Location Recording

Camera Mic or Separate Sound?? Part 1

Should you use the ‘on-board’ microphone on your camcorder or should you plug in a sound mixer with headphones and an alternative microphone to give you ‘separate’ sound?

During my years at the BBC, one of my responsibilities was as a Sound Recordist for National Radio Documentaries – the sort of full-blown documentary that used to go out on Radio 4, rather than the news driven programmes that now seem to proliferate today. Then, working with a Producer and probably a presenter, we’d go out on location and record interviews and material to edit and dub a programme together back in the studio on tape or computer. My responsibilities were both technical and artistic – not only was I responsible for the technical quality of the programme, but the artistic feel and atmosphere of the programme. The Producer having talked through their overall view and requirements for the programme would then concentrate on the editorial content and the presenter, leaving technical and artistic issues to me. It was very rewarding to be involved right from the recording through to dubbing and mixing the final programme.

With the commercialisation of the BBC and a director General who only understood News, pressures were put on Producers to save money and not to take a sound recordist with them (a whole other story and debate!!!). But, the upshot was that producers were trying to do all the location recording themselves as well as produce the programme – the result being many programmes had to go through a rescue session in the studio as obviously the producer had been concentrating on the editorial issues, not anything technical. Remember this ‘rescue’ was always making the best of a bad job; you can’t make a good quality recording from a bad one – the original recorded material always dictates the overall quality.

I remember a particular Radio 4 Producer who had landed a very rare interview with Spike Milligan. He arrived and set the recording equipment up on a table in-between them. It was a stereo microphone and unknowingly he had pointed it towards the ceiling! The result a two hour interview, which if you listened to in stereo sitting exactly in the middle, was just about bearable (if a bit too echoy), with him and Spike hard left and right on the loudspeakers. If you turned the recording into Mono by adding the two tracks together (or indeed moved from your ‘middle’ seating position), they disappeared down a 20m hallway into the bathroom! As you have to consider Mono, as most people won’t be in that ideal stereo listening position or they’ll be listening on their small kitchen radio, it made the interview unbroadcastable, which was a pity, as the producer was not going to get a second interview!

So what has this to do with the use of camera mics???

The first point to make is that using a sound recordist, i.e. having someone solely responsible for sound quality (recording ‘separate’ sound), is a good idea.

If you then take the situation above and add video to the equation, as we are visually driven, it pushes the sound quality even further down the priority list, particularly if you’re working on your own!

So your ideal crew is a Producer/Director to take care of editorial and overall creative matters, a cameraman to put those ideas into the visual arena and take care of the video quality and a sound recordist to do the same with the sound side.

A lot of programmes today are shot with a two man crew, with just a director and cameraman and the sound is somewhat left to chance. Even if you then consider perhaps a two man crew with a Cameraman/director and separate sound recordist, you still have a conflict in the director/cameraman role where the editorial content will suffer and while you concentrate on the ‘pretty’ pictures!

I can relate a story that happened to a sound recordist friend of mine. He was booked to go on a 6-day shoot to South America to follow a couple on a trip. Two days before leaving the director phoned up to say the budget could not afford a full crew so she had decided not to take a cameraman and she was going to film it herself. As it’s usually the Sound Recordist that gets dropped, you might think it a result for sound quality???

The actual result was that in 6 days of shooting they came back with 56 hours of material/footage for a 50-minute programme!!!! What happened that the director was so involved in the editorial side she didn’t know when to stop, she’d even shot without the sound recordist plugged into the camera (i.e. mute!) in case she missed something. A Professional Cameraman would have come back with perhaps 12 hours of material at the very most. In his head, as he shot, he would put edited sequences together as he went, so giving the director enough material to cover a scene and an easy editing job for the editor back home. As it was she had 56 hours of resulting unsequenced material to watch and log before even thinking about constructing a scene. The resulting overall costs were probably more (although not as accountable) and the programme of much lesser quality.

Now having said all this, there are times when I’d consider, as a Professional Sound Recordist, allowing a cameraman to use the on-board camera instead of my ‘separate’ sound and these are principles you can apply to the simplest of projects.

I’ll talk about this in part 2.

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Camera Mic or Separate Sound?? Part 2

So when should you use the ‘on-board’ microphone on your camcorder and when should you use a sound recordist with audio sound mixer and ‘separate’ sound?

It all comes down to thinking forward to the final finished item and how you’re going to use not just the sound, but also the footage itself.

The most important sound item you’ll record is speech. Obviously use of the camera mic, unless you can get the camera with a few feet of the person speaking is going to be practically useless. Now the simple way around this is the use of Radio Mics. These have seen a huge increase in use over the last years as Sound Recordists are dropped as unnecessary from the crew and Producers seem to feel this is the only way to record speech. The problem with use of Radio Mics is that it’s not actually the best way to record sound – for a start you’ve lost all perspective in the sound – it doesn’t match the pictures having become internal in nature like a narration rather than the person on the screen talking – have you ever rested your head on someone’s chest, covered the ‘free’ ear and listened? Most of the sound comes from the chest and throat area, not the mouth. Therefore use of a Sound Recordist with boom and quality microphone is the way forward, positioning the microphone, overhead, just out of shot. Not only will the microphone give you the best quality (look at my article on “does Quality Matter”), but also it will give you the same acoustic as shown on screen.

Other elements of sound recording need to be considered individually. The recording of what we call ‘Actuality’ (action happening in front of the camera to be used as part of a piece) will probably be better captured by a recordist, with the ability to point the microphone in the best direction to capture the relevant sound and perhaps reject other sound by using the ‘dead’ rear of the microphone. Or perhaps just keeping the sound recording clear of a noisy cameraman!

Consider a situation where you’re recording a wide landscape shot – it maybe that pointing the microphone in the direction of the camera simply picks up some noise being coming from somewhere unseen – machinery or factory perhaps. With your directional microphone you can take open sound from the completely opposite direction – as there is no specific action in the shot the sound will match.

So when would I as a Sound Recordist, very interested in quality, consider allowing a cameraman to use the on-board camera instead of my ‘separate’ sound? The simple questions to ask are: “Is the sound going to be used?” or “How important is the sound”. It maybe the cameraman is just shooting ‘Cutaways” for an interview you’ve previously recorded and they will be shots dropped in over the interview to cover edits, so the sound is superfluous. Even if he’s recording some action to use as a cutaway, the sound will be very much background in the audio mix. Is the sound going under music? In which case would you hear it?

There are also safety considerations some times. It maybe the camera is going to run around with the camera or he’s working near machinery? In both cases the last think he needs is someone attached by cables to the camera.

Letting a cameraman simply use the camera mic is not a dereliction of duty for a sound recordist, just a good judgement of the circumstances and an understanding of the medium and the whole production process.

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The Open at Turnberry

The 9th Green at 'The Open' at Turnberry

I’ve just comeback from working on ‘The Open’ at Turnberry, a large media BBC event with other tv channels from America and Japan. So how do you cover such a large event with lots of things going on at once?

My job was ‘Greens and Tees’. We had over 80 microphones covering the 18 holes, set microphones covering Greens and Tees and 18 people with radio packs and gun microphones walking the fairways – all out in strong winds, rain and sun! Everything had to be kept going (even in the rain), brought in each night and put out again before play the next morning.

Also covering just the course were 52 cameras!

This output constituted the ‘International mix’, basically coverage of all the action going on. You then add to the BBC output the studio and commentary, roving commentators on the course, giving a close up view and single camera units doing interviews and presentation pieces to camera. Then both the Americans and Japanese had their own set of ‘Turnberry’ facilities to add to the International mix (the International feed also goes world-wide for use by anyone who wants it). With all these facilities you can imagine the amount of people involved!

The International mix is obviously ‘live’, so with up to 18 holes being played at once and the possibility of two matches on each at the same time, how do you make all that appear on one ‘live’ TV screen???

Whilst the BBC had a truck full of Video machines recording the other matches going on at the same time and quickly replaying them back as if it were live, the one thing production had to be was selective.

You ask what relevance has this got to me? Actually quite a lot in way you approach any event you’re going to shoot/cover. What about sports day? The BBC had over 100 microphones and 60+ cameras and over a hundred staff - you have 4 camcorders, two handheld mics and 6 students. The answer be selective and plan! Even the BBC couldn’t show everything and had to choose the matches to follow, even though it had facility to technically cover everything – which you haven’t!

Do some research; don’t just turn up on the day. Work out which events you have, which would be most visual/interesting and restrict choices to the number of cameras you have – better to cover a few events well than everything poorly – give your camcorder teams responsibility for just that event. Follow just few competitors, don’t try and show everyone – research – maybe someone has an interesting story to tell and you could follow them through their progress during the whole day?  Or even a number of people, but be selective!

Unlike the BBC you don’t have the facility to just let things happen and react on a large scale, so planning and research are a must to get anything out of it that will interest and not just be a few blobs running around a field or massed wide shots of the event you’re covering with no story line.  This all applies not just to Sports day, but any event you’ve been asked to cover by your school/university – Plan and be selective!

Lastly, do remember you need parental permissions for minors! Again thinking ahead and restricting your coverage to a few participants will give you less of a headache!

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