Location Sound Recording With The Experts - Part 1

We talk to five experts about the creative and professional challenges encountered every day by location sound recordists across a wide range of genres of production.

This article was first published as part of Essential Guide: Location Sound Recording - download the complete Essential Guide HERE.

It’s a sad and widely lamented truth that nobody pays any attention to great sound. It is the sound engineers’ paradox; nobody ever notices great sound, but when it’s not there, everybody notices.

Of course they do. Sound does so much more than just fill our ears with noise.

It tells us how we should be feeling about what we’re watching. It drives the emotion for the visuals, and it provides context to ensure the viewer keeps up with the narrative. It tells us how we should feel about the content, and it does it all invisibly.

According to Kiff McManus, it’s what makes great sound a hard sell.

Kiff McManus - over 20 years on leading and often challenging UK TV productions including 15 years on Top Gear and film projects including Boiling Point.

Kiff McManus - over 20 years on leading and often challenging UK TV productions including 15 years on Top Gear and film projects including Boiling Point.

“Without sound, we don’t emotionally engage,” says McManus, a sound engineer with more than 25 years of experience in working with sound. “I remember watching some pretty harrowing TV footage in a bar, but because it was muted I was totally unmoved. It’s the sound that connects us to the story, but great sound is invisible and people don’t even notice it’s there. It makes it very difficult to sell.”

Setting The Scene

Planning which microphone to use starts long before a camera rolls and any cable is plugged. In every case, it starts with the location.

Nadine Richardson is a sound supervisor who has worked on some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Marvels.

“Preparation is the most important part of any job and pre-production is the best time to do it,” she says. “On location you might have natural sound challenges that you have to try to work around, but even if the production is on a stage you still need to be looking at build plans to anticipate potential sound challenges, to work out what microphones you might need to make it work.”

McManus has exactly the same approach, and pre-planning for the one-shot feature film Boiling Point was especially testing. Not only was it improvised within a loose story structure that made it impossible to know what an actor would say or exactly where they would be, but working in the physical confines of a real restaurant kitchen presented additional challenges.

Physical Restraints

“You have to figure out what could trip you up and get around that before it happens,” he says. “You have to plan where the mics will work on the actors and where the boom mics won’t be in shot, as well as making sure that the sound matches what the camera is seeing. We managed the movements of over 30 people over 90 minutes, so studying the location and knowing how the actors would move around was essential. By the time you get to rehearsal it’s too late to fix any problems.”

Some recordists don’t have the luxury of knowing what the location looks like. Tom Curry is a specialist in recording for documentary and reality television, and although he doesn’t always know what he will be faced with on location, treating the environment is still his biggest priority. And it’s not all about choosing which mics will work best.

“It ranges from simply asking people to take their tea breaks somewhere else, to rigging drapes or acoustic blankets to control a reverberant space,” he says. “I once had a day of interviews in a room where a curved glass wall behind the interviewee formed a parabola which gave us all sorts of weird reflections which we soaked up with drapes, sofas and piles of cushions.”

Dealing With Noisy Locations

Identifying the requirements of the environment is always the best first step. Peter Bridges spent many years with the BBC and is now a freelance TV Sound Supervisor, working on a variety of productions, including the BBC’s annual Proms musical extravaganza.

Peter Bridges - started at the BBC over 25 years ago and has worked on a huge portfolio of entertainment and current affairs productions.

Peter Bridges - started at the BBC over 25 years ago and has worked on a huge portfolio of entertainment and current affairs productions.

“At the Proms our presentation team is located at the highest level of the Albert Hall,” he says. “It is literally an open space with the audience on either side, and no acoustic shielding. It is incredibly noisy and the only way to get a usable speech pickup is to put everybody on headset mics. With a traditional lavalier mic we get a wash of noise from the room as soon as I open the fader.

“Headset mics solve that, but the big problem on the Proms is that our guests are usually dressed up, and it means that many can be wearing dangly earrings which are part of their outfit. Sometimes we can stick the earring to the boom arm of the headset mic, but it’s those practical things that are the hardest thing to manage.”

Working With Costumes

For Richardson, costume elements can be equally troublesome, with more than dangly earrings to contend with on a regular basis. Working collaboratively with her team, the rest of the production team and the talent is a big part of her role as a production sound mixer.

“Part of my prep is to work with the costume department to not only make sure that they are happy with how we put the radio mics on and where they go, but also that it’s going to work for us,” she says. “Any complicated costumes have to be worked out in advance. You may have to consider difficult or very tight clothing, or even capes if you’re working in a superhero world, and the size of your microphone pack is going to be very important.

“If people are wearing a breastplate or a hat, where can you put the mic? And once you’ve put it in, how does the cast member feel about the weight and the radio pack? Will it affect their performance? Sometimes you might even speak with the cast member to make sure that what you’ve done is going to work for them.”

With so many factors influencing decision making, sound quality is not always the sound designer’s biggest priority.

“There are many standard go-tos,” says Bridges. “There are a handful of clip-on mics that people use; there’s the Sony ECM-77, the Sennheiser MKE-2, the DPA 4060, and the Sanken COS 11s. They all do a good job but there are other factors that influence their use and the practicalities of actually putting these mics on are often what dictates their use, like the type of clip or the rigidity of the cable.”

McManus admits that he has gone through several different mics throughout his career. “I started off using Sony, then went to Trams, then went to Cos 11s, then went to DPAs. They all offer different things. For example, a Cos 11 is very bright so if you are hiding it under clothes, it cuts through a lot of the muffle, which I loved, and then after some years of using almost exclusively those, the 4060 DPA series seemed so much richer. As you get older, your tastes change a bit. You know, you used to love marshmallows, but now they seem a bit sweet.”

Simply working out the positioning of the microphone is only the beginning. Working with the costume designer to position a smaller mic behind a buttonhole or in a tiny hole in a super suit might result in clearer dialogue, but there are other factors to contend with, and SFX such as wind or physical contact between people can make or break a scene.

Let’s talk about using additional mics to add context.

Using Plant Mics

“Lavalier mics are very user friendly,” says McManus. “With a couple of exceptions almost all lavalier mics are omnidirectional so it doesn’t matter which way you point them, but they are used at a cost. On Boiling Point we had several scenes where people get physical. Hugs are difficult to manage with a radio mic because all the audio is muffled, and whenever anyone lays hands on someone else it’s a toss-up if you get anything or not. It can sound as if your ear is literally against the hand grabbing the clothes.

“In addition, lavalier mics don’t capture any of the atmosphere you need to make a scene realistic. Restaurants and kitchens are big, noisy spaces, so we needed to add more context to the radio mics.”

Unseen secondary mics in a scene are known as plant mics and are used to not only add ambience to a scene, but also capture alternative audio where other mics may be compromised.

Nadine Richardson has worked on recent Hollywood blockbusters, including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Marvels.

Nadine Richardson has worked on recent Hollywood blockbusters, including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Marvels.

“A plant mic is always hidden, so if it’s a larger capsule and too big for the environment I’ll use a smaller one to hide it,” adds Richardson. “I’ll use a plant mic to open out the location, but I might use it to get a line of dialogue if we can’t capture it on a radio mic or a boom. There may be various reasons; lighting can be an issue, or the cast member in the scene might not be wearing any clothes. But wherever you place them, they need to capture a sound that is balanced within the soundscape that I’m trying to create on set.”

Working In The Real World

Sometimes a mic doesn’t need to be hidden. In documentary programming it can actually add to the narrative, but using the right mic is still needed to add the context of the surroundings. The challenge is that real-world environments are unpredictable by their very nature, and there are seldom second takes to finesse the output.

“You need to hear an amount of the surrounding area to place someone in an environment, and if you’re capturing the sound on a boom you can afford to be a little loose to allow for the people in shot and the camera moving about,” says Curry.

“Sometimes this can capture more background sound than is ideal, so I use a mixture of mics. If I’m following the action I might have radio mics on various contributors, and we would have the boom as well so that the dubbing mixer can decide how much to add in. Subjects can interact with different people along the way, so the boom is useful to dip in to capture that audio.

“A hypercardioid is a good fit for these scenarios as its wider pickup is more forgiving than a shotgun, and if things are happening quite quickly, you can end up with people off mic quite quickly as well!”

Working Indoors & Out

Mics with directional patterns like this are useful in all kinds of situations, although there are also considerations to factor in depending on whether the content is inside or out. And one should never forget the physicality of the room.

Tom Curry - 30 years in TV production and a specialist in documentary and reality TV.

Tom Curry - 30 years in TV production and a specialist in documentary and reality TV.

“Although hypercardioid and supercardioid mics pick up most of their sound on the front lobe, the back lobe also picks up sound,” says McManus. “Very directional microphones can be placed a long way away, but the back lobe can also be quite big and pick up noises bouncing off the ceiling, introducing echo and reverb. On indoor shoots I tend to use a Sennheiser MKH-50 because it’s small for going through doors, but it crucially has a very small back lobe.”

Outdoors there are a different set of challenges, and the biggest one is something that sound engineers have little control over; the weather. The standard way of protecting an out-of-vision mic is to use a basket with a furry cover to protect against the wind, but as we have already discussed, the environment always dictates microphone choice.

“We recorded a scene where the two lead characters were having an argument in quite heavy rain,” says Richardson. “The boom mics were there as a good blanket, but it was the actors’ personal radio mics that got the dialogue. We made sure that we used waterproof radio mics and we waterproofed up the packs, but it took planning and testing to make sure that on the day we were going to be able to get the dialogue. It’s not something that you would leave to on the day; you definitely want to be thinking about it beforehand.”

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