Analogue vs Digital wireless

Throughout most of my career I’ve used analogue wireless systems.  However, for a few individual jobs I’ve run digital wireless.  I’ve recently been running a digital system for a specific job over 3 weeks, with both positive and negative experiences.  I’m not going to get into the details of particular brands, but have had similar experiences running digital systems made by different manufacturers.

Range and Reception Quality

It’s quite difficult to actually compare the range of different radio mic systems in real life.  Different situations and environments can produce wildly different results.  In some situations I’d get fantastic range with the digital system including through buildings.  In others, sometimes where someone just turns away or bends down, obscuring line of sight from the transmitter when they are reasonably close, I’d lose RF and therefore audio completely.

With an analogue system, I wouldn’t expect this to happen- worst case scenario would be a rise in noise floor.  Which, in a documentary setting makes the difference of something being potentially still being useable or not getting it.

On the other hand, a colleague was using an RF antenna distribution system with a bandpass filter and seemed to experience these issues far less.  I’ve also heard other colleagues having much better experiences with digital systems using directional LPDA and YAGI antennas.

Backup Recording

Which leads us to this potential saviour, built into some digital systems.  In some cases it’s brilliant and can save scenes from dropouts or allow shooting in situations without crew nearby.  However it is not 100% reliable.  I had a couple of instances I caught where battery telemetry caused the transmitters to drop out of record.  Other colleagues have had corrupted cards.  Just the fact that you cannot monitor them when they’re away from you means you can never be totally certain they’re recording.

There’s also additional work in backing up the cards.  Backing up 4-5 8GB cards, the daily card from my recorder and running the conversion program took 45mins to an hour of precious downtime.

Intermodulation

There is a real advantage of digital systems in that they are not very susceptible to intermoduation from other RF sources.  This is where harmonics from other RF sources can be received on a mathematically related frequency.  Effectively you are receiving multiple RF sources at once.  The fact that digital systems either receive their signal or not really works to their advantage here.  They’ll just get the strongest source or not get it at all.

This results in the ability to pack RF channels much closer together without having frequency coordination issues.  This allows much more flexibility in setting up larger systems, without incurring higher licensing costs or being able to work in already congested areas.

Audio Quality

All the digital systems I’ve used sound very good, with transmission quality surpassing that of top end analogue systems.  I do believe there is a difference in the microphone amplifiers in various different transmitters and output stages of receivers, though- which can make some analogue systems competitive on this front.

The issue, however is in the fact that ‘it works or it doesn’t’.  Digital systems are full quality or nothing, whereas if in suboptimal conditions analogue systems will lose transmission quality. While not ideal, it’s better than a complete dropout and can be a sign that you need to move your antennas closer.

Interoperability and Security

Analogue systems don’t use proprietary modulation schemes and different codecs to send audio.  This allows them to be picked up using other analogue equipment as long as the frequencies match.  Some companies even make receivers which can emulate expander settings to work with different manufacturers’ analogue transmitters.  This can allow much more flexible multi-recordist setups and the ability to often ‘tune in’ to individual microphones at live events where a separate PA is being run.

In the case of digital systems, compatible transmitters and receivers made by the same manufacturer are necessary for the system to work.

The flipside to this is that others can eavesdrop on interviews with important people or talking about sensitive subjects.  Most digital systems have options to encrypt signals.  Even those with equipment from the same manufacturer would not be able to listen in without the matching encryption key.

Power

Digital wireless seems to be much more power hungry.  Both transmitters and receivers need much more power, even compared to analogue systems running DSP.  Some transmitters require rechargeable li-ion packs in order to last a reasonable length of time.  Digital transmitters requiring dual AA batteries lasted about the same as a single AA analogue transmitter.

My analogue receivers pull around 1.5W each, while the digital ones I was using pulled a figure closer to 4W.  This really mounts up and required larger batteries- and meant a heavier bag.

Conclusion

There are currently some areas where digital wireless is superior and can do things that analogue wireless cannot.  However, I still think that analogue definitely still has strong advantages in what I use on a day to day basis.  The fact that you get gradation in quality rather than an “on/off” effect, the flexibility of being able to use them with other systems and much lower power consumption still make them very competitive.

I can, however see certain jobs where digital wireless is more useful.  Those where high channel counts need to fit in a limited bandwidth or if recording transmitters are a requirement.  Analogue cannot compete here, but neither of those circumstances are something I come across on a day to day basis.

The disadvantages of digital also start to become less relevant on a drama set.  In some cases, they may start to outweigh the advantages of analogue.  Size, power consumption and larger antennas are less of an issue.  Frequency co-ordination in studio complexes where multiple productions are happening would also be much more straightforward.

I also had no issues at all with the digital camera link system- works on a single frequency, AES digital in and out so the only quality loss is through the codec (negligible) and would even send timecode without additional boxes.  The disadvantage is that it doesn’t also work as two personal transmitters

Short Expectations

This is a list aimed at both producers of short films and technical crew on my expectations while doing a short.

1) I’m doing you a favour, be nice:
It’s not going to look good on my CV or showreel (I don’t have a showreel- see the post production point), get me any guarantee of extra work or “exposure”.  If you come across like you’re doing me a favour over the phone or in an ad (I see this a lot on mandy.com), I’m not likely to say yes to the project.  Don’t try to sell it to me either, just ask nicely- I’ll take a look at the script and see what’s required to do a good job.  I don’t really want to be donating my time to spending a weekend with a load of egomaniacs that I wouldn’t want to work with again.  I’d like to spend it with nice people who listen to each other and can make a good film together- it’s a team sport!

Even if this project does really well and you go on to something else, you may get a line producer in with their own contacts and bring someone else in.  You’ll have probably forgotten about me by the time the short’s gone through post anyway :'(

2) “With own equipment”
This is a sentence I see quite a bit in ads as a massive red flag as it usually means “With own *free* equipment”.  Professional gear really isn’t cheap, you’re looking at least £6-7k for a basic doco kit, and for a drama kit, a lot more- £50k and up. Yes, you can shoot some nice stuff on a DSLR, but professional sound gear hasn’t got any cheaper. Do you expect the camera and lighting dept to own all their gear and give it to you for free?  I also still charge for gear on shorts for 2 reasons:  maintenance costs money- things break over time, new tools become available and I need to keep everything in working condition, which takes up my time or I need to give someone money to fix things.  My second reason is I want there to be a level playing field, if someone’s new to the business, or doesn’t want to buy kit they can get a kit out from a rental house and use it at a similar cost to me.  I’ll have all my stuff set up how I like it and have spares, extra gizmos etc, though.  If I’m using someone else’s equipment, I’ll need to spend prep time setting it up.  And no, I’m not going to use a zoom recorder as it’ll sound really noisy.

The kit I’ll be bringing will also need to be put under production insurance- while it’s on set it’s the production’s responsibility, so if there are any losses or damages production will have to claim for them (or provide a replacement).  Although things like lavelier microphones are small- they can get snagged while on cast (especially if they try taking them off themselves) and at £200-400 each, aren’t cheap to replace.

3) Sound Team
If you’re making any kind of scripted work with dialogue, I’d need a 2 person sound team at least.   I can’t boom a shot and mix multiple microphones at the same time,  I need at least one extra hand and maybe an extra brain.    Yes, you may have done films before with one person doing everything, or a boom going straight to camera but compromises have to be made and a usable mix isn’t possible this way.  The mixer also isn’t going to be able to react to changes in levels- you need to ‘set and forget’ or just use radio mics, which usually aren’t the best solution.  I’m also not willing to swing a drama boom (over 10 foot) with a bag on- it’ll result in osteopath’s bills

I want to get the best sound I can for your film and this requires a team to do it.   I need to have someone I can trust to get the microphones in the right places.  This is a highly skilled job, you need to be aware of how different microphones work in relation to their environments,  the angles of frame from different lenses and how lighting is going to affect where you can or can’t be.  It requires knowing the intricacies of different costumes and how to work in close proximity to actors in getting radio mics fitted.  It’s not just “holding a mic on a stick”- would you ask a runner to pull focus?

4) Pre-production
So many shorts seem to suffer from the problem of suddenly realising they need a sound mixer.  It really helps if we’re across the pre production process.  Take us to recces!  I know it’s extra time and we’re not always available, but it can make the difference of a scene being usable or not.  Will you require generator(s), where will they be positioned?  Are you next to something which is noisy and out of shot?  How will it be shot and lit?  What are the costumes like?  If we can work things out with the relevant departments beforehand it can make a huge difference to what you get as a final piece, again- it’s teamwork.  If I’m brought on at the last minute I can try my best to solve problems, but it’s less likely to happen

5) Expectations vs budget
I can’t do everything with just basic kit, scenes with multiple speaking characters may require 2 booms and as many radios as there are characters (especially in exteriors).  Also radio mics are *really* expensive, at least £2k per channel.  We’ll also need to provide a mixer and recorder with that many tracks and might be more than I own.  I can’t give you this stuff for free.   Is anyone singing? Playback might be required.  It could be a case of paring down your expectations to meet the budget you’ve got or re-allocating it- do you really need to spend extra on hiring those super shiny lenses etc?

6) Time/scheduling
This can really make the difference between a good or bad shoot.  If things get rushed, people make mistakes or don’t get the time needed to fix something then your film will suffer for it.  Also, please don’t take people’s time for granted- let them get some rest!  I tend to charge my standard overtime rate on anything over 12hrs, even if I’m donating my time for free.  This isn’t because I’m greedy, it’s a penalty so that my time and the rest of the crew’s isn’t taken for granted and we can actually get some sleep, if we’re tired mistakes and accidents can happen- again, it’s just a film.  Also really think hard about whether night work is necessary or not, you’ll be really messing with crew’s sleep patterns and effectively taking another day away from them to re-adjust

7) Post Production
Make sure you budget for this, whatever.  If you’re on a tight budget, don’t expect to do any ADR (automated dialogue replacement), you’ll need to hire a studio- it’ll take ages and you won’t get the same performance as in the moment.  If I’m on set and ask for wild lines (run without sync with camera), it’s important that I get them- here a few minutes can save a lot of money and stress later down the line.  It’s still really important to get a quality post production team- the production tracks are only one ingredient to the soundtrack- here the soundtrack will take shape.  This is also why I don’t have a showreel- I’m only getting one ingredient to the soundtrack, it’s up to the post team  to cook it into something lovely.   I’ll try and give them options too, with isolated tracks and will record the off lines if I’ve got the resources.  However, an inexperienced (or even just having the picture editor) post team can make a mess of things which can really affect the quality of your film

8) Money
I really do understand that shorts don’t have high budgets, are often self funded and don’t have much chance of recuperating that expenditure. Depending on the film I’m willing to waive my fee as long as I can get the tools in to do the job properly.  This will include getting assistants in who will, in turn be doing me a massive favour and I like to make sure they get something out of it too.

I’ll also need to make sure I’m not losing money on the job- if it requires a reasonable amount of gear I may need to hire a van to get it to location. However I get there it’ll need to be paid for in full, this includes picking up additional rental gear.

Also, I can get called up to do fully paid work at any moment- and I’m afraid I may have to do another job in order to earn some money- I am running a business here and alas, my landlord doesn’t accept IMDB credits in lieu of rent.  I will try not to dump you in it and find a suitable replacement, though (which may even involve me paying them some of my fee from the other job, and me owing them a massive favour).

9) Whose Sound?
When I’ve handed the rushes over, the sound doesn’t belong to me- it belongs to the producer and director.  I’m not doing this for me- I’m doing this in order to give you the best quality tracks possible and options in the edit, I can only make suggestions and the director can either go with them or ignore them.  Compromises sometimes have to be made across different departments and it’s sometimes the director’s job to make those decisions.  There may be shots where getting a good recording isn’t possible and I’ll try and flag these up, letting the director know they won’t be able to use the dialogue in that shot in the edit, for example.

10) What’s in it for me?
Ok, doing a short won’t do anything for my CV, showreel or give me “exposure”- what do I get out of it, then?  Just working with some different people (who are hopefully lovely).  It also might give me that chance to try out a new setup, or work with a new assistant so we both get familiar with it, hopefully in a less high pressure environment than on a bigger shoot.  I’ve done loads of shorts in the past and find I’ve had recommendations or offers of work from people from all sort of different departments- as always with a lot of these things it can be a case of “be nice to the runner, as they might be production manager in a few years”.  We also might get a good film at the end, where I can be pleased that we’ve done a good job.  Maybe I’ll get to work with a director who’s the next big thing, and will get me on subsequent jobs but on the other hand I could also win the lottery 😉

11) Food/Drink
While I’m on set you’ll need to feed and water me (and the rest of the crew)- I can’t leave to get anything during the day.  I’ll need a hot meal too, don’t mind what it is as long as it’s hot- I’ll be on my feet and doing stuff all day so will need to eat a reasonable amount.  Although I do like takeaway pizza it’s probably best not to have it every day.  Access to water all day is a must.  Tea and biscuits are always good, too… and proper coffee.  Although I’ll dress appropriately if I get cold/hungry/thirsty I’m not going to be able to concentrate on the job and if your crew ends up like this it doesn’t end well

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