When the Camera Man has to be the sound man too

Great Article about how more and more camera men are expected to be sound people.

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Barry Braverman

Sound advice for shooters.

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Sennheiser MKH416

For many of us shooters these days, we have met the sound recordist, and he is us.

For many of us shooters these days, we have met the sound recordist, and he is us.

I admit I’m a shooter, born and raised. It’s what I do — like breathing.

So after almost three decades of crashing a viewfinder to my face, I think I’ve developed an intimate relationship with my craft — one built on the power of my images to tell visually compelling stories.

Ironically, the truth is that the impact of my images is largely dependent on sound. No matter how great my leading lady or the Mafioso capo from Staten Island might look, the lack of clean, intelligible audio will subvert the storytelling and drive the audience from the scene. Every shooter must be keenly aware: Audiences will tolerate bad picture, but never bad sound.

The Sennheiser MKE 400 offers very solid performance at an economical street price of around $200.

The Sennheiser MKE 400 offers very solid performance at an economical street price of around $200.

A sound priority

Many shooters expect good audio as something that just happens. When shopping for a camera, we investigate every little feature that could help produce better pictures, from resolution and imager characteristics to the most arcane gamma and matrix settings. Few of us actually listen to a camera’s audio section — especially its preamps and gain dials, which can be objectionably noisy, particularly in lower-end camcorders. The popular Sony DSR-PD150 earned its reputation as an industry workhorse despite the notoriously loud preamps that impacted the quality of its audio.

Fortunately, the audio sections in the latest generation of camcorders have improved considerably, but there’s also a bit of bad news for shooters to go with it: the recording of crisp, clean sound for news and documentaries is increasingly becoming our responsibility. A few years ago, I was hired to shoot several episodes for The History Channel series Sworn to Secrecy. Flying up to Spokane, Wash., to interview a half-dozen Air Force pilots engaged in prisoner-of-war training, I quickly realized there was no soundman assigned to the crew, and that I was, in fact, responsible for capturing the interview and all other audio.

When I mentioned there was no soundman to the freshly minted 22-year-old director, he looked at me quizzically then broke out laughing. “But I have a cameraman!” he says.

And so that’s the way it is today, as distracting as it is: We shooters need to acquire the skills and gear of a sound recordist. And that includes a basic kit with several microphones.

Riding (short) shotgun

For shooters, the need for a reliable short shotgun microphone cannot be understated. As I operated behind the scenes in remote northwest India for The Darjeeling Limited last year, my camera-mounted mic captured the bulk of the location audio. With such a responsibility, the choice of mic is a top priority. The preponderance of action occurs 6ft. to 8ft. in front of the camera, so the matter of a mic’s performance at this range is paramount. Specifically, this requires the mic to have a tightly focused pickup pattern that is resistant to off-axis interference, as well as a wide dynamic range and smooth response — especially in the lower frequencies that favor the human voice.

Since my first assignment for National Geographic — the eruption of Mount. St. Helens in 1980 — I’ve been carrying with me the same Sennheiser MKH416 throughout the world. Twenty-eight years later, I can still recall my anxiety in investing more than $700 in a non-camera piece of gear. Today, I regard that 416 as one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Rugged as hell and impervious to extremes in temperature and humidity, the Sennheiser MKH416 is like an old, trusted friend and devoted family member. (See sidebar on p. 20.)

The CS-1 from Sanken (top)  and Sennheiser’s own mid-range ME66 (bottom) are excellent options for professional ENG and documentary applications.

The CS-1 from Sanken (top) and Sennheiser’s own mid-range ME66 (bottom) are excellent options for professional ENG and documentary applications.

While the 416 has been my on-camera mic for years, many shooters eyeing its current $1,100 street price might consider some lower-cost options. The more economical Sennheiser ME66 is extremely popular among ENG crews who are willing to trade a degree of ruggedness and performance for the lower price and lighter weight.

At 2.1oz, the ME66 is about one-third the weight of the 416, a key consideration for shooters who want better balance on compact camcorders such as the Sony PMW-EX1 and the Panasonic AG-HVX200. The ME66 and its more directional cousin, the ME67, are a bit more sensitive than the 416, owing to their electret-condenser design. Such a design, while resulting in a lower cost than that of the 416’s RF interference capsule, is also less tolerant of extremes in weather conditions and has not as much presence overall. The ME66/67 can be powered either by battery power or phantom power, so there’s some advantage there.

Going wireless

Every shooter, regardless of niche, could benefit at some point from a wireless mic or two in their travel package, and so in this context, the new Lectrosonics SR (Slot Receiver) is the ideal solution, adding little additional weight and bulk. I like that when it comes to sound stuff on my rig. No Velcro. No wires. No mess.

Slot-loading receivers have been around for a few years, but they’ve always been plagued by compromises; their smaller sizes disallow sufficiently sophisticated electronics that would enable professional high-end performance. With the introduction of the Lectrosonics SR, this is no longer the case.

The Lectrosonics SR receiver is smaller than the company’s top-end UCR411A and ubiquitous UCR401 receivers. The SR provides better performance overall than the UCR401 — especially on the radio side, with less noise and better physical range. The 411A, with its superior filtering system, is still the best choice for top-tier pro users operating in environments with a lot of RF interference, which is typically found in city centers.

For me, the big attraction of the Lectrosonics SR is its simplicity and overall transparency. Its dual-channel capability supports two discrete inputs — a key consideration when you’re working with more than one talent, as is often the case with a reporter and subject. Attach a sidemount receiver in addition to the SR, and four independent inputs is now a real and practical possibility.

The SR’s dual channels can also be linked to a single frequency for increased range and robustness of signal. Lectrosonics True Diversity technology automatically selects the cleaner of the two inputs. I like this notion of a second channel to ensure a clean signal. As a shooter, I understand the critical importance of audio quality, but I do have other things on my mind. Usually.

When compared to some lower-cost alternatives, the SR (with a street price of $1,800) is by no means cheap. On the other hand, we must recognize this is a dual-channel receiver with two discrete inputs. This effectively doubles the efficacy and functionality of the unit.

In general, I’m not a fan of many inexpensive wireless systems, because they typically sacrifice robustness through the use of plastic parts that are prone to breakage. The sound quality in cheaper units is also suspect — they suffer from a much higher noise floor and they’re more prone to interference. The analog technology used in lower-cost units can also contribute to their inferior performance, although this might also be attributed (in part) to poorer design and wider tolerances. By contrast, in every respect, the Lectrosonics SR is indistinguishable in quality from a hard-wired mic.

Lavalier mics from a variety of suppliers may be used with the Lectrosonics system, including the Sennheiser MKE2 and the Sanken COS-11, with the appropriate connector. Conclusion

As shooters’ responsibilities have expanded to embrace the role of audio recordist, so has our interest in capturing the highest-quality sound in the most unobtrusive way possible. We all understand how the on-camera short shotgun is imperative in this regard. But so should be a wireless slot receiver — especially now that many newer camcorders are configured to accept one. In these changing times, we shooters will keep our well-trained eye more and more on the audio meters.

To comment on this article, email the Digital Content Producer staff at feedback@digitalcontentproducer.com.

Soundman Frank Nolan adjusts the angle of the Sennheiser MKH416 for a recent documentary on the Bottle Rocket Criterion Collection DVD.

Soundman Frank Nolan adjusts the angle of the Sennheiser MKH416 for a recent documentary on the Bottle Rocket Criterion Collection DVD.

Sennheiser MKH416

There aren’t too many things in life like it: a loyal friend who never lets you down and performs for you no matter what — through thick and thin, heat and cold. You can bang it around inside a gyrating Huey one minute or subject it to a riot water cannon the next. At National Geographic, where I hung my battery belt through the 1980s and 1990s, the 416 was standard issue to the Society’s battle-hardened road warriors, joining my Arriflex camera, Nagra recorder, and Sachtler tripod. Twenty-eight years later, that same 416 is still a member of my closest family. And each time I board a plane to fly off to the Yukon or the Amazon, I check for three essential things: my passport, my AMEX card — and my Sennheiser 416.


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