A New Way To Capture Sound

Part two:  A New Way To Capture Sound


The Conventional Way

These are observations of evolving technologies that add up to a simpler way of capturing high quality sound with less equipment, less personnel and less frustration.  We are sliding into this way of working without giving it a name or realizing its implications. It’s best suited for documentary work in my opinion.


If you come to a baffling paragraph or term please skip ahead, you won’t miss anything.  There are devices on the market similar to those mentioned here.  I chose these because I feel they are best for documentary production.


The conventional approach to doing sound is to have an array of wireless body microphones and a boom microphone that cover the subjects.  The audio signals are relayed either by cables or wireless transmission to a multi-track mixing/recording device operated by a technician.  The sound is recorded both on isolated (iso) tracks and a two-channel mix that is either used as finished sound or as a reference in editing.  At the end of post production a more controlled mix will be done from the isolated tracks.  Solo shooters are usually limited to the two camera tracks.  We all know this.


What if subjects were mic’d with devices smaller than a typical wireless transmitter that also recorded the sound and the tracks from those devices were all synchronized at once in software such as Pluraleyes?


There have been body recorders for some time such as the $200 Tascam DR-10L and the Lectrosonics MCTR which costs around $1,000 depending on which microphone you bundle with it.  Both work well but require proper level settings for audio quality and can run out of battery without you knowing.  Levels can and do change during takes, especially in doc work.  The DR-10L must be physically accessed to roll and cut which means it will be left rolling most of the time.  The MCTR can be rolled and cut by playing a “dweedle tone” into the mic, not so documentary friendly.  There is no way to roll, cut and monitor functioning or battery life from a distance with either device.


Game Changers

The game changing developments are: wireless control by smartphone Apps, the 32 bit floating point audio format and synchronizing software such as Pluraleyes.  The smartphone Apps allow remotely rolling, cutting, function monitoring and if needed level setting, track configuration, low cut, etc.  The 32bit audio format does away with the need to set levels.  Synchronizing software allows assembling a virtual multi-track recording easily.


The soon to be released 32bit Track E by Tentacle Sync will revolutionize body recorders.  With “32bit float” no level settings are necessary.  There is a level setting but it’s for convenience in editing.  If 32bit audio is above or below the waveform range of your editing timeline it’s easily tamed with a “normalize” function.  All you need to remember is to roll and cut.


What about the boom?  At present (August 2020) there is no 32bit option for boom mics short of a $650+ mixer/recorder.  But do you need 32bit sound for the boom?  A boom mic entails a person.  A “boom person” can and should monitor their sound both for quality and content. 


The Deity HD-TX is a solid $250 plug-on recorder that has more options than many professional mixers and is easy to use.  It can be plugged directly into a hand-held mic or the end of a wired boom pole. You can change the gain setting with direct button pushes while recording (if you do, use a short cable, the buttons are noisy).  In addition to a variable low cut (high pass) filter, the HD-TX has a variable presence boost, something I have never seen in a field recorder.  It boosts frequencies around 4000Hz which improves the clarity of speech. This is a particular advantage when recording voices muffled by PPE masks.


The Virtual Multitrack Recorder

An array of body and microphone recorders is a virtual multi-iso-track recorder that can be operated from a distance. At the end of the day all tracks are loaded into a day folder and later synchronized with picture in PluralEyes or similar synchronizing software.  This virtual recorder is scalable; you might have four tracks today covering two people (the two tracks on your camera are part of this virtual multi-track) or 12 tracks tomorrow covering a board meeting.  There is no mix, only the iso tracks so it’s up to the editor to decide which tracks to listen to.  That should not be a problem as the tracks can be named prior to recording.  None of this requires great technical expertise.  A solo shooter could work with any number of sound sources.


Unlike wireless microphones, distance from the camera does not affect body recorders.  The App may lose Bluetooth contact but the recording will continue.  One nightmare for sound people is when the subjects get in a car and there is no room for sound.  The sound person has to leave their rig running in the car hoping the camera person doesn’t mangle it squirming around to get a shot.  With body recorders there is no rig, possibly no sound person. 


Pre-interviews Made Usable

As a director you could have a body recorder along for pre-interviews then do the formal interview with the same device.  The sound will match provided the acoustics and background noise are similar. 


Camera Sound

The two camera tracks are part of this virtual multi-track recorder.  I will go into this more in Part Three.  In brief, the Rode VideoMic NTG has a number of important innovations including the presence boost mentioned here.  Some gymnastics are required to make it work with an iPhone 11 Pro because the lens is so wide.  The Deity V-Mic D4 DUO is a two-channel device that has front and rear capsules for picking up both in front of and behind the camera as well as an input for an external source.  The Rode WirelessGo is a simple option for mic’ing the cameraperson or an interviewer but don’t count on it as a long-range wireless mic.


The Downside: Monitoring In The U.S.

There is a downside to this technology in the U.S. but it can be worked around.  You can’t monitor sound while the recorder is rolling.  In the U.S. anything that resembles a wireless mic can’t be transmitted to another recorder or monitoring device while recording due to a questionable patent that has stymied the development of this technology.  You can monitor before and after rolling on some systems via Bluetooth.  International versions of body and plug-in recorders do not have this limitation.  Hopefully the U.S. patent will be challenged soon.


Two Reasons For Monitoring

There are two main reasons for monitoring: content and sound quality.  Having worked on many dozens of vérité-style shoots I can think of very few where monitoring for content was necessary because the director is usually within earshot of the principal subjects.  In vérité filmmaking the case can be made that the filmmakers, including the director, should be the crew.  On the other hand there were some hidden microphone and surveillance shoots where monitoring for content was necessary.  There are directors who eavesdrop on and record subjects and those around them who have forgotten the mic or don’t know it’s present.  That’s illegal in most situations and ethically questionable in nearly all. If monitoring for content is essential, a traditional wireless mic can used on the principal subject and transmitted directly to the camera.  The headphone output can be fed to an inexpensive wireless mic or monitoring system with multiple receivers.


Monitoring for quality is another issue.  I doubt that anyone who has taken a film course has not had it drummed into them that you must monitor your sound.  Why?  Because it might not be there or it might be screwed up. 


What are chances that the sound is bad using a wireless microphone vs. a smartphone-controlled 32bit float body recorder?  A wireless microphone can fail in many ways: dead batteries in either the transmitter or the receiver, a faulty cable between the receiver and the recording device, radio interference or intermodulation (growing problems due to increasing frequency restrictions and crowding), incorrect setup of transmitter gain or receiver output level (common user errors) and a transmitter that’s out of range.  Using a body recorder such as the 32bit Track E none of those problems exist.  Failure to roll or a low battery will be evident on the App.


What’s left are clothing and wind noise.  This is where craft comes in.  If you learn how to mount your mics well these problems will be rare.  You should master that craft whether working with a body recorder or a standard wireless mic.  When wind and contact noise problems arise in a real-life situation, it’s usually too late to fix them without stopping the activity being filmed.


The Technician Problem

Unfortunately, sound people are now mostly hired locally and do not travel with productions.  Quality and standards can vary greatly.  Involvement with the subject matter may be nil.  With delicate subject matter having a disinterested technician standing over people and fumbling with their clothing may do social damage that outweighs the technical contribution.


You can’t blame a hired sound technician for looking like she or he just jumped out of an airplane and are about to pull the rip cord.  They have to show up with all possibly needed gear and they have to carry it in order to be professional and somewhat mobile.  Their presentation as a technician is why they were hired.  It’s my feeling that documentarians need to be present as people first and technicians second, if at all. 


COVID-19

Body and microphone/recorders have come along at the right moment for dealing with COVID-19.  There are no long cables that are easily contaminated and a nuisance to sanitize. Except for a boom mic, all the equipment will fit in a fanny pack.  They are small, have minimal surface area and are easy to sanitize.  The presence boost feature on the Deity HD-TX sharpens PPE muffled speech.  Only the necessary items need be brought out in a given location. The equipment package is reduced. Crew size can be reduced.


This is a paradigm shift in the way we record sound that particularly suits first-person, present-tense documentary filmmaking.  It crept up on us.  Many of us are doing parts of it already and some are fully into it.  It may or may not catch on this time.


Disclaimer: I have received no compensation from any manufacturer or marketer of the equipment mentioned in this piece.


Alan Barker

August 2020