JCU Digital Media Lab

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Unpacking my audio bag

Plenty of students ask me what camera they should buy. Not one has ever asked me what audio recorder to buy. Ever. And yet depending on who you ask audio represents anywhere from 51 to 90 percent of the viewing experience! I was the same way when I started out, of course, but I nonetheless hold out in hope that this post will help folks learn a lesson the easy way. And so I present to you my audio bag. It probably comes as no surprise that a lot of the audio gear at the Digital Media Lab is there because it first won a place in there!

Recorders

I have three recorders in my kit. This might seem like overkill but they all have their uses- particularly since they all come equipped with halfway decent microphones.

Let’s start with the smallest: the Zoom H1. The Zoom H1 never leaves the bag. The build quality may be Chinese shop bad- I’ve had several buttons and switches fall off for no readily apparent reason- but the microphones on the H1 are solid and are absolutely perfect for gathering foley on a film or documentary project. When I’m pressed for time I like to have actors walk through a scene and perform their actions. This lets me get in close for those door handle turns, key jostles, and beer slurps that can make a soundtrack pop.

One of the best uses for the H1 that I’ve come across is using it as a poor man’s wireless: plug in a cheap lavalier microphone, set your levels, hit record and engage on the “hold” switch, then slip it into a pocket for wire-free (though not technically wireless recording. I have even used a stereo-to-dual mono 3.5mm splitter cable to run two lavalier mics simultaneously, recording one to the left channel and the other to the right channel.

You can even use the H1 as the main recorder for your shotgun as long as your microphone provides its own power (usually through a 9V or AA battery). If it does, you can just use an XLR to 3.5mm cable to plug in professional microphones like the Rode NTG-2. If you’re using something like the Rode VideoMic, you can just add a 3.5mm extension cable and fly your mic on a boom.

The big(ger) guns are the Tascam DR40 and the Tascam DR70D. The DR40 is in my bag about 70% of the time because it’s small and has two XLR inputs that I use for my shotgun mic and my wireless lav. Sometimes I’ll use it with two wireless lavs. And occasionally I’ll add use the built-in stereo condenser mic to give me a nice ambient track. It’s a compact but very versatile recorder, providing phantom power to my shotgun, which does not have a battery, and doing double duty as a USB audio interface when I’m on the road. If you can only afford one recorder then this is probably the one to get. (Even though it eats through AA batteries at a rate that would ensure adult-onset diabetes if that was the sort of thing an audio recorder could get from eating batteries.)

The DR70D is a bit larger than the DR40 but has a great form factor, four XLR/TRS combo jacks, and a 3.5mm line-level input as well- the one thing I really wish the DR40 had. It is designed to sit beneath your DSLR and feed it far superior audio to what the built-in mics give you- and that’s probably why I don’t use it very often. I don’t shoot as often on DSLR’s as I used to! I do, however, pull out the DR70D whenever I’m covering a keynote speaker or conference at JCU because of all of those inputs. The preamps are also a little quieter than the ones on the DR40

Microphones

I’m not a sound recordist by trade so my microphone selection is a bit limited. My shotgun microphone is an Audio-Technica 875R short shotgun. It’s got decent frequency response and good off-axis rejection- and it didn’t cost me a mint! I fly my the 875R on an old Gitzo fishpole boom that is not very long- a little over 2 meters- but that is light (very light for an aluminium pole) and packs down small.

My main lavalier mic is the Sennheiser ME-2 that comes with the G3 wireless kit. It’s a cardioid microphone- and if I had to do it again I’d get the omni version. The microphone is great but the talent often doesn’t keep their head still, resulting in a doppler-like effect as the mouth of the speaker moves toward and away from the mic.

I do, however, have a pair of Aspen omni lavs. These were pretty cheap- about 30 bucks apiece. One is black and the other is flesh-colored if you happen to be a Belgian with two pints of lambic in you. I have never heard any complaints about the sound quality these mics offer and the difference between these and the ME-2 (which costs four times as much) is minimal, taking into account the fact that it isn’t quite an apples to apples comparison.

Being able to go wireless is incredibly convenient and sometimes a necessity. The Sennheiser G3 platform in my kit uses ultra-high frequencies in order to send the audio cleanly and quickly from the transmitter to the receiver. But these frequencies are going away, as governments around the world auction off bits of the spectrum for mobile phone usage. If I was investing in gear today I’d probably get a system that uses a WiFi protocol. Sennheiser has a great one but it’s expensive, while Rode has their “filmmaker kit”. The transmitter on the filmmaker kit is the size of a mobile from 1998 and it is pretty flimsy. I’ve used one many times and it works well- no interference, decent range- but I have no confidence in its ability to weather anything more than everyday-wear and-tear.

Lastly I have a matched pair of Behringer short condensers. The model number escapes me. I use them for rigging up tables at conferences, miking PA speakers when I can’t tap into the mixing boards for whatever reason, and anything else that strikes me on location.  These are cheap mics. They sound good enough for the tasks I give them. The Rode M5s in the JCU TV Studio are better but not light years better. That honor would go to the matched pair of Oktava MK-012s I reluctantly parted with many years ago during a cash crunch. The Behringers are…OK.

Headphones

This section is short and sweet. The headphones I use to monitor audio recording are closed-back Shure something-or-others. The only reason I use them is that somebody stole my Sony 7506’s shortly before a gig and I needed a replacement pronto. The only shop around did not have another pair of 7506s and so I ended up with the Shure whatevers. They work well enough that I haven’t been able to fork over another 100 bucks for new 7506s and keep my conscience serviceably clean. Forget anything else. Buy Sony 7506 headphones.

 

Other stuff

Anybody who has done field recording knows that wind is the greatest enemy of all, and I fight it with Rycote windshields and fuzzies on the shotguns, the H1, and the DR40.

I don’t think Gitzo manufactures my old 1540 fishpole anymore, which is a shame because it was cheap as hell and it does the job admirably. They do have a carbon fiber fishpole which I’m sure is wonderful but will require you to first buy a house and then take out a second mortgage on it if you want to purchase one. The Rode Micro boompole looks like a reasonable substitute. The shockmount I use to stick the AT875R on top of the pole is generic.

In many ways, the most important gear you have as a sound recordist isn’t your recorder or your microphone: it’s the collection of adapters stuffed into your bag that will save your butt when you need to tap into some Soviet-era mixing board 2.5mm jacks. The adapters I use most frequently are:

  • RCA to 1/4”
  • 1/4” to 3.5mm
  • 3.5mm to XLR
  • 1/4” to XLR

When I was shooting with the Panasonic GH2, I had any number of 2.5mm adapters. I’m very glad that I no longer shoot on the GH2. I carry all of these adapters around in a camera bag that was probably used for a Canon Elph.

On most jobs, I’m carrying one XLR cable for the shotgun. The G3 wireless receiver also connects via a locking 3.5mm-to-XLR cable. The Aspen lavs have a 3.5mm jack that I adapt to 1/4” if I’m using the DR40.

I power all of the recorders with Eneloop AA batteries. They’re powerful, hold a charge well, and can take more charging cycles than I’ve been able to give them in the five years since I started using them.

All of this gear fits into the kind of bag your grandpa might get you if your parents are giving you a DSLR for Christmas. If I wanted to be fancy I’d get a KTek Stingray with cable management and a built-in raincoat. That said, I do have a pretty nifty waterproof Petrol case for the DR40 that also comes with an industrial-strength belt clip. Unless you’re recording with the built-in microphones on your recorder, you really don’t want to have to hold the thing all day.

That’s about it. Utilitarian. My audio kit could be white and say “Audio Kit” in black, Helvetica letters on the front. But it gets most of my jobs done very well at a reasonable price. And if I have a gig that requires more than I can bring to the table, I have a simple solution: hire a sound guy.

December 8, 2017

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