It’s no secret that location sound is challenging. While the other departments have their own unique obstacles to overcome, it seems that the production sound team is often tasked with capturing clear, dynamic and legible sound in noisy, chaotic situations that seem to make that assignment nearly impossible to complete.
Speaking with location sound mixers, it quickly becomes apparent that there are “normal” days of recording actors on set, mainly with dialogue, and days when the producer, writer or director will challenge sound mixers to capture clean audio in weird, unusual and just plain tough situations. So how do sound mixers capture quality audio in a variety of difficult situations?
LOCATION SOUND, VÉRITÉ STYLE
Blas Kisic came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 1990, working on a Spanish-language television show. He opened an audio post facility and spent the following decade recording ADR and foreign language dubbing for TV and film. In 2012, he moved from audio post into production sound.
When asked about his most challenging and memorable location sound assignments, Kisic’s current project comes to mind. “I started recording sound for a documentary film that follows an NBA team, shooting the story of their entire season,” he says. “I’m working with fellow mixer Caleb Mose on this project, which will take about a year to film.
“The producers are shooting the documentary, vérité style,” he notes, “so there will be no interviews. This means that the entire story must be told through the players’ dialogue as they do their job. The production needs to capture every moment in training, every discussion and the games themselves.
“We spent the past week sewing pockets into the players’ uniforms, playing with different-sized wireless mic transmitters and the placement of [lavalier] microphones. These factors, in themselves, are challenging, but the producers also want to blanket the entire perimeter of the basketball court with shotgun and cardioid microphones to pick up additional sounds of various players that aren’t miked.
“The producers want the audience to feel as if they’re right on the court with the players, even if the players aren’t the ones wearing mics. We’re not able to put wireless mics on every player on the featured team, and we can’t put any wireless mics on the opposing teams. I’m working hard to try to give the producers exactly what they need. It’s a tough challenge.”
Kisic will have wireless mics on up to three players during each game, but the big test comes with the boundary mics.
“An NBA game is audio mayhem,” Kisic continues. “It’s loud, it’s chaotic, and we need to hear what’s happening on the court. We did a test at an exhibition game using the Lectrosonics SMV transmitter on the players wearing wireless mics. Lectrosonics is making a smaller model called the SSM, which we’ll also be evaluating. For our lavalier mics, I chose the Countryman B6, which is impervious to sweat, plus very small and lightweight. We may try sewing the lavalier to the shirt. Miking with lavs is never an exact science.”
Once the testing phase for Kisic’s project is complete and his crew, along with the producers, has decided which microphones, transmitters and support gear work best, they will be following the team for a full NBA season.
“I suspect that there will be somewhere between 30 and 40 mics recording each game, including multiple shotguns and boundary mics all over the court,” says Kisic. “There will be lavaliers on the coaches, planted mics near the bench where the players sit. We’re shooting the vérité segments with two cameras, probably using ARRI AMIRA, plus three or four cameras for the games themselves.”
Kisic will be working alongside a sound team with two mixers, plus two assistants, as the rigging will be considerable.
Gabriel Fragoso is a sound mixer who has built his career on recording production sound in unusual and interesting situations. One of his projects was a web series called Firefall for a video gaming company for Red 5 Studios.
“This shoot turned out to be a very challenging setup that took some trial and error to get it right,” Fragoso recalls. “It involved recording dialogue and sound from three people strapped into water-powered jet packs. The talent strapped on the jet packs floated about 60 feet above the water in costumes with paintball guns. They were portraying video game characters, and as they were hovering in the air, they would shoot each other with the paintball guns. It was my job to make sure that I was recording clear sound of each character trash-talking the others while taking hits, in character.”
So how do you mike a person wearing a hydropowered jet pack maneuvering through the air and dodging paintballs?
“As it turns out, very carefully,” Fragoso answers. “I ended up attaching lavalier mics to their helmets, running the cables from the lavs through the jet pack to the transmitter. The jet packs themselves were very noisy, so it took experimentation to find the best place to locate the lav element—which turned out to be on the helmet near the talent’s mouth, and as far away from the jet pack as possible.”
Fragoso used Lectrosonics WM series waterproof transmitters and Countryman B6 microphones. “I would lose the sound when the mics were underwater before the talent came up into the air, but once they were airborne I was getting nice, clean sound,” he notes.
“We had three people up in the jet packs over the water while we were on a pontoon boat with the Lectrosonics receivers placed about 10 feet up in the air to make sure that I didn’t lose signal. I recorded with the Sound Devices 788 recorder. There was also a drone camera copter shooting the action up in the air, plus three cameras with long lenses shooting the whole battle from the shore. It was pretty crazy.”
Fragoso has gone on to record sound in other unusual situations, but the hydro-jet-pack-wearing video game characters stand out as one of his most unusual challenges.
WIRELESS SYSTEMS AND LAVS TO THE RESCUE
A common thread with recording dialogue in difficult situations is the use of wireless mic systems. Besides transmitters from industry-stalwart Lectrosonics, another wireless mic system that’s gaining popularity for recording sound in unusual situations, especially in sports, is the QT-256 Belt Pack from Canadian company Quantum5x Systems (Q5X). Billed as “the world’s smallest broadcast-quality wireless microphone transmitter,” it’s being used by the NBA, Major League Baseball and the major TV networks, in addition to feature films, plus reality television and live theater. American-made Lectrosonics has dominated location sound wireless microphone systems for decades, so it’s interesting to see a foreign-made system challenging them in this recording niche.
Speaking with location sound mixers, it seems that, depending on the situation, the most popular lavalier microphones used in difficult recording situations include the Sanken COS-11 and the DPA 4060 and 4070 series, as well as the aforementioned Countryman B6. The B6 is waterproof, making it a natural choice for situations where the mic may end up underwater or in rain and mud, while the Sanken and DPAs are favored for their open and natural sound quality.
While other types of microphones are sometimes pressed into capturing sound in challenging situations, the tiny, yet high-quality wireless systems and lavaliers are typically how sound mixers capture clean, clear dialogue despite all of the chaos around them.
16 CFR Part 255 Disclosure: Neither Countryman Associates, DPA, Lectrosonics, Quantum5x Systems nor Sanken compensated me to write this article. None of the companies sent me review units to try out the hardware. No material connection exists between the manufacturers mentioned in the article and myself.