Studio Unknown/PopMark Media's Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Secrets of Audio Post Survival

Jan 11, 2011 6:12 PM, By Lisa Horan and Kevin Hill

Tips from the Pros

photo of Bob Bronow

Re-recording mixer and sound designer Bob Bronow is pictured at work on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch.

Survival Tip #2: Keep Heavy Duty Tools Handy
Pro mixers rely on myriad noise-reduction tools. For Bronow, the go-to software is the iZotope RX suite, which enables him to dig the dialog out of the audio as much as possible. “The whole story on Catch is what the guys are talking about, so I’ve got to be able to make sure it’s as clear as can be,” says Bronow. Easier said than done, as deckhands are being interviewed, cranes are moving overhead, and engines are chugging. “The beauty of the iZotope software is that it allows me to see a spectrogram of the sounds and different tones, remove the unwanted ones, and leave the dialog untouched.” The tool has become Bronow’s solution on many projects.

During the second season of the Discovery Channel program The Colony, for instance, a reality program that is set in what is supposed to be post-apocalyptic times, there were a number of extraneous sounds that threatened to undermine the integrity of the setting. “The second season was shot in a 10-acre area made up of destroyed buildings in New Orleans and featured contestants trying to survive by finding water, filtering it and providing for defense,” explains Bronow. The problem was, a guy who owned an ice cream truck got wind of the production schedule and came by every day, blasting his music loudly. Had Bronow not been able to use the spectral repair feature of iZotope to eliminate the happy “ice cream truck” music while keeping the dialog intact, many of the scenes would have been ruined.

Like Bronow, Taylor relies on the iZotope suite for cleaning up dialog, as well, but another of his favorite tools is the Waves Noise Suppressor (WNS). “I tend to use the RX2 for surgical noise reduction situations and WNS when I need to make broad, real-time corrections,” says Taylor. There are even occasions when the quality of the audio requires both to be used.

Survival Tip #3: Educate the Field Crew
While technology is available to clean up audio in post, of course, it’s always a better idea to collect clean audio to begin with. Even though sound designers are not on set, there are some suggestions they can make to field crew to help them obtain good quality audio that requires fewer cleanups. Below are several recommendations.

Promote the use of high quality gear: “You can be the most talented crew out there, but if you’re using equipment that is faulty, cheap or outdated, the audio you get will be reflective of that,” says Taylor. This is a phenomenon he’s experienced first-hand. "There was one instance in particular in which I was consistently getting bad audio from one of the best location teams I work with. After many phone calls and troubleshooting, we discovered the culprit to be an 'industry standard,' but horribly outdated mixer in the chain." Taylor decided to get proactive and purchase his own location kit that he could rent out to crews, with the hopes of alleviating these issues. The kit is based around Sound Devices 302 mixers and recorders and includes Tram™, RØDE, Lectrosonics and Sennheiser mics with full wind packages, 2-channel Sony D50, and Zoom H4N, H1 and H2. “Once the kit was used in the field, the quality was instantly boosted,” says Taylor.

One word of caution, however: Just because a piece of equipment may claim to be the latest and greatest, it does not mean it's fail-proof, so always expect the unexpected. Taylor recalls a short-film project where the crew was experienced and was using the newest version of a camera that they had used many times before on shoots. Because there was no return on the camera, however, they couldn’t hear what was being generated during production. “Imagine my surprise when we went into post after shooting the entire film with the camera and heard horrible broadband noise throughout the film’s entirety,” laments Taylor. Unfortunately, none of the audio was salvageable, and Taylor had to ADR the entire piece.

Promote good mics: While mics, technically, fall into the gear category, they’re so important that they deserve specific attention. The bottom line is, the use of high-quality mics is essential. “Cheapo stock lav mics packaged with inexpensive transmitters/receivers are difficult to work with in post because their frequency response tends to be all over the map," says Taylor. That said, recommend that the crew use quality mics whenever they can. “I tell producers that if they’re going to update anything, it should be lav mics,” says Taylor. That’s exactly what Bronow suggested to the producers of Catch. “After the show got popular, I was able to meet the runners and producers, and I told them that while the show was awesome, I was having trouble fixing the dialog,” says Bronow. “I suggested that they get rid of the mics they had been using and purchase some shotgun mics that could be installed onto the cameras.” The producers took that advice, and as the series progressed, the camera operators even began doing some experimentation with other mics on their own, trying different waterproof lavs and windscreens. The result has been much better audio for Bronow to work with.

Help end “One Mic Syndrome”: Another common setback occurs when shoots rely solely on one mic, and this mic winds up either failing or producing poor-quality audio. That said, it is always a good idea to recommend that the field crew use more than one. “If at all possible, I caution crews against doing a shoot with just one mic,” says Taylor. “I can’t tell you how many times the boom backup saved the audio on a shoot because the lav failed, so I always suggest that both be used in the field at all times.”

Promote proper lav techniques: Sometimes the reason problems occur is not the result of the equipment, but rather the operator. “One of the mistakes is improperly positioning a lav on a subject,” says Taylor. "I frequently receive audio from a lav that has been so buried under clothing that it's unusually midrange-y. If a lav is pressed against bare skin without any air to breathe, it ceases to be a true lav and turns into a contact mic, picking up the sound of a person's heart and chest cavity." Another issue that often happens with lav mics involves fluctuating levels during interviews, especially if a cameraperson who is not trained in audio techniques is responsible. “When setting up a lav mic for someone during an interview, a camera person will ask the subject to count to ten, but as the person gets more comfortable halfway through the interview, his voice tends to get much louder, and the audio will begin to peak,” says Taylor. At that point in the process, unless there’s a location audio guy on set, the levels are not being monitored, and what results is a lot of distortion. “I can always tell who’s listening and who’s not.”






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