Sound Devices 552 (internal view)

I’ve just bought a Sound Devices 552 for quite a reasonable price, due to a fault where the power input’s shorted (it’s fully functional using AA batteries).  I opened it up to see if it was something I’d be able to fix, but it looks like it’s something on the big surface mount board (possibly just a protection diode), so I won’t be touching that- it’ll be visiting Shure.

Anyway, I took some photos while it was open. Note the in-jokes on the PCBs, the sheer amount of electronics they’ve crammed in there and all those transformers:

Computer Bag setup

Following on from my computer recording post, from a few months back- I’ve started to put a system together.

I’ve managed to sell all my other computers etc and bought a shiny new Sony Vaio Z (other shortlisted models were the Macbook Air 11″ and the Lenovo Thinkpad x230, based on connectivity, weight, battery power and ability to fit in the bottom of a Petrol PS602 sound bag).

For the interface (based on power, size and connectivity options), the computer was limited to USB.  I’m also a bit wary of firewire interfaces as I’ve managed to blow the controller chip in one, possibly by moving the cable moving a small amount while it was plugged in (or looking at it the wrong way?).  This left me with only 2 options, the RME Fireface UC/UCX and the MOTU Ultralite Mk3 Hybrid (I’d actually discounted this before due to lack of word clock for Timecode sync).

Despite being a long term user of RME interfaces, I couldn’t really justify the price difference for a bit of extra niceness and a word clock input.  MOTU interfaces will (according to their documentation) slave their clocks to incoming timecode on an audio input, so I’m hoping that works.

It actually involved quite a bit of pain getting the MOTU to work with the computer.  I found it’s not currently USB3.0 compatible (all the ports on the computer are USB3.0).  I had to switch them to USB2.0 in the BIOS to get it working.

I also got a control surface, after stumbling across the dodgily named iCON i-controls pro.  It’s probably the most compact control surface with 100mm faders I’ve come across and it runs from DC (and even seems to work without the motorised faders from USB power). It weighs just under 2kg. From having a play, the build seems better than the Euphonix/Avid Artist surfaces.  Was dead easy to set up, seems to talk pretty flawlessly to Samplitude and MOTU Cuemix, although I could do with modifying the setup so that the knobs control trim rather than pan.  Motorised faders are endlessly entertaining (although not to be used during takes).  For some reason Cuemix seems to eat about 10% CPU, which seems a tad excessive.

I’m still short of a few cables to truly make it work as a bag setup (right angled everything for the back of the ultralite, but it fits (with Sonosax mixer providing cabled mic ins and RME Quadmic as pre for radios (may not be necessary). I also need to get a VGA cable to output to the small monitor (may get an HDMI one instead, that one really is bad- ok for checking the frame though), seems a bit of a shame considering the laptop’s screen is 1080p.

Here’s a picture (spot the computer):

and here’s with the control surface, I’ll need some way of securing it, it just balances on top:

 

Multiple Recorders

I’ve been asked to provide 6 individual isolated tracks for a job next week, and the most either of my recorders do is 4.  I gave production the option of hiring a lovely Sound Devices 788T but they weren’t too keen on the cost.

So, here’s what I’ve made:

 

I’ve also found that the Edirol R-44 does have Word Clock over the CTRL Sync jack- if you plug it in to the Tascam HD-P2 they’ll sync.

If we’ve also got all the correct cables these also will be synched up to a Nagra VI run by a second recordist- 12 channels, voila!

The mixer’s mainly there so I can monitor both recorders at once

I ran them for 30mins with a mic attached to the mixer (going into both recorders) and didn’t see any deviation of file lengths (although the start/stop times were slightly different)

Battery Powered playback

It can be a bit difficult to find commercially available speakers which work off DC or batteries, in fact the only one I know of is the Remote Audio Speakeasy, which isn’t easy to get hold of over here, or cheap.

I normally use a dB technologies L80 if I need to use a speaker, although it’s mains powered only- it’s a 35W amp driving 4ohm speakers and loud enough for most situations. Having taken a look inside, the main transformer outputs 23V, and I’d have to use regulators to get that from my battery power.

After a bit of a rummage around drawers I remembered I had a board for a 25W Tripath 2020 Class-D amp (you can get these off ebay for about £20, and they’re rather good) which ran off 12V.

I’ve got a little Yamaha NS10MM centre speaker, which I normally use as a ‘Grot Box’ monitor which I bought from Hard-Off  (yes, it’s called that, and it’s brilliant) in Japan for about £12 (it still has the label).

I soldered together a few connectors, hooked them up to a 12V Li-Ion pack (another cheapo ebay job) and, as I didn’t have a suitable case for the amp, and the speaker is likely to get chipped, put it all in a camera bag:

I also found out my passive DI works backwards, so can send balanced line out to this or hook up a wireless receiver to the bag

What’s in my bag

Here’s my bag- every sound recordist’s is a bit different and I thought I’d give you a tour:

Mixer

Logically, I’ll start in the middle.  The mixer’s essentially the ‘heart’ of a sound recordist’s kit- with it the recordist can control the level of signals, so that a healthy signal to noise can be maintained but the signal is not distorted.  It also has analogue limiters which will compress the signal during peaks (such as shouting)- this is one of the main differences between mixers built for broadcast and those built for music (in addition to build, powering options and outputs)

Each of the three larger knobs control the level of each signal being sent to the mix, whilst the gain knobs set how much each signal is amplified.  LF cut is a filter which reduces the amount of lower frequencies present in the signal (which can be increased by microphones being placed close to the subject), this can also cut out some noise from the microphone being moved around and wind noise.

It will also power microphones and amplify their signals

Mixer ‘input side’:

Here’s a view from the left hand side of the bag.  Here the inputs are going into the mixer on the left.  The cable at the top goes to the boom microphone, whilst the cables with red and green bands come from a radio microphone receiver.  The thinner red cables provide power and the black cable going into the recorder on the right comes from the mixer’s digital output

Mixer ‘output side’

This particular mixer (Sonosax SX-M32) has ‘direct outputs’, which means each of the amplified microphone signals can be sent out before they are mixed.  This can give post production more options. Here the top cable, with the darker red ring sends a mix to the recorder and the other three send pre-fader direct outputs. The smaller ‘mono out’ usually goes to a radio transmitter, sending out a 1 channel mix.  There are also a couple of other connectors out of view which include one for a sending a 2 channels to a camera and receiving one back so that I can hear what is being recorded to camera, when not using a separate recorder, and a smaller one which sends the mix digitally to the recorder.

Recorder

This is the box at the bottom of the main picture.  Although it is also possible to plug microphones directly into this particular model, the quality and flexibility is not as good as using a separate mixer (there are a few recorders becoming available which can also operate as a mixer).  This one (Edirol R-44) can record 4 channels of audio, as digital .wav files.   Some recorders also have timecode generators which can be synchronised with cameras, making it faster to synchronise video and audio in post production. I also own a 2 channel recorder with timecode facility

Wireless

There are a number of situations where it is impossible, or extremely difficult to capture quality audio without using cables.   Although the most expensive and advanced wireless systems are not as high quality or reliable as a cable, they’re close- and allow microphones to be placed where they couldn’t without wires.

This particular box (Wisycom MCR42) actually has 4 receivers inside, 2 per transmiter- selecting the one with the strongest signal.  It also has emulation modes for other brands of receiver (Sennheiser and Audio Limited) and a very wide bandwidth, making it suitable for international use

Radios can also be used for sending signals, such as an feed to a director, boom operator, script supervisor or camera to aid with sync (or to send a timecode signal).  There’s also a transmitter for this purpose on the right and second receiver on the left (single channel) for a third radio mic.

Powering

Inside the pocket at the back of the bag is the battery and distributor

From here the battery power is split between the mixer, recorder and 2 channel radio  receiver.  Here is the whole bag opened up:

Here you can see the red cables running to the recorder, mixer and radio receiver in the front pouch

Computers for Production Recording

In almost all production recording systems some kind of field recorder is used.  In most of these cases they’re actually a very specialised computer running a cut down operating system (usually a Linux kernel or Windows Embedded variant) with custom software.

For example, I’ve found my Tascam HD-P2 runs Windows CE (it’s mentioned in the version 1.05 release notes).  As a you start to think *OMFG my recorder will BSOD on me*, a lot of the problems with Windows (and other OS) is when things get changed, and systems have to deal with this.  Usually with embedded systems this isn’t the case, they’re ‘sealed units’ and run all sorts of systems which cannot tolerate failure like aircraft autopilot systems and industrial automation systems.

Why not run a specialised computer for recording purposes? It’ll be much cheaper, right?

One of the main issues is software.  Although there are quite a few programs for multichannel audio recording and mixing, most do a lot of things you don’t need for production recording (which means more to go wrong) and some don’t do some things you do need (metadata editing and Time Code input).

The best course of action would be to use a piece of software designed for this purpose, AFAIK there are three (prices include VAT):

Boom Recorder (Mac OSX only) £175
Metacorder (Mac OSX only) £1314
SADiE MTR (Windows only, with SADiE Hardware) £4100 with LRX2

You also need an interface to get the audio into the computer.  Here’s a list of those which I’ve found which have at least 8 inputs and a DSP routing system, can be powered by DC in the field

Interface Price Weight (kg) Dimensions (mm) Power Consumption (W)
RME FF UC (USB) 722.73 1.5 218x44x155 13
RME FF UCX (USB/FW) 958.26 1.5 218x44x155 13
MOTU Traveler mk3 (FW) 589 1.73 375x44x229 ?
Metric Halo 2882 (FW) 1215 2 343x44x279 8
Sadie LRX2 (USB) 4100 6 330x65x423 50

Now you’ll need a computer to run it.  I initially had ideas of very small industrial machines with no moving parts and Atom/AMD Fusion CPUs.  These would work fine with the SADiE system (in face any machine with a hard drive fast enough should, as the LRX does the heavy lifting), but I’m not too sure about running OSX on them.  In addition to this the RME USB interfaces don’t work too well with Atom machines (and haven’t been tested with the AMD chips).

Having a look round for a small computer which will run off DC power, not have an atom processor and run OSX it looks like you’re looking at a Mac or a going for a ‘hackintosh’ job (installing OSX on an non-apple x86 machine) on a similarly sized ‘ultrabook’ (which would cost around the same for the base machine).  Prices are given with 15% discount (either as a refurb or through a number of discount schemes, education etc). I’ve discounted the low end Macbook air as I don’t think 2GB memory will cut it:

Computer Price (£) Battery life (Whr) Power consumption (W) Weight (kg)
Display off Display on
Macbook Air 11” i5 4GB 128GB 850 35 4.2 9 1.06
Macbook Air 11” i7 4GB 128GB 970 35 4.2 9 1.06
Macbook Pro 13” i7 128GB SSD 1172 63.5 7.2 12.7 2

Another thing which will need to be added to the system is a TCXO clock, if time code sync is required (clock on LRX2 will probably suffice).  Here are some options:

Denecke SB3 £384
Timecode Buddy Master £810.00
Ambient ACL203 £690

In order to use firewire interfaces with the Macbook air, you need some kind of thunderbolt adapter.  The cheapest current method is (this means it’s actually cheaper to use an RME FF UC with Macbook Air):

Sonnet thunderbolt to expresscard 123.60
Thunderbolt cable 39
Expresscard to FW 16.78

 

In order to create mixes you’ll also need some kind of mixer or control surface.  If you’re already running a mixer in front of your recorder you can probably make do.  For drama/ cart based setups the only option I can see which runs from DC power is the Avid Artist Mix (formerly Euphonix MC mix) at £1000.  On the other end of the scale there are a few USB powered things with knobs/faders on from Korg and Akai, which may break from just looking at them

Control Surface  Cost (£) Weight (kg) Dimensions (mm)
Avid / Euphonix Artist Mix 1000 2.2 238x30x420
Mackie MCU Pro 1000 7.6 419x119x423


Bag setups *may* be feasible by putting the laptop at the bottom of the bag, the interface where the recorder would normally be and using a small touchscreen monitor for control: eg Lilliput 669GL

Finally here’s a few example packages you could put together here  The LRX2 price is taking into account using an existing laptop, adding the 16mic pre card and 25% discount for part ex with old SADiE kit (can be found on ebay for buttons):

Price Weight (kg) Power Consumption (W)
Cheap (MBA+FFUC+Monitor+Denecke+BR) 2287.73 2.56 17.2
Drama (MBAi7+FFUCX+Avid+Denecke+BR) 3487.26 4.76 17.2
Lo Power (MBAi7+MH2882+Denecke+BR) 2941.03 3.06 12.2
SADiE LRX2 (USB) 4500 8 50
Sound Devices 788T + CL9 6953 3.8 16

 

Here’s a comparison of different systems taking into account cost, weight and power consumption.  I haven’t added the monitor power consumption- it’s around 8W, assuming you may also use one with a  788T system. I believe the LRX2 can actually display sync video on screen.  I also don’t know the power consumption of the Avid Artist mix

Last Christmas Variations

Here’s something I made the other day after getting a bit distracted while fixing up a slightly faulty Yamaha SHS10 keytar.  It’s all done with by playing the demo (Last Christmas by Wham!) and making different connections on the circuit board

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/1647994″ params=”auto_play=false&show_artwork=true&color=ff0004″ width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

I’ve been told that Stewart Walden’s (now Keith) Cucumber Sandwich is played on a Casio SA10, and features ‘Wake Me Up, Before you Go-Go’

If anyone else knows of any other keyboards featuring George Michael’s work, please enlighten me

 

 

Voltmeter

I’ve just made a new addition to my self-made power distribution system- a small voltmeter (the display with the numbers on the left, by the recorder).  This allows me to see exactly how much battery power I have left  They’re available from a number of sellers in China on ebay

I just soldered the red and green wires (+ power and voltage reading point) to the positive pin and black to 0V) on my power distribution box and it all works

Here’s the distribution box and battery:

It’s essentially a load of locking DC connectors wired in parallel

 

Selling Stuff

I’ve had a rummage through the cupboards and I’m looking to get rid of a few bits I rarely use, or have meant to get fixed and haven’t.  Open to offers on all

Doepfer Regelwerk Discontinued MIDI/CV sequencer/fader controller SOLD

 

Yamaha DX7S 80’s classic with a few tweaks.  New internal battery fitted £200

Panasonic NV-MX300 small 3CCD DV camcorder- doesn’t play nicely over FW with MS Windows (firmware bug) £200 SOLD

Commodore MK10 mini-key MIDI keyboard £15
Really light midi controller keyboard, great with small synths/samplers without keyboards.  And gets bonus retro points for saying Commodore on

Sennheiser ME3-ew Headset mic £50
Part of the Sennheiser ew135 system, as recommended by Alan Partridge.  Needs 5V plug in power.

Behringer Ultra DI800 8 way DI box £50 SOLD

Roland D-110 multitimbral sound module £40
Volume knob missing

Roland SP-404 (broken, won’t boot up) sampler good condition £50

AKG C535EB Condenser mic (broken, no signal + paint come off) Nice when working… £30

 

Mackie 1604 rackmount rails, unused £15 SOLD

Clocker / Counter

Here’s a video of me performing an adapted version of Alvin Lucier’s Clocker at Bang the Bore X: Zone of Alienation

Instead of using a clock, we substituted it for a Geiger-Muller counter and radioactive source: Thorium 232.

Equipment used:

DIY Galvanic skin response sensor
Tapco Blend 6 Mixer
Roland SDE-3000 Digital delay (has control voltage input)
Coutryman B3 Microphone (to pick up the counter’s speaker output)