by James Sieczka
I’ve been on countless shoots where sound is the absolute last priority. Hiring the sound mixer is an afterthought. But he should be there from day one, so he can properly prepare for, or advise against, the dramatic dialogue-heavy scene right next to the blue-line stop in downtown Chicago.
Sound is just not on the minds of the producer or director.
I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve definitely seen enough to know that sound, in any of the visual dramatic arts, is vastly misunderstood and deserves 100% more consideration prior to shooting any film/television project.
I want to stress that I’m not referring to the film school student. I’m referring to the big guys! The huge million-dollar reality television shows (RTS) too often think that if the sound isn’t good, we can just “fix it in post.”
Well, I must tell you the option to “fix it in post” is something that I hear on almost every shoot, and it should be your absolute last resort for reasons I will not get into right now.
Right now, I’m going to talk about how to record, as an E & G sound mixer, the best sound possible by comparing the two most commonly used mixers in the reality television world.
Let’s suppose you are a sound mixer on an RTS. Not all, but most shows, will supply you with gear to use for the duration of the show. If this is true, you will most likely be supplied with one of two sound mixers.
The two most commonly used RTS mixers are the Sound Devices 442 and the Wendt-5.
My absolute favorite of the two is the Sound Devices 442. The 442 is a workhorse, to say the least, and it has a lot of features that I think most find useful. One of the nicest features is the digital-illuminated decibel peak meter. The screen on this meter can be set to different brightness intensities, so if you are recording in a poorly lit set you can bump up the brightness in order to see your mixing levels.
Another great feature on the 442 is the push pots. These dials let you pan each of the 442’s four channels from left, center and right positions. Once you have selected your channel’s position you can then push the pot in, and it keeps your mixing area clutter-free.
The second most common E&G sound mixer used in the RTS world is the Wendt-5, 5-channel mixer. Unlike the 442, the Wendt uses a VU (volume units) meter to measure signal flow through the mixer to your recording device—this is the first issue that I have with this mixer. Not all sound professionals, but most agree that they prefer a DB meter to measure signal flow over a VU meter. Without getting into too much detail, the main difference between a VU and DB meter is their response time. Both meters measure the power of the signal that is being recorded, but the VU meter only gives an average of that power. Thus, there is a delay with VU meters, giving you a slower reading of the actual loudness or softness of a sound. DB meters, on the other hand, measure in decibels and give you the exact measure of audio power at each fraction of a second.
Some of you reading this might be thinking that it really doesn’t matter if I use a VU or a DB meter because “I’ve been mixing for years.” If that’s the case, I’ll let you in on another secret you might not already know about the Wendt-5 mixer. Say you are doing house coverage, and there are four cast members in your scene. For whatever reason, two of the cast members leave the scene and hightail upstairs where a heated screaming match starts. Your director has already instructed you to stay in the original scene and another camera/sound team moves upstairs to cover the ensuing brawl. As you remain in the original scene, you can still hear very faintly through your mixer the screaming match that is taking place upstairs. You rush to make sure that you have those cast members’ mikes turned all the way down because you wouldn’t want their audio to ruin your scene. To your surprise, their mikes are in fact turned all the way down! So how come you can still hear your off-screen talents’ voices even though their audio is gained down? That’s something only Wendt can answer, but it remains a huge issue with the mixer. The only way to avoid recording unwanted sound that can be coming from a wireless mike off-screen is to switch off that wireless receiver. Completely lowering the gain still allows for sound to bleed through and could potentially ruin the production track of your current scene.
James Sieczka studied at Columbia College and has served on the faculty of IAFT after several years as a production sound mixer. He has worked on a number of projects including College Hill Interns and College Hill Season 5 for BET Entertainment, a Boost Mobil Commercial for KDJ Productions, Fear Factor Home Invasion for Tri Crown Productions, Fox’s Celebrity Sports and one of the highest-rated premieres of an original program ever on a Fox Cable Network, the reality show Wrecked.