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When you travel and need to shoot on location, it’s helpful if you’ve assembled a capable yet streamlined travel audio recording toolkit.
For those outside the filmmaking business, video is often regarded as purely a visual medium, for obvious reasons. But those of us who actually create films understand the importance of audio in a project and how it can be as essential as the visual components of a production.
It’s why this Audio Assist column focuses on creating your own audio recording toolkit. And not just any audio toolkit, but one small enough and lightweight enough to take on the road with you.
It’s important to note that building any on-location travel audio recording toolkit will depend on the types of shoots you support. So, for instance, some of you might need to choose additional or different gear. I’ve attempted to make this toolkit compact, lightweight, affordable, capable and, most importantly, flexible, so that it might be used to record sound for a variety of projects, including narrative, documentary, corporate, event or reality television. Additionally, I wanted the kit to be able to work on its own or when it’s combined with other components.
Before we begin, some projects might not need an audio kit at all. In some cases, the audio features of your camera may be good enough. But you need to research which camera you’ll be using, since on-camera audio recording wildly varies when it comes to recording sound. Some are decent and usable, but many record audio with terrible sound quality.
For example, an inexpensive mirrorless hybrid, DSLR or prosumer type of video camcorder won’t generally produce great quality audio. Often, even if the camera has a mic input, it’s going to be a plastic, 3.5mm stereo input.
It’s also typical for these cameras to feature low-cost, low sound quality microphone pre-amps and, in many cases, especially in the sub-$1,000 range, the overall audio chain may be substandard, producing audio with tinny, limited dynamic range and a poor signal-to-noise ratio. The plastic inputs themselves often become loose or break with repeated use. Many low-cost cameras don’t even have a headphone jack to allow you to monitor what the camera is recording.
Interestingly, many higher-end cameras also have substandard audio but for different reasons: In high-end cameras, it’s assumed that every sound shoot will have a sound mixer, recording high-quality sound into an external recorder. Most high-end cameras have audio inputs simply for recording scratch audio, nothing more, so the audio circuitry typically isn’t great, either.
Ironically, I’ve found that mid-level cameras like the Sony PXW-FX7 Mark II, the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, Canon EOS C200 or Panasonic EVA1 often have better sound quality than more expensive, higher-end cameras (models that cost over $50,000).
It’s why even the most inexpensive audio recorders have superior sound to even the best-sounding camera. And the good news is that there are a lot of choices for audio recorders for location sound. Almost all of them have at least good sound, and the majority of them sound great, especially when compared to camera audio.
Since we are assembling a travel audio recording toolkit, we’re going to keep the priority on size and weight. No matter how you travel, the smaller the size and lighter the weight, the better.
We are also going to prioritize for just a small amount of microphone inputs; usually, three or four microphone inputs are adequate for a travel recorder, but not always. There are plenty of recorder/mixers on the market with 10 or more channel/inputs, but most of these units are physically larger and heavier than the smallest units on the market.
I’ve tested both of the recorder/mixers featured below. They’re both excellent choices for assembling a small, lightweight location sound recording toolkit, although each has its advantages and disadvantages. Research which features matter most to you: You get more channels and inputs on the Zoom, but the Sound Devices unit has 32-bit floating point audio recording, which allows you to dramatically recover or change audio levels after recording.
Your primary microphone in your kit will usually be one of two types of boom microphones: A shotgun microphone or a cardioid microphone.
For recording exteriors and outdoors, you’ll obtain the best results with a shotgun microphone, since it rejects more off-axis noise than most other microphone types. For reflective interior environments, a cardioid, hyper-cardioid or super-cardioid microphone will work best, since it will pick up fewer room reflections.
For travel, you’ll have a better experience using a shorter, smaller and lighter travel boompole, unless you specifically need to boom talent in a wider shot, which requires a longer boompole.
I recommend traveling with four to six 25-foot XLR cables, depending on how many microphones you plug into your recorder. Even if you are only using a boom and a lavalier for interviews, it’s smart to bring a couple of spare cables.
I’ve found buying shorter 10-foot to 15-foot cables can save a bit of weight in your travel kit, but the times I have traveled with only shorter cables, I have regretted not bringing longer cables. I also like to have four different colors so that you can assign one color to a boom and one to lavs, and you can easily tell them apart.
It’s always a good idea to have a subject double miked in case one microphone has a technical problem. In such cases, you have a backup. And lavalier mics are great for recording a second channel on talent.
One question you’ll need to ask yourself—do you need to bring wireless lavaliers? One thing to consider for your travel kit is this: If you can avoid wireless lavaliers, you will typically end up with better-quality sound if you can avoid using any wireless microphone systems.
If you are only shooting sit-down interviews or seated stationary talent in other shooting styles, use a hard-wired lavalier, not a wireless system.
But many types of shoots really require a wireless lavalier system. Walk and talks, talent moving through a scene, gimbal work with dialogue, and, of course, there are dozens of other scenarios where wireless lavaliers are necessary.
Wired Lavalier Systems: If you mostly shoot sit-down interviews with your travel kit, skip using a wireless lavalier system. You’ll save money, batteries, weight and bulk, too.
Here are three wireless options for lavalier microphones:
You’ll generally need an audio bag to use with your travel kit. It’s great to keep your mixer/recorder safe and secure while traveling or shooting. You’ll also keep your options for powering your recorder mixer and possibly powering wireless microphone receivers in the bag as well. Here are two bags to consider:
There are many audio accessories to fine-tune your travel audio recording toolkit to your specific needs.
One to consider is power options: If you have a location sound audio bag, either solution provided here gives you enough room to include an optional add-on battery or BDS (Battery Distribution System) to power every accessory and recorder in your bag.
Another accessory you might need is a Bluetooth or WiFi solution for wirelessly distributing your time code if you can’t run a BNC cable from the recorder to camera.
The components and options we’ve assembled here will result in a high-quality, pro-level travel audio toolkit that can be modified in countless ways to support larger shoots with more cameras, more microphones and more accessories. For example, you might introduce IFB systems to send your sound to the director wirelessly if the director isn’t you or you need to have clients or other crew monitor the sound as well.
What’s convenient is that the components I suggest for your kit are small and lightweight enough to fit into a camera bag or backpack, too, and offer you audio capabilities that just a few years ago would not have been available in such a small size and economical price.
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be felt for years. It has especially hit the production and entertainment industries hard as most traditional production has been at a standstill since March 2020.
I’m a video production person. I’ve been involved in digital cinema and before that traditional video production for quite a while. Since the great Pandemic of 2020, many of us have been looking at what we can utilize our skill set for to keep our heads above water during these trying times. Traditional television and film production began shutting down here in Hollywood beginning in March of 2020. So far, it hasn’t returned to any level of critical mass as of this summer. I have a few colleagues and fellow crew who have been lucky enough to get back to work, at least at some level, but I’d estimate at least 60 percent or more of my colleagues in my circle haven’t worked at all in production since March. They’ve been surviving on savings, PUA and UI money and possibly taking the odd side gig like driving an Uber or Lyft or working at an Amazon warehouse facility. Times are tough and they don’t look to be significantly improving for the remainder of the year and well into next year.
I’ve owned a small production company for about 20 years. We’ve seen all of the huge changes that have rocked our industry over the past few years. We’ve survived, but it hasn’t been easy—at all. Even with hard work, intelligent and logical strategy, the occasional far reach and taking chances to be a market disruptor in our small niche of entertainment marketing, documentary and corporate films, each year it has become more and more difficult to just survive, much less to thrive.
It’s a strange paradox that as video and digital cinema grows in popularity, streaming services compete with the traditional studios and then dominate them in the market and corporate media grows and more clients look at video as a necessary part of their business strategy, it’s become continually more difficult to make a living in this business. Part of it is simply the inevitable march toward the tools needed to create high-quality video or digital cinema are close to free. Either directly or indirectly, this phenomenon has affected all of us in production for the past 10 or so years at an increasing level each year.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I have a lot of different friends and colleagues in production. It just happened that in January, right before the pandemic really hit the U.S. and kicked into high gear, a friend of mine who I‘ve worked with here and there for about 15 years owns a live streaming company. He’s been in the business for the past decade so he’s the “old hand” at live streaming. Even though I haven’t worked in live television for such a long time, it was enjoyable to TD (technical direct) a live multi-camera event for my friend’s company in January. As the Pandemic loomed over us in February and then into March, my friend and I were in touch every few days. I had a sizeable chunk of shoots that were scheduled in March outright cancel as quarantine came in. I lost about $15,000 worth of booked projects in March and another $10,000 in April from clients who hung on with their bookings convinced that the quarantine would just last a few weeks.
Speaking with my friend, he too had a lot of high school and college graduations on his schedule to live stream. All canceled. We spoke and decided that as a hedge against losing all of our business for the next few months, we’d band together and try marketing live streaming services to larger and higher-budget clients than he had been landing as his low-dollar, high-volume, bread-and-butter projects that were paying his bills. His company has a ton of live stream experience and demo reel material, and my company has higher-end production names, celebs and clients.
Both of us have a lot of years in the media business. We broke down the live streaming market, at least the sectors we want to pursue, in the following way:
Small business, institutional users. This sector is already using live streaming to conduct meetings, round tables and discussions. There are also teachers now utilizing live stream teaching for their students online. This market is already saturated, well served by all of the free or low-cost live streaming commodity services like Skype, Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams. We also lump in social media content creators into this category. This is the DIY sector; few people on this level have the budget or are spending much money to live stream. They mostly sit at their computers and talk to others in groups online. Production values are low to nonexistent, although there are exceptions to the rule, of course. Many people at this level are using low grade, built-in webcams on their laptops, iPhones or low-cost external webcams. In our opinion, there’s very little business opportunity here for a production company or freelancer.
Basic, low end, logistically simple live multi-camera production. This level of clients may want to hire someone to live stream their event. It could be a wedding, funeral, graduation, a band’s performance, school presentations and events or low-end corporate live events. This level of production can be accomplished with small one- or two-person crews using some simple camcorders or even PTZ remote cameras, running into a laptop or a small, inexpensive switcher like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. There’s definitely business here and with volume operation, shooting a lot of these low-end projects, one might expect to at least survive with these sorts of live streaming projects. Generally, this level of production doesn’t center on boring talking heads sitting at computers with webcams, it’s typically driven more by documenting live events that would be happening with a live audience during pre-pandemic times. Many of these events are still happening, just without a live audience, and the entire audience moves to watch the live event online.
Mid-level corporate/institutional live streams. In this tier, we have transitioned from what most people think of and know about as “live streaming” and we’re simply producing live television over the internet. The clients have higher budgets but exponentially higher technical capability requirements. Rather than a simple Tier 2 project with two to three cameras with a PowerPoint live stream, for instance, this level of client and production may ask for much more involved scenarios and requirements.
For instance, one of our Tier 3 clients is a production company that produced a high-end feature-length documentary film. They wanted us to help them live stream the film to YouTube Live in 4K resolution. The film was also produced in a Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Once the film has finished, we transition to a live five- to six-person discussion panel with remote streams from India, the UK, Canada, NYC, Los Angeles and Australia. Each of the panelists in the 4K-moderated discussion is placed in their own box on-screen with animated lower third titles. As each person takes turns speaking, we’re using DVE moves to move the boxes around like tiles and the titles animate and follow each panelist. This production is unique because it’s entirely remote.
Each panelist “signs in” to our system using their own laptop or tablet. Each panelist is using headphones with a lavaliere microphone. We have “trained” each talent, since we can’t be there to shoot their live stream, to carefully frame themselves and their shot. We work with them to find soft, large lighting sources in their home or office and tweak blinds or shades to utilize the window light in their location. The end result doesn’t look as refined as we’d make it if we were there in person shooting it, but it looks and sounds better than the average Zoom or Skype call.
Each project has different requirements. We’ve produced live stream fundraising auctions that have raised over $1.2 million dollars in less than two hours. We recently produced a virtual lunch gala event for a Major League Baseball team and their fans. To execute at this level, we use a crew of at least three to six people and sometimes more if we have remote video crews on location. We have a complex, customized live streaming studio with a virtual green room where remote callers can gather in standby and speak with and receive direction from us and the producers of the live stream. We have sophisticated audio mixing capability and can support up to eight remote call-ins at once, combined with up to 10 live cameras if we’re streaming from a live shoot event.
This tier is sort of an amorphous catch-all for sophisticated, multi-camera production for high-profile clients, the studios and TV networks. Work at this level is indistinguishable from high-end broadcast TV. Often, a mobile truck with potentially up to 30 to 40 cameras may be utilized. This level of production would often utilize crews of anywhere from 10 to 100 to execute. This would include events like music festivals; huge, lavish stage productions; big sporting events and the like.
Tier 4 projects will often have budgets that are in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Often, the live streaming part of the equation is brought in as an adjunct to the live broadcast or simply receives their input from the broadcast’s master output. But, occasionally, the live streaming team operates independently from the broadcast, such as when our team was hired to produce the Facebook Live stream at the NAACP Image Awards Red Carpet in Hollywood. BET broadcasted the awards ceremony, but we live streamed the Facebook Live stream from the Red Carpet.
The one unifying factor about live streaming that we should talk about is this: Live streaming is very difficult to do well. No matter the level of production you’re live streaming, there are technical and strategic limitations in live streaming that you probably aren’t aware of if you haven’t done it before.
Everything is dependent on the internet from where you streaming from. This sounds obvious, but think about it. If a location has slow, unreliable or temperamental internet, this will directly affect what you and your client are trying to accomplish. If you add in a remote live stream system like we use, for each “caller” we have sign in, we now have an additional incoming internet stream to be concerned about. Our outgoing service from our remote studio can be fast and rock solid, but if a remote coming in to us from anywhere in the world is flaky, there’s zero we can do about it from our end.
You may have seen ads or reviews for various wireless internet live streaming solutions, some fairly expensive and fully-featured “Internet In A Backpack” solutions. We own our own expensive top-of-the-line wireless router, utilizing three different 4G-cell providers. Even with this device, wireless internet for live streaming is, at best, spotty and at its worst, an unreliable disaster. Wireless, even when it’s delivering faster-promised speeds, is all over the map with constant throughput. That’s the problem, the way wireless internet works, there are constantly new obstacles for signals to pass through and there are also constantly changing interference challenges too. Live streaming with wireless is really a no go in 2020. The full rollout of 5G wireless might change this in the near future, but if you’re contemplating streaming in 2020, forget about any solution that relies on wireless internet; it’s just not going to work well.
I’m lucky. My business partner is an audio and webcast engineer. He’s trained and has decades of experience with internet, sound, picture, computing and troubleshooting. I will leave you with this thought: If you don’t have access to a true webcast engineer, trying to do anything above Tier 2 live streaming is going to be a disaster. Doing Tier 2 live streaming may turn into a disaster for you. If it does, how do you fix it? How do you interface with your client’s IT professionals to make sure that your system integrates with their heavily Firewall-protected network? Do you know how to set up and administer a bonded router system? Do you know how to interface and place orders with content distribution networks?
In Tier 2, you might plug into your client’s Ethernet and it might work. But if it does, how knowledgeable are you about IT and internet troubleshooting? What redundancies have you built into you’re A/V and live streaming gear? You’ll need a plan B and, often, a plan C. If your plan A stops working, you go to plan B. But if plan B doesn’t work, you must have a viable plan C. Realistically, if you’re professionally live streaming for clients for money, you need at least two of everything in your kit. Things break, malfunction, are lost, short out and stop working. Live streaming is live (mostly), so if the show is to go on, you have to have redundancies and you need a webcast engineer. Without these, it’s not a matter of if you will crash and burn for your client, but when. Even with all of these in place, you can still crash and burn; it has happened to us and it’s painful. But that’s the nature of live streaming; it’s not for the faint of heart.
Green screen can be handy for situations where you’re not able to shoot talent in a particular location.
Have you ever shot green screen? I have. A lot. Hundreds of different projects over the years. First of all, let’s get this out of the way, “green screen” has become a catch-all term that describes a process of shooting a subject against a colored backdrop that will electronically be replaced, usually through a postproduction process called compositing or keying, with another background. I’ve shot blue screen, red screen and white screen for luminance keying, but the color green is the most commonly used, so the process has come to be known as such. However, that term is a bit like Kleenex being used in place of tissue or “Coke or Pepsi” being used in place of soft drink.
Why would you want to use green or blue or red or any other color to key a subject over? Green screen is the most popular because it tends to work well with people’s skin tones since most people aren’t green unless they’re seasick or nauseated. Blue screen is more commonly used for scenes where there may be foliage or green wardrobe. Back in the days of film, blue screen tended to work better when film composites were brought into the compositing workflow pipeline. Why would you ever shoot red screen? I’ve shot red screen when shooting tropical plants that had a ton of green and blue in their natural coloring, but they had little to no red, so using a red backdrop allowed for easier keying.
There are also camera-related technical reasons why one might choose a particular color to key over. In RGB color space with most cameras, blue tends to have more noise than the green or red channels, so in that process, amplifying the blue channel can result in an increase in noise in the image. In the end, choosing the right color backdrop should be a collaboration between the cinematographer and the compositor based on what’s being shot and where, what’s being keyed, the colors of all of the objects in the scene that are shot live and several other factors.
If we go back 10 or 20 years in production, shooting green/blue screen used to be much more difficult than it is in 2020. You had to really light any green or blue screen perfectly, making sure the lighting was even all of the way across the screen and at the right contrast ratio on the talent and subject versus the green/blue screen. You also had to make sure that there were no wrinkles or bunching on the physical screen itself. Fifteen years ago, keying software was good, but it wasn’t nearly as good as it is today, so generally, you just had to be much more careful about all of the details.
Your screen had to be lit nearly perfectly, and you had to mitigate the green or blue spill onto your talent from the green or blue screen itself, which required enough room on your set to physically separate the talent from the backdrop to cut down on the spill or eliminate it. Shooting and keying things like eyeglasses, where you could see the background through the edges and corners of the glasses, keying wispy blonde hair, cigarette smoke or fog effects were very difficult to pull off well. For these reasons, a good amount of shooters would end up with lousy keys with ragged edges, green edges, aliasing and other artifacts.
Cameras were often 8-bit recording in 4:2:0 color space, which meant that it was difficult to push a key or clean up a key because the bit space and color space were truncated compared to 10-bit 4:2:2. At the time, there was a huge price gap between low dollar SLRs and high dollar broadcast or digital cinema cameras that had 10-bit 4:2:2 recording capability. Today, there are fewer 8-bit 4:2:0 cameras on the market, and even low dollar cameras can record 10-bit 4:2:2 footage or even 10 or 12-bit RAW, making the recording much more robust for keying. Also, shooting at a higher resolution like 4K UHD for a 1080 project allows for more detail and increases the perceived color and detail resolution when downsampling a higher resolution image. There are so many factors in today’s cameras that allow for easier and better quality keys.
The decision to shoot or not shoot green screen is an important one. I’ve shot a lot of green interviews where when speaking with the producer or director, the logical question is, “What will the background be?” Most of the time, the answer is, “We don’t know yet.” Not knowing what the background will be presents several challenges. What colors should the talent wear so they work with the color palette in the background? Which angle should they be shot from? Straight to camera or at an angle? What size should they be in the frame? How should they be lit?
That last point, in particular, has stung me in the past. If I’m lighting and shooting a green screen interview or host segment and I’m not told what the background will be and what the overall scene will look like, how can I know how to light the scene? The default is soft, frontal, flat light. If the background that the person will be composited into is lit in the same way, great—it should match. But what if the scene is high contrast with highly directional late afternoon light? In that case, the person that we shot with the flat, soft, even lighting will always look artificial and pasted into the scene because the lighting between the foreground and background doesn’t match in the least. The exception to this rule is when shooting talent that will be composited against graphics. Then, at least the graphics can be created to match the lighting of the person.
Some reasons I’ve been told why producers want to shoot green screen:
One of the best uses of green screen is for photorealistic composites. This is where great care is taken by the production to insert the green screen talent into a background in a way that’s seamless, realistic and carefully planned and executed. The results when this approach is taken can be breathtakingly realistic; you’d swear that the talent is in the location in real life. This can be accomplished with interviews, presentations, narrative, music videos—really in any format. In my experience, this is the most difficult green screen to pull off, but when you do, it’s the most gratifying too because the shot doesn’t scream “Green screen composite!” when viewed by the audience. It looks natural and doesn’t call attention to itself.
The reason why few productions try to tackle photorealistic compositing is that it takes a lot more planning, technique, skill and resources. You work backward in this process, shooting or gathering the background plates before shooting the talent. Then when you shoot the talent on set, you live composite the talent in front the of background so that the director, DP, gaffer, props, wardrobe and every other department can see the finished composite—at least a rough version of it. This way, all of the parameters—camera to subject distance, angles used, lens selection, focal length, exposure—can all be tweaked to perfection to make sure that the green screenshot matches the background perfectly.
This is even more important in shots where the background plate shot moves and the shot of the talent has to move accordingly. If you can sync the movement between the two elements perfectly as you shoot the talent shots, it really helps to sell the illusion. You are then getting into shot perspective matching, parallax correction and ensuring that the angles are in perfect sync. In my work, photorealism is always the goal when shooting green screen. It’s rarely realized because most of the projects I shoot on simply lack the budget and resources to do so. But on those rare occasions when I get to do this, it’s always a lot of fun and very gratifying when you nail it.
To me, as a DP, the alternative to green screen is always real locations or high-quality sets. Shooting the real-deal talent in real physical locations, well lit and nicely composed is always the ultimate. As DPs, directors and videographers, I’d always encourage you to push your clients and projects toward shooting talent in real locations whenever possible. Green screen can be an incredibly useful tool, but it can also be a compromise and a logistical and post-production challenge.
If you do have to shoot green screen, your best practice should also always be to push for pre-production time to shoot tests and, whenever possible, if the background plates are real locations, push to shoot those plates well before you shoot talent. Record your camera used, raster size, codec, frame rate, camera to subject distance, lens used, focal length, ƒ-stop and exactly where your lighting sources were positioned in frame. The more data you have from your background plate shoot, the more you can apply that data to replicate the exact same lighting and perspective on your talent so that whoever does the composites finds that they have two perfectly matching puzzle pieces.