Making a start in Production Sound

This post has been a long time coming. Over years I keep being asked “How do you get into this?” as it seems like almost everyone has a different route in, however I’m going to try and point some in the direction of some of the more established paths. From talking to a number of people it seems to be a combination of these which has led them to becoming established freelancers. There have also been clear ways in previously, however they now seem to have disappeared – BBC staff careers for example. There aren’t many staff jobs available either- almost all of the work is freelance. This is also all quite UK specific and may be different in other regions.

What is Production Sound?

While making any kind of film or video production, there are 3 stages. I’m going to reduce them to a very basic level:

Pre-production = Planning
Production = Shooting
Post-Production = Editing

Production Sound is the sound recorded during production (it’s self explanatory). This is almost always what’s happening in front of camera. Most of it is dialogue.

Post-Production Sound is sound edited and recorded after shooting. This includes all the sound editing and mixing process and any extra recording required to complete the soundtrack.


There are no formal educational requirements to doing the job. In fact, it’s basically down to whether you’re trusted to be able to do it or not. Education can really help with practical elements, though. Knowing your way around audio equipment; physics, electronics, acoustics, music technology are all useful in getting to know the principles of how it all works. Business skills and Psychology are also very useful- you’ll be running a business and we need to work with other people. There’s negotiation involved in a lot of what we do.

There is one specialist Location Sound Recording for Film and TV diploma course in the UK at the National Film and Television School. It’s a 15 month full time in person course and aimed at postgraduate level. Entry requirements are based more on interest and aptitude and bursaries are available. A number of people have gone through there as mature students having previously had a different career. Some advantages of this are you can learn in a non-pressurised environment and have access to professional equipment. The tutors are also working professionals. You’ll also be working with other students in other disciplines, so you can learn how to work with them and relationships can continue after the course has finished and well into later careers. They also do a week long short course, which is at least a solid introduction.

Non specific film courses can also help, especially in seeing how to work with other departments on set, but there won’t be as much sound specific teaching.

Trainee Schemes

Trainee schemes are probably the most formal route of getting into drama work. Either (“High End”) TV or Feature Films. It’s well worth being a trainee first- even if you’ve got years of audio experience or degrees, film sets are quite a specific thing and this is where you’ll learn etiquette. You’ll learn how the sound dept fits in with everything else.

Screenskills run two different trainee schemes. One for ‘High End TV’ and one for ‘Feature Films’. The reasons for this is that it’s from two different sources of money, the jobs aren’t technically that different on a day to day basis and some sound teams may go between feature films and high end TV. However, you can only apply for one – if you’re not sure, toss a coin. If you’re successful, you’re not guaranteed a placement through screenskills directly- however screenskills will pay a portion of your wage while on the scheme for any trainee work within the category you’ve applied for. It’s likely you’ll have to ask sound teams directly to get something out of this.

Sara Putt Associates is an agency, but they run a trainee scheme. In this case it’s not about getting work directly, but building up skills and a network in order to get more work and progress.

In both cases it’s a bit ‘Catch 22’, you need some work or track record to get on the scheme, but not enough that you’re already seen as established. Bear in mind that you are applying as a trainee, if you’re putting forward a CV saying “I know everything” it’s unlikely you’ll succeed.

You do not have to be on these schemes to be a trainee. I have started to see some sound trainee positions advertised now, in the past this hasn’t been the case.

Facilities Companies

The ‘traditional’ route into factual or factual entertainment TV is via facilities companies. TV productions often want a ‘one stop shop’ where they get a quote for all the equipment and crew for a job and this is where they get it. They need people to look after the hire equipment and it’s can be an entry level job (although having a degree in something audio or media related can certainly help). You’ll get familiar with a lot of different equipment and soon end up troubleshooting issues. If the facility does hire out staff, then they may send you out on jobs with them- you’ll typically be doing more work than a freelancer (as you’re on the payroll already) and quickly build up experience and contacts.

I’d suggest only looking at facilities with a dedicated sound department- most are camera focused, but you do need more experienced staff to learn from.

They’re not just useful if working directly for them. If you regularly hire out or buy equipment from them, or even come in to hire things out, they might have jobs come in and ask you to work freelance, or pass your details on. If you’ve got the time, do turn up in person, you might bump into someone useful even.


Personally, I’m really not keen on using this word when it isn’t used in conjunction with IP Addresses and RJ45 connectors [actually, learn that too]. However, this whole industry is based on recommendations- meet people, get involved, talk to us about batteries. We all have other people we pass work on to if we can’t do it. If one of us trusts you to be able to do something then they can suggest you for work. It doesn’t always happen.

There are organisations and communities- AMPS (Association of Motion Picture Sound), IPS (Institute of Professional Sound) and a number of communities on facebook (search for the ‘Film & TV Sound UK’ group). Some of the criteria seem a bit like you need to know people already, but they’re much more open to newcomers and students. If in doubt, apply anyway.

Come to stuff! I’m also much more receptive to people I’ve met, rather than a cold email or call (also I don’t get much work where I can hire a trainee).

Social media can also very useful for making and maintaining relationships, although it can work both ways. If you’re interesting, informative or amusing it helps. Asking good questions can go down well – things like “how would you deal with this situation?”, rather than “what’s the best microphone?”. Good answers are usually not a specific piece of equipment.

Microbudget World

Microbudget projects- things like short films and other personal projects often don’t make money but directors, producers and actors can use them for showreel and begin getting a track record. I’ve already got quite a detailed piece on them.

They’re a bit of a tricky thing for a newcomer, in some ways they’re a way of meeting more people involved in making film or tv and to get a bit of experience. However you’re working with other people who need experience and there’s more and more pressure to have a single person sound department on these jobs (as there’s no money), which means there’s no one to learn from. The sound recordist as head of department becomes an entry level position.

There isn’t much in it for more established production sound mixers in doing things like this and to have you as an assistant, except maybe trying out a new rig. If something like this comes up, that’s a great opportunity. However if you’re on your own, there’s not much you can learn from except your mistakes.

You can meet people in other departments who might recommend you for something else, though.

I’d say don’t buy equipment to do these jobs, but sometimes a very barebones kit might be useful for last minute requests. It’s often not stuff you’ll use later. Make sure you get money to hire it (even if you’re not paid), it’s not free to buy or maintain. Try and get to know other sound people who may also be able to rent equipment.


Yes it is confusing, there isn’t a clear way to get in and make a career in production sound.

You’re looking for multiple jobs all the time, most of which aren’t advertised (and those which are are usually advertised due to to them wanting to pay less than they should be). It’s difficult to get going and sustain yourself financially in the beginning. You are reliant on a network of other people in both sound department and other departments.

The more you’re out on jobs, the more you’ll learn and you’ll work with more people.

Lots of this is being at the right place at the right time, try and get yourself in the right places as much as possible (and this can be online).

I expect this is especially difficult looking in as someone who isn’t middle class/white/male. Most of us are middle class, white and male, but it’s beginning to change and I’d like to be working with more people with different perspectives. Do apply for stuff (even if it seems financially impossible- there is help), come and say hello and things might happen.

It’s very unlikely you’re going to be able to make a living from this immediately. Work will be slow to pick up while you grow networks. Make backup plans- have a look at flexible unrelated work- delivery driving- for example, which can be moved if you get a job. If you’re put in a situation where you’re taking sound work out of financial necessity, it puts you in a weak position with negotiations and may damage both your future prospects and that of your peers.

Sound Dept and Equipment Rental

This is a bit of an observation on how sound kit rental seems to be viewed from both outside and inside the department. Hopefully this will be useful for both sound recordists and production staff in budgeting and booking sound crew and kit.

Sound Recordist “with kit”

This is a phrase I see very frequently in requests for jobs and it seems to mean that productions want one of two things:

  • An ‘all in’ quote, covering all eventualities
  • Free kit hire

It’s not as simple as that, though. Different jobs have different requirements. Sometimes it’s looking at hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of kit and multiple recordists and assistants, sometimes it’s a mic on a stand. Talk to us! We can give you a quote (or at least a ballpark figure)- the earlier you do this, the more chance you have of getting the budget and expectations to fit. I can do an ‘all in’ price, but it won’t be cheap…

Why can’t you give us free kit?

It needs to be paid for, otherwise we’ll just be losing money. We’re putting really expensive things on actors or members of the public who could drop them or run off with them. Things break, we have to get them fixed or replaced. I don’t go out with the same kit every time and some things which get used more frequently end up paying for other things which I want to have handy, or things that make my life easier. Also, I’d like to be able to give newcomers the chance to rent proper kit and not be essentially ‘paying to play’ on personal projects.

But the DP has got a deal with the rental house…

That’s great! But it’s not something we can do. Because we generally own our own kit, we’ll only occasionally use rental houses for more specific things. We’re not likely to be able to influence a production company to hire a lorry full of lights for our next commercial.

How much?

For context I’m going to put some rough new purchase prices down for professional kit:

  • Boom Microphone kit, £1500-£2500 (£800-£1500 for the mic, £400-600 for full wind protection and £300-£500 for the pole)
  • ‘Bag’ Mixer/Recorder £3500-£6000. £10000+ for ‘cart’ machines
  • Radio mics are where things get expensive. It’s around £3000 for a transmitter and receiver pair. Personal mics for them would be about £3-400 each.
  • A “camera hop” = 2 channels of radio mics, as above and the camera mount will be about £400 too

So, for a boom, mixer/recorder, 2x radio mics and a camera link (so, 4 radio mics in effect), you’re looking at £17,500 worth of kit, not even including the batteries, cables, bags and cases to get it all working and to the job which could all put it over £20,000.

8 channels of radio mics, that’s over £25,000 on its own. And having more starts to bring about the need for RF distribution, remote antenna systems and even more boxes which can be thousands on their own

Can’t you use cheaper equipment?

It’s usually the case that we’ll choose the best tools for the job. Rental rates seem to be based more around what something does than the purchase price and the difference between prosumer and professional kit isn’t that much. Part of this is that the prosumer kit isn’t going to be designed for such intensive use, so will require more frequent repair and replacement (in fact, some manufacturers won’t repair it at all), so may have a higher running cost than the professional stuff.

Some recordists may have some prosumer items in their kit, but again- it’s stuff that won’t last as long and they may have made that call and deemed it the right tool for a particular job.

Can you use our equipment?

Usually no, although there can be some exceptions. Prep time would be required to test and put it together. I also have a co-ordinated set of radio mics. Extra ones from another manufacturer may not be compatible with the same plan, adding more isn’t straightforward- it makes things quite a bit more complex.

Why are UK rental rates as they are?

For a long time, throughout the 80s and 90s we were more limited with the equipment available to us and its capabilities. The kit was by no means cheap, but there was a more limited supply and it had more limited capabilities. An SQN field mixer, a boom and couple of channels of radio mics was all that was required for nearly all jobs (with the addition of a Nagra tape recorder for drama). That kit could last most of a sound recordist’s career- so they could save up, buy it and then rent it out as a ‘kit’ to production on every job. Rental value got to around the 1% of original value mark and stuck around that point.

Now we’ve had an acceleration in technology, it’s giving us the ability to point a lot more cameras at a lot of different things at once. This has meant we’ve become a lot more dependent on (and able to record) multiple radio mics. Now we’ve got small, ruggedised computers effectively. Sound Devices has released 5 different professional multitrack ‘bag’ machines in the last 10 years.

We’ve had 2 major re-allocations of radio frequencies, mandating new radio mic kit and there’s a big investment in digital RF kit to fit all the channels in. Although our microphone technology is staying mostly the same, there may be some increases in rental price coming up to compensate for the rate of turnover of equipment

Budgeting (and where you can save money)

Ok, so how much should you be looking at? I’m not going to put any prices down here (you can probably figure them out from recent quotes), but general guidelines for would be:
1x radio mic system per person simultaneously on camera at a time
1x boom + mixer/recorder per recordist
2x radio mic per 2 channel camera send
0.5x radio mic per set of wireless headphones
1x sync box per camera

Anything that can be hardwired is much cheaper, however moving it is more difficult.

Equipment for drama and commercials tends to charged for more as a ‘kit’. Higher end feature and commercials kits are often specced to cover ‘almost any sound recording situation’ in order to give production and director maximum flexibility. However, it won’t necessarily cover any courtesy feeds for clients or additional sync and playback equipment.

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.


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.


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.


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

Backup rig

Having both the mixer and recorder in one box has really become a standard these days for doco recording.  It’s quite easy to see why, it’s 2 boxes with the size and weight of one.  However, if something goes wrong with it you can be stuffed.  With my old rig, say if there was a problem with either the recorder or mixer it would be possible to either cable to camera and just use the mixer.  Or plug directly into the recorder and just record iso tracks.  Either way, if something bad happened to either box it’d be possible to get something.  If you’ve got one box handling all your mixing and recording and it goes wrong (and it’s a computer!) you need some kind of failsafe.

Since I bought the SX-R4+ I’ve been carrying this rig in the bottom of my bag.  This is partly because I’m only set up to send to camera over wireless or AES3 digital with the R4+ (currently waiting for the XLR5 option board) so it’s had a bit of use, still:



It’s a Sonosax SX-M32 3 channel mixer, Wisycom MCR42 dual channel radio receiver (with standalone back and AA battery compartment) and a Sony PCM-M10 recorder (with remote on the right).

All of it will work for a good 5-6 hours from AA batteries (the recorder runs for about 24!).  So say, I run out of Li-Ion rechargeables, or they’re held up in customs I can at least get a runner to buy a load of AAs from a shop.  I can run a boom and 2 radio mics and be cabled to camera or record independently (with no timecode).  Also a feature the PCM-M10 has which the SX-R4+ doesn’t is recording as MP3 (!).

The whole bag weight about 2kg and I’d probably find I can do a great deal of more basic jobs with this rig

Even when I do get the additional output options for the SX-R4+, I still think I’m going to carry this around, just in case…

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, 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  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