Boots and Cats: An Alternative Approach to Beat Box Miking

If there's one thing I've learned in my years working in production sound it's always leave an extra boot for your cat. Despite, possibly being good advice, that is actually not what this is about. Sorry, cat enthusiasts! Actually, I recently worked on a TV commercial that had an interesting concept / request from me (no, no cats yet). This commercial was going to air all over Europe in many countries that speak different languages, so they didn't want spoken word in the commercial in order to keep it universal and without subtitles. So, fast forward through some creative process and they landed on the idea of doing a commercial with 8 beat boxers with on-screen microphones. So, they came to me to strategize the best gear and techniques to achieve this.

Normally, beat boxers perform into an affordable dynamic microphone you'd commonly see on stage such as a Shure SM58; it's not the most clear broadcast sound out there, especially compared to a standard professional boom microphone or a studio microphone but the way it handles plosives is pleasing for many beat boxers. You get the plosives but it reproduces it in a very low frequency that doesn't quite sound like a plosive, rather, just flat bass. These microphones can also handle the abusive way beat boxers hold them and project into them. There are also other microphones specifically designed for types of beat boxing that wraps around the neck and throat, called a "throat microphone".

However, since the microphone would be on-screen, the creative team didn't like the look of either, a throat mic or handheld mic, rather, they wanted 8 beautiful brand new looking Neumann U87s on stands with no pop filters... plus 4 backups. I stand there wide-eyed. Not only was this almost impossible to find, but this extremely nice, beautiful and expensive microphone is not right for this kind of use. Despite loving this microphone very much for studio work, VOs, ADR, and music recording, it does not handle plosives well AT ALL; it is very clear and natural sounding, so wind and pops sound like wind and pops. I considered looking for U87 shells and placing an SM58 or similar inside, but the shells alone were much more difficult to find than actual working microphones.

We ended up getting the microphones, and plenty of backups. I hardwired these into my SD 664 and tested them out on the day. Once talent arrived, I, the Director, AD and the two beat boxing coaches discussed techniques with the talent. In the creative, the beat boxers are not meant to appear as professional beat boxers, nor were they in real life, which may have made them more coachable or flexible on what we were trying to achieve aurally. We kept the talent's mouths above and a certain distance from the microphone elements in order to not get unpleasant plosives; this also helped the visual because this way it was easier to see their faces. I still had some concerns until testing this out. They sounded surprisingly good in terms of response to the beat boxing the performers were performing that day. The beat boxing was not particularly aggressive; rather much humming and singing without lyrics. We had some more traditional beat boxing, but nothing too crazy for the U87s.  I did ride the low cut filters liberally, however, and having 8 microphones / "instruments" made mixing easier in case some sounds were, in fact, too much for the U87.

It was interesting working on something like this and to understand that the voices I am recording are not standard voices, rather they're an instrument and should / can be miked very differently from vocals, especially speech. You just need to get out of the mindset that this is not talking and it's its own instrument, along with being flexible and communicative with the creative side on what can we do or at least experiment with. The final product came out great both visually and aurally.

Live Sound: Now We're Mixing!

For over 7 years, I've been field sound mixing, booming and occasionally working as a sound utility for sound for video in Theatrical Film, TV, web, etc. In addition, for more than the past year, I've had the opportunity of working as an A1, A2, rigger and general A/V technician in live sound and audio/visual work on a regular basis and figured it would be a good experience in perhaps more ways than I could imagine. Sure, I've learned some technical things in live sound and A/V work, but what was more interesting was the difference in workflow, priorities, work venues, expectations of me as a team member and people's respect towards the sound department. It's not good to get too comfortable for too long, so stepping out of my element has humbled myself and got my brain to open to learning new ideas. The challenges as a Sound Engineer in both industries are definitely different and working in the same field in another industry has been an eye and ear opening venture as a Location Sound Mixer.

Live Sound Challenges: 

Problem solving during a live show while staying invisible and professional: Working in high end corporate A/V has stressed this a lot. The client may not care as much about sound quality as others but the attitude, and appearance or lack thereof is critical. How did the show go
Having a good mix in a technical AND artistic sense
If it's music, know how the instruments and songs/music should sound: Rock, R&B, Hip Hop, classical, it's not all the same. Certain instruments are bigger players in certain music and certain audiences like a certain mix. Some just gotta feel that bass and kick whereas some prefer the clarity of a guitar or violin. I've learned that if you become an audience member, your instincts will often lead you in the right direction. This has been making me think more about how not every client, audience or platform are the same, especially nowadays, not everyone is watching videos on a big screen or TV; I'm looking at you mobile devices and your varying dynamically narrow speakers!
It's LIVE. There's no "We'll fix it in post": This is it. What you hear is what you get. If something goes wrong, keeping it smooth is part of the job. I have a lot of respect for live sound engineers. Multitasking, tuning people out and making it all seem intentional becomes 2nd nature.
Mixing a lot more tracks: Also having a much larger backend. The Routing can get pretty crazy. Thank you for CAT5 and Duggan automix. But honestly, not sure it competes with mixing 6+ tracks in the field while booming and no line of sight of some talent.
Deal with speakers and feedback: Very unique challenge and frustrates me when I have to compromise sound quality for it. Again, different priorities. This is sound REINFORCEMENT really. Not only does the audience need to hear but so does the band who's holding microphones... right in front of monitor speakers... just feet away pointed right at them...
Equalization / make bad sound sound good: Watch this 1 minute video below, you'll see what I mean, and maybe laugh a bit

Sound for Video Challenges:

RF Coordination at NBA Draft event was critical
Hiding mics and all thought of sound: My head would get chopped off if a hidden lavaliere was bulging from under an actor's shirt. Being able to clip on a mic to a tie or give someone a handheld mic in live sound feels like I'm cheating in life. But miking high end corporates for an everyday speech reminds me we're all humans. I'm still convinced there's a few robots out there though, not letting my guard down yet : |
Getting broadcast quality sound: Mic placement is the most important part of my job. Clean reliable sound is critical and the best equipment is necessary. In live sound, some people love DISTORTED!!! sound, whereas we expect technically perfect sound when watching a TV show or movie. But EQing in live sound has made me understand the quality of sound and voice a lot better from a scientific perspective.
Working around the visuals: "Boom's in the shot!" Boy, do I not miss hearing that. Or, "Can we shut off the loud generator that's powering the lights, fog machine, and noisy camera? My mics are picking it up" "No! Figure it out! Get perfect sound and don't bother me!" Being a sound mixer for video, sound is seen as one of the last pieces of the machine, almost an afterthought, despite being arguably the most important part.
Having a smaller team / no team: Depending on the job, I usually work alone in sound department. I've never worked alone in live sound or A/V and the sound team and visuals team are really all the same team in A/V and are expected to do both jobs. It was a bit of a culture shock at first.
Being mobile with a boom pole: I can't exactly wear a suit and tie or be out of shape. 12 hour days wearing 20+ lbs of gear and carrying 50-70 lbs through mud requires MERELLS! Buy Merrell boots and let's get outside. Crush your limits ; )
Working in a different uncontrollable location every day: Unwanted sounds such as neighbors, traffic, construction, poor acoustics, thin walls, A/C, plumbing, etc. are a major issue along with competing wireless frequencies and I'm not given a tech scout on hardly any jobs. It's not my "house" and here in NYC an FCC license won't actually do anything useful. In sound for video, I am always in different locations every day and have no control over the location or surrounding location's wireless field. Therefore, I must learn and use every possible trick to getting a clean wireless signal, whether it's using the best gear, or using science to my advantage.

Coordinating 14+ wireless mics is
living on the edge
A live sound engineer is not exactly comparable to simply the "on-location sound mixer" for video, but also the post sound team combined. I've been learning how to EQ, mix 20 or so tracks at a time (up to about 100 microphones), deal with speakers, avoid feedback, compensate for how slow sound travels in a large venue, set different priorities than I would when recording sound for video, fix problems on the fly in a professional and invisible manner during a live show, understand different clients and different audiences when it comes to live music and high end corporate events with VIPs and how to handle myself differently in these different jobs along with having the "just make it happen" attitude instead of waiting for an AD to tell me what to do "Mike this person! Roll sound! Cut! Moving on!" It's funny, how on a video shoot, my title is "Sound Mixer" but in reality, mixing is just a minor part of my job unlike a live sound engineer; really, microphone placement is the most important task I do but now I can more confidently call myself a "Sound Mixer."

Soundscape Album Part 4: I'm Going to Miami!

A few months ago I took a quick trip down to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a little Arr and Arr! as pirates would say. I think of pirates when I think of South Florida, so whether or not you found that funny, I'm pretty sure there's some history to it, either true or at least in its tourism history. Anyways, this is a sound blog, so on to that!

Downtown Miami
The past 6 months or so I've been traveling without a camera (lie #2), in order to focus my "vacation album" on a more powerful medium: sound. Images give information as sound conveys emotion. The feeling we get when hearing sound is much more powerful than our experience when seeing an image. It's not just the words or what it is that is making the sound, rather, expression of how the words are said and the personality of the sound, the room, how the sound interacts with its environment. A ship's blow horn gives a very different feel when it just dies out in an open ocean as it does when you hear it bounce off the walls of an industrial alley way right at the dock. So as simple as some of these soundscapes may seem at first, envision yourself there (it shouldn't be hard) and tell me you don't feel more there than you feel when looking at the photos I am supplying here; granted, I'm no photographer. 

Ft. Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale and Miami are very similar places for very different people. Take a photo, they may look the same in 8/10. Great beach and aquatic cultures. However, in case you don't know, Fort Lauderdale and Miami feel extremely different and you'll notice that in these sounds. Miami is much more lively, young, musical, dangerous, sporty, celebrity and flamboyant. Fort Lauderdale is more family, yachters, relaxing, corporation franchise owner. In fact, South Beach in Miami also has a different feel than Downtown Miami as well. As I'd say South Beach was more of the beach culture of course, the flamboyancy, high end club, which Lambourghini is yours, and Downtown Miami was more populated, plenty of events, concerts, street performers, police activity and creepy streets. But don't take my word(s) for it, listen and think about what you feel.

Getting Real

This entire topic is relevant to what is happening in current day Film, TV and Media. Decades ago, shows on TV and films in theaters, etc, used to have mediocre to good cinematography, but still pretty good stories, and production value all around. Nowadays, you see so much crap on TV, on "produced" internet, and even in the cinema or streaming services that have weak stories, bad sound, etc, but amazing cinematography. Working on these types of projects, I have certainly noticed how much attention, care and what seems to be budget is for the image, the camera, the cinematography and not other things that arguably matter more; story, performance, sound, production design, etc. This is partially due to how affordable cameras have become over the past 10 or more years and now everyone, including Directors get excited about creating beautiful pictures for cheap, and they forget about everything else.

I've done jobs where I'm asked to record a voiceover; sound only. It needs to be the best sound I can get, without hearing a room. Yet, often, they decide to put a camera in there because they spent fortunes on it already, and not only that, but the camera guy tells me to move my boom out of his shot so that he can get a pretty picture. If they have officially decided to fully shoot this for both picture and sound (I'm imagining an interview setup), for every 10 minutes of sound being used, only about 3 minutes of that video will be used, and sometimes this is a multi camera shoot, so you do the math. I wish I could find that reference but I swear, I read it in a film studies book in college film class. Everyone seems to have forgotten that the picture has already been shot and all we need is the sound and we need it to be a certain way. This is something to think about in the future, how to prioritize needs. That sound puts emotion into the listener, emotion that cannot be given to by any image. Sound and image compliment each other as neither can do what the other does.

Went on Vacation and Forgot a Camera... Again

Part 3

Of course I didn't forget a camera, I just decided recording audio ambiences / soundscapes can be more effective than a photo, der! I look at a photo and I see what that place looks like. They say one photo can say a million words. But if that photo were not taken, rather, the sound of that moment was recorded, I hear it and I FEEL the moment; it seems so much more real and intimate. The information is in the visuals but the EMOTIONS are in the sound.

The past 5 months I've been doing some traveling and posting some of my ambiences in previous posts. Before I found time to put together my Fort Worth and Dallas Soundscapes, I took an impromptu quick trip to North Carolina to hike the Appalachian Trail. We drove out to Tennessee to Roan Mountain, pitched our tent and woke up in freezing January weather 5,400 feet above sea level. We then went out for an all day hike to the top of the mountain where I recorded a few ambiences on the way. The sound was so silent with the exception of some water dripping from the tall tree branches, and a stream running down the river. There was such little low frequency rumble our ears are so used to down closer to sea level in civilization. There was almost zero wildlife up there as well, although twice I heard a crow, but unfortunately I was never able to capture their sound. The hike took us from Tennessee, to High Knob Creek, North Carolina (6,394 feet high on the border), back to Tennessee, then drove down to Asheville, NC for some food, drinks and rest. That city was not as I expected, but in a good way. We had met a hiker by our camping area who suggested we visited Asheville. From the sounds of it, I thought it'd be like Pittsburgh, but it was actually like a southern Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Very hipster and a bit touristy but very catered to serious hikers from the Appalachian Trail. I recorded some ambiences that night and the next day before heading out. They are pretty similar to my Texas soundscapes but it was difficult to avoid the street performers and live music bars in both states.

The following month in February, I decided to take another impromptu trip up to Lake Placid, NY to enjoy the final weeks of Winter. I've never gone skiing or snowboarding but figured, when in Rome. So I took a gondola ride up to the tallest mountain in New York and recorded some ambiences. This was about 1,500 feet lower than Roan Mountain in Tennessee, looking and sounding very different; snow capped mountain with plenty of skiers and tons of strong strong wind. It was very difficult for me to find a way to get away and block the wind without having any kind of wind protection for my microphones, so next time, I'll create a mini windshield from Bumblebee fur to place over my small microphones from my phone. I usually use pieces of this fur for lavaliere mics.

Yes, I used a phone on this trip because in my experiences it has been recording much better quality and much more reliable sound than the Zoom recorder and it was not practical or worth to bring my Sound Devices 664 and/or Sennheiser microphones. I use a free app for my Samsung S7 called "Audio Recorder" which after trying many audio recording apps this seemed to be the best to use in terms of usability, design and quality recordings; albeit still not in the league of using professional gear. I mostly used the Zoom recorder on my Texas and North Carolina trips as you can see above, but I left it at home for the Lake Placid trip to save me trouble. Many of my previous Zoom recordings were useless. I have since tested the effectiveness of the fur vs no fur and it does make a big difference; I'll just have to test it out in the field next to see if it stop the big gusts of wind I'm trying to record.

While in Lake Placid, I considered recording sounds of the Olympic Village but I honestly thought it lacked personality. It did not sound different than any other town center of its size, probably because it was so touristy. I decided to keep my ambiences to the mountains and the Log Cabin in which I was staying. When in Lake Placid, we had to experience the mountain town right by booking a classic log cabin in the middle of the woods in the boondocks off of AirBnB. We got the fire going, made some drinks, played some music and games; it was a perfect getaway from the city. And of course the sound of this cabin was highlighted by the snap crackle and pop of the fire from the fireplace. I hope it doesn't come off as cliche but it really describes Lake Placid as a ski town; very relaxing, calm but alive; it's warm when you're cold.

These ambiences will continue as I continue impromptu trips like these and in the meantime, hopefully I'll find the time to put together my sounds for Dallas, Fort Worth and Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Can You Hear Me Now? Headphone Isolation Battle

Give Verizon money. The end. Actually, as sound professionals, we often put so much care and attention into best miking techniques, wireless solutions, etc, in order to get the best sound possible, and we make these decisions primarily based on what we hear. But what we often overlook is the integrity of what we actually hear and what we're NOT hearing.

Sony MDR 7506
This isn't a full on debate on which pair of cans is best, I'll try to keep this one simple. However, an industry standard pair of headphones or "cans" are the Sony MDR 7506's due to their accurate reproduction of sound, comfort, portability and cost. I've been using these for years but every month or so I'll have at least 1 job where I am recording sound in a very loud environment. I know I have great microphones that are placed very well but with the Sony's, I sometimes find it difficult to tell if what I'm hearing in my ears is actually coming in from the headphones / microphone or if it's just bleed coming THROUGH the headphones, rather than actually being picked up by the microphone. In other words, it's sometimes difficult to know whether or not I should worry about a certain ambient or other background sound. The Sony's have never been known for their isolation and I was recently able to get my hands on a pair of Audio Technica M70x headphones courtesy of Headliner Magazine. The ATH M50 and M70 series headphones from Audio Technica are known for their great isolation, so I did a side by side comparison between the Sony MDR 7506 and the ATH M70x purely to compare their isolation effectiveness.

Audio Technica M70x
I recorded my voice in a quiet room with a DPA 4061. I then placed a DPA 4061 in the earphones of a Sony MDR7506 and another in an Audio Technica M70x as well and closed the headphones on a bicycle seat to simulate my head (Yes, I figured my head is basically the same as a bicycle seat, or at least a few kids in 6th grade thought it was the same). I then started blasting some music right next to the 2 pairs of miked headphones while playing back the clean voice recording from earlier through a computer and into the headphones. So in this test, the microphone recording the voice is picking up 0% of the music, however, we still hear the music bleeding through our headphones. When you listen to this recording below, you will find a clear winner between the two in terms of isolation. Whether the winner is good enough for you in the setting of a live concert for example, is up to you. I wish I could compare more cans, but for now, this is it.

If you don't feel like listening for 1 minute, the winner was clearly the ATH M70x in the right ear. I've heard it's not the most comfortable pair of headphones to wear all day, as opposed to the Sonys, but wearing them for about 15 minutes (for what it's worth), they felt more comfortable than the Sony MDR 7506s and they also reproduce a wider frequency response (5Hz-40kHz) as opposed to the Sony MDR 7506s (20Hz-20kHz) which will help me use my low cut filters more effectively. With cans that give me better isolation, I'll be able to more confidently tell a Director or AD, "Nope, we're fine! I don't hear it, lets move on!" Our ears are our brains, our eyes, our frontline. Lets not compromise on what's telling us what to do.

Lectrosonics SRb vs SRc vs UCR411a Battle Royale

(Left to Right) SRb, SRc, UCR411a
Lectrosonics has a wide range of state of the art wireless units (pun intended) and I figured I'd A/B/C compare two of their most popular receivers, the SRb and UCR411a with the newer SRc. The Lectrosonics SRb is a great dual channel receiver, much improved from the SRa but is still lacking the front end filter that makes the UCR411a such a beast. The 411a has been considered the top of the line wireless receiver for some years and the biggest most demanding reality TV shows haven filled their audio bags with tons of these monsters; and when I say "tons" I mean in terms of weight. I weighed my bag from a show and it was slightly over 1 metric ton, I believe, largely due in part from the weight of the 411a's ;)

For some time, you either had to choose between the convenience of the slightly smaller (About double the efficiency) SR series or the reliability of the UCR411a. In 2016, Lectrosonics has released a newer version of the SR series, the SRc, which also features the front end filter that makes the 411a so great and add on the fact that the SRc is also wideband (about 76 mHz tuning range or 3 blocks).

Lectrosonics SRc
"The combination of the wide tuning range and tracking filters makes these products ideal for today's challenging RF environment, while the convenience features like SmartTune and the IR port make it really quick to get up and running. It's really a lot of technology in a very small package.”
Karl Winkler, Vice President of Sales/Service for Lectrosonics

I currently own each of the 3 so I decided to A/B/C compare them at my home in Brooklyn, NY. Below is the recording. You can download this, however, it will only be a 2 track stereo mix down. In this recording, the SRb is panned LEFT, the SRc is panned RIGHT and the UCR411a is center panned.

I did not notice huge differences between the 3 units. The SRc and UCR411a did seem to consistently produce a slightly cleaner signal than the SRb though. It's hard for me to say the SRc was better than the 411a, especially since it is my understanding that they should perform the same, but the worst RF hit came on the 411a and during the worst RF moment of this recording, the SRc seemed noticeably cleaner than the other 2 receivers, albeit, not perfect.

Technically speaking, the UCR411a still should outperform the SRc as it "still has a narrower front-end passband (11 MHz) vs. 20 MHz in the SRc and the 411A has a higher IP3 of +8 dBM while it is 0 dBM for the SRc. So no, I wouldn't say the 411A is obsolete, other than in size and weight." ~ Karl Winkler, Lectrosonics

Make your own judgements, but in my limited time using the SRc WITH the SRb and UCR411a, I am not worried about the wider front-end passband in the SRc especially since it's wideband and being able to find a clear open frequency is much more important than powering through a busy frequency.

Went on Vacation and Forgot a Camera; No Problem! Soundscape Album

I just got back from traveling Texas where I certainly took a bunch of touristy photos, but I also had an idea apart from taking photos as a tourist. I figured, as a sound engineer, we say information is in the image but emotion is in the sound and when everyone only takes photos on vacation, we see where they are but we don't feel where they are.

So, packing lightly, I decided to leave my camera behind and take a small Zoom recorder instead with me to record ambiences and sound effects while on my trip throughout Texas. I wanted to record specific sounds but on top of that I wanted to record ambiences that I felt represented the cities I visited at least as well as a good photo would. I could have gone about this very differently and next time I will, so due to some imperfect recording techniques, I am editing and combining some of my sound recordings to create the best soundscapes I can with what I have and this takes a bit of time. So for now, I am only posting one city and will continue to edit this post with the other cities I visited. I was going to have one soundscape for each city but since they all sound so differently at night than they do during the day I had to do 2 soundscapes per city. Without further ado, below, are my soundscapes for San Antonio, Texas during the day and the other during the night:

Both of these ambiences happened by chance; I did not hit record because I heard church bells, nor did I hit record because I heard a mariachi band. I got out my recorder during the day and hit record because I thought the sound of the cicadas were representative of San Antonio during the day; literally about 3 seconds later, the Church Bells started going off. It was 4pm on the dot and I was standing right next to Mission San Jose, probably the most popular missionary in San Antonio which is built around it's missionaries. The State of Texas was built around its Spanish Missionaries to help localize the native Americans. I won't go too much into the history here, but the Church Bells were a perfect coincidence.

At night, another beautiful coincide happened when I hit record. I heard a guitarist start strumming his guitar across the street, accompanied by several of his buddies. I thought "this is SO Texa," so I got my recorder out of my bag quickly and started recording; a moment later, a Mariachi band started to play across the avenue by the bridge. So I quickly walked over there to focus on them. Unfortunately, my Zoom recorder picked up much wind, so I cut as much of that as I could on my computer and replaced the low frequencies with another calmer recording I had earlier that evening of ducks quacking close by on the small man-made river that makes downtown San Antonio such as nice place for tourists.

Part 2

I also had to check out Austin, Texas. Spent 3 days there and did everything on my list, so it was difficult to include everything in my soundscapes. Austin is probably most known for 3 things: Football, Barbecue and nightlife. I did not really include any of these in my soundscapes because there was no football game when I was there, the nightlife was honestly not impressive, and the barbecue, which I may add later, was Oktoberfest themed (So German, not Texan). However, Austin's country lifestyle is very apparent even in downtown Austin and mostly just minutes away. It was such a nice suburban city with plenty of hiking trails and natural lakes. So I took a step outside and recorded the below ambiences. Plus the famous 2 million bats underneath the bridge while kayaking the Colorado River.

In the next week or two, I will add, here in this post, soundscapes for Dallas, Fort Worth, and possibly a few cities in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. So stay tuned!