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Audio

Ears Are Idiots

on Thursday, 11 September 2014. Posted in Film, Audio

This may be a little bit of a technical blog but fingers crossed it will highlight some things you already knew, but didn’t know you knew about how things work in the audio industry.

Sound is a wonderful thing and our ears allow us to hear such aural delights as birdsong, a child's laughter, Iggy Azaleas new single or the noises our MD Ben makes in the 2 days preceding a half hour gym session (maybe not the last two).

But what you might not be so aware of is that in relative contrast to your eyes your ears can be deceived relatively easily. Currently here at MWS we are mixing and designing the sound for our upcoming feature film collaboration with Primley Road Productions 'The Catch' (Plug, plug). Now although 'The Catch' is a relatively straight forwards film in terms of sound design (we have no huge car chases to foley or new alien dialects to create), it comes with it’s fair share of challenges. But let me first draw your attention to some more obvious examples that you can relate to.

Star Wars

What would an actual star war sound like? Would they sound anything like master sound designer Ben Burts epic soundscapes of explosions, laser cannons and screaming ion engines? No they wouldn’t because space is a vacuum and no sound travels in a vacuum. Therefore what we would hear would in fact be silence, Burt and co cheated our ears into thinking that there was (awesome) sounds when in fact there would be none.

Ok maybe that's a bit harsh on our ears as few of us have first hand experience of space audio. How about…

Car Tyres

Ever scene a car pull away in a movie and heard the tyres screeching on tarmac? Loads I bet. Ever heard the same thing in real life. Perhaps, but lets face it when a young buck pulls away from traffic lights on the A4 having whipped the clutch out like their movie heroes, the wheels make a stuttering gripping noise as they struggle to find tarmac. Rarely the uniform constant rotation on a smooth surface which would cause such a screech. Do we care? No because it sounds great and adds gravitas and power to the moment. Let’s stick with vehicles...

Gear Changes

During the famous canal chase scene in James Cameron's masterpiece Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Arnold’s bike changes up a gear 14 times (sources vary). Fast and Furious movies see our drivers shift through around 200 gears with a simple stick shifter. It certainly helps to build tension though.

Fighting

Ever punched/been punched/seen someone being punched? (Don’t answer out loud) I myself being a rugby player have no idea what one of those is but I have it on good authority that is sounds absolutely nothing like it does in the action films. If it did such films would be very short as one of those impacts would be paramount to a blow with a sledge hammer.

Nightclubs

Again, no idea what these are except from seeing them in films, but have you ever wondered how people can talk to each other at such a graceful level whereas inside the real thing you’ll be lucky not to blow your voice out ordering a drink (orange juice)?

I could go on and I’m sure you have plenty of examples yourself and will annoy your family next time you sit down to watch TV (mine don’t let me anymore). So why do we so readily deceive our poor ears? Two main reasons. For dramatic effect and to help the narrative. We touched on examples of dramatic effect above with screeching tyres, epic battles and crunching blows. Try to imagine those horrible scenes in horror movies. Bone crunches, flesh ripping, blood and guts, all of those distressing noises are amplified in volume considerably higher than is realistic in order to pull you in to the happenings and further immerse you into the terror.

As for the narrative part take the 'Nightclub'. If we can’t hear what our characters are saying to each other then we are going to struggle to follow the story. Think of all the times you’ve watched a scene with someone far from the camera with perhaps a busy road in between them and you. Hows the dialogue? Clear as a bell? Of course it is as audio designers and engineers we sometimes have to compromise realism for clarity and story telling and thankfully most of the time our ears let us do that.

So maybe it's harsh to say that our ears are idiots. In fact the ease at which they can be deceived leads to a much wider breadth of creativity and greater margin of error for some technical aspects. Most of your summer blockbusters will be overdubbed using ADR a technique whereby the original dialogue is replaced with studio recorded sound and synced to the footage. Look closely and you can sometimes pick out minor mis syncs on even the grandest of productions (again, I recommend doing this on your own away from friends and family). But it leads to lovely clear crisp dialogue and often the ability for a director to recapture elements of a performance after the shoot.

Ears, you may be a little stupid. But we love you.

Nick

Equipment Review - Rode's Invisilav

on Thursday, 26 June 2014. Posted in Audio

 



Well, for anyone who read my other blogs about recording live sound across 8 different mics for our improvised feature length film, you’ll remember that we used lapel mics on our two actors to capture their unrehearsed dialogue for the duration of the filming.
In order to hide the mics we decided to purchase and try out Rode’s Invisilav mic concealing gadget. Here’s my review of the product and our experience using it on our film.

Out the box
So straight out the tiny box the gear arrived in, it looks like a smart and tidy product. There are instructions, but essentially the product is two things; a silicone mic holder and some double sided sticky tape. Sounds basic doesn’t it? And it is to be fair. Although that’s not meant to sound harsh, it’s been well designed and thought out. There’s even a second lapel mic holder in the silicone for backup lapel mics, which is a neat idea. It came with several of the double sided sticky tape bits for repeated use, and you’ll need these…

Setup
Naturally being a guy I decided instruction were for wallys and cracked on with using the kit without looking once at the instructions. After all, it’s some tape and a piece of silicone, how complex could this really be? Well, actually, it was annoyingly fiddly and complex. I’ll admit it, I could not peel the backing off one side of the tape, and it frustrated the hell out of me! But after a look at the instructions I noticed it does clearly say which side to peel off first. I’d not done that. “Ah ha!” I thought. “That’s where I’m going wrong!” So I discarded the now mangled sticky tape and tried on another, this time attempting to peel off the correct side first. Useless, utterly useless. I’m not sure why, but these bits of sticky tape with backing on both sides have for some reason been designed for aliens with special powers as far as I can see. It took forever to peel the first bit of backing off successfully. When you’ve finally done it, the trick is to then attach to the back of the silicone and then peel off the other side and attach to either the inside of clothing or the chest of the person you’re miking up. And to be fair once you’re there that’s all the hassle over and done with. The lapel mic fits snuggly into the silicone, assuming you’re using one that fits. It’s quite small so do make sure you’re using either Rode’s lapel mics or one small enough to fit in. We used the Sennheiser G3 and it squished the silicone out a little but still worked perfectly ok in the field.

Useage
So it simply has one job, record the sound of the actor it’s stuck to. And as you’d expect, with good placement it does that perfectly well. Naturally being placed under the clothes it hides the lapel mic perfectly, although we did noice that on very flimsy clothing, the weight of the silicone and mic pulls a little on the clothing which does show up, but it depends just how hidden you need it to be really as to whether this would affect your filming or not.
Where it really comes in handy is not only to hide the mic, but to eliminate the rustle you get from placing lapel mics on or under clothing. I have to say I’m really very impressed with this aspect of the product. When it was first suggested I read a review online written by a friend of ours, Tim Fok (coincidentally he ended up being one of the five camera operators we used on the shoot!) and I have to say I was very wary that something we eliminate the rustle of clothing enough to actually be a useful recording. Well, I was very wrong. Yes, there were moments where the actors moved theirs arms around and sure the Invisilav was not able to stop the sound of clothing movement going in to the mic. But for the main it did an excellent job when the actors weren’t moving around much, and were largely sat still just chatting to each other beside a tree. I have to admit I was impressed, and from this point of view I would certainly recommend the product.
If it could be improved in any way I’d obviously suggest the sticky tape issue was addressed so that it take moments to setup, rather than minutes, which eventually feels like an age given you’re simply trying to peel some tape off something. It does make you look rather incompetent in front of everyone watching. Although when everyone else tried they also all found it difficult, so it really is a flaw in the product. But, a minor one at that.

Overall
All in all, a great experience with the Rode Invisilav, we’ve ended up using practically the entire recordings made from each mic using the silicone product (we had one on each actor). And largely the entire film audio is those two mics, so not bad really for a feature length film, especially considering we really didn’t pay much for the product itself. It saved us having to boom the whole thing, which would’ve basically been impossible anyway! So thanks Rode and well done!

 

Phil

Corporate Video Music Creation

on Wednesday, 18 June 2014. Posted in Audio



So I personally, as a songwriter and composer, don’t really believe that there’s too much difference at all between writing a piece of music for yourself, with heartfelt lyrics that mean something to you and a melody and chord changes to die for, and a piece of corporate music that lies underneath a corporate video, often about something the writer of that music (or music as the case may be) cares very little about.
A slightly odd claim I suppose. Most other songwriters and composers that I know would probably say that there is a marked difference between music they’re writing out of love and passion for their craft, and a piece of music that will mostly be ignored as it sits under a voice over track talking about something not related to the music at all.  I thoroughly disagree, which brings me on to my first point about corporate video music creation.

Love it
I believe you have to love it, or at the very least try to love it as you’re writing it. Just like someone who’s being interviewed and they clearly aren’t comfortable being on camera, which really shines through on the screen sometimes, I think music is similar in that you can almost hear the laziness in the writing of someone who has created a track that they don’t think is important enough to put more effort in to it.
The trick I always use is to ask myself “would I be happy playing this track to anyone, without having to explain that it’s a piece of backing track music for a video?” And the reason I do that is because I consider my standards to be fairly high, and I’m sure my friends and family who I play my own tracks to would be able to spot if I’d written something and put very little effort in to it! Also I think more importantly so would the client you’re writing it for!

Skill
Over the past seven years of working in video and creating tracks for all sorts of different types of videos (corporate and public sector mainly) I’ve noticed that there’s actually quite a skill in creating something that works for the video; something that isn’t too catchy, but is nice enough to listen to and remember, from the viewers point of view, and of course suits the video itself. Most of the tracks I write for myself I try and make the melodies as strong as possible, and spent years striving to achieve this. Yet with corporate video music you almost need to do the opposite. I certainly wouldn’t know how to advise doing this unfortunately, but I do know that I wasn’t very good at it early on because the tracks I was creating were basically too memorable and therefore became annoying on repeated watches of the videos. They were too repetitive and eventually I learned that balance between the different parts of music, to avoid them becoming irritating to listen to, is really important and very much part of the skill and craft of songwriting itself, just as much for corporate as it is for personal music.

Listen
The one biggest thing I would advise if you’re setting out to create a corporate video music track is to listen. Listen to the client first and foremost. Ask them to describe exactly what they’re after. The number of times a client has said to us “Just something upbeat will do fine” is crazy. We’ve then selected a track, one that’s been described back to us as “upbeat” time and time again by previous clients, but our current client will for some unknown reason then not feel that the track is right. I say unknown reason, that’s not quite true. The reason is obvious; music is subjective. One persons “upbeat” is another persons “meh…”. This is why asking clients to describe what they want in as much detail as possible is very important if you are creating a brand new track for them. I usually ask them to describe the kind of track they’d like in no less than five words, and give at least two examples of other tracks to listen to that are similar.
Get them to give you examples so that you can see exactly what they’re after. Then go and listen to those example tracks, even if they’re songs you already know (refreshing your ears with a recent listen sometimes reveals things you haven’t heard in the mix of a track before). Sometimes it may even help to ask about specific instrumentation, especially if the client you’re liaising with is a musical person as well. If the client has requested something with an electro-pop feel to it, and as a songwriter you really don’t feel that the video will work, then as a video creator you should be trying to do two things; explain to the client politely why it may be better to use a different style of music for the video, but also to try and incorporate an electro-pop feel in to what you’re writing anyway. After all, it’s the clients video not yours. Personally I’ve also always enjoyed the challenge of writing in a style I’m not used to, pushing myself a little bit each time to broaden my skill set and develop the craft of songwriting further. I realize that sounds a bit cheesy to say it like that, but with my business hat on I actually think that’s the best attitude to have. My own tracks are statistically less likely to bring me any revenue in comparison to my corporate music tracks, via the company, so it’s probably a good idea to be able to turn my hand to anything rather than be a one-trick-pony style composer!

Chicken and Egg
There’s an odd thing about writing a corporate video track. The music is often dictated by the cut of the visuals. That often gives the video its pace, and therefore it’s musical tempo. Let’s say the video also contains clips for example of children in Africa; as a songwriter you may want to try and incorporate some traditional African instruments so the video and music has a more homogenous feel to it, unconsciously or consciously. But, and it’s a big but, the problem comes in that a good visual edit is often guided by the music track itself. So, which do you do first, the visual cut or the music?
The approach we usually take is to discuss the music with the client to the point where we know what we need to create, then use a similar piece of music (in terms of tempo and feel) for the editor to cut the visuals together to. Then simply replace the music with the new track once it’s finished, and slightly adjust some of the cuts where necessary. If you’re going to use a similar approach, don’t forget to let the client know the track you’re using to show them the initial drafts of the video is just a guide for the editor and not the final piece of music! People become strangely attached to tracks once they’ve heard them a few times over…

That’s just an overview to our approach; mine specifically, to creating original music for videos. In the next blog I’ll go in to more detail about using Pro-Tools to create tracks, instrumentation, tempo and the general feel of the music. I’ll also describe exactly how I go about recording and mixing tracks.

 

Phil

Improvised Film; Sound Mixing

on Friday, 13 June 2014. Posted in Film, Audio

 

In my blog post last week I talked about recording the audio for our latest feature film, which is a completely improvised film with no script, just characters who meet at a tree in a field and essentially have a completely unscripted conversation. Even we didn’t know what they were going to say and our job was to record it, which as you can imagine was a bit of a mission!

We placed multiple mics around the location itself and the two actors also wore lapel mics that were discreetly hidden under the tops they were wearing. The lapel mics were initially considered more of a backup solution, just in case the other mics didn’t pick up clearly enough the dialogue. However when importing and syncing the eight different mic sources it became clear that while the six mics placed around the location had captured the dialogue cleanly, none of them had captured the level of detail the lapel mics were giving us.

Before importing and syncing the audio sources I’d imagined we’d be using a blend of mic sources to create the final mix itself, but there were phasing issues, and the sources themselves sounded too different from each other to easily swap back and forth between different mics. It would’ve been a bit of a nightmare trying to select the best source for each line, then also have to try and EQ each mic so that they all sounded cohesive and natural to listen to.

The other option was to simply pick the best source, which was clearly the lapel mics, and to work harder on getting those to sound as good as they can. For the most part this method makes it a lot easier to achieve more, faster. I applied simple compression, EQ and basic gates to each lapel mic source and then proceeded to listen though to the tracks individually, adjusting the setting for the inserts as and when each required it. After approximately fifteen to twenty minutes I’d heard as much as I was going to in terms of range of dynamics and volume, so I was confident the setting of the compressors, EQ’s and gates would be good enough to do the job of keeping the sound mix of the film under control.

The next step was to painstakingly go through the two tracks individually again, picking out all of the pops, clicks, interference and general rustle and noise on each lapel mic track. For some reason one mic was particularly prone to interference noise, while the other was more prone to clicks and pops? Either way, I used good old-fashioned cut and paste techniques to cover up any noises I didn’t want to hear. There were lots of moments of silence between the actor’s dialogue where I was able to steal snippets of “silence” to paste over random clicks and pops.

The actors were also sat close enough to be able to dip the volume of one mic and bring up the other mic momentarily, where I needed to cover a click or pop that occurred when an actor was speaking.

Probably the biggest challenge is wind and plane noise. It’s random, can sometimes completely cover a line of dialogue if its loud enough, and worst of all happens just when you don’t want it to! I used EQ as best as possible to reduce the level of wind and plane noise during dialogue, but ultimately in the end we decided that the rustic, gorilla feel that we took to the film meant that leaving some wind and plane noise in actually brought quite a nice texture to the sound mix, especially considering there is nothing else to listen to in the whole feature other than two actors speaking. The film is actually sometimes more about the silence between the lines than the lines themselves as well. Because the actors were improvising every line, there are a lot of beautiful silent sections where you can see the characters thinking about how to respond to what’s just been said. And so all those little things that make up the audio soundscape of the field they were in at the time, the birds, the trees, planes flying overheard, wind, rustle of clothing during movement, these are all the things that make it actually quite an interesting listen as a sound track, rather than simply tidying the whole thing up, whacking some music and audio sfx here and there and just giving audiences exactly what they expected to hear.

We hope it’s a nice refreshing change if and when you ever view the film, to know that every moment you see, and in particular hear, was a natural, organic moment created by the two actors as their characters, and everything you hear is exactly how it happened on the day of filming itself as well.

 

Phil

Location Film Sound Recording

on Thursday, 05 June 2014. Posted in Film, Audio

So a week or so ago we filmed our improvised feature film in a field close to our offices. We were desperately hoping the weather would hold out, and luckily for us it just about did. Pure sunshine and barely any wind bookended the filming day itself, so it was typical that rain and wind was forecast and we’d already booked crew, cast and equipment in for that day…

This simply added to the list of challenges for recording the sound for the film. Some of which I’ll go through for you in this blog post in the hope that it may help someone out in future in similar situations.
The concept for the film was an improvised feature length film, guided subtly by the director, Ben Myers, who at times was texting and calling the actors throughout the improvisation. The film features two cast members who have never met (in real life as well as the film) and who have independently developed their characters alongside the director. The premise was simply that the characters meet by finding themselves in the same field, by a tree. The idea was they would naturally speak to each other and let the conversation flow, based on how their characters would really behave towards each other in that particular situation. So for example they could have not got on well and had an argument, or they could have fallen head over heels in love, we simply wouldn’t know until the filming itself.

Coverage

So obviously our first big problem becomes coverage. How do we capture the audio without knowing what the actors are going to say, when they are going to say anything, or how loudly or quietly they are going to say something, or in which direction? It became clear from the get-go that we would have to use as many mics as possible, very well placed, as discreetly as possible, in and around the tree location itself.
There were two available sound recordists; my colleague Nick and I, who were there specifically to set up the mic placement and then monitor the recordings. Budget-wise we didn’t have very much to play with, as part of the aim of the film was to try and create something without spending too much (when is that ever not the aim?), but with little to no impact on the quality of the production either. We ended up using eight separate mics, six shotguns and a lapel mic on each actor. Out of the six shotgun mics we placed five on the ground in the grass, one pointing directly between where the two actors were advised they sit themselves, two hidden behind logs by the actors feet pointing at the opposite actor, and then two further wide side on mics, pointing directly inwards in case the actors turned the heads either left or right to speak, which inevitably happens in conversations. The sixth mic was placed in the tree above the actor’s heads. All the mics were out of shot on the wide camera, the other four camera operators knew where the mics were and simply avoided capturing them, which was easy enough as they were mainly doing close-up shots of faces.

Hiding XLR leads in the grass was also very easy thankfully (he says hoping no one will spot any in the edit itself!) and the mic dangling from a branch above the actors was severely blu-tacked and tied to the tree trunk for safety. My guess was the actors would be talented and sharp enough to say something like “Ah, a conker!” should some blu-tack fall from above them during the filming. I’m kidding of course, we made sure there was no way anything would fall down and ruin anything. We are professionals after all…

So as far as location sound recording goes, we felt we’d covered our bases in terms of what we had available to us on the day, mixed in with good mic placement. The trick was to avoid telling the actors “you must stand here, and when you speak face this way” etc. Ben really wanted them to be free to act as their characters would and within the parameters he had set them, but not feel trapped by anything technical like mics or cameras, to allow them to focus solely on performance. 

Lavalier Mics

We knew shot gun mics would pose their own problems that only lapel mics might be able to get around, such as wind noise, so we decided to use two channels of our eight for attaching lavalier mics to each actor. The obvious main consideration with using lapel mics of course is visibility; how do we attach them without the cameras being able to see them? The other issue is of course noise, how do you hide a lapel mic in and around clothing but still manage to record clean sound? After some brief chats with other crew members, someone suggested we look at Rode’s “Invisilav” solution. Online videos showed that they did a very decent job of answering both our questions, so we decided to purchase a pack of three for use in the film. A mini review of the Invisilav would be as follows; they are perfect if your talent / actor is stood perfectly still, but do expect noise if they need to move around a fair bit – nothing will completely stop clothing making noise on the mics. They come with double-sided adhesive tape, which is cut to the shape of the silicone housing that holds the mic. This double-sided tape is a real pain to peel away from its backing and use, but eventually it works, just be patient when trying to peel off the backing as per the instructions. On the whole they did a very good job of making sure we had fairly clean close-miked dialogue, which for this film in particular was obviously crucial given that we had no idea what was going to be said or how close to a shotgun mic an actor would be when they spoke.

Technical Challenges


Alongside the weather and coverage, another big issue was the technical challenge of recording eight separate channels of audio, for a full hour and a half absolute minimum, in the middle of a field where there is no access to mains power. And on top of that, we have one shot, one attempt to record it and make sure it’s all captured the best it can be. The actors can obviously only meet for the first time just the once, so we had to make sure our setup was tested beforehand. One of the things the testing revealed was “What if the recorder fails as we hit stop, or the batteries die half way through and nothing is recorded?” Hhhhmmmm... It became clear that we would need to hedge our bets a bit and so we decided to split the eight mics across four different recorders, meaning that if one failed we’d still have six mic sources recorded.

We own two Tascam DR100 audio recorders. They are great for certain things but as with all portable recording equipment the main issue seems to be battery power. Ours have always been fine and never (touch wood) caused us any problems for any of our client based corporate work. But an hour and a half minimum, at the highest recording quality, powering two shotgun mics is a bit of an ask. The solution to this was to purchase external battery packs that house six AA batteries and use a USB to DC connection to power the unit, which then automatically switches itself while recording to its internal lithium battery, giving us (in theory) many hours of recording time. Testing proved this to be the case. So that’s four of the eight mics covered. The cameras used were Canon 5D’s which have no XLR mic input, however at the last minute we switched to using a Canon C100 for one camera angle, which does have XLR inputs. So it made perfect sense to use this as the recorder for the two main shotgun mics (the tree mic and the central ground mic). We then had a brainwave, whilst trying to avoid hiring kit we didn’t necessarily need; we have a Canon XF105 that also has XLR inputs and is very reliable in terms of battery use even when powering two shot gun mics for that kind of duration. So we ran the camera on the shoot, filming the crew as they filmed the actors so it could be used for “Making Of” footage, whilst also capturing the sound from the two mics placed near the actor’s feet on to the camera. Two birds, one stone I think the phrase is.


Weather

So, the Great British weather, well, it held out as I mentioned earlier which was great. Just towards the end of filming it fractionally started to spit with rain. Our plan to avoid soaking all our mics was to wrap a thin layer of cling film round each shot gun mic, then place its foam windshield over it, so that any big drops of rain soaking through the foam windshields wouldn’t actually penetrate the mic capsule and do any damage. The limitation of this was that the mic was very slightly muffled from its true recording capabilities, but it’s a compromise we had to make. If it had rained on and off throughout but not enough to make the director call cut we would have risked too much rain getting on the mics over an hour and a half and possibly doing long-term damage to the equipment.
The biggest problem was the wind, as usual. We couldn’t use big Rycote style windshields because there is no way they would’ve hidden well enough in the grass. However the grass and logs we placed the mics nearby helped out a fair bit when the wind did pick up. There was the occasional aircraft, circling overhead, which believe it or not was not within our budget to gain control over…


The Mix

It’s become clear from reviewing the audio since we filmed a few days ago that the mix itself is looking, like I thought it might, like it will be a balance between the two lapel mics and the tree and central mic mainly, occasionally dipping down the shotguns in the mix when the wind picks up or planes fly overhead. There were also some moments we hadn’t planned for that just got overlooked due to the unavailability of the location largely until the day itself, such as birds deciding to sing louder than they ever have before, and the tree mic being high up enough to act as an antenna, picking up local radio playing 80’s classics very faintly on one channel of our recording. All learning curves for the future and things we know we can get around in terms of the mix anyway. I still find that I learn something new almost every time we record something. Yes, there was inevitably noise on the lapel mics from clothing as we suspected, but some clever gating and balancing with the shotguns should be able to eradicate most of that in the mix. I’m certainly looking forward to sitting down at the computer and cracking on with it.

Conclusion

I would best describe this particular audio task as an enjoyable, challenging, scary nightmare of a recording experience. Knowing that the moment we started rolling all our options to make any changes disappeared due to the fact that we only had one chance to get it right and the work was all in the setup. In fact Nick and I were only really able to control the levels of each mic acutely throughout the filming. We had set them to medium levels in the hope that if the actors suddenly raised their voices or laughed loudly to the point where it may peak it would at least not be peaking on a mic placed elsewhere and some clever mixing would be needed at those points. Overall a big challenge that we feel we passed successfully. Bring on the edit…

 

Phil