was a box the size of a paperback novel and was not practicable for use in the field on a doc. I will definitely use it in situations when I am doing prolonged sit-down interviews.

I have now been using the Cantar for about 7 weeks on a comedy/reality series in California and it is working out extremely well. I send the mix tracks 7 and 8 to the camera via wireless and burn DVDs of all the tracks for post where they can access iso tracks if needed. I have yet to use the Cantar to its full potential but this is an evolutionary process. Later this fall I have some dramatic work booked where I will be working off of a cart and will probably become more familiar with features like writing up sound reports, Arcan, the talkback mic etc.