image of sound equipment

In the last week or so, something quite unexpected happened. I was invited to be a guest speaker. Posh or what!
The group I was to speak for was the Creative Cardiff’s quarterly meeting. Creative Cardiff is a network for any creative professional, individual and business in Cardiff and the city region, founded out of Cardiff University’s Creative Economy Unit. Our founders are Wales Millennium Centre, BBC Cymru Wales and Cardiff Council. Turns out they host networking events, showcase employment and training opportunities online and produce resources for our more than 1700 members. And they were looking for me to do 10 minutes about being a location sound recordist.

Unfortunately, typically, I couldn’t do the day as I was confirmed on a job shortly before I was invited to speak. But the opportunity got me thinking. It’s a show and tell, they wanted me to bring along something that aids my creative process at work and secondly something that inspires me.

First of all I thought, something that aids my creative process. That was a tough one. Mainly as I’ve never thought of sound, especially in documentary/PSC sound as a creative process. You have to get the sound to tell the story, I viewed it as a very objective job. I’ve jokingly said this to a couple of directors I know well that, a shot is a very subjective thing. The DoP/Lightining Camera Man/Camera Op can view it one way, the director another and the editor a completely different way again. None of that makes any one of them wrong. Just that all of them have interpreted the shot and the narrative in different ways. Where as sound. Well, you can’t turn around to the director and editor and say “looking at the framing of the shot and the story we were telling, I thought it best to record the whole thing on a camera mic from 30ft away!”, that just ain’t going to cut it.

As this talk wasn’t meant to be an in-depth technical discussion about matching sound to pictures and so forth, each talk can only be 10 minutes in length, I decided to look at how being a recordist on location had changed since I started out. If I hit on something here it would be the aid to the creative process.

For me the biggest thing that’s changed from when I started out to now is the advent of wireless hops being the norm on most shoots. Way back in the mists of time when I joined Magpie Film Productions in the Midlands the only way the vast majority of sound was sent to camera was from the mixer, down a reasonably thick Umbilical Cable to a set of tails going into the camera, with a return coming out of the minijack on the camera back down the umbilical to the mixer.

I think all our umbilicals were about 5m long, so about 15ft, spooled up and tied to side of the mixer bag. The biggest bonus in this system was the fact that if the camera’s playback circuit was up to snuff then you could listen to what was getting to camera and going down on the audio tracks.
The downside was that you were essentially chained to the cameraman, wherever he went you went and to a certain extent, vice versa. I’m sure there are plenty of cameramen that will tell stories of when the sound recordist wasn’t quick enough or the cable got stood on and the camera was nearly pulled off his shoulder backwards. These things did happen but more often than not it was the sound recordists life that was made the more difficult by this cable.
Unlike know, when you have recorders with isolated mic inputs with Timecode systems jamming everything camera or sound, in the umbilical days the only recording device would be the camera and the audio tracks on whatever format the camera was recording onto.
You had to stay plugged into the camera, otherwise the shot was mute. This led to loads of finagling from running extensions on the umbilical to get you physically closer to the subject, if you needed to swing a boom and the camera was stationary to running the radio mic receiver on an XLR to be closer to people wearing them. Neither of which was ideal.

There was a precedent set for camera and sound becoming linked wirelessly after a sound recordist was injured on location when, as he was plugged in, he followed the camera man and in a freak accident involving a windmill sail was paralysed. In this case the cameraman was found to be, to some extent, responsible for the sound recordists safety, simply because with the sound recordist being tethered to the camera, he had to go wherever the camera went. This made everyone look at the bonuses of being wirelessly linked.

As soon as I started using my Zaxcom camera hop I could see it was a game changer, the freedom of movement it gave both camera and sound was a revelation. It meant that both of us could get where we needed to get for best effect without effecting the other. On a radio mic heavy programme, it meant that all of your attention could be given to the mixing of the mics rather than having to keep half an eye on the camera to see when it would either take off in another direction or move away somewhere meaning you would quickly run out of slack on that umbilical.

The problem with going wireless, and being predominantly on a wireless hop for the last 10 years or so is that it’s very difficult to get back into being tethered to camera. The skill on the behalf of the sound recordists to be able to work while manacled to camera is a hard one to master but a very easy one to lose.
15years ago and more, Cameraman and soundmen would be “professionally” married to each other, if you asked a cameraman to bring a sound recordist you could probably guess which one he would bring, namely, the same one he always brings. Some of that is obviously down to how they get on socially as they would be spending long hours in the car together as well as on location and on overnights but I honestly feel that some of it came down to how well they worked when they were tethered together.
I spent years with the same Cameraman, 3 were Magpie when I was there, all 3 hugely different in the way they shot things, but I quickly learned how they would shoot and how they would move. It was great when you were shooting a complicated handheld scene on a drama reconstruction, or a doorstep for something like Rogue Traders or panorama and you were tethered together and you got it absolutely right. I don’t think the cameraman would ever say “that recordists is great on making sure he doesn’t step on the cable and ruin the take!” but I think everyone knew you’d done well when no one thought about the little dog on a lead with a microphone that had to follow behind the cameraman.


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