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.

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