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.]