Don't Skimp on Audio

When you've got a production problem on a show, it's usually audio.
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I was reviewing a pilot production budget for a former employee, who hopes to launch a show for young people, and I couldn't find a line for an audio operator.

"Who's going to run audio on this thing?" I asked.

"Oh, I thought one of us could," was the answer.

We talked about some programs we'd both been involved with years ago and came to the conclusion that when you've got a production problem on a show, it's usually audio. Sometimes it's simply a case of numbers. Except for graphic devices, every external source has one or two audio sources.

Then you have audio versus video cables. Video cables can be relatively beefy and may even be armored, because they're generally out-of-sight. Since microphones are often in the shot, cables are frequently miniscule and delicate. Finally, there's a long tradition in television to spend millions on video and dimes on audio.

"You really need to get someone who knows what they're doing, doing audio," I said.

One way to look at videography is that it's the art of seeing what you want to see, hearing what you want to hear, and eliminating everything else. On the video side, with a zoom lens, you can point the camera in a particular direction and choose a lens setting that crops undesirable visual elements from the scene.

Lighting tools allow you to leave things dark so they won't show up. Unless you have a lightning storm or nuclear blast going on behind the camera, you'll only see what you've lit.

By contrast, audio problems come from 360 degrees in three dimensions. The airplane flying overhead, the building being torn down across the street, the kids taunting you--those sounds need to be eliminated or minimized.

Then there are things that aren't really sounds you can hear on-location, but end up as audio problems. Hum, which can have dozens of causes, comes to mind. And then there are wireless micsÉ more about them later.

To repeat myself, you need to get someone who knows what they're doing, doing audio.

BETTER GEAR

I started in the business as a 16mm newsfilm photographer for a network affiliate back in the Pleistocene, so I know something about being a one-man band.

We had cameras that laid a single channel of audio on a magnetic stripe down the edge of the film, and a battery-powered, cigar box-sized amplifier with two mic channels and one for line-level sources.

In the portable mode of operation, we had to keep one eye in the camera eyepiece and strain the other one down at a 75-degree angle to monitor the VU meter. Camera-mounted mics were out of the question because the camera was too noisy.

We held them.

Network news crews usually had a separate soundperson who ran the amplifier and mics, and was connected to the camera by an umbilical cord.

What a difference in equipment today! The amplifier is incorporated into the camcorder, with maybe four channels of audio. Audio can be metered in the viewfinder, and automatic gain controls do an adequate job riding the levels on background sound. Moreover, shotgun mics are built right into the camera.

So are the days of the separate audio man gone? I don't think so. In fact, I think you can often make a financial case for having a soundman.

TIME AND MONEY

In a studio or on-location, time is money. You're paying salaries or fees to the crew, fees for the facility, rent on the equipment, parking; and you may even have financial incentives to finish quickly. Someone whose job it is to pay attention only to sound can more than pay for himself in speed.

The camera, lighting and grip equipment all work in concert with the video side of the equation. Audio equipment and its challenges are on a separate plane. For someone concentrating on video, to set up, move and tear down the audio equipment is going to add to the shoot time.

When a problem develops with the audio side, or the beginning of a problem, the soundperson can often jump in and fix it quickly, sometimes without interrupting the shoot itself. The camera operator can't do that without shutting things down.

I've saved my favorite for last. Wireless mics, like camcorders, have come leaps and bounds ahead of what was available years ago. But they're still a specialty item with their own special problems.

In addition to the equipment itself, you've got frequency coordination issues, to keep from creating interference and from being interfered with. Given my 'druthers, when wireless mics are involved, I like to hire a soundperson from the area where we're shooting who's used to working with local frequency issues.

There's one circumstance where I don't favor having a separate individual operate audio, and that's where it's someone who knows a lot less about audio than the camera operator.

My experience is that this adds to the cameraman's burden rather than relieving it. I think it's better, in that case, for the cameraman to handle it all by himself.

If you can't ask the audio operator, if the sound is good and trust the answer, it's not worth having someone doing that job. It's like I said before, you need someone who knows what they're doing, doing audio.