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Simple, elegant screenwriting.

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  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz
Monday
Sep102012

Production Audio is Ripe for Revolution

Dear companies that make production audio gear,

I love filmmaking. I love shooting. I love everything about the on-set experience.

Except recording audio.

When I’m filmmaking like a grown-up, I have someone else—an expert—handle dialogue recording. But often, it’s just me. Me and my portable audio recorder and expensive microphones and absolutely no frigging idea what I’m doing.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I truly get, in my bones, that poor production audio is the quickest way to sink an indie production. So I’m motivated to learn more about audio. I’ve tried, and tried. But it doesn’t stick.

My shotgun microphone has a little switch on it. That switch has two positions. One is the right one, one is the wrong one. You know what? It would be easier to just re-write this short to have no dialogue.

You’re probably thinking that I’m a lazy idiot. You might be right, but I think there are others like me too. Production audio is one of those fields populated by experts who have long forgotten what it was like to ever not have a complete grasp of hypercardioid patterns, phantom power, and 60Hz hum. To those experts, we who scratch our heads at those terms must seem so thickheaded. But trust me guys, this stuff you know forward and back is actually quite maddeningly opaque from the outside.

Audio is hard. And everyone who understands it seems to have forgotten that. So they suck at explaining it. And so here I sit, recording bad dialogue with many hundreds of dollars in gear, feeling like an idiot.

Or a tremendously underserved market.

The Revolution of Easy

Video is hard too. But people are working like crazy to revolutionize it so that people unable, unwilling, or just plain uninterested in becoming video or photo experts can still make great-looking images. 1080p cameras fit in the palm of your hand—and then employ elaborate stabilization methods to fix the jitter caused by their own weightlessness. Your iPhone merges multiple exposures into a single HDR the moment you press the virtual shutter button. And I, for my part, work hard daily to design color correction tools that make sense to anyone who has ever seen a lens or a ray of light. When I’m at my best, I can make anyone feel like a color correction expert. But I know I can do better. We’re all working really hard on the problem of helping you make the images you want.

Is this happening in audio as well? If it is, I don’t see it. I see evolution, not revolution. I see better tools for experts, not tools designed to make us idiots feel like experts.

Being a video nerd, I know that the imagery from that pocket HD camcorder isn’t stellar, and that the HDR capture from an iPhone isn’t as good as an exposure merge from a DSLR. But I also recognize that these consumer toys are helping people capture much, much better images than the enthusiastic amateur has ever been able to.

There’s a huge, untapped opportunity to do the same for audio.

Abuser Interface

Have you ever navigated the menu of a Zoom H4N? It’s like playing a Chinese knockoff of Tetris on a Gameboy that was run over by a car.

Like every filmmaker I’ve ever met, I own an iPhone. Build your portable audio recorder around that. Make a great app to control it. Sell a kit with a badass shotgun mic in a shockproof mount, one of those furry sock things, and a connector that connects to my iPhone (which you already know how to do).

But don’t just use the iPhone as a better screen for your crappy User Interface. Don’t even think it’s enough to use it as a platform for new, sexier UI. Put that little pocket supercomputer to work to make my life as a filmmaker easier.

Rate the quality of my incoming audio on the screen, live. Warn me when I have a bad echo, or background noise. Suggest fixes. I’ll move the mic around as instructed and watch the quality level change, and then stop moving when it’s great.

Listen for me saying the word “check” and set the audio levels automatically when you recognize that word. Flash an alert on the screen if you detect a hum. Or an airplane flying overhead.

Some Sony cameras have a mode that automatically snaps a photo when the subject smiles. Step up the tech, audio nerds. I know you can do this stuff.

The Wire

A good wireless lavalier kit goes for roughly four times the cost of an iPod touch, and suffers from radio interference and complexity. Build me a lapel mic that wires to an iPhone/iPod in my actor’s pocket and you just saved me endless headaches and hundreds of dollars.

Heck, I’ve never met an actor who didn’t have an iPhone. I’ll install the app on their phone and save a few more bucks. That way I can actually keep their data connection on, and your app can send recording levels and other reports to my phone, so I can monitor and control multiple mics on one touchscreen. Start and stop them all simultaneously with the push of a button (like GoPro already does with their pocket HD cameras). And let my intern log into the same account and tag the incoming audio files with slate info and other useful metadata, like the name of the character being recorded—all while we work.

Know that I have PluralEyes

Post isn’t easy, but it’s much more forgiving than production. You have time to correct your mistakes, and you have some truly magical tools at your disposal, such as PluralEyes. Recently acquired by my friends at Red Giant, this technology aligns sound and picture tracks based on audio waveforms. Which means that you can automatically sync your high-quality production audio with your video and its crummy scratch track from the camera mic.

This would be amazing if it wasn’t already so ubiquitous. The same tech is built-in to Final Cut Pro X. So build your audio tools assuming I have this auto-magical post-syncing capability. I don’t want or need a cable running from the recorders to my camera. Use your awesome tech to keep me nimble.

You could team up with Red Giant and other developers to make that software work even better. Make an iPad slating app that emits a special coded beep that contains the audio equivalent of a QR code. Every beep is a unique timecode signature. Post-production software could recognize that and sync dailies easily.

Or do you even need that? Aren’t all of our devices syncing to the same clock anyway? Aren’t there some amazing affordances possible based on that simple assumption?

Do Better

This is what I cam up with in one evening of pounding keys. But as we’ve established, I’m a lazy idiot. You’re the experts. Come up with stuff that makes my ideas seem trivial and silly.

I have money. I’d love to spend it on audio gear that makes me feel like the expert I’ll never be. I know that, like the vast majority of photographers and videographers, I’ll achieve much better results with revolutionarily easy tools than with expert gear. Democratize the one aspect of filmmaking that a new whiz-bang camera every few weeks can’t touch. The first one to do it will make all the others look like idiots.

I’ll be so happy to hand over the title.

Reader Comments (44)

"[...]But often, it’s just me. Me and my portable audio recorder and expensive microphones and absolutely no frigging idea what I’m doing.[...]"
Well said. Same is true for me.

And everytime I try to repair Audio in post using Audition I screw things up even more because I have no idea what all those great Plug ins actually do.

Even tough I don't have an iphone (;-)) it would be a blessing to have this kind of userfriendly gear you just described.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterPascal Fuerst

I hardly ever comment on blog posts but I kept laughing after reading each sentence because it is so true. The Zoom H4N is bad enough but forget about upgrading to something bigger like the Tascam DR-680. I have to read the manual before using it each time and that's just to know how to actually record. Forget about naming files. The same with the wireless mics. I spent a whole day thinking my wirelss mic was broken because of some setting called Pilot Tone being turned off that for some reason didn't allow it to sync with the base.

Great article, I hope people in the audio industry read it.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJose Mojica

The features you name, like HDR or smile detection, are not professional tools, they are entertainment tools.

Rate the quality of my incoming audio on the screen, live.

I think, a rating implementation can't be accurate enough, because it can't know your intentions. Maybe you want that airplane to be recorded. And maybe you then don't want to see a warning, although everything is running ok.
So you can't or wouldn't want to rely on it, therefore it would be entertainment, too.

Or would you like to have a rating on the picture quality in your viewfinder?

And thanks for that one:

Have you ever navigated the menu of a Zoom H4N? It’s like playing a Chinese knockoff of Tetris on a Gameboy that was run over by a car.

:-)

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterRingo Paulusch

Great points. Shared on Twitter + G+.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Daulton

I think you've got some seriously great ideas about creating more user friendly audio solutions. Specifically the iOS stuff. The iOS teleprompter app is really cool, as is the iOS slate app.

The idea of it setting levels automatically at the sound of "check" is a great one.

Some of the stuff that makes a good location sound engineer, though, falls largely on things only a person can do. Like turning the AC/ any nearby appliances off (and negotiating with whatever establishment to do so), placing sound blankets, and mic placement. I think the idea of it telling you to move the mic around may be a tough one because the recorder has no way of knowing whether or not you'e in an optimum place for the least slapback.

Audio is tough because "blemishes", if you will, (ground hum, noisy AC, etc.) are not so readily apparent as a misplaced light or an overexposed image, and to make matters worse are sometimes altogether unavoidable.

On the whole, I think you make a good point about more user friendly gear, but just as I wouldn't attempt to operate a camera without first familiarizing myself with its basic functions, a lot can be said for reading the manual. Usually on an iphone. That's what I do :)

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJustin Streck

I don't usually comment but this is terribly important for filmmakers. Love your ideas Stu.

Here are few more ideas.

Why don't cameras come with wireless receivers? One standard in every camera. So all you need is wireless mics that send to camera that records all the tracks of audio. This is more of a camera feature but it needs an industry standard because the Sony's of the world will try to push their standard.

All mics have transmitters. No more wires. Eradicate wires.

Talk to iPhones so they can transcribe or check script. Like Stu said, indicate a warning when something goes wrong with audio. Also indicate where it happened in the audio, so we can jump there and see what needs to be covered.

In post, please make audio editing more visual. Not just waveforms but maps of sound. Let's be able to edit that map. This would be great in production but could also be a pain.

I think part of the problem are sound guys, they don't want it to be easier. Their jobs are dependent on them overcoming the complications.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterAjit ap

Stu,

We have amazing image acquisition devices. Lighting instruments that are doing away with huge ballasts. It seems that the realm of true cinematic production is here. Oops! Audio.
This truly is the last nut to crack. I hope the folks at juicedlink are listening.

I gave up on protools, DAWs that for the life of me make no sense. Just want to get great audio. I hope in a few years we can get rid of the word "great" audio because it is always great audio, and do it all in a iOS based realm. Like, take that motrr device Galileo and put audio capture stuff in the base or built into an app using Mottrr's SDK.

Soon Stu.

Be well

Laurence

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterLaurence Zankowski

Stu, that was a fantastic post. And heartbreaking to be reminded of how audio is so far behind.

September 10, 2012 | Registered Commenterkimhill

LOL Stu I love this.

While I cannot relate on the difficulties side (I honestly have no issue with grasping the fundamentals of good production audio and don't find it hard), I do understand that some folks do. There are plenty of other things I struggle with.

But that's not my point.

My point is that I want what you are describing even though I have no struggle getting sound with existing tools. BTW don't forget that such an iPhone app should also include cloud syncing of all the individual audio recordings from each of your actors. In the world of such a controllable audio recorder app, why should we have to fuss with getting the full rez audio files off each individual recording device. Just upload the whole lot to Dropbox for me or some such.

Great stuff man.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterCarey Dissmore

Be careful Stu. Soon you'll want to be using auto focus too... ;-)

Justin makes a good point about discerning what you want/don't want in the recording. It's similar to why we've all spent too much time and money with all the follow focus accessories. The camera does't know what you want to focus on anymore than the mic's or recorders know what you want to hear. But it could be easier. A lot easier to get to a point where you get to decide or have options.

I agree things can be easier. Much easier. Specifically for integrating and using existing devices and protocols. Like, how about bluetooth guys? It's built-in to the device in every film makers pocket. Put a bluetooth transmitter on the mics(product idea), a receiver on every machine that wants to record the signal (zoom, iPhone, whatever) or a mixer that can combine all the signals and spit it out bluetooth to the camera(s) Could have redundant recording as well. Possible routing matrix is built in. So, yes, we'll also need a bluetooth device for the cameras too (product idea). Seeing how the bluetooth devices in our pockets also have wifi, a screen, a camera, storage, a phone, and many other hardware and software features (like a cpu and battery) but still remain very small, getting a hotshoe mount bluetooth device to plug into your camera seems achievable. The heavy lifting of hardware and calculations of standards are already in place.

Sure, there is latency to deal with, but I'd rather have a known offset to shift my audio tracks in post than to continue to struggle with all the cables, connectors, and post production problems. And don't get me started with the distance limits of bluetooth. Does anyone really have the camera out of line of sight distance to what they are shooting? (if so, you might not want to admit that...)

Also, how about *easy* analog solutions... Why is it that no one can figure out that instead of special clips and sharp pins needed to mount every laviler microphone out there that if they simply had a small thin flexible plate to attach some double stick tape, we'd get great mic placement and no one would get injured and be f@#$%ed when they lost that one little clip that no one seems to know how to replace?

Stu, did you say "echo" and "noise"? It's funny, my sub $100 bluetooth headset that receives and transmits AUDIO deals with echo and noise. Is it perfect every time? Nope. Ever heard of an on/off softswitch? Having something to "try" easily on set would be nice though. Is bluetooth perfect? No. But it won't introduce hum.

I like your thinking on some of your product ideas and I too hope someone is licking their chops with a compact, high quality, affordable, audio system they about to launch that changes everything.

Until then... waiting on sound.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJason Brown

waiting on sound

Dammit Jason. That should have been the title of this post.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterStu

:-)

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJason Brown

Stu,

While I agree that production audio is ripe for disruption, I have to disagree with most of your ideas. Not that those products wouldn't be helpful, but because many of them are impossible to achieve; at least not for any reasonable ROI. For example your idea of a recording device that can rate incoming audio. As some one else pointed out, you can't design a system that can guess intent. One man's hum or noise is another man's "ambience" for example
It would be too easy to dismiss your audio-phobia as the ramblings of a "lazy idiot" (which you clearly are not) but then I have heard them repeated so often by DP's and Editors that they need to be taken seriously.
There are lots of things that can be done to make audio easier. Mics that talk to mixers and automatically set the correct gain structure and power requirements; AGC that actually works like multiband processors used in broadcast operations; Wireless systems where you can "bump" the transmitter and receiver together and they tune to the same channel, and then make sure that channel is free of interference; Digital wireless mixer/camera links (these exist but are ridiculously expensive).
IMO-The biggest one by far is to eliminate double system audio altogether for solo operators. And here-in lies the problem. In the production world, especially in audio production, there are too many players. Large and small companies that think they have no vested interest in making audio easier. In the current industry environment what would make audio easier would involve standards committees, joint ventures and licensing agreements. I doubt any of the current players are interested, until someone starts stealing their market share.
For the most part the real revolutions in tech happen from start-ups with a vision. I've been waiting for one to start disrupting production audio, but at this point I am not sure it's going to happen.
One aside that I think helps prove the point. The organization that I work for just bought a Canon C300 and has a C500 on order. When we saw the Canon C300 road show earlier this year I asked if any of the short films that Canon funded, recorded the audio in the camera. the answer, NONE. Then I saw the specs. 16 bit audio. Yuck (believe me. 24 bit audio is the only way to go. ANY company making Pro products that record only16bit audio is in the wrong business ). This is not an isolated case. All the large camera manufacturers treat audio as an after thought. And the audio specialist companies can only do so much to make audio easy without the camera manufacturers co-operation. So again, a startup needs to lead the way, like Red did in Digital Cinema.

A few of quick points:
The lav to iphone idea ... nice idea, but the analog audio connector on an iPhone is and always will be unreliable.

Zoom H4n too hard to use? Buy a Tascam DR-100. Have someone help you set it up.
You almost never need to use the menus after that.

Lastly, operating a camera, lighting and all the production disciplines are fundamentally NOT easy. I think you oversell how easy technology has made shooting.

You said:
"Video is hard too. But people are working like crazy to revolutionize it so that people unable, unwilling, or just plain uninterested in becoming video or photo experts can still make great-looking images"

I couldn't disagree more. People ARE working hard at making video easier, but making "great look images" involves either skill or a lot of luck. Making great looking images consistently only results from skill and talent.

You said.
"Production audio is one of those fields populated by experts who have long forgotten what it was like to ever not have a complete grasp of hypercardioid patterns, phantom power, and 60Hz hum."
I've been doing audio for a long time and have NOT forgotten what it was like. I also think I am pretty good at teaching it ... except to people like you (no disrespect). I am for the most part self taught and I have no idea why it isn't as easy for you (and tens of thousands of other DP's and Editors) to figure out as it was for me or I how to make this stuff stick in anyone's brain, if they are not pre--disposed to learn it.
I suspect it has to do with visual vs. auditory learners and a bunch of other things no one has figured out yet.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJeff Beaumont

I hear you, Stu. Though right off the top, Bluetooth is not robust enough for the bandwidth needed. And when you get into professional level audio, you need big bandwidth. 1mb per minute. Not a terrible amount, but not small by some measure. The real trick is for more robust 802.11 transfer and syncing. (Now only if 802.11 had more bandwidth, so it wouldn't be disrupted by other nodes.) We have the usual problem that "sneaker net" and storage, has completely outstripped bandwidth (WiFi, wired, and even USB and CD/DVD).

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterKevin Bingham

Stu, you are on the right track with your envisioned wireless system, but there is a major stumbling block. The problem with using an iphone or ipod touch as part of a wireless mic system is that the Mic inputs on these devices have huge, widely varying frequency cutoffs. They are meant for people to hold telephone or skype conversations, not to record full frequency, high bit rate sound.

Although a few manufacturers make recording devices which plug into the iPhone dock connector to deliver full-frequency sound, these devices often require external power and are quite finicky. Not to mention that their compatibility is completely subject to Apple changing their dock connector and input/output standards at any time (which is exactly what is happening tomorrow on the new iphone). Likewise, you can hack a USB recording interface to write to an iphone/ipad using the Camera Connector kit, but again these require external power and Apple can kill the compatibility at any time.

The ultimate solution would be a wireless mic that plugs into the micro USB port on an android phone, which then transmits to an audio recorder via APT-X high bit rate bluetooth. The micro USB standard is set in stone, and APT-X will finally deliver audiophile quality sound over bluetooth.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterTyler Hersey

Well, you still need cables, but you can record to your iPod Touch/iPhone. It's basically a Zoom/Tascam that uses your iPhone.... device + software = under $200, but you need to have an iPhone or iTouch of course. Uses the dock connector after a mic-pre on xlr's, so no worries about the 3.5mm iPhone jack being bogus.

Alesis ProTrack
Handheld Stereo Recorder for iPod
http://www.alesis.com/protrack

and this App;

iProRecorder http://www.iprorecorder.com/

It's a step in the right direction (lots more work to be done though) and avoids all the problems mentioned here about reduced frequency response, bad connectors, etc. The software can even email you the .Wav files it records. No timecode (dealing with that for years though) Yes, .wav's and not compressed mp3 files. ;-)

This is a Rebel move of course, and as mentioned, when shooting like a grown up, "use a real sound guy. These "tech hacks" certainly wouldn't be embraced by lifelong sound recordists. But might rival them if you go for it. That's kinda the point though, isn't it?

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterJason Brown

I agree! I still can't remember if my shotgun mic should be switched to the straight line or the curved line. So it stays in the bag. Hey, Stu, you know what I want. I want a waveform eraser! When ever I get a stray pop or click on my audio, I want to be able to just "paint" out that little spike in the waveform.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Taylor

Oh God yes. I laughed out loud reading this. Several times, starting with the shotgun mike button. Bless you for writing it, and yes, someone out there who is smarter than me -- PLEASE make good audio easier for novices.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterBob Forward

Amen Stu.

I actually know a little something about audio. I'm not an expert, but I know enough to recognize that production audio for the rebel filmmaker is seriously lacking in usable tools that produce clean and professional sounding audio.

For remote location work or that which requires steadicam movements, etc., I've used a Sony PCM-D50 with either a lav or boom mic. I think it produces the best audio of the handheld recorders but its the least friendly on I/O.

For interview work, I just grab a MB Air, an MBOX and go direct into Pro Tools. Super easy.

Anyway, you seem to have some influence that many of us do not. Let's hope this post yields some discussion and maybe even movement on getting better audio products to market for rebel filmmaking applications.

Oh...your description of the Zoom H4N to start was spot on. I rented it for a gig in San Francisco in January of this year...it was awful. Your opening line had me laughing really hard man...as in my wife was like, "WTF is wrong with you!"

Cheers.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterSteve Holmes

I hate say it but the problem with getting good audio is not the equipment. Could it be friendlier? Absolutely! But the issue is that professional audio is it's own domain and requires an entire skill set that is separate from that of getting good images, and in my experience anyway it seems that most people in film and video can't be bothered to even try to learn it.

I understand that people just want to get great audio and not have to think too hard about it. They don't want to have to understand roll off filters, microphone pick up patterns, gain staging, noise reduction techniques, acoustics and so on, but this knowledge is exactly what is needed to get great audio. And no matter how much you might wish for a magic microphone that will always get it right no matter how you hold it or where you point it, that microphone doesn't exist and it isn't likely to any time soon.

For anyone who wants to learn more about the art and science of audio recording for video, there are references out there. For example, I think this one is a great reference for video work -> Producing Great Sound for Film and Video

It's not just the tools, it's how you use them, and you need to be constantly listening and adapting your approach because every room is different, every actor is different and so on. And that is why I don't think it is practical to build a system that gets it right enough of the time on its own to really accomplish what people want. Especially at the price and convenience level that most people would consider purchasing.

September 10, 2012 | Registered Commenterdavid ackerman

Love the post. I send a suggestion to Red some years ago suggesting that they take a look at creating a fully integrated cinema sound recording system right alongside of their cameras.

I've though a lot about the problems you covered and I've worked on some productions that thought they could fix the sound in post. They couldn't.

Her's my hardware/software solution:
A body-pack recorder that you put on every actor that
1. Records everything all day.
2. Has clock that lets the recorded audio be synced to the free-running camera time-code by automated post software plugins.
3. Communicates with the central sound recording system which has a wireless router. This sends medium quality audio back for the camera, video village and for on-set playback.
4. The body-packs automatically send the audio back to the central sound recording system in high quality but not necessary in real time.
5. Design the analog part of the body-pack with a wide enough dynamic range so that now volume needs to be set manually. (Maybe there some digital magic that helps control this.)
6. Body-pack records two tracks, one for dialog and one near the feet for foley cues (or direct use. I haven't tried this so it's blue sky.)
7. Central sound unit could have some script supervisor functions so that slating would not be required. Voice-to-text would annotate the script to show screen coverage. (Maybe even show ad lib dialog.)

Zaxcom has some body packs that do the recording and some of these functions but they cost more than the cameras.
http://www.zaxcom.com/trx900-digital-wireless-transceiver

I'd like to see something like this built using open software/open hardware. Kickstarter anyone?

I would put one of these body-packs with a lav on every cast member at the beginning of the day and have it record everything. I would also have one or more attached to plant mics and at least one boom mic.

If you can learn to set up a Kino Flo light or or set a variable density ND, you can learn to put a lav on a person so that it doesn't rustle. Your camera has a low pass filter in front of the sensor so you should be able to understand what a low pass filter is good for on a mic.

Recording good quality sound is often more important than the video. If you're not getting good sound, try harder.

If I were to build this it would not attached to an iPhone. I just can't live in Apple's walled garden even if it it is very pretty.

September 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterRob Shaver

I have many contradictory feelings regarding this...

Ease-of-use seems like a definite miss in the audio world. I own an H4n, and I love it, but yes, the user interface, let's put it this way, is old style. IIRC, I bought it because it was recommended at this very site :)

Also, transfering and storing the files could be a lot easier than it is.

And that "quality indicator" seems like a great idea too. I understand that the equipment will never actually know what I want, but an indicator would be useful. I will not switch to autofocus, but having focus peaking allows me to have a better grasp at what I'm doing and how well I'm doing it.

On the other hand...

Even with all that, the sound I record will most probably still suck. To get great audio, you need to know, say, where to put your blankets, just as you need to know where to put your lights if you want to get great images. No matter how easier the UI becomes, this will remain so.

But hey, we all could do with a little help from the manufacturers...

In the meantime, the closest solution we have to what many people are asking for here is having an H1 for each actor, and plural eyes for syncing in post. The H1 easy to use, and small enough to substitute a wireless transmitter. The quality is not on par with that of the H4n, but it probably is a lot better that anything you could achieve on an iphone accesory. Managing all those files and microSD cards can be a nightmare, though.

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterSamuel H

I totally love your description of the Zoom H4n, but I sort of like the "Chinese knockoff of Tetris on a Gameboy that was run over by a car" feel of it ;) At least more rugged than the cheap rounded feel of the earlier H4, and especially the iKey I had before that.

I also have a Benq S6, a UMPC that's about the bulkiness of a very pregnant iPhone but it boots Windows XP, can install/boot on a 32GB MicroSDHC card, has pretty decent battery life & one powered USB port (with an OTG cable, sufficient to drive some recording gear including H4n in USB mic mode), and runs Reaper just fine. That makes it one option for a handheld DAW.

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterPaul Steffen

First of all, let me thank you for writing your blog all these years. I’ve been reading it for a few years already and appreciate the effort and love your pour into it.
I was intrigued to find you mentioning audio for film, since this is a topic I got rather interested in. I had to learn the hard way about the value of good audio. Saying that, I now don’t find good audio hard or daunting. (I do find it a lot of work in post though.)
Most people, you, me and most of your readers tend to see problems from their own perspective. You are from what I gather a visual person. Or at least that’s where your journey started . (You have a special effects background and direct (amongst other things). So naturally you’d find these things easy. Just the other day a copy Mark Christiansen’s After Effects CS6 dropped into my post box. I own the CS4 and CS5 copies as well and consider myself fairly versed in AE but like to keep updated. And still this is a book which I can’t read on the train (or the loo). I actually need to have my computer next to me to work slowly through the updated sections. If I were to start fresh I think the book would freak me out. As a matter of fact, the menu of the FS100 would freak me out as well. Much more so than that of my Zoom H2. (I don’t own the H4N since I found the preamps a tad to noisy). I don’t think I could teach anyone Premiere Pro/After Effects in a weekend yet I think it would be perfectly possible to teach someone the basics of good audio recording. Furthermore it’s an art where money directly leads to quality and taste is not as important as in camera work.
Why is that? If a newbie were to spend 2000-3000$ on an R-26, a boom and good short shotgun (say an MKH 416) and a medium priced hypercardiod (say an Neumann KM 185) he/she would be all set for very good audio. The R-26 is dead easy to use, it actually finds the levels for you if you wish and is very clean for the price. I’m sure there are other alternatives as well. The mics are classics. Considerably less than 1000$ buys you an R-26 or H4n and an AT897 or ME66 which still deliver good sound.
All you then need to know is to point the mic straight or slightly below your actors mouth, to keep the mic as close as possible (two feet is too far!!!), to watch your levels and to remember pressing start when the camera starts rolling. In filming there are a hundred different possible camera angles, in sound recording there’s just one.
So why do we so often suck at getting good audio? Because we mostly enter the field via the visuals. We worry forever about the camera, think nothing about spending a few thousand dollars on a camera which is obsolete in two years time but complain about the price of good mics which last twenty years or longer. We tend to forget how hard it was to understand the difference between different colour models, forget how long it took to learn PP/AE and keep on doing what we love best.
Two or three afternoons spend reading the excellent books by Jay Rose (!!!) recommend by another reader above or Tomlinson Holman (which are both easy reads compared to anything on visual effects) teach all there is to know for fairly good audio. (not Hollywood but more than decent). 800 $ buy the entry ticket. A few days of practice teach the handling. We just need to pour the same effort and love into it that we are willing to pour into pictures and we get results that match our pictures. I love your suggestions btw since things should always be as easy as possible but we need to have an attitude change as well to get good audio. The tools are already there.

P.S. The same reasoning applies to a lot of other things in film making as well. Why are there so many “color grading tests” on youtube with good to stunning visuals and lame to unbearable plots? Because one easily falls into the trap of not thinking as a film makers but as DP. As a film maker /producer we need to have the entire film in mind. I notice that everytime you point this out on your blog, which never ceases to emphasize the importance of story and creativity, you get about three replies. Talking about a picture profile you get a hundred.

Again, many thanks for your work, I learned a lot from you.
Greetings from Munich,
Niklas

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterNiklas

If you are looking for a H4N done right you can also take a look at the Roland R-26. It has "human" controls and even has a special 'sense' button which will automagically sets up the audio levels according to the incoming audio during the 'sense' metering period.

But... i have to agree with some other posters; you just can't expect to get home with good audio if you are also busy making great shots at the same time. Just as you are constantly adjusting your camera's focus, zoom and positioning you can't set up your audio at the start and just have it work 100% all the time.

Recording good audio needs the attention of a dedicated person, if it's done by the camera man you alsways have a tradeoff. (just as you would have when the audio guy will operate the camera ;-) )

You can slam all the tech available today into a device but this still won't help you as "tech" doesn't know what you want to achieve. Please define good audio? You can't just as you can't define what's a good shot in technical measurable terms.

You probably spend a lot of thinking into selecting the right camera, lenses, composition etc... Then you also have to constantly adjust when shooting to get your focus right, deal with sunlight, deal with unwanted objects in you shot, etc.... I'm sorry to say but the same goes for your audio; it needs attention and insight :-)

To end with the R-26; the sense function is a great addition but we have had customers who just pushed the button and not say a word during the sense measurement... yep the sense sees this as a maximum gain setting because of the silence. For this kind of human error/stupidity no amount of tech can compensate.

(not native english speaking)

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterV Blok

Great post! I believe the problem with audio devices is they are not computers. Cameras have the same problem. Not computers. It's telling that the device to come to the rescue is a mobile computer.

I have recently realised that cameras are computers, but they just have a bespoke OS, no networking, and one app. Closed to (almost) all development.

It seems 'software will eat the world' and devices will need to get 'smart.' However, devices don't all have to become computers - they just need to talk to them. For a smart camera or smart audio device or smart light, I would imagine they are entirely run by iPhone apps. The devices themselves just have WiFi and are receptive to the computer. Then the intelligence Stu requires can begin to be accommodated.

September 11, 2012 | Registered Commenterbradbell.tv

The very best thing you as a maker of pictures (good ones, to be sure) can do to get good sound is find someone who makes that a specialty and develop a very solid working alliance.

And don't advocate for it all to converge on iStuff. I refuse to be held hostage by any company, let alone one as restrictive as Apple. Make it an open standard. That will spur development faster than letting the shiny-thing folks in Cupertino have the last word on everything, believe me.

We do also need, and may just be starting to see, real standards returning to image recording formats. Let's hope so.

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterAlan Lloyd

Long time reader, first time poster,

Let's get this out of the way first. Stu, huge props to you, for at LEAST two things.

1- All of your hard work in this crazy industry. Standing in awe.
2- "Telling it like it is" with acerbic humor and knee-slapping wit. Daily visitor, even if to just re-read yesterdays posts.

As a musician of 40 years (don't ask - you can't stay young forever), and, as a "lucky cuss who makes a wonderful living doing advertising photography, and, (stay with me), as a person who understood 12 years ago that "convergence" (not the rapture) was coming, I knew I had a massive learning curve to attack regarding moving pictures. So I dug in. Codecs, pulldown, 48 over 24 (I was hoping it was a reference to Kama Sutra at first), etc, etc. Headaches; headaches induced by self inflicted banging of my head on a wall in frustration. Not easy, what you moving picture guys have to know.
I digress; back to that 40 years as a musician thing. When I bought a "mic" for video, a bucket full of people thought I was insane. Schoeps CMIT5. Why? Because it's an Alexa; it's a Red Epic - times 10. And, I kid you not, it was "only" $2500.00 US. It's the sensor, and yes, it's got little bent and straight lines all over the side of the barrel.
Not insane. I knew how to "mic". I knew how to set levels. I knew how to use a limiter correctly. I knew what the straight line -vs- the "bent left side" line meant. My mic, on a boom, and managed by a competent sound person if budget allows, is always a "micron or two" out of frame. Makes my audio person nuts.So are my lights, and that makes my assistant nuts. But 30 years of lighting taught me how to light. And 40 years of audio taught me how to either get great audio alone, or hire a great talented sound operator. And always sounds wonderful. Room tone. AC hum. Yup - tricky. I was totally amused when I ran across the filmaker adage "audiences will tolerate 10 seconds of bad picture, but only 1 second of bad audio" or something like that. Guess if it was easy, it would be called something like "air-guitar". Could it be easier? Absolutely. And auto focus will put all focus-pullers out of work. Uh huh.
I guess it is just a lucky competitive advantage that I knew audio when the "rapture", er, "convergence" occurred, but my point (belabored to say the least) is that audio IS hard. Not easy. "pull-down" causes headaches. After Effects causes headaches. F2 focus causes headaches. Great story-telling causes headaches. Easy tools are wonderful, but they create nothing if not copious amounts of mediocre gorgeous pictures, devoid of the essential story. And please, bring on the properly "auto-recorded" cat meows, please. I am totally "onboard" with the "outboard" sound debacle - stupid - to a fault. But, sadly if you use an HDSLR, Its best practices at this time to be sure. ANd it's best practices if you have budget, period. I second that cheer for "24 bit" audio - it's "raw" for the most part, and as we all know, raw matters.

In closing - Stu, you rock. Hard. I own lots of Red Giant stuff, and LOVE "Looks" and Cosmo. And your wit slays me. But audio IS tough. For a reason. Like pulling a great key and lighting for it. There is "good" and there is "right".

If it was easy, then there wouldn't be signs in every music store warning the rookie guitarist - "No stairway to Heaven!!" -

Michael Schoenfeld
www.michaelschoenfeld.com

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterMichael Schoenfeld

When I’m filmmaking like a grown-up, I have someone else—an expert—handle dialogue recording. But often, it’s just me. Me and my portable audio recorder and expensive microphones and absolutely no frigging idea what I’m doing.

May I suggest that the sole operator is still, and will remain, a myth that is largely propagated by companies that want you to believe that you can do it all by yourself. It's not unreasonable to believe the hype until, as you note, you buy a Zoom H4n. I didn't buy this model because of the reasons you espouse. Or you take the sullied audio, largely from handling noise, back into post and cry.

Those of us that have bought the myth realise very early in the piece that it doesn't work as you are no doubt finding and lamenting. And you are not a beginner!

When we wake up from dream to reality we find we are constantly being reminded of this by the shows that we watch on TV, HBO and the like; filmmaking is a collaborative effort. You only have to watch the credits that roll at the end of ANY professionally produced show. High quality production values do not come from sole operators. Collaboration is the key.

September 11, 2012 | Registered Commenterstudio673

I read this post and just kept shaking my head as for years I've heard video/film people lament the issues they have with audio tools probably as much as I've heard and read about audio people having issues with techniques or technology (codecs/frame rates/ SMPTE etc.) in the video world.

Few audio engineers are going to look at a Davinci system and understand what it does or how to operate it. Yet Highlights, Midtones, and Blacks impact video pretty much the same way Highs, Mids and Lows interact in audio frequencies. There is so much common ground between the tools used to manipulate the two mediums it's almost laughable at times. Also take into account the majority of NLE's are designed by companies that also make the leading DAW's and you'll continue to see similarities in the tool sets.

Yet, people put up mental barriers. They can calculate DOF, but won't take the time to figure out three basic polar patterns. Personally, I like this fact as it's kept me employed for years in both worlds.

Honestly in the last six years, I think most audio equipment has been getting dumbed down for end users. The huge rise in the Prosumer gear designed for home audio engineers has resulted in vast amounts of presets to make things sound better.

Mark III's, Red Ones, Black Magic cropped sensors and pretty much the majority of cameras treat audio as an after thought. This forces videographers and film makers to use additional equipment to get the job done. So if you want good audio, you have to make it a priority. Take the time to learn it, practice it, and apply it. If that's not the road for you, then I'm sure there's a plethora of qualified audio engineers out there who'd be happy to come along and make sure your audio sounds awesome. They're just as valuable as a good DI in your post process, and you might learn a thing or two in the process.

September 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterEinar Johnson

Fantastic post, Stu!

I remember the nay-sayers on the subject of stills camera autofocus making all these same argument. "It isn't so hard really and you need a human making the decision...."

And guess what- a couple of decades on and cameras without autofocus are ultra-specialist items, and the autofocus is faster and more accurate than I am. That's because they figured out ways to make the technology support the operator as and when they needed it, and easy to over-ride when the autofocus started doing the wrong thing. (Half press to lock focus, recompose, shoot!)

What we need is a suite of tech that does that for audio. An auto-everthing mode to get you started and manual overrides to tweak what the auto system is doing. The means of doing those tweaks will evolve as we learn what the auto systems are good at and what they get fooled by. Initial efforts will be scorned and mocked by experts for being toys. By the second generation, you'll pass the 80:20 rule- 80% of the final result for 20% of the effort. By the third generation that'll be 90:10. By the fourth generation, everyone will take it for granted and only die-hards will insist on a manual-all-the-way system.

Starting point: self configuring kit. Why should I have to look up spec sheets to figure switch settings to plug a SINGLE JOB bit of kit like a microphone into a camera? For heaven's sake. Implement a decent handshaking protocol, plug-and-play and let the mic TELL the camera what settings it needs for optimum sound quality. Even if it is connected via a radio transmitter/receiver. The mic should talk to the transmitter, the transmitter to the receiver, and the receiver to the camera and everyone should set all their gains and line levels for optimum results (over-ridable somehow because you KNOW you'll be recording a jet engine at full throttle when you call action). Maybe ONE instruction at the camera end to set overall levels, with all the kit upstream responding to that by co-ordinating who sets what level according to how close they already are to their distortion ceiling, who has what headroom or is gained up more than they'd like to be.

The "well the system won't know I'm recording wind in the trees deliberately" argument is misguided. One can bet that clean dialogue is the number one objective so the first-gen systems should work on optimising that. Then add manual over-rides like program modes on a stills camera, "recording a sound effect" and "recording a wild track".

Certainly you'll still need to get the mic in as close as you can to what you want to record. In the same way that you need to point at stills camera at the right subject. The ideal state of tech is when THAT IS ALL YOU HAVE TO DO to get acceptable results, and with a tiny manual over-ride you get results 90% indistinguishable from what a dedicated crew person could have got you. Rebels can concentrate on getting it right at the front end and the tech takes care of the rest.

Our RED Scarlet has managed to distill the whole complexity of getting a clean video down to a picture to check sharpness and composition and a histogram which you keep between two goalposts, with idiot traffic lights if you clip. Even the enthusiastic amateur part-timers who help us crew find it a pleasure to shoot with. The science going on under the hood is furious, and yet the user interface is "does the picture look good on screen? Are we between the goalposts?" It has achieved the 80:20 rule for sure and the results we get are great.

There's no reason that sound recording shouldn't be polished and automated to a similar degree. We don't know what the optimum way of doing that is, because we're not at first generation automation yet. But if someone does it, in ten years every rebel will be using it and it twenty the only people doing it the only way will be Hollywood studios who can have a dedicated person for every crew position.

Bring it on!

P.S. Autofocus for video is only at the first generation stage, incidentally, before anyone jumps on why autofocus hasn't caught on for video the way it has for stills. In a few more generations, when the autofocus is a quick and as tuned for purpose as it has got on a pro SLR, we'll see how many rebels will be using it.

Cheers, Hywel

September 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterHywel Phillips

Great post, Stu.

I'm sorry that audio is hard for you. I've come to video in the last 5 years after being an audio guy for the last 15. Someone put it well above that video and audio have laughable similarities. The motivation for someone to learn both however seems to be a task that a lot of visual guys don't seem to want to do. The reason? Dialogue recording isn't sexy! Cinema is sexy. Shallow depth of field, color grade, special effects, camera angle, all of these among many others make the picture sexy! However, non of these things exist when it comes to dialogue recording.

Cinematic dialogue? The only thing that makes dialogue cinematic is the fact that no matter how far your actor is from the camera you can hear her speaking perfectly as if she were 2 feet away. We want our dialogue to be this way all the time. We want it to be clear, at a consistent level, and free of distraction. All of these things are not hard if you can get a shotgun within 2 feet of your actors mouth and pointed at her chin the entire time. The problem with this scenario is that with certain camera angles you're going to see the boom if the camera can see more than a foot over the actors head, and the actor is most often moving so you can't just leave the boom on a c-stand... Oh, and since cinema is driven by drama and drama comes most often between people, its likely that you're going to have two actors which requires an operator.

Sure, LAVs have made this easier to an extent as they are less than 2 feet from the actors mouth, but the problem with LAVs is they need to be wireless in most situations (again moving actors) and as they also can't be seen by the camera, they need to be small. Both of these requirements make LAVs either crappy, expensive, or overly technical. Don't get me started about why its so hard to make a good wireless transmission work properly, between transmitting the necessary bandwidth, multiple devices occupying that bandwidth, and FCA restrictions its amazing anyone can use a wireless LAV at all!

I do like your idea about making an iPhone a recording device. Perhaps someone will make a preamp/AD converter that can plug into an iPhone that isn't too bulky and either has its own power supply or doesn't use much of the iPhone battery. The iPhone battery is much to valuable a commodity to any actor to be wasted!

In short, an operator is often necessary. If you're making films, commercials, or any other video where your subject is moving and you want good dialogue recorded, you'll want someone with you who's job it is to operate that mic and recorder as focused and intentionally as you're operating your camera and lens.

By the way, if you're recording dialogue with your shotgun, place the switch on the side of your shotgun under the curved line. If you're not recording dialogue, place the switch under the flat one. I have a feeling you're being a bit facetious and probably know what that switch does, but nobody else commented on that phrase with an answer and I'm sure some of the people reading this will want to know.

_Aaron

September 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterAaron Ward

Hmmm...

So you specifically called out the "not on iOS" - and I'm not sure that anyone else really advocated that as specifically as I did.

OK, here's why: It's still a phone. A smartphone is still a gizmo designed to do nothing in particular. It's got audio and other limitations that would make it less than ideal (far less) for recording high-quality audio.

That said, there's no reason dedicated hardware can't be affordable and small enough to fit cleanly on or about someone's person in the production process. With the possible exception of not being able to amortize manufacturing costs over a run of millions, that is.

If you want to use a bodypack as a recorder, let it do this: Phantom power for a condenser lavalier, removable media storage (handy!), replaceable battery (much more so!), and multiple compression settings. Maybe two-channel recording, double mono with one channel 3 dB down, to cover someone getting a bit peaky. Have it record 24-bit audio at a good sample rate/bitrate and save it in a user-selectable file format. Have the minimal menu needed to give the operator a chance to write a descriptive file name, and auto-increment numbers on succeeding takes. And that is all it has to do. (Except maybe hit a time server to set up time-of-day timecode?)

The same tech could be made into a "butt plug" form to connect to a boom connector.

Of course, that means the sound op's job now entails collecting all the cards from the actors at lunch breaks to off-load cards, replace batteries, and possibly reset filename settings. Hey, he won't mind.

BTW, I'd feel the same way, though maybe less strongly, if you'd suggested Android or Blackberry. My real dislike for the idea has more to do with that "nothing in particular" factor than it does the Apple name. I'm not a fan of them, I'm just not irrational about it.

September 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterAlan Lloyd

I think the biggest road block for audio is people relying too much on their eyes and not on their ears. Maybe some cans that you wear and when the audio is sweet they warm up, and that warm fuzzy feeling will notify you... so you can focus on listening instead of looking...

I love the ideas presented in the blog as it would greatly enhance my rebel workflow... and really that's what it is all about: Accessibility.

It would also allow me to quickly train hobbyists for my personal (not professional) unpaid work and allow them to participate in the production process without getting overwhelmed.

As for me, I went to a school where we worked with sound engineers and sound designers twice a week, recorded a lot of sounds, and listened and critiqued them both raw and mixed... practice practice practice. Not everyone has the time and the money for that though, so these ideas in the blog both help train people (as much as a device can) and help them get comfortable doing the task.

As their comfort level increases they will be able to step up to more sophisticated kits and start using those ears more.

September 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterGrant Ellis

Hey, I read through most of that, some really great comments in this thread.

I was surprised not to see this, and maybe I missed it, but did all these people go by without anybody telling you what the switch on the mic does? Let me be the one!

It's called "Rolloff". It cuts rumble.

The straight line setting turns Rolloff "Off", effectively allowing all of the signal through. In straight line mode, the switch does nothing.

The Bendy line turns Rolloff "On", which rolls off the bottom end of the EQ, because rumble is bad audio. When you're in a building, you can sometimes hear the rumble of trucks or trains nearby. The mic is as sensitive to these low tones as it is to higher pitched tones. So cutting that before it is recorded is desirable in some situations. In other situations, for example a low male voice in a quiet room, you may wish to keep the full spectrum of audio.

If you look at the Equalizer on your stereo, the straight setting looks like this:
------------

The Bendy line is just rolling off the low end, looking like this:
__/---------

...but smoother than I can do in ascii. 8o)


But as a video guy, you may prefer to think of this as an audio "ND filter". Rumble in audio is like noisy shadows in video. Stepping the light down 2x with an ND filter before it hits the sensor is like culling the rumble before it gets recorded. Actually, no, it's not like an ND filter in that it only affects the shadows.

The other switch you might ever see on a mic is "-10" which is called a Pad, and just pulls the audio down 10 db, so that's more like an ND filter. The Rolloff is like an ND filter that only does shadows. Is there a metaphor for this? It's like a reverse sky filter?

And maybe that helps.
-Olaf
megooddrawguy.com

September 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterOlaf M

Sorry, one more thing I forgot to mention. The Rolloff switch is also used to deal with the proximity effect. Which is simply that when you get closer to a mic, the mic picks up more bass. (Except Omni Mics) Try it on yourself with headphones on. So if you're recording dialog both up close and from further away, the rolloff switch should help to keep the bass level of the voices sounding the same.
-Olaf

September 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterOlaf M

Here is my response to Stu's post:

Waiting on Sound...

Enjoy!

Best Regards, Chris!

September 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterChris Hocking

hmmmm,

I agree with some of the criticism of UI's, those micro recorders are horrid. But your aiming at what I think is the huge mistake Apple is making with development, and that is the dumbing down of everything and deciding how your users should do something. Some of what you suggest might be doable, though it's no where as simple as you imply. IF you point a camera that is what it sees. If you point a microphone at something that is what it will hear best, but it will also hear everything else. And despite your comment about not telling you where to point the mic that is exactly what you asked for, a recorder that would tell you where to point the mic.

Unfortunately that is closer to an app that tells you what the best shot is, and that doesn't exist now either.

And my big problem with all of it is that it's based on a couple of fundamental assumptions that I think are false.

That technology is all that is keeping someone who knows nothing about a process, and really isn't all that interested in learning, from being great at it.

The sad truth is that to be good at something you actually do have to put in some effort. You do have to have some idea about what you want to do and you do have to pay attention.

Other than the UI issues most of what your asking for kind of exists. The problem is that none of it really helps you get good sound, just some sound. Camera mount your video mic and turn on AGC, done!

The catch is that you will then end up comparing it to someone who actually took some time and put in some effort and by comparison it will sound like crap.

You do a lot of visual magic that I would love to be able to do. There is no After Effects AUTO where I can just tell it what I want and it does it. So why would you assume that you could do the same with sound?

You may get some "offended" sound people posts since the whole thing could be taken as a bit of an insult. But then you probably don't have many sound readers?
I don't think that is what you are getting at. I think you are a very talented visual guy and just want to get some decent sound with out having to go through all the time and effort it took you to be good at visuals. I get it and would love the reverse. It's mind numbingly difficult to do visual FX in AF. Why are there so many little things the go all over the place and why do I need to use invisible objects to connect things to so I can get them to move together?????

But if by some weird trick Adobe managed to do that would I be happy with the results? Probably not. They would look caned and uninteresting. I'm sure you would point out how your not going to get great results till you spend some time learning something about visual FX.

And yet production sound is much more complicated, AND in real time.

Many folks do use mini recorders with a lav and stick them in someones pocket. It works great till it doesn't and you don't know it didn't till after the shoot because nobody was monitoring. If you shot a film with out looking through the viewfinder or having a screen. How good do you think it would look? Great when the actors were in the right place and then not so great when you were cutting off the top of their heads.

So I hear the frustration and I can see some of the points but most is just a "I want my cake and I don't want to pay" argument.

September 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterScott Koue

Dear Stu,

I’ve been a sound recordist on a few indie feature films, a few TV shows and recorded hours of music.

But I started out in film school in the cinematography department, and I have shot (and cut) my share of DVDs, TVCs and what not.

In the dim dark days of the 90s we still had the remnants of the apprenticeship system where you started as a camera assistant in television, which meant you carried the tripod, unpacked the car...oh yeah, you did the sound too.

This ‘sound is the inglorious bastard mutant stepchild of picture’ attitude has strangely reared its head from the mouths of the camera folk since before I knew one end of a BVW-400a from the other.

Yet imagine if the sound guy started moaning about having to ‘get pictures’? Imagine the stupefied look on the director’s face if you said “we need to get good audio and we are in a hurry – let’s do this one without pictures...”

We all need to grow up a little. Really. It’s been more than a hundred years since we’ve had movie cameras and sound recording. It amazes me still that 2 things basically pioneered by the same guy took so long to synchronize, and then continued to act like step-siblings in a Will Farrell calamity.

Now, on to Stu’s specific problems. The obvious answer is you can make a great feature film with a couple of guys and a Handicam. It’s not just the gear – but in the right hands you can get from good to great faster than you can say Mysterium-X / Telefunken 270. Gear can really help.

Dumbing it down does what? Sure – an iPhone is convenient (though staggeringly expensive on my side of the planet). But convenience and ‘ease of use’ come at a price compared to even a 7D and 1 decent prime lens. Much of the audience can’t tell or doesn’t care, perhaps. But it matters to me. And I don’t like to assume the audience is ignorant of quality.

Yes, cheap audio gear, like the H4n (which I own) can be hard to navigate. That’s the fault of the marketing people at Zoom (etc.) trying to cram too many features to ‘up the value’.
Most of which you need like the ‘star wipe’ preset in your NLE.

Strangely – the more you pay for audio gear, the fewer features you get, and the better (and easier) it works. Go figure.

You want a revolution? Get the guys who make the affordable (engineering plastic instead of metal?) mid range gear to take on the stranglehold that 2 or 3 companies have in the location recorder or mixer market.

Take all the stupid software and ‘features’ out and give me a digital version of a Nagra tape recorder...Record, Stop, Playback, maybe timecode in for an extra $100.

Audio Technica (my opinion of course) is turning out credible products (microphones) at prices even those of us paying in Pacific Pesos can cope with. And they still make some of it in Japan! They make cheap stuff I don’t prefer, but they have 3 or more tiers for their microphones, and you get much greater quality even at the bottom of the market than a great many generic brands.

So maybe there is room for improvement in some areas – and maybe we need to put brand prejudice aside in some other areas.

But we still hit two problems. You can only do so much with two hands. And, you can only be an ‘expert’ at so many things.

I know a butt load (possibly where I’m speaking from) about sound, camera and post. I’ve had to, because often my projects have such limited resources, the only way it’s going to happen is me, a camera and a laptop to finish it on. I would happily describe myself as competent. I’m obviously good enough that you’ve heard my work on Good Morning America (shameless name drop). And a few of the world’s largest corporations have unwittingly or not used my camera work and lighting.

I’m tooting my (tiny) horn to say I’m not a Noob. But I have seasons in each field and still find that one suffers mentally when I concentrate in earnest on the other.

I can keep the competency up...but I think it’s not the best I can do when I’m doing more than 1 thing at a time - like lighting, camera, sound and directing.

What I can do is take them one at a time – and work a checklist of long held practices to set it all up. But this takes longer, and only really works when we are set up on a location that’s controlled. It’s not a useful strategy for ‘run and gun’ or even ‘off the cuff’.

At the end of the day (and this wildly long winded response) you need help.

You need a sound guy because you can’t run a camera and a mixer at the same time – even if you have the mixer on the camera.

Just because you’ve ‘set the levels’ doesn’t mean that the sound no longer needs attention. Just as you don’t usually lock the camera off all day (you might want to tidy your framing between questions) you shouldn’t ‘lock the sound off.’

And one microphone (especially an ‘affordable’ radio lapel) does not rule them all. Just as you might ‘prefer’ more than one lens.

In the days of real cameras – when Betacam roamed the earth at $50,000 body only – we had balanced XLR inputs, manual control and even audio levels in the viewfinder. But we still felt the need for a real sound recordist with a selection of mics and a mixer.

If the budget was lower (network TV) you at least left the camera assistant in charge of ‘watching’ (see the poor nomenclature there) the audio. Why? Because you need someone, even a neophyte assistant, to watch the levels and pay attention to the sound. Because the camera operator is distracted...I mean occupied... with the highly skilled job of running the camera and framing shots etc.

You need someone to do sound, and someone to do camera.

It’s possible to direct and star in your own film – but even that’s consecutively, not concurrently. You can only really do one thing at a time if you want to do it well. Some of us (Mr.Costner, Mr. Eastwood) can manage our time better than others. But these guys have help. They’re not really doing it ‘all’ on their own. Now imagine you have a Panavision 35mm to run. And 8 tracks of dialogue to record.

When you start adding gear, it starts looking like a ‘crew’ even of two might make for better filmmaking.

The real revolution may be to start encouraging film school students to aspire to be Michael Hedges, Christopher Boyes, Ben Burt, Randy Thom, Mike Coffee, or Glenn Trew. Famed cinematographer Haskel Wexler’s son is a noted sound guy.

New gear? Who doesn’t think there is always room for improvement? Sadly, audio gear is actually cheaper and more plentiful than video gear, and easier to use – but it’s the music industry that’s figured this out because they hang out at Guitar Centre (don’t be a hater) instead of RedUser.

All this cheap gear has led to a swamp of ill conceived or poorly produced music. Just like cheap HD has lead to...YouTube. So it’s about even.

Cheaper gear doesn’t make things better, just more accessible – it’s still talent, hard work and many hands.

Sound will continue to be a mystery to many filmmakers, but I assure you, if you just ask there will be someone willing to take the same loving approach to what Mr. Lucas described as “...more than 50% of the motion picture experience” as you do for your images, your script or your effects.

Oh, and consider giving them a comparable budget and respect on set.

September 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterDC Patterson

Creating a great soundtrack, is more than capturing it on set.
As a re-recording mixer, I can tell you that there are times when a project still ends up sounding good in spite of the location sound recorder.

September 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark Hensley

I agree 100% with everything in that post.

September 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterEugenio Triana

Great post and responses. I would like to add one suggestion, as another musician turned, um..., filmmaker or whatever I'm supposed to call it these days. The one thing everybody seems to forget when it comes to sound is to use your.....ready? Eyes.
Look around the room. Is it too small? Are there parallel Sheetrock walls and ceilings? Are there too many hard surfaces near the actor that are giving you harsh reflections? Is the "wood" floor coated with several coats of polyurethane? If it is, sonically it's plastic. Conversely the wood in an old church or (ironically) a funky bar with unsealed wood and lots of angles will give you soul. Or if you like, diffusion.No standing waves and lots of pores and irregularities.
One thing I've learned about set building is: you don't have to shoot every square inch of the set especially if it looks like crap. So if you think the room SOUNDS like crap, go somewhere else. Or change the mic position.Or change the room.
How? We used to hang a lot of packing blankets and though that doesn't really get rid of all the lower nasty frequency stuff it's a LOT better than nothing. You know whats really cool? If you're doing a V.O. (or singer) in a crappy room go grab a mattress and stand it up next to the performer. Huge difference. Sucking up a lot of sonic garbage.
Now I realize this isn't always practical but more times than not if you make some little changes it will be a little bit better and those little bits really add up.
Oh yeah. And the great mic thing is key and DON'T overdrive your preamp or go above zero in any digital recordings, but you already knew that.

September 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterBilly Barber

You can no more get good sound by buying expensive gear,than you can become a great guitar player by simply buying the most expensive guitar.

If you want to be good at anything, it takes time, skill and talent.

September 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterMark Hensley

WARNING: LONG RANT TO FOLLOW (may not include structure)

I've been editing video for 15 years now but have been very much into audio as well. Back when earning a video production degree, I realized early on that a great soundtrack was one half of a great video causing me to change to a double major in video/audio with a minor in music. Video without audio is surveillance after all:) ( a quote from my audio professor)

In fact, audiences will forgive visual issues if the audio is smooth and engaging. I find it immensely difficult to sit through any film with unintelligible, badly edited and mixed audio - even if the visuals are powerful.

Audio is the glue that holds the scene together. Drastic shifts in roomtone, grainy dialogue, shoe-horned ADR, radio mic pops, glitchy edits and badly regulated low end seem to be a common problem of indie work- I know because I've learned the hard way many times and each year I am invited to alumni screenings of student work from my alma mater; the imagery keeps getting better, but the audio remains the same.

There is a reason movie studios use "sound stages"- plenty of space for camera movement and lighting, the sets allow for easy camera placement (walls can be taken out, no ceiling to deal with) and they are quiet, echo free and big.

Quiet spaces allow the actors to be subtle in their performance without dropping below an acceptable ratio of noise/dialogue in the recording.

The wall treatments remove the room from the recording and allow those decisions of dimension to be handled by the sound mixer in post. Also, by removing noise and reverb its easy to make edits in the dialogue without noticing the shifts in the background noise.

The fact that the sound stages are huge means that all sound frequencies can develop without folding in on themselves. Just like blowing in a Coke bottle, small rooms have resonant frequencies that build up depending on their dimensions. Unfortunately, they do two things 1.) create more low end sound energy and 2.) color your dialogue (normally makes it muddy). The excess low end energy can stress the mic preamp or A/D converter in your recorder. That's what the high pass filter is for. Cut out the lows BEFORE they get to the recorder. Realize that many digital recorders apply their EQ as a DSP filter AFTER the audio has been digitized.

The point to all this? Since most of us can't work in a sound stage, we must try to find locations that handle our visual needs as well as our audio needs. When you are stuck, anything you can do to absorb some of the hard reflections or trap low frequencies will help.

Also, remember that there are two categories of shotgun mics - short and long with designed for different recording scenarios. A long shotgun used in a highly reflective indoor environment may be a very bad idea unless you like the sound of dialogue reflected off of tile.

Additionally, if you want crisp dialogue that pops, consider renting a high quality shotgun. The fact that shotgun mics haven't "evolved" as fast as cameras means that the daily rental rates are very low because quality audio gear has a very long lifespan. That $4000 Shoeps may be had for $25-50/day and they may even offer two-day weeks.

I do wish quality, reliable radio mics were cheaper but we've all got to realize that they are made up of a quality mic element, a quality preamp, rock solid error correction checking and a quality, low latency, highly reliable, multi-channel digital transmitter that has to be licensed by the FTC. Perhaps if manufacturers could leverage wifi and develop a standard with acceptable low latency, ECC and audio fidelity camera manufacturers could build the receiver into the camera and simplify the life of the one-man band and I believe the certification process is cheaper for wifi devices.

Speaking of the one-man-band. It is becoming quite common in certain markets and it is the most demanding thing to do in production. Camera operation takes a lot of attention and effort to get right - audio always seems to be second banana and I'm not sure if our brains can handle the multi-tasking. If you are the poor soul who is also the interviewer, my prayers go out to you. The best thing you can do is ask the client for lots of setup time, keep your visuals simple and have an audio rig that is simple and predictable, and maybe lower the client's expectations and plead for an audio op...

ON THE POST SIDE
The audio world has been attempting to offer preset based solutions to simplify audio post but the reality is each sound is different in nature, our brain processes audio in a different way then a computer can, quality can be enhanced in post but not created and the path to outstanding audio is a lot of elbow grease.

Software IS evolving. DAW's are incorporating "spectral waveforms" - color coded waveforms that depict intensity and frequency. Once reserved for high end workstations, there are now plugins that allow for visual spectral repair - you can erase that cell phone ring visually while leaving the dialogue underneath unaffected.

Noise reduction is perhaps the hardest thing to deal with in post- especially if audio isn't your thing. Its normally done through multi-band expansion, precision noise gating and a whole host of software plugins, but the bottom line is that each one has a tradeoff and will create artifacts in your dialogue - so far no magic bullet - especially for random transient background noise.

Way easier to record in a quiet location. I normally try my best and if that isn't good enough, a piece of music underscore can help cover some of the noise reduction artifacts or gating artifacts and adding a sfx to your walla can help cover hard edits- masking is your friend.

For most of the documentary style pieces I cut, reading books about dialogue editing has been the most helpful continuing education I could have done. Dialogue doesn't start clean it is made to be clean with lots of editorial elbow grease that is never noticed because amazing dialogue editing is transparent. I replacing all breaths, squeaks, and human body noises with roomtone - period. I only keep sounds that add to the emotion or story. By sterilizing the noisy dialogue track, the words can be felt rather than heard. Good books on dialogue editing have techiques for each and every scenario. John Purcell's book may be the bible.

I find that 60% of my time and effort goes into editing and leveling the dialogue tracks and then the other 40% goes into automating the music mix, using bus effects to achieve cohesion between dialogue, VO, music and sfx stems.

In general, I would advise those daunted by the complexity of DAW plugins to simply skip them and use editing, gain leveling, crossfading and level automation until you get a good mix. That is 90% of where your effort should go. Compressors are basically automatic fader riders that respond to the signal in different ways. You can also be a fader rider too. Just draw in automation data or use a control surface, keep rewinding until you get it right. Congratulations, you are a brain powered compressor.

That last 10% IS important in achieving cohesion and dimension, but the mix you have achieved without will still be pretty darn good and using a few weekends to listen to reverb,eq and compression tutorials on Youtube may get you even further. Just beware that once you start heading down the rabbit hole there is no turning back. What I both love and hate about my career is that there is always room for improvement and more to learn. Once you think you are an expert you meet someone who makes you feel like a novice, but while the road can be long and confusing, you are guaranteed to improve.

THE FUTURE
Video editing packages are evolving too. Avid now allows for limited use of RTAS plugins (no automating though) and no bus effects. Being able to at least throw some one-size-fits-all EQ, compression, gating on your dialogue to bring it out or some EQ on your music to make it fight less with the dialogue is a real boon for creating much nicer rough cuts. Unlike Avid, FCP lets you edit down to the sample for more precise dialogue edits and has shortcuts that speed up dialogue leveling. Hell, Sony Vegas began as a DAW and then added video editing so it probably offers the most in that regard.

Why use a DAW? For now we must because video programs still don't contatin all the editing, workflow and mixing tools available in DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic and Nuendo. One day Avid and Pro Tools will merge, but it will be akin to two galaxies swirling into one another and we may not live to see it.

OK TIMES UP
Gotta get back to work - sorry for the rant. I find the topic interesting and my Avid was transcoding RED footage and you know what that means:)

September 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterRobert Bowlus
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