Category: boom operation


Wow! Tons of stuff going on this week! Big news from Avid, great stuff from many microphone companies, Izotope, and tons more!

The AES trade show floor was considerably smaller than usual, but there was a lot of cool stuff there. If you spent some time digging and talking to reps, inventors, presidents, etc… there was a lot of cool info to be gathered. I did my best at grabbing pics and info about topics and products pertaining to audio post and field recording / production audio. I’ll cover a lot of it here, but if there’s something I don’t cover that you’re wondering about, feel free to ask me if I happened to come across what you’re curious about!

129th AES in SF

I’m going to categorize my posts by topic, so there will be quite a few between here and Sonic Terrain.

Stay tuned – many posts to come this week!

The new and improved, tanner, Ric Viers

The new an improved, tanner, Ric Viers

Ric Viers: he is a sound effects recordist extraordinaire, an author, a business owner, a husband, a father, a friend, and the owner of one sweet soul patch. Even better, he has kindly done an interview with me for the blog. Ric has a new book coming out next year that deals with production sound (which he can’t share details on yet), but I thought I’d get a head start and interview him about his production audio experience. There aren’t very many production audio resources out there, so his book will be filling a huge void.

Ric is the owner of Blastwave FX, a sound effects company, The Detroit Chop Shop, a post production house in Michigan, and author of The Sound Effects Bible, a great publication about recording, editing and mastering sound effects.



CH: You got your start in sound doing production audio for shorts and independent films, correct?

RV: Yeah, I got started doing location sound. I wanted to try to brush up my chops with mixing, recording, and using different mics, mic placement, and all that stuff in between gigs, but I couldn’t figure out a way to do it, because in order to do location sound you need talent, you need actors, you need a set, and dialogue, or something for them to say. So I got this idea that I could probably record sound effects, and then kind of just build up my own sound library, because I was needing sound and all for the films that I was producing myself, and so I though, “well, it’s a good opportunity to get used to the gear, get a little more familiar with mic techniques and all.” So I started recording sound effects as a side gig, well not so much as a gig as much as a hobby.

So I was just doing sound effects on the side and continued doing production sound. A couple years went by and I was starting to fill up my hard drive, and I realized how many sound effects I actually had, and I said, “Gee whiz, I’ve got over a thousand sound effects, I bet you I could sell this somewhere,” and I contacted a sound effects publisher and got a deal within a matter of a couple of weeks, I think it was. I just went down the road of sound effects – it’s a bit more challenging, and a lot more fun – certainly more creative than production sound, although I love being on set, and I love being a part of the filming process. It was kind of the best of both worlds.

CH: You just finished up a feature film that filmed in Central Florida, with you actually AD’d (Assistant Director), right?

RV: Correct. I was AD slash (which is an unofficial title, but…) pretty much the “Sound Supervisor” on set, because the sound mixer we had and the boom operator were very new. This was their first film, and I had 15 years under my belt, so I basically would run through the setup, mic placement, and all that kind of stuff – mic selection – to kind of give them a direction for each setup that we did. I was surprised at how fast they learned. After about a week or two, they were chiming in to the take, saying “Don’t forget room tone,” and they would question mic selection and say, “well what if we did this instead,” and came up with some pretty cool ideas. So, it was a lot of fun.

CH: Now you used almost exclusively RØDE microphones for that gig, right?

RV: Correct, actually all of the mics were RØDE mics except for the lavs. We used TRAMS for the lavs. I’m a huge fan of the TRAMS.

CH: I noticed in the the pictures you showed me from the shoot that you used a lot of plant mics on this shoot. Can you talk about your use of boom microphones as well?

RV: Actually we used NTG3 shotguns. I’d say 95 percent of everything we shot exterior was shotgun. I don’t think we used any shotguns indoors, although there may have been one or two times. For the most part, we used NT5s and NT6s indoors and the NTG3 outdoors.

CH: You didn’t use a mixer on the set of the film you just finished – you went straight into a recorder. What are your thoughts on providing post production a production mix, vs. giving them just iso tracks.

RV: You know, this was my first time doing true multi-tracking with no mixing at all. We did summing with Boom on one channel and lavs on another, just so whoever was doing the edit could sync up everything quicker, but this was the first time doing it without a mix, and let me tell you, I’m a huge fan of it. It makes so much more sense to me. I would guess that that’s going to be the way of the future – there’s going to be less mixing on set. It makes perfect sense, I mean why would you mix something on set, that can’t, arguably, be unmixed, when you could just Iso everything, and have complete control over everything about the mix in post.

CH: How do you see that working with tight turnaround – like episodic TV, etc…

RV: Well, every production has it’s own unique needs. In our case, like I said, we did a basic mix down with boom on one channel and lavs on the other, and so, in theory, for the most part, hopefully we’ll never use the lavs – the lavs are just there for backup. So hopefully, we’ll always be able to use the boom, or the plant mics. But, that said, you could grab your one track (the boom track) as your main track, and if you need to go to a lav, you can run and grab that in the multi-track. I think that’s going to be the way of the future – the new technique used on set.

CH: Now this was a smaller production. How many mics did you have up and running at any given point? Did you ever find yourself running out of inputs?

RV: The only time we ran into a track count problem was when we had 8 microphone. We had an 8 track recorder, but the catch was – and I don’t know if this was due to the Florida humidity or what – but one of the tracks (we were using the Sound Devices 788T) went out. I don’t know if the phantom power on it blew or something. So we had to work around that problem, but ultimately, I think the most we ever had going at once was 8 mics. We had 4 wireless that we were using, and then we had plant mics, plus our primary boom mic.

CH: Are you a fan of the Sound Devices product lines?

RV: You know, yes and no. I really like their preamps. For any mixer or recorder, the first thing I think about – I don’t care about the functions, widgets, gadgets, or whatever – I want to know how good the preamps are. If the preamps are solid, then I’ll look at the rest of the specs. But there’s a lot of gear out there that have every possible function out there, but the preamps suck. So, for me, I love the preamps on all of the Sound Devices equipment. The only catch is that I’m not a huge fan of some of their engineering techniques. I’m a huge fan of real world, physical switches. If I need to turn the phantom power on, I don’t have to remember a couple of shortcut keys, or have to navigate the menu. I like to be able to say, “there’s the phantom power,” click, boom, done. I’m also very thorough when I work, so I like to look at a panel, and at a single glance, know where all the switches, all the knobs, dials, settings are – everything at a single glance, rather than having to deal with sub-menus and all. So that’s, for me, the plus and minus – the pros and cons – of the Sound Devices. Not a huge fan of the shortcut menus and all that kind of stuff, but at the same time, you have to give it up for them – the thing’s built like a tank, and it just sounds absolutely transparent.

CH: With laptops getting more powerful and stable, do you see production audio going to laptops any time soon? There’s a few people out there that use them as backup now. There are programs out there such as boom recorder and metacorder that function just as a field recorder (take-based recording), but with larger track counts, routing options, etc… You also have your DC powered interfaces, like the Motu Traveller, Metric Halo ULN-8, and all of the bus powered ones. Do you see a future in that at all?

RV: I think that laptops have the ability to be the primary recorders on set, but there are two main drawbacks. The first, and most important, is the fan noise. If you could get an absolute silent laptop, then yes, I think it would absolutely be my choice. Well, I don’t know if I would say absolutely, but I would certainly seriously consider it. The problem is, that when you’re in tight quarters, your laptop is going to be making noise, and one of the main tasks that you’re faced with as a production sound mixer is that you’ve got to eliminate as much superfluous noise as possible, and so you don’t want to be the cause of that noise. The second thing is obviously the instability – the laptop crashing for whatever reason. Whereas with your field recorders, that’s less likely to happen. When hard disk recorders first came out, I was a little hesitant about it crashing, but I’m a huge fostex fan – and I’ve never had a crash or any type of issue or problem. The recorders that are out now are all rock solid. However, with a laptop, it’s not rock solid. there are so many other processes that are happening in the background outside of the recording program that could cause the system to crash. Once it crashes, you could A, lose files and takes that you’ve been working on, and B, you have to reset, boot back up and all that stuff. If you’re doing an interview, for example, with Al Gore, and you have a limited amount of time, and you’re doing it for a major network, and you’ve got to get it right the first time, and all of a sudden your laptop crashes – that’s going to be an issue. So I guess my argument would be that I don’t think laptops, as they are now, are going to be in the field as a primary recording device any time soon. For that to happen, the first thing would have to be the fan, then the stability and the operating system.

CH: Speaking of fan noise, tell me your thoughts on…

RV: Ah, you’re going to ask me about the RED, aren’t you!? (Laughing)

CH: Yes, yes, tell me a little about the RED and your feelings towards it, both in the image quality and as a sound person.

RV: The image of it is phenomenal. I’m very happy with the images that we gathered. However, what we found, very similar to the laptop issues, is that we had them crash on us a number of times, which wasn’t very good. And then, of course, the fan noise, which was absolutely hideous. If you’re doing any kind of film work and don’t have the fan turned off, even when it’s on it’s slowest setting we could hear it. There is a menu where you can actually go in and shut off the fan, but it’s like – if you don’t do that, you might as well record a blow dryer in the room and use that as room tone – it was just absolutely garbage. We actually got a couple of weeks into the shoot, and finally I was just fed up with it, and I said, “look man, you’re going to have to move the camera or something, or we’re going to have to ADR this entire film. We were in close quarters, and at that point, the DP said “Oh, there’s an off switch I can turn off”. I said, “You know, we just shot 2 weeks of stuff with a blow dryer in the background, and I could’ve isolated that problem by turning off the fan?” Basically, it’s a huge brick with a fan.

CH: What would you suggest to someone that wants to get into either sound effects recording or location sound mixing. How do you get started, what are your thoughts on working for free, etc…

RV: Well, you know, you certainly can’t get a real world start without working for free. It’s just not going to happen. I wish it weren’t true, but you gotta believe, you’ve gotta intern somewhere, you’ve gotta shadow somebody. You know, there are creative ways around it. I think you could probably get in at a lower rate and help out as a utility or something until you get your feet wet. When you’re production sound mixer, you’re basically taking a studio into the field. You’ve got mixers, mics, recorders – basically what you’d have inside of a studio, but you put it all on a cart, and you go around the world. So, you’ve got to be able to understand not only the film making process, which in and of it self takes time – you have to have experience – you can’t just read a book and then hop on a set. Then you’ve got the recording process – which again, you can’t just read books, you’ve got to get your hands on gear, learn mic placement and everything. The other thing is confronting all of the unique challenges that you encounter in the field. I’ve been doing this for well over 15 years now, and I still run across unique situations where I have a problem and say, “Gee, how are we gonna mic this situation.” And of course, I draw back on my experience of things that I’ve seen people do or things that I’ve done in the past, and then try to take the best of those ideas and try to apply it to whatever situation I’m in. So, you just have to get experience. There’s a lot of independent films out there that don’t have any money, so they’re looking for guys to help, which is a great advantage for the guys that are trying to get into the field. The only problem with that is that the independent film itself is going to lack the quality of sound, and as you know, sound is 50% of the experience. So, you’re going into the independent film – you’ve got free labor, but you’re not going to get great sound. Eventually that sound mixer will get experience – he’ll work his craft and get better at it, but in the meantime, the film isn’t going to have the quality of sound that it’s supposed to have. So, it’s a catch 22.

CH: What’s your best advice for somebody that is going to do sound, but has no experience. What would you tell them is the most important thing to capturing great sound.

RV: I would tell them that they need to record at the loudest levels possible (without getting system noise), and get the microphone as close to the talent as physically possible. I mean, that’s the very barbaric, nuts and bolts of location sound. Ultimately, you want to record a nice clean signal with good level, and get the mic as close as possible to the talent. Some of these mixers that are out now, I just got the Fostex FM4 – and I just love the sound of the preamps. A big thing I noticed about the Sound Devices stuff is that, man, you’ve got to really crank the preamps up to hear anything, whereas back when I got started, the Shure FP33 was the goldenboy of field mixing, and no matter what company I worked with, everybody had the Shure FP33, and if you listen to it now – oh my gosh! It’s just noisy as all get out. You can’t open up any mic without having some kind of mixer noise. Whereas the stuff that’s out nowadays, the preamps are getting so good, that you can really crank up the mic without hearing any noise from the pre.

CH: Speaking of gear, if someone was trying to put together a budget kit, obviously you’d go for the RØDE mics, but what kind of package would you recommend?

RV: I mean, everybody’s got their favorites. I bet if you took 100 seasoned professionals, guys that have been mixing for 40, 50 years, sat them all in a room, and told them to each build their dream package, I bet you’d have 100 completely different answers. Everybody’s got their favorite mixers, everybody’s got their favorite mics, everybody’s got their own headphones – not everybody is using the same headphones in the field. So there’s a lot of choices. I tend to go with a balance between quality and economy. Price vs. Value, which is why I tend to like the RØDE mics, because there’s an insanely great sound that they have, and the price is probably half of what it should be. For me, that’s a good bargain. At the end of the day, it’s a craft – it’s an artform, but it’s also a business. I’ve got to put my kids though college. I have to take my family on vacation, and if I’m going out an buying $3000 mics left and right, there’s less money for me to be able to spend on my family. So, I’ve got to make wise choices. That said, I’m a huge fan of the Fostex products. I think that the FR2s are great. I’m not crazy about the plastic design, but if you’re tender with your gear – we know people who take those FR2s all over the place and they still work great. So, I like the Fostex stuff a lot. I think the Sound Devices stuff is great. Built like a tank, the preamps a great. They tend to be a little more pricey though.

For mics, obviously I’m a huge RØDE fan, and I love TRAMs for lavs. I’m a big fan of the [Sennheiser MKH]416 shotgun for sure, but once I got the [RØDE] NTG3, at [much less than] the 416, I said,”Forget about it, I’d rather have 2 NTG3s than one 416.” You can double boom a scene and get better audio by booming from 2 positions, versus having one 416 that costs a lot more.

Headphones – [Sony] MDR7506s man. The Sony MDR7506s are the way for me. I’ve probably got about 12 pairs of those for the different packages that we have.

Recorders, and mixers, like I said the Fostex stuff is good stuff.

CH: A little off topic here, speaking of microphones, what’s your go-to microphone for high-spl recording?

RV: Well, it depends, if I’m doing, you know, gun shots and stuff, typically I place mics all over the place. I like the [RØDE] K2s (which aren’t really good for the field, because they need a tube power supply). Those mics can handle an insane amount of SPL, and they just sound just so fat because of the tubes. Typically when we go into the field, we bring NTG3s and stuff. Those things can handle about up to 130db. I think the condenser mics these days can handle way more SPL than they used to be able to.

CH: Have you ever used a tube mic in the field?

RV: Not ever in the field, especially because of the price – I’d be a little nervous taking one in the field. You know, I got the K2s and the NTKs about a year ago, and the K2 – it’s kind of like guitars. You buy a new guitar and its your favorite until you buy the next guitar, which is your favorite until you buy the next one, so on and so forth. You know, I was loving life with the NTG3s, then I got the K2, and it’s a completely different design, obviously, and a completely different application, but I just love the sound that I get out of the K2. So that’s my favorite until the mic comes along.

CH: That’s all from me. Is there anything that you’d like to add?

RV: I think what’s important for guys that are working production sound is that you have to be alert and you have to anticipate problems. In the film making process, crap hits the fan on an hourly basis – not even a daily basis. It happens all the time – every scene, every setup, there’s always an issue. If you’re going to be successful and have a long career with it, you need to really anticipate worst case scenarios, and be standing by for the worst case scenario to happen with whatever problem solver you can come up with, be it more cables, a different microphone, another transmitter – any kind of problem that you can anticipate happening – you have to be ready for it. And, you know what, the film makers will know that, because every department has their moment where they’re working on set and then something goes wrong, and they have to scramble to fix it, and you’ve got like 10 departments working at the same time, and each one of them has a problem that has a few minutes to solve – that’s a half our of production time that you have to stand around waiting. So I think directors and producers appreciate when departments anticipate problems and already have a solution in their hand before the problem even happens, so that they can correct the problem and keep the production moving.

And of course, my golden rule for production sound is “Bring two of everything”.

Thanks so much Ric for your time!

I’ll be posting more information about Ric’s upcoming book as soon as the information is released. Stay tuned!

[Disclaimer: This was a phone interview that I have done my best to transcribe accurately. I have made minor edits to eliminate pauses, backtracking, and to make this piece work for a blog format, as well as to clear up my questions. I have not changed Ric's sentence structure or grammar, so that you're hearing him, not me. Ric has approved all edits.]

So, a while back I announced an article I was writing about boom operation. I’ve had the manuscript done for quite some time now, but was waiting on pictures. I haven’t been able to get them yet, and since I don’t see them coming any time soon, I figured I’d post the article sans media and just update it later.

Enjoy!


Principles of Boom Operation

The Boom Operator: one of the most crucial parts of a sound team, if not the most crucial. Also, one of the most misunderstood positions. He is a ninja. No, seriously, he is.

Let’s talk cinema style audio for a bit. On a film set, the boom operator is the “voice” of the sound team. He’s the one that communicates most set-related concerns to the proper crew. If he’s having trouble with placement, he’ll talk to the cam op or DP. If body pack or Comtek batteries are low, he’s the one that changes them. If talent is having trouble with their wire, the boom op is generally the one to fix it. The mixer usually stays off to the side. Because of this, the boom op needs to be a very personable character. He needs to know how to get what he needs without pissing people off. He needs to be able to get along with whomever is thrown his way.

Once we start talking ENG, the mixer not only mixes, but does everything the boom op does. He’s a one man band. He needs to be able to move very quickly, anticipating every need before it happens, staying one step ahead of the crew, lest he hear the dreaded phrase “Waiting on sound!”

Now, you could be the most personable person in the world, not stepping on anyone’s toes and getting all the work you need to get done finished without negatively altering anyone’s mood, and still be a terrible boom op. Let’s talk technical.

A boom op needs to realize how incredibly sensitive his gear is. It’s a game of inches. You need to be able to think one step ahead of the talent. You need to be quick, light on your toes, and stealthy. You need to be everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. You need to be moving faster than the talent, staying dangerously close to the frame line, so much so that people are breaking into a nervous sweat. You need to perform near stunt moves, moving over and around obstacles on set during moving shots, being aware of your surroundings while sticking your mic on a spot the size of a quarter. You need to do all of this without making a single noise. This is why the boom op is a ninja.

As a boom operator, you have to be willing to do crazy things to get that perfect sound. You will, at times, find yourself in strange positions, in harms way, or in otherwise less-than-comfortable situations. You have to be on point at all times, knowing that if you mess up, you’ve compromised the entire shot.

Ok, if I haven’t scared you away yet, lets go over some basics of boom operation.


1. Understand the reason you are using a boom mic. This will help you understand what sound you are listening for and why.

Wireless technology has come a long ways. If you have money for the high end systems, and have your wiring technique down, you can pretty much wire everyone and have fairly decent confidence that you’ll get well isolated, low noise audio from each of the talent. So, why wouldn’t you do this? When you wire talent, you lose the room. It doesn’t sound natural, rather it sounds sterile, and post production has to fix it. Post is perfectly capable of doing so, but wouldn’t you rather the natural feel of a room versus the artificial recreation of a room that might sound kind of similar to your room but isn’t quite the same?

The boom operator has control over what you are hearing in the mic. You can get closer to the talent, further from the talent, you can rotate the mic, so on and so forth, to shape the sound that you are getting. If you have talent that’s supposed to be in a very echoic room, or if you are trying to show distance, you can pull the mic a bit further away from the talent to bring less of the talent and more of the room into the mic. If you want very little room and a very direct voice, such as you might hear in a close-up, bring the mic as close to the talent as the frame line will allow.

With a good boom mic, even rotating it an inch can change the sound. Listen to the sound you’re getting to make sure you’re getting mostly dialogue, and little room noise. If you’re getting reflection from a wall, articulate the mic so that the wall is at the side of the mic instead of in front of it.

Now, of course there will be epic wide shots and very noisy environments that won’t allow you to boom and will force the use of wires, but your goal should be to use the boom as much as possible.


2. Aim the microphone at the solarplexis.

Not in the general direction of the talent, not at the talent’s head, mouth, face, etc…

(The solarplexis is basically the sternum area.)

The human voice has many components and emanates from different parts of the body. The deep part of the voice comes from the chest and throat. The mids and some highs come from the mouth and nose, and the high highs come from the skull. Aiming at the solarplexis grabs all of these.

Aiming at the solarplexis also gives you a bigger target. If you aim at the mouth, you have to move the boom with every head movement in order to keep the same frequency response. If you aim at the solarplexis, you have a much larger target, allowing the talent a much larger range of motion without having to follow without having to move the boom as much, all while maintaining a consistent frequency response and overall sound


3. Booming from below opens you up to a world of problems. Literally

Think about it. If you point the mic down, you deal with a few things on the ground such as footsteps, props, and whatever faint reflections that might be there. All things you can control. You can use foot foam to quiet steps, you can use blankets and carpet on the floor to quiet reflections. You can use fake keys and jewelry to quiet prop noises.

Now, think about aiming your mic up. If you’re outside, you have airplanes, wind, birds, traffic bouncing around, etc… None of which you can control. If you’re inside, you have reverb bouncing around in the ceiling, A/C if you didn’t manage to turn it off, light noises (especially if you’re using HMIs), and whatever else might be up there. Much of this you can’t control.

Let’s revisit aiming at the solarplexis. When we mic from above, we’re intersecting all of those nice frequencies. When we mic from below, you get a low end bias. You’re closer to the diaphragm and chest, where the low end comes from. Remember the mic is very directional, especially at higher frequencies. Therefore, if you’re aiming at the solarplexis from right near the solarplexis, you’re going to only get the solarplexis, and not the frequencies that come from higher in the body. As a result, the voice sounds “tubbier” – the low end frequencies really stand out. Something you want to try to avoid if possible.


4. The frame line is your friend. Give it a nice big hug.

In most circumstances, you are going to want to ride the frame line as close as possible. I know, I just talked about pulling back for more reverb, etc… All that is good to know, but you also have to realize that microphones pick up more reverb than your ears do. So, in most cases, you’re going to want to be as close to the frame line allows, often riding it dangerously closely. An experienced boom operator can ride that line so close he’ll make people sweat, but he’ll never break the frame.


5. I’m being followed by a boom shadow, booooom shadow, boom shadow.

Lame Cat Stevens references aside, boom shadows aren’t fun to deal with. A boom op should be present for blocking and all rehearsals. He will be able to find where the lighting will fall during blocking, and can request flags from the DP if needed (politely please! You want to remain friends with the DP!) Also, the boom op will work with the cam op during blocking and rehearsal to find out where the frame lines and shadows fall. The cam op is the boom op’s best friend on set.

Please, don’t be that guy who doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and then proceeds to ask what’s going on. Do your homework. Know what’s happening before it’s happening.


6. Fancy Footwork.

One of the biggest mistakes that novice boom ops is not moving enough. I’ve seen some boom ops who I though had their feet cemented to the floor. Not good. A boom op needs to be agile – quick and fluid. In order to stay on axis, you need to move a lot. You need to move your arms, your body, your feet – anything it takes to get that perfect audio. When you watch a pro boom op do his thing, he is often moving so fast that it looks nearly violent!

The trick to all of this is to be able to do it all silently. When you walk, walk heel to toe. Wear shoes that don’t squeak. Wear a shirt and pants that don’t rustle. If you have trouble with foot noise, try some foot foam on yourself!

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So as you can see, being a boom operator is no joking matter. It’s serious stuff. I guarantee if you follow these steps, you will be well on your way to some quality boomage. Of course, no article can make you an expert. That comes with experience. So get out there and make some movies!

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