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Recording Audio for Television

Resident Instructor, Adam Krinsky sat down yesterday to talk with Minneapolis Media Institute students about his recent experience mixing on location for the second season of Repo Games as a part of the MMI Audio/Visual Club.

Recording audio for television has its own unique challenges, but Repo Games had the unique challenge of recording clean audio from game contestants who were unaware they would be on the show. Since they couldn’t put a microphone on a contestant until they agreed to participate, the sound team would hide in the host’s clipboard a lavalier microphone hooked into a high-end wireless system.

Adam attests hiding lavalier mics in prime recording places was favored over the use of boom shotgun microphones and that this is becoming a preferred practice, even in scripted programming. One of his favorite examples of hiding mics was when a contestant was playing without wearing a shirt. One of the sound crew took a lavalier and improvised a necklace, decorating it with some on-hand materials to conceal it.

Radio Frequency is a major consideration for the sound department. Since Repo Games is using a large number of wireless microphones inside of large cities, you have the challenge of getting each wireless mic on it’s own channel not shared with any other microphone and you have to be sure you don’t pick up interference from outside signals.

“That’s why every mixer gets a freq sheet.” Pronounced “freak”, a freq sheet is short for a frequency sheet that contains a list of available frequencies for the day and location they are shooting. These available frequencies are determined by the sound supervisor who uses a special receiver (like the WR-G33WSM Receiver) to determine what frequencies are available in the area and then assigns available frequencies to mixers.

Different frequencies have channel numbers attached to them and Mixers have to manually switch the channels on each wireless transmitter. This is a part of the build they do 24 hours before they shoot.

The build is where the sound department makes a plan of attack for the next day of shooting, unpacks and assembles the gear, and switches out fresh “batts” (batteries). Switching out batts is something done every 4 – 6 hours of shooting and they don’t use rechargeable. There’s just too much risk of failure. Even using new out of the box batteries Adam says as much as 1 in 20 batteries were bad. “That’s why you want to get everything turned on for at least 5 minutes before going back to check them.”

However, even with the reliance on wireless lavs, a boom mic was at Adam’s side throughout the entire shoot. “Your boom is your backup,” said Adam. If batteries fail, or for whatever reason you can’t get a clear signal, the boom is there to pick up what the lav’s aren’t getting. Adam gives the example of an unexpected character walking into the shot. If an unmic’d character enters the camera’s frame, the mixer has to be ready with the boom to capture the moment.

When doing solo interviews, the talent would typically be mic’d with a lavalier and covered with a shotgun mic simultaneously by the same mixer. Adam says the best practice is to have the Shotgun Boom Signal on the right and the Lav on the left.

When covering multiple subjects it gets tricky. A mixer is typically juggling three signals (two lavs and a boom) across the two available audio channels feeding into the mixer’s assigned camera (left & right channel). So a mixer has to be ready to pan signals between the left and right channels and dial up and down each mic input’s gain as needed. Adam calls getting a mic’s gain dialed in “potting in”, and when he is recording dialogue he typically pots in at -20 db, though the sound supervisor for the show asked the mixers to pot in at -16 db.

A mixer factors in signal flow, what’s happening in front of the camera, and whether talent, usually predetermined by the sound supervisor, should always have their own clear channel. Mixers often have to be ready to dial down the gain when they know a contestant is about to win, and subsequently get a LOT louder.

For anyone interested in pursuing opportunities in recording for TV Adam has a few points of advice:

  • “Signal flow is signal flow.” Whether recording in a studio or on set, signal flow is signal flow.
  • “Sounds good… is good.” You don’t want to rely too heavily on guidelines for mic placement, rather trust your ears.
  • “Be open to PA opportunities.” Large productions typically bring sound crews in from out of state, but Production Assistants (PA’s) are all local since it is their knowledge of the area and ability to help the shoot with logistical issues that is there key role.
  • “Get your own gear.” Large gigs typically rent the top end gear that costs a LOT of $, but a thousand dollars can get you going with a Zoom H4N, a boompole, an affordable shotgun mic, and a couple wired lavs. Having your own gear gives you the opportunity to crew the smaller gigs, build your resumé, and develop your proficiency.

“The call list for audio engineers in Minnesota is long, but there’s like ten guys on the call list for recording audio for video. There’s a lot of opportunity.” 

MMI A|V Club meets every Monday 3-5 in the MoCap Lab! Next Monday April 16 – 3D VIDEO!

Interview by Michael Richmond