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.

Aug 18, 2008

Here are some examples of what I was talking about in my article "Content vs. Visual." The smaller of the cameras is the Sony EX1 which is sitting on a tripod and the two pictures of the larger camera being held up by an assistant are of a Sony 900 R full sized high definition camera. The rigs are very clumsy in the field and totally unsuitable for extended hand-held shooting.

Aug 13, 2008

Content vs. Visual

Content vs. Visual

Film is a visual medium and it is only natural that the visual dominate over other elements that comprise a finished film, like sound and music. There is however, inherent in this a contradiction when dealing with documentary film. While acknowledging the importance of the visual image, the task at hand in many docs is to capture the essence of the moment – especially in event driven documentaries where something is unlikely to be repeated. To capture those spontaneous moments requires the skill and ingenuity of the DOP and the sound recordist as they work in unison as a team. There is no time for contrived artifice and artistry. One has to rely on instinct and common sense.

This past year I have had occasion to work on a couple of documentary projects that left me baffled as to their slavish subjugation to the visual at the expense of content. In both cases I was working with cameramen who had acquired adapters for their cameras that enabled them to use photographic or prime lenses. These lenses, unlike the usual video lenses, are of fixed focal length meaning that there is no zoom. They also necessitate the use of an awkward adapter that relegates the camera almost unusable for hand held work.
In one case I was working with a cameraman who was using the new Sony handycam EX1 that records to flash cards. We had been shooting for several hours off of a tripod when suddenly our subjects began to move around the room and interact with others. As they were wired for sound the director suggested that perhaps we ought to follow them around by going hand held. The cameraman’s response was unequivocal – “I am a very good hand held shooter and I’ve done a lot of verité work but we are not set up for this. It would take me awhile to break down the camera.”
I thought to myself, wave goodbye to another potentially great moment in Canadian documentary.

In the second case I was working with a cameraman who had outfitted his Sony 900-R with this adapter. We were shooting at a conference, following one of the presenters. During the speech I watched as the cameraman and his assistant changed lenses at least a dozen times. When it came down to following our presenter to catch his exit from the conference hall we still had to make a further lens change followed by some awkward adjustments as the camera just didn’t want to sit on the shoulder and then the cameraman couldn’t get his hand comfortably to the lens to adjust focus. Needless to say we didn’t get any “B” roll.

I bring this up, not because I bear any malice to cameramen and their pursuit of the perfect image, but as a matter of practicality. During drama and commercial shoots I will sit and uncritically wait while a scene is turned around or lighting is tweaked and fine- tuned. On documentaries I have watched cameramen fiddle with filters and matte-boxes during magic hour shooting scenics that are so very necessary for the project. What I find disturbing is this trend of sacrificing content in pursuit of visual style in projects that are verité documentaries by nature, where we miss the moment (or a lot of moments) because of a lens change or because we are unable to put the camera on the shoulder. It seems a sure recipe for making inferior docs filled with eye candy.


May 5, 2008