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Making Waves: Sound Technology in the Field

Making Waves: Sound Technology in the Field

Articles - Directing

Sound
recording technology for film has remained
surprisingly constant over the years. Before the arrive of DAT (Digital
Audio Tape) recorders in the early 1990s, production sound mixers relied
on their trusty Nagra analog recorders for decades; many of these workhorses
are still in use. Microphones for recording audio in the field have been
similarly reliable and impervious to change.

According to Steve Joachim, sales manager at Location
Sound in Los Angeles: “This
business moves relatively slowly. For example, the main microphone for recording
dialogue for motion pictures and television is th­e Sennheiser 416; it’s
been the microphone of choice for many years and it’s still the biggest seller.” Neumanns,
Schoeps and Sanken mics are also familiar staples in a realm that has often
been too good to change. And while digital wireless mics—the Lectrosonics
UCR411
and the UM400 in particular—are now enriching the sound
crew’s classic arsenal, they represent exciting additions rather than
replacements. So far, at least.

“The thing that is really big news in our industry,” offers Joachim, “is
the Fostex PD-6 DVD recorder. “The advent of this technology represents
a real sea change in our industry.” The PD-6, slated for release in March
of 2003, is a six-track recorder with built-in mixer that takes six inputs
and six outputs; in other words, the mixer can record on six different mics
at once, keeping each recording separate and distinct. This allows the operator
to control multiple mics and create separate sound mixes for dailies, the
boom operator and post. The PD-6 also carries a drive for double-sided, mini
DVD-RAM discs. Though it’s about twice the cost of a DAT tape, it has far
greater storage capacity—and can record on either two or four tracks, letting
directors have characters overlap while retaining the ability to sort them
out in post.

Rich Topham, president of New York’s Professional Sound Services, goes into
a couple of the PD-6’s advantages. “All the DAT out there is only two-channel.
What post-production people want is four- or six-channel recording mediums
[because] it gives them more control in the studio later, and because you
can separate out each microphone. You can put each actor on a separate track
so that later on, if you have to loop one actor, you don’t have to pull everybody
else in. It also has the capacity to isolate lav mics from boom mics—and
boom mics from each other.” In a word, the PD-6 offers much more flexibility
for moviemakers.

Nagra, on the other hand, has recently shipped a new recorder with a removable
hard drive: the Nagra V. Perhaps somewhat disadvantaged for only being
able to record on two channels, the Nagra V is nonetheless an impressive
machine. After a day’s work, mixers can remove the hard drive, send it to
post and put another one in the machine. And its memory capacity is enormous.
Still a bit of a rare bird—with only 25 sold so far in the U.S. and approximately
100 circulating in Europe—the Nagra V is winning praise. “It’s an incredible
machine,” exclaims Pawel Wdowczak. “It has between 20 and 60 gigabytes [of
storage], and the quality is much superior to what you get with a DAT. Files
can also be transferred to the PC via FireWire. The new Mac PowerBooks—for
example, the 17-inch [G4]—has a additional FireWire connection, which is
double the speed of the regular FireWire connection. You can download a couple
of gigabytes in a matter of 20 seconds.”

Also coming out with a new generation of recorders is Zaxcom. The Deva
III, IV and V
—all hard disk recorders—will range from a six-track model
designed for basic recording to a 10-track model designed for multi-track,
high bit rate applications (such as music performances that are being captured
both for film and DVD release). They will be available with an optional
internal DVD/CD writer and a removable hard drive. The drive bay will be
setup for a standard slim 5.25-inch computer DVD drive. They will record
to the internal hard disk, internal DVD and external FireWire drive at
the same time. A full day of recording will easily fit onto a single 4.7
gig per side DVD disk, simplifying the workflow and cutting time in post:
the sound mixer can hand in a DVD at the end of a day, and the editor can
load it directly into their non-linear editor with no transfer time.

While most of these machines will soon be on the racks
at rental houses, they’re not cheap to own. However, Jay Rose points out that there are low-budget
alternatives for Mini DV moviemakers. “Bringing the budget back to earth,
there are some music-oriented, digital multi-tracks in the sub-$700 range
that can be effective on a shoot (if not exactly field-oriented). Some Mini
DV producers are recording directly into their laptops, with high-quality
USB stereo and FireWire input boxes which let them record traditional two-track,
or multiple channels for separate microphones, at relatively low cost. And
the new Marantz CDR-300 portable audio CD recorder can put a day’s
shooting on a 50c disc, with perfect quality, which can then be ripped into
any NLE.”

Jason George suggests Steinberg’s Nuendo Media Production
System
as
a good, low-cost solution. “It’s not as widely used as [Avid’s] Pro Tools,
but it’s generally cheaper. It has a full set of the audio processing features
that Pro Tools or Sonic Solutions offers, but is far less expensive.”

Says production sound mixer Gary Gossett (Runt), “I have a titanium
laptop computer that I put a Pro Tools system in which I use sometimes. Pro
Tools has different types of software—the Pro Tools LE program—that
you can buy which creates [unique] sessions. Whenever you put the software
in your computer, it comes up on your screen as a mixing console. You have
to have an interface so that you can bring the audio into it, and from there
you can record just like you are standing in front of a mixing console—with
up to 24 channels.”

Moviemakers who are cutting sound and picture at home with
programs like Final
Cut Pro
and Avid DV Express still need to think the process
through. With a wealth of new toys comes a host of technical variables
to consider. “Be careful if conforming a negative at the end of your cut;
you may want to finalize on an Avid for that,” cautions Alan Gus. “These
editing systems allow filmmakers to edit professionally at very low costs,
[but] they’re not the greatest boxes for sound editing. Many editors don’t
have a clue when it comes to audio, and they feel it’s best left to someone
who understands that end of the creative process. For independent filmmakers
who want to take a stab at audio post, there’s always Pro Tools Free and
Pro Tools LE—but both versions limit locking to tape and timecode. A Pro
Tools Mix or Pro Tools HD system is the way to go for audio post, but you
still need the audio background to know how to best use these tools.”

Ask the Sound Experts: Where to find it, rent it or
buy it
Airwaves Sound Design, Ltd. 25 East 2nd Ave., Second Floor, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V5T 1B3 604/875-0114 derick@airwavessound.com www.airwavessound.com
BeachTek, Inc. 53 Bellefair Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4L 3T7 416/690-9457 info@beachtek.com www.beachtek.com
Digidesign, Inc. 2001 Junipero Serra Blvd., Daly City, CA 94014-3886 650/731-6300 prodinfo@digidesign.com www.digidesign.com
The Digital Playroom 20 Marion St., Brookline, MA 02446 617/277-0041 info@dplay.com www.dplay.com
Fostex America Visit Website for local dealer.   store@fostex.com www.fostex.com
GEAR Rental 912 E. 5th Street, Austin, TX 78702 512/478-8585 gear@gearrental.com www.gearrental.com
Location Sound Corporation 10639 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood, CA 91602 818/980-9891 info@locationsound.com www.locationsound.com
Matlin Recording, Inc. 80 Eighth Avenue, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10011 212/206-0350 webmaster@matlin.com www.matlin.com
Nagra Visit Website for local dealer. 800/813-1663 mail@nagra.com www.nagrausa.com
Professional Sound Services 311 West 43rd Street, Suite #1100, New York, NY 10036 800/883-1033 marketing@pro-sound.com www.pro-sound.com
Sonic Solutions 101 Rowland Way, Novato, CA 94945 415/893-8000 info@sonic.com www.sonic.com
Todd-AO West Alameda Avenue, Burbank, CA 91505 818/840-7225   www.todd-ao.com
  900 N. Seward, Hollywood, CA 90038 323/962-4000    
  1147 N. Vine Street, Hollywood, CA 90038 323/856-7000    
The Victory Studios 2247 15th Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119 206/282-1776 audio@victorystudios.com www.victorystudios.com
Zaxcom, Inc. 140 Greenwood Ave., Midland Park, NJ 07432 201/652-7878 info@zaxcom.com www.zaxcom.com
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