Your Best Equipment for Smart Sound Recording in the Field
An out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to location audio can work for producers who have an experienced mixer on board. But current budget realities and new audio technology mean producers who just worry about visuals are missing half the story. To gain insight on how to keep products on schedule and on budget, we asked some pros how they would approach location audio at three arbitrary budget levels: $200,000, $600,000 and $2,000,000.
$200,000 Hour-long; One-Person Crew
On a one-hour documentary for a mid-sized cable channel, money is tight. Let’s say you have $200,000 or less to produce your hour. The sound crew may be one guy or gal setting up wireless, booming and mixing.
For every project, you need microphones to capture sound, a mixer to control sound, and some means to record. With little spare budget for sound, or anything else, what equipment do you select?
"When a producer mentions a low budget, it doesn’t mean much to me," says Glen Trew, Cinema Audio Society (CAS) mixer and owner of Trew Audio, an equipment dealer and rental house with offices in Nashville, TN, and Toronto, Ontario. "The key is to use the lowest-cost equipment that will deliver professional results."
For example, Trew says his favorite low-cost wireless system is, "without a doubt, the Sennheiser Evolution G2 series of radio mics." All G2 wireless systems share the same core electronics, frequency agility, compact metal case and good audio quality. While the 500 receiver provides balanced output, Trew finds that the short cable runs in sound bags and on camera-mounted receivers mean there is no audible difference between the 500 and the lower-cost 100 series G2 units. A Sennheiser EW112P-G2 Evolution Wireless System lists for $835 with transmitter, receiver and a "decent ME2 lavalier mic," notes Trew. "You get more than you pay for."
What do you give up when you choose low-cost wireless? The sound isn’t as clean as on more expensive systems, and you’re more susceptible to radio-frequency interference and intermodulation in situations with many wireless mics in operation, such as press conferences and large-cast reality shows.
There is an economical solution for these limitations, but it’s falling out of favor: "Productions could save serious money by going with a boom rather than wireless," notes Trew. "You avoid dropouts and clothing rustle, and you get better sound."
John Coffey, CAS, owner of audio dealer/rental house Coffey Sound in Los Angeles, has an additional objection to overuse of lav mics. "Everybody now expects the close-up sound of lavs on every shot and ignores sound perspective. Deep shots and tight shots don’t sound the same in reality and shouldn’t on shows."
For a high-quality, low-cost boom mic, both Trew and Coffey suggest the $795 Sanken CS-1 short shotgun mic. Trew says the ubiquitous $500 Sennheiser ME66/K6 short shotgun is "the least-expensive mic that I’d consider. It sounds pretty good and has a relatively high output," an important feature if the mic is connected to certain camcorders or to a passive Beachtek or Studio-1 mixer often used with MiniDV cameras.
Other moderately priced boom mics that get a thumbs up are the $850 Audio-Technica AT4073a and the venerable Sennheiser MKH416 ($1300, but widely available for rent at about $25 per day).
Less-expensive directional mics designed to withstand the high sound-pressure level (SPL) of rock and roll are rarely good choices for recording dialog. "If you see a maximum SPL of, say, 145 dB, then the mic isn’t sensitive enough," says Trew. By comparison, standard film dialog mics typically have a maximum SPL rating of 125 to 130 dB. "On a boom pole, SPL isn’t a concern. Sensitivity is."
Mixing and Recording
For mixing just a few boom and lav mics, Coffey, Trew and others recommend the $1495 three-input two-output Sound Devices 302 Compact Production Mixer. If you have more mics, Trew suggests adding a second 302 and linking both together to get six inputs. Alternately, you could use the tape return input to get five mics into one 302. You won’t have gain adjustment, "but for wireless, that’s not so important," he notes.
Another low-cost professional-quality mixer is the $1895 four-channel PSC AlphaMix. Expect to spend between $30 and $60 per day to rent a small portable mixer.
At lower budget levels, most producers shooting SD or HD video assume it makes sense to record audio directly to camera. They’re mostly correct; recording sound on videotape means less hassle in the field and in post. However, while many cameras can record excellent audio, few provide reliable monitoring. As Trew says, "If you can’t monitor the return, you can’t guarantee quality sound."
The solution recommended by many audio professionals is to also record sound on a dedicated audio recorder. Recording double-system-one device for picture, another for sound-costs a bit more but, Coffey says," $100 a day to rent a digital recorder is cheap insurance." On longer shoots, the cost per day drops.
If you use the camera audio as your primary source, with a second system just providing backup to cover possible audio glitches, then you could forgo timecode on your audio recorder. The approach requires a little more work in post, but a lot less work in the field.
What do you record on? You could rent a discontinued DAT recorder such as a Fostex PD-4 (about $100 per day with timecode) or a Sony TCD-D10 (about $50 per day without timecode). But then you’ll need a DAT player in the edit suite. An alternative would be to use one of the new-generation nonlinear recorders (NLRs), such as the Fostex FR-2 Field Memory Recorder or the Sound Devices 722 digital audio recorder. Both record two tracks of digital audio at up to 24bit/192kHz resolutions.
The $1499 Fostex FR-2 is about the size of a thick hardcover book, weighs about three pounds, and records industry-standard Broadcast Wave Format (BWF) files to CompactFlash or a PCMCIA 1.8-inch hard drive. Fostex also makes an optional $799 timecode generator/reader card for the FR-2.
The $2650 Sound Devices 722 is about the size of a small Betacam tape case, weighs under three pounds and records WAV, BWF or MP3 files to an internal hard drive. The 722 does not offer a timecode option, but the company’s four-track 744T does.
Is double-system really necessary? It depends on the project and on the degree of risk you’re willing to assume. "In reality shows, audio is more important than picture, and there are no second takes," Coffey says. "If you miss something in the field, you can’t fix it in post."
However, producer Josh Rosen said that, on a project for Discovery HD Theater and Travel Channel, Antarctica by Icebreaker, his team shot 70 HDCAM tapes without audio backup and had no problems. Rosen says, "I’d only record to second system for a concert film."
But Trew says, "At some point, you will need the backup. I recently worked on two commercials shot on HD. On two occasions, we had catastrophic audio problems that didn’t show up during production, only post. Recording to double-system saved the day."
$600,000 Hour-long Two-Person Crew
As your budget grows, you can upgrade your sound department with a dedicated boom operator working for the production mixer. And you can upgrade your equipment, but you can also use much of the same audio equipment as on a lower-budget project-you just use more of it.
Trew suggests upgrading from the Sennheiser G2 wireless to analog systems from Lectrosonics, especially UM200C bodypack transmitters coupled with either the UCR201 or UCR211 receivers. If you’re buying rather than renting, Trew suggests auditioning the 201 system. "With the 201 receiver, you can save $500 over the cost of a 211 system and
still get the same transmitter." These systems list for $2775 to $3275 and rent for about $75 per day.
For a boom mic, listen to the same models as in the lower-budget kit. Others suggest considering the $1850 Neumann KMR 81i or $1700 Sennheiser MKH60, depending on your ability to control ambient sound on location and your boom operator’s skill. Good boom mics rent for about $25 per day.
Popular lavs include Sanken COS-11s, Countryman EMW and B6, Posthorn Sonotrim, Sony ECM-77 and ECM-88, and Tram TR-50. All are widely used, and many mixers carry several lavs from several brands to use in different situations. These mics cost between $230 and about $450, depending on configuration. While most lavs come with a few different mounts, Trew says the Tram’s $240 configuration comes with a comprehensive set of mounting attachments. Expect to spend about $25 per day to rent a good lav mic with accessories.
Mixing and Recording
If you need more than four channels in a single field mixer, consider the $3100 five-channel Wendt X5 used on many reality TV shows, or the $3195 Sound Devices 442 four-channel mixer. Trew says the 442 is more expensive and more flexible than the Wendt, but both deliver excellent audio.
For recording, consider a four-track nonlinear device such as the $4250 Sound Devices 744T, which is similar to the 722 but with four-track recording and an integrated timecode generator/reader. Or, for $100 a day, you could rent an older four-track Zaxcom Deva II, a former state-of-the-art machine that Zaxcom has replaced with the eight-track Deva IV and 10-track Deva V.
Working with a timecode recorder doesn’t mean you’ll have to slate every take. If your camera can output timecode, then "jam-syncing from the camera to the recorder is enough," for reliable double-system recording, says Trew. But ensuring good timecode is a subject best handled by the mixer.
As budgets grow, more people expect to hear what’s being recorded on location. At this budget level, Trew says, "you’ll want four Comtek systems, so the director, DP, script supervisor and producer can monitor what’s being recorded."
$2,000,000 Feature Three/Four-Person Crew
The key difference when working with a moderate budget is the size of
the sound department. Most $2 million films will have a mixer, a boom
operator, and a utility person and/or a second boom operator, with the
mixer working from a larger mixer on a sound cart rather than from an
With a dedicated boom operator, these films can take advantage of the
superior sound of boom mics, and producers can also consider different
and additional boom mics. If ambient sound can be controlled, consider
a Schoeps mic system built around the CMC-6U pre-amp and MK41
supercardioid capsule (together commonly called a 641; about $1475).
But since such control is often difficult on lower-budget film sets,
mics with better off-axis rejection, such as the Sanken CS-1 and
Sennheiser MKH60, are also good options. Next, consider adding a longer
mic such as a $2100 Neumann KMR 82i, a $1950 Sennheiser MKH 70, or
perhaps a $1350 Sanken CS-3e.
For wireless systems, in addition to the Lectrosonics 200 series,
consider the Lectrosonics 400 series ( $3475 a set) and the company’s
new Venue Receiver System, a single rack-space unit that supports up to
six receiver modules. Both Coffey and Trew are interested in Zaxcom’s
digital wireless line.
Mixing and recording
John Coffey puts cart mixer choices succinctly: " Cooper is the boss,
but the PSC Miranda will be a tough competitor." The six-channel Cooper
Sound Systems CS106+1 ( $9600) and updated eight-channel CS208
($14,500) provide extensive sonic, routing, and communication options.
The PSC Miranda, previewed at NAB 2005, has 12 input and eight output
channels, built-in video monitoring, aluminum billet construction, and
comprehensive audio features. A high-quality cart mixer costs about $80
to $120 per day.
While it may not work for every production and doesn’t have built-in
support for battery power, a $1540 Mackie Onyx 1640 16-track mixer can
record a mix to DAT, camera or nonlinear recorder and send the mix plus
more than a dozen 24-bit/96 kHz ISO tracks through its optional $500
The exact needs of any production are unique, and most rental houses
will assemble a package to meet each client’s needs. The two rental
packages above will give you a sense of what it costs to rent equipment
for a simple and a more elaborate job. Note that a common rental scale
sets the weekly rate at four times the daily rate, and the monthly at
three times the weekly.
Recording sound separate from the camera is a sensible option for HD,
and it’s mandatory for film. Trew suggests a portable multitrack
timecode recorder such as a four-track Sound Devices 744T or Zaxcom’s
eight-track Deva IV ( $10,950) and 10-track Deva V ( $12,950).
Other options include the six-track Fostex PD-6 ( $10,000), which
records to removable DVD-RAM cartridges, the eight-channel HHB PDR-2000
Portadrive ( $13,500), and the eight-track Aaton Cantar-X ( $15,000).
Each of these recorders can be used either on a sound cart or over the
shoulder in a bag and will cost around $120 to $250 per day.
The real keys to getting great tracks on location aren’t found in
particular equipment choices. They are found in preparation and
"We’re getting closer, but there isn’t an established workflow for all
this yet," Coffey says. The solution is "communication before the show.
Make sure your budget allows running some test audio tracks through
post before production begins. Listen to your mixer. He’s not trying to
be a pain in the ass when he mentions a sound problem-he’s trying to
ensure that you get the best audio possible."
When asked for his key budget-saving tip, Trew says, "Hire a good boom
operator. If you need to save money, hire a less-experienced mixer. If
you have a PA holding a boom pole, your tracks will sound terrible. But
a good boom op will capture audio that most mixers will be able to
If you compromise sound in the field, Trew warns, "you’ll spend more in post. You can pay the piper now or later."
Over-the-Shoulder Package $365 /day; $1460 /week
- 1 Timecode DAT
- 1 Wireless or SyncBox Slate
- 1 Mixer
- 1 Boom pole
- 1 Shotgun mic
- 1 Backup mic
- 1 Rycote windscreen system
- 2 Frequency-agile diversity UHF wireless systems
- 2 Tram lavs
- 1 Duplex boom cable
- 6 20-foot mic cables
- 1 pair Sony 7506 headphones
Feature and Television Package $600 /day; $2000 /week
- 1 PD4 with TC or Nagra IV-STC backup recorder
- 1 Six-channel mixer ( Cooper, Soundcraft or Cameo)
- 1 Denecke TS-2 digital TC Slate
- 4 Condenser mics (Sennheiser MKH416, MKH60, Neumann KMR 81i, or Schoeps CMC-4 with MK41)
- 1 Shotgun mic (Sennheiser MKH816, MKH70, or Neumann KMR 82i)
- 1 Windscreen system
- 4 Wireless radio mics (Lectrosonics, Sennheiser or Audio LTD) with antennas, lav mics, pouches, stick plug, etc.
- 1 Comtek M72 transmitter
- 4 Comtek PR-72B receivers with headsets
- 2 Boom poles
- 2 Duplex cables
- 2 100-foot XLR cables
- 2 50-foot XLR cables
- 1 Sound cart
- 2 Pairs of headphones
- 2 Bullhorns
- 1 Anchor speaker
- 1 Director’s chair
- 1 AC/DC powering configuration