New year, new toys, and lessons I learned from 2011 – Part Un

So it is coming around to that time of year again. What?! I hear you say, “New year as already passed you by!”

Well, that’s true, and, also not. Being of Chinese descent, I am generally forced to celebrate both the lunar calendar new year (Chinese New Year) and the regular new year, by a number of circumstances. Great thing is there are two times when I am allowed to pig out and generally be jolly and good natured. Bad thing is, for almost an entire month of each year I can’t figure out whether I should be using the current or past year date when talking to my family and relatives.

Anyway, all of this pales in relevance with the excellent news I have to tell you.

Firstly, hurrah! Using a convoluted means of mail server routing I have finally managed to get my new email address working! hullo@chumshouse.net now officially lives! after several hiccups… (why are these things so damn difficult! Is it too much to ask to make it work like a Wii?)

Secondly, and this is probably the real news, after hearing the results of my work last year at various screenings throughout Melbourne, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the sound captured by the existing microphones. It was greatly different to how I thought it would sound when listening to it straight out of the field recorder.

If you are a soundie or sound designer, or editor, or just some guy who dabbles in post-production, you may say, “hey, but, after all the mixing and designing, surely, it would all be properly normalised to a mean, and you wouldn’t be able to tell what mic was being used anyway”

Well, that seems a logical argument. However, there was the proof staring (or blaring, I should say) me right in the face, and this wasn’t just coming out of my home stereo, this was coming out of one of the most potentially cinematic spaces in Victoria, ACMI (with its 2k projector and proper surround sound space). Despite all of the backhanded praising from neighbourhood sound recordists everywhere, and the touches of a world class sound designer (yes, he really is world class), my RODE NTG-3 and stereo set of Avantone CK-1’s (which, to my surprise, despite being a matched pair actually had a variance of 3dB… shocking really), amongst all the loveliness of Sennheiser MKH416’s, Scheops CMIT5U’s and Sanken CS3e’s (they all have their unique characteristics, you can tell, even post mix), were sorely outclassed.

People told me that it was a good job, that I did nice work, but, I wasn’t fooled for a second by the politeness (in fact, if the sound was really that good, would they have noticed it? It should have just faded into a holistic viewing experience). To my ears, not only did it seem that they microphones were difficult to mix together (there was a clear distinction between when a RODE was being used and an Avantone), but they were harsh, thin, and distractingly crunchy.

Ah! But astute film-makers everywhere would tut-tut and say, but, well, you are getting what you pay for, and in comparison to the competition around them, these mics are great value. And it was on this basis that I bought them, to be fair. I knew I wasn’t going to get the lovely warmth of a colette series mic, but, hey, they picked up sound, and how bad could they be?

I know this is turning into a mini ranting diatribe of a review, but yes, I paid $600 for the RODE, and, for the new microphone kit I will be unveiling I paid more than $2000 per microphone, but even if you paid $3 for crap and $1000 for gold, you are still purchasing crap… And it is in the same vein that I classify the RODE and Avantone microphones. Are my new microphones 3x better than my old ones? In a clinical test, no, probably not. But, amplify that to fit a cinema like ACMI’s and they are INFINITELY better.

As an audience member I came to realise something. Audiences can’t tell what microphone was used in recording. They can’t tell how a soundtrack was mixed to bring out the dialogue and reduce extraneous noises. Sometimes, they can’t even tell if its a surround sound mix or stereo mix. But, something that audiences everywhere understand, whether its consciously or subconsciously, is whether the sound was great or crap. There is no degrees to it, if the quality of the sound does not reach a certain threshold, it is just crap, there is no “how crap it is” or “what parts were crapper than others”, it just is, and the reason for this is it “breaks” an audience out of a viewing experience. Like a poorly cut scene, there is no degrees in badness, it is just jarringly bad.

So, to those budding sound recordists everywhere, I say this to them. Consider your audience. If you know this is a corporate video that is going out to a bunch of new recruits in a conference room, or its a short film only your mum will see, sure, skimp a little on the sound equipment. Beg, Borrow, Steal whatever to get the film made, as long as it maintains its integrity (i.e. it’s still the film you wanted to make and not just a pile of steaming poo). But, if you know that it is going to a wide audience, in state of the art cinema’s and being pitted against other films of its ilk, some of which are bound to be extremely well polished, take a realistic look at your potential to record sound for that film before sticking your hand up to it. I realise story can be king, but take a little strain off the writer and director by recording it with tools and techniques that do the film justice. Sound CAN and it DOES break films if either those two facets of its capture are found wanting.

If you can’t fork out a bajillion dollars for the newest top of the line mic, then consider hiring or borrowing one. If they want to bring in the writers cousin on board to boom operate for you, firmly decline, and source a boom operator you can trust. If you are not sure about the requirements of a gig, speak up before its too late and the camera is rolling, mistakes caught later when nothing can be done about them hurt 10x worse then redoing a shot. You don’t have to do it alone, if you know you are too inexperienced, bring another with more experience so you can tag along and “learn the trade”. Also, one more important piece of advice, it’s a bit specialised, but necessary: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING LAPEL MICS ARE GODS GIFT TO SOUND RECORDISTS. They are tools like any other in your arsenal.They have pros and cons. Use them realistically within a sound plan, and realise that they are delicate, breakable and a nightmare to use logistically, more so if you haven’t already found out what the wardrobe department is doing. It is one of the most difficult things to learn, how to rig up one of these, as a budding recordist (practice makes perfect), don’t think it can be done in 5 minutes, and don’t think some clothing noise is bearable and can be removed in post. Never settle for anything less than smooth and perfect sound.

The number one thing I keep in mind, when it is my job to record sound is: like a lens to a camera, it doesn’t matter how good the field recorder is, or the sound designer is, or the gear he is working on, or even headphones and the speakers the film ends up on, are, if you record crap, you can clean it up, but it’s still crap all the way through the pipeline.

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