Basic professional kit

I’m going to just take you through what’s involved in a basic professional kit for sound recording.  And, if you want to get into this business what sort of things you should prioritise.

1) Boom microphones

These are the important things, and are actually the only bits of your kit which will make a significant difference to the rushes you hand over.  They’re also mature technology, so nothing new’s going to come along and make them obsolete any time soon.  I’d expect to get 10 years or more use out of a professional mic.  So buy a good one (or maybe two).  It depends what kind of work you’re doing, but a good shotgun or hyper/super-cardioid mic will actually work nicely for both outdoor and indoor work.

Cheapest professional solution would be a 2nd hand Sennheiser MKH416T (T= T powered, so will require an adapter to work with most modern mixers).  It’s very directional, very robust (both with build and environmental conditions) and has pretty low self-noise.  Downsides are any off-mic sound is not natural and it doesn’t work well in reflective spaces.

I run Sennheiser MKH8060 and 8050 mics, which are newer, more compact, don’t have quite the same directivity but work better off axis and in reflective interiors

2) Boompole, shockmount, windshield

This is all the mechanical stuff, oh- that shouldn’t cost much, or matter, should it? It all affects how easy it is to use the gear and it’ll make noise when set up or used incorrectly!  Again, don’t cheap out on this stuff.  For anything on your own, you shouldn’t really be using a boompole much longer than 10′, it get unwieldy and you’ll start doing horrible things to your back.

Carbon fibre really makes a difference to the weight.  Internal cables can be handy for doco jobs, but they’re not necessary and can flap about (making noise) if you’re moving.

Different people like different manufacturers but Ambient, Panamic, VDB K-Tek and PSC all make professional stuff and second hand poles do come up *cough*.  Loon also make excellent poles but the company’s had some difficulty so purchasing or getting hold of parts may be difficult

Your mic needs a suspension, and one that works for the weight of your mic too.  Look at Rycote, or Cinela (if you’re rich)’s website and they can advise on the right one for your microphone (you can even talk to them).  Also, if you’re outside you *need* windshielding, otherwise everything will sound like low frequency rumble.  A suspension and softie will do for light wind, but once you’ve got anything over a light breeze you’ll need a ‘zeppelin’ type suspension.  Again, Rycote or Cinela will be the ones that last (again, check their website or with them directly for the right size).  Rode do a cheaper one, but it’s a bit bigger and more unwieldy

3) Radio Mics

These little things work by the power of witchery and are also devilishly expensive.  The bit where you don’t cheap out is (again) the microphone.  Sanken COS11 and DPA 4071 (or 4060/4061/4063) are ‘all purpose’ professional mics. They’re the bits that make the big difference.  Watch out buying second hand lavelier mics, as they get older the cables get stiffer

The nicer top end transmitters and receivers are often smaller, sometimes more robust and offer extra features like control and increased bandwidth.  Performance and sound-wise some of the cheaper analogue systems, Audio Wireless, Audio Ltd EN2 and Micron seem to offer some of the best value for money. Lectrosonics, Zaxcom and Wisycom have more bells and whistles (almost literally for the lectro remote control tones). Audio Ltd 2040 and Sennheiser 5000 sound great and are small, but are expensive.

Watch out what your frequency ranges are.  We can legally use 606-614MHz (with a license) and 863-865MHz in the UK when out and about.  Other frequencies can be licensed for fixed locations (see https://www.pmse.co.uk/).  For the majority of doco type work I don’t use more than 2 channels worth of radio mics, so don’t buy more than that to start with.  The second hand market’s particularly good for lower bandwidth analogue systems at the moment, since Wisycom dropped their prices considerably last year and *everyone* bought them.

As an absolute minimum go for sennheiser evolution series (sk100, ek100) transmitters and receivers , they can also be useful later for sending signals around set for monitors etc

4) Mixer

A lot of people ask “what recorder should I get?” when they start out.  This is not the correct question.  You need a mixer for any ‘lower end’ properly paid work as the editor isn’t going to want to patch together hours of individual tracks.  They need a mix (and you’ll also get to do your job, mixing sound) and usually this will get recorded onto camera, so you need the right outputs.  Zaxcom and Sound Devices make some nice machines which are both mixer and recorder in one box, however you don’t *need* this.

The mixer’s the heart of your kit, it’s what you’ve got hands on control of and everything runs through it. You’ll need at least 3 channels, and the stuff you’re paying for is professional quality preamps and limiters.  Second hand SQN, Sound Devices 302, 442 or 552 (you get a recorder thrown in!) are all readily available at reasonable prices.  Direct outs might be a nice thing to have later, but don’t worry too much.  You’ll also need an umbilical cable to camera which will cost you about £125-150 to have made up.  These will also all run for ages on AA batteries (552 is maybe an exception)

5) Headphones

This is your only way of hearing what’s going on. You need closed back headphones and nothing with active noise reduction (as it’ll process what you’re recording!).  Again, really important and personal choice.  Here’s some professional options:

Sennheiser HD25, HD26 PRO, HD280
Beyerdynamic DT770, DT250 DT1350
Sony MDR-V6, MDR-7506, MDR-7510
Ultrasone 550 PRO

6) Bag, Harness etc

This is all down to personal choice, but totally key for ergonomics, for how your gear fits together.  They seem really expensive for what they are, but as soon as you start having to unplug and plug in cables out of some kind of camera bag it becomes tedious, especially if you have an issue with something. KT Systems in the UK and Kortwich in Germany will make custom bags (and do off-the shelf things).  Other manufacturers include K-Tek, Porta-Brace, Petrol (who seem to have been re-branded to Sachler this week), and Orca (who originally did the Petrol bags).

Harnesses can be important, again, it’s a personal preference.  The can be expensive, but so are osteopath’s bills!

7) Recorder

This is where you can really cheap out and still have great recordings!  You need 2 channels, which can handle professional line level (Tascam recorders with XLR connectors do, while Zoom don’t) or consumer line level if your mixer has a ‘tape out’ jack.  You don’t need extra mics, you don’t need 192kHz recording, just 2 line ins and a record button, all the niceness is in your mics and mixer.  This will be totally fine for an emergency backup if the camera audio goes wrong, or for jobs with DSLRs (don’t plug into them, just don’t).

Some of the issues with a lot of the consumer recorders is that they’re made for ‘hand-held’ use, which means the screen’s in the wrong place for bag use.  A solution is some have a remote control, so you can bury the recorder in your bag, however you can’t change settings (if you need to).  Tascam have some new recorders with wifi control on your phone, which could be really useful for this,  just mount your phone on your bag (NB I haven’t tried this, but do intend on giving this a go).

If it’s a case you need multi track or time code, then hire another recorder in and charge production the rental fee.

8) Batteries

This will depend on the gear you’re using.  Some gear may run off rechargeable AA batteries all day, however quite a bit doesn’t.  For this size of bag either Sony ‘L-type’ batteries or Hawk woods NP35 would do the job, with the sonys being cheaper (knock-offs can be bought on ebay, although can’t vouch for quality) for all the chargers etc.  Hawk woods make a power distributor

9) Cables

These will cost more than you think and if you don’t have them, nothing works!  A number will require specialised connectors (which are usually £10+ to buy alone) and will have to be custom made.  Learning how to make them yourself can save quite a lot of money and will be really useful allowing you to fix them in the field if they break (which will happen).

There’s no magic in cables which makes things sound ‘better’ (despite what audiophile magazines may say), they either conduct or don’t.  However, choosing the right cable for the right job (flexibility, right kind of shielding) will make a difference to how long it lasts, and how usable it is.  Again the connectors make a difference, with how serviceable and reliable they are

Always make sure you’ve got at least 2 spare XLRs with you for doco jobs too.  There’s a number of skilled cable makers about who will make cables to order.

10) Zoom F Series (addendum)

Here’s a short addition about these machines since they’ve been released after this post was written.  Effectively both the F8 and F4 are mixer/recorders, and from all accounts are pretty decent quality.

On paper the F8 has more features, more inputs etc, however I think the F4 looks more practical for the majority of jobs I do in the bag, being designed more like a mixer.  It’s got bigger knobs on so should be possible to mix on (the F8s are only really useable to set levels and make minor adjustments due to how tightly they’re positioned), has full size XLR outs (so you don’t need to have TA3 adapter cables) and a dedicated return feed.

On both machines  the line ins are still on jack plugs only, which is a real annoyance- they don’t lock and, again more adapters or custom cables.  Also the limiters are digital, so if the signal is too hot going into the analogue to digital converter, it’s toast.

In a drama situation, on the other hand the F8 is more useful as either a backup recorder, additional channels or something to put in the boot of a car with its remote functionality. The fader control surface should allow it to be used as a proper cart recorder too

7 Replies to “Basic professional kit”

  1. I love my Beyerdynamics DT770 for dramatic films and Sennheiser HD25-II for lighter gigs. But DT770 sound rules to my ears. As for recorder I agree, nowadays most of them uses similar internal components, need NEC, Panasonic, etc., this you don’t have to spend crazy thousands on it, not at least you can afford it. I use R88 done quite lots of projects with 0% ADR. My dream in Cantar X3 for now, but alas, can’t afford it yet 🙂 Agree about bag, it’s very important, as well as harness. I’ll never use strap anymore. Osteopathic bills guaranteed. Good article.

    1. You mention you get really good sound with the R88; as in Roland?
      That’s what I’m seriously considering buying now as my main recorder.
      I’ve heard the preamps leave a bit to be desired though, what do you think?

      1. Personally the R88 is something I haven’t used in the field, but from having a look at it really needs a separate control surface to create a useful dialogue mix (like the Tascam HS-P82) and by that time it’s really a cart machine. A used SQN or sound devices mixer paired with (gasp) the zoom F8 might be a better bet

  2. Great article though I would say even beginners like me need recorders. In my 4 years of working I’ve rarely recorded straight to camera either because its a DSLR or because of the way its being shot – dollies, tracks, steadycam, movi etc. Unfortunately most mid-range recorders are far from ideal. The Tascam DR-680 for example weighs like a ton and I find 8 tracks completely unnecessary. Or you get something like the Tascam HD-P2 which is marginally better than the zoom but 4 times as big. I’m thinking of an R-44 but the idea of that and my SQN in a bag is giving me nightmares – I see hospitals in my future

    1. Some of this is due to quite a few guys starting out and buying *just* a recorder without proper mixing capabilities they’re not able to supply a proper mix track. You can get a cheap 2 track tascam or similar and plug that into your SQN, it’ll sound great as the SQN’s preamps are doing the work. If production want timecode and ISO tracks they can pay you to rent a 744t, 633 or similar. I find most of my jobs are either plugged into camera or on dslrs, running a 2tr recording without timecode. If they can afford to get a stedicam operator, they can definitely afford to hire a recorder

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