Working In The Production Truck

Way back in the days before the internet (most kids think this was shortly after we tamed fire and invented the wheel), I did a fair amount of audio work in production trucks. It wasn’t a regular thing, just a few times a year… enough to be interesting. But not much since I’ve been a freelancer. That changed, though, when I got a call from Encompass Media (Formerly Crawford Productions in Atlanta) about a shoot in Chattanooga at the new Volkswagen plant. They wanted an audio operator with satellite truck experience. Perfect, that’s me… or so I thought.

Encompass 5 at 4:30 AM

Encompass Five at 4:30 AM

I showed up at the call time of 12:00 for setup- the sat window was for the next day at 8. After talking to the truck producer and getting an idea of the scope of the project, it was clear that this wasn’t your normal broadcast uplink… or a quick day. It was uplink and downlink, with video playback, a mirrored mix in the truck with mic sources split from house audio, plus two different audio feeds from the downlink (English translation and German). Oh, yeah, and we need three different IFB lines… one for the cameras, one German language for communication with the sat operators in Wolfsburg (Germany), and a third “God mic” for the inside producer. The inside two IFB feeds will connect to a wireless system provided by the house sound guys, but it’s a Telex 4-wire that doesn’t work with the RTS system that the truck has. And we need to record the feed in the truck on their recorder and the director’s laptop. Can you make it work it?

I didn’t quite know what to say. I was trying to come up with a response that sounded good but still had a slight basis in truth, while trying hard to fight body language that included cold sweats and crying like a baby. Mercifully, the truck’s engineers Alan Rogers and Shaun Flowers jumped in and said yeah, we could probably make that work. I wasn’t nearly so sure.

By about 11PM that night, we had most everything working the way the client wanted. Getting the signals into and out of the truck involved lots of cryptic patching, imbedding, and interfaces which were very unfamiliar, so I owe both these guys a huge debt of thanks for walking me through the process. I’ve set up production trucks before, but it was awhile back… the trucks were analog and the setups were nothing near this complex. They were able to put it all together while simultaneously putting out several video fires (like weird CCU problems- one just didn’t like the line it was being used on, and mysteriously came to life once moved to a different camera.)

In Encompass Five sat production truck. We're smiling because we're done. Left to right,  engineer Shaun Flowers, Brian Gilbert, and  engineer Alan Rogers.

In Encompass Five sat production truck. We’re smiling because we’re done. Left to right, engineer Shaun Flowers, Brian Gilbert, and engineer Alan Rogers.

Call time for the next day was 4:30AM. The show itself went pretty much as planned. There were some problems on the Wolfsburg end, but our side went fairly smoothly. The director said very little- he didn’t “call” the show the way I’m used to, i.e., “standby one,” “take one,” standby video,” “roll video,” etc. But it was fun to punch a show on a board the way we used to do it, even though it was just a little Mackie 1604.

Producer, Director and Audio positions. TD Susanne Grote

Producer, Director and Audio positions. TD Susanne Grote

More Rechargeable 9v choices

I wrote awhile back about rechargeable 9v batteries, and why they’re an important part of my workflow, There’s a new 9v rechargeable power solution available now, the Beachtek 9v batteries. They are a hair more expensive than iPower, ($24 each in pairs for the BeachTek, $22.95 each for iPower) but they have significantly greater capacity… the iPowers are 520 mAh, but the Beacheks are 700 mAh. I recently bought eight of these batteries for my kit, since my iPowers are two years old now.

First the bad news… the new BeachTeks are just the tiniest bit thicker than iPower batteries or traditional alkalines. As a result, they WILL NOT FIT my Lectrosonics 201 receivers. They do fit in the Lectro 200-series transmitters that I have, as well as the LMA transmitters and the Lectro 211 receivers.

In the bag, this isn’t a problem… I power all my receivers with a NP1 battery using a BDS system. But if I want to use the 201 as a camera link, then I’ll need to use iPower batteries. This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but it is something to be aware of. The BeachTek batteries will power a lectro transmitter for a full production day. so they’re great to have in my kit. But they won’t completely replace my iPower batteries.

“The Natural Effect” gets over one million hits

I did a project awhile back for Fancy Rhino productions here in Chattanooga, TN.  It’s a four-minute piece called “The Natural Effect.” The ad agency/copy was Humanaut, and it turned out to be quite funny.

I learned today that the piece has gotten over a million hits on YouTube, which I suppose qualifies as a “hit.” The agency folks were pleased. About the only downside is the amount of material that didn’t make it into the final piece… there were a lot of bits that were really funny that didn’t make it in. There are about six spots of varying length on youtube… enjoy!

BamaCovered Story for NBC Nightly News

I just completed work on a story for NBC Nightly News about an organization called BamaCovered. Daniel Liss is a 25-year old recent graduate of Harvard who was, until recently, working in London as an investment banker. He and a friend Josh Carpenter were dismayed by the state of health care in Alabama and the amount of difficulty (and downright false information) people were receiving navigating the health exchanges to get insurance. So they started a foundation called BamaCovered. This is a group of volunteers, mostly college students, who are canvassing the community, trying to help people get health care coverage.


NBC Nightly News correspondent Peter Alexander with BamaCovered Organizer Josh Liss in Huntsville, AL

One of their success stories… a woman on a fixed income of $800 a month was told that insurance through the exchange would cost her $700 per month. With the help of Josh’s volunteers, she received a quote of $25 per month.

NBC Nightly News Producer Doug Adams and White House correspondent Peter Alexander flew into Huntsville, AL where DP Roger Herr (In Sight Out Productions) and I met up with them. We shot at several locations around Huntsville- a free health clinic downtown, Peter’s Barbershop, Big Spring Park downtown, and Huntsville radio station WEUP, Alabama’s first black-owned radio station.

It’s a great story that should air sometime late next week… don’t miss it!

UPDATE: Producer Doug Adams sent me a link to this story, which aired on the 30th…


Roger Herr on camera, Brian Gilbert location sound, Peter Alexander and Josh Liss. In the WEUP parking lot in Huntsville, AL. Photos by Doug Adams.

664 Media Management

Just in case anyone was wondering, I thought I’d outline my typical 664 workflow as it relates to media management.

The Sound Devices 664 is kinda particular about the media cards that it likes, and  while SD and CF cards are quite common, there are only a handful that work in the 664. For this reason, I never release my cards at the end of a shoot… I wait while the DIT copies them to a hard drive. If there’s no DIT working on the set, I’ll copy the files myself to whatever is available. It’s fairly rare for a photographer or producer to show up without a computer, but I always try to bring mine along, just in case.

My 664 media department... cards, case, and reader

My 664 media department… cards, case, and reader

When I first bought my 664, I went out and bought three of each… three 16GB Delkin CF700x UDMA6 CompactFlash, 105MB/s read, 67MB/s write, and three 16GB Delkin SD163x Class 10 Secure Digital, 24MB/s read, 17MB/s write. I also picked up an inexpensive card reader and a case for the cards. One thing you DON’T want to do is use cards that are not on the list of approved media for use by Sound Devices. Go to their website, the list is updated every so often.

These are the cards that I use in my 664. They work fine and are approved by Sound Devices.

These are the cards that I use in my 664. They work fine and are approved by Sound Devices.

I have my 664 set to record the day’s audio files mirrored, so that each card has identical audio files. I use the SD card to transfer the data. It’s difficult to get my fat fingers around the edges of the CF card, plus the CF slots are a little more delicate… I’ve already bent a pin on my card reader, and if that happens on the 664 then it’s back to the factory for a very expensive repair. So the CF card stays in the machine, and I treat it like an internal drive most of the time unless I get some sort of data error on the other card (hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood!)

Transcription recordings are always the fly in the ointment. These are often requested as MP3 recordings with linear timecode on one channel, and audio on the other. It’s possible to do this internally with the 664, but you’ll need a special cable and an open channel. If you patch the timecode out to, say, ch6 input, then you can assign that signal to whatever card will record the MP3. Because, I’m such an old fart, I’ve always been a bit nervous about doing it this way. Back in the day, we had lots of trouble with linear timecode signals bleeding onto other tracks, as it’s generally very hot. If this happens to the main audio tracks, then you’re screwed.

Alternatively, you can use an entirely separate recorder, and that’s how I did it on a recent shoot. I used my Sony PCM-10, and built a special cable for it. The cable has a 3.5mm stereo plug on one end, and the other has a fanout with a single 3.5mm plug and a BNC connector. The BNC gets the timecode and the 3.5mm goes to the 664 tape out. If the cable is built normally, then the timecode signal will be really hot while the audio signal will be really low. I added a teeny resistor inside the connector shell to drop the level of the timecode signal, and get the levels on each channel to match a little more closely. It worked like a charm.

iphone as Master Clock?

I was shooting recently with Knoxville soundie Scott Minor. He told me about an iphone app that he and a friend developed that seems like it could be pretty useful. It’s called JumpStartLTC. It’s a a timecode generator that uses the processor cycles of the phone’s computer as a timing reference. It outputs the result to the iphone’s headphone jack.

Since the app is only $20, I figured it was worth a try. It’s not the same as a lockbox, since it can’t receive timecode… it can only output. But it’s reported to be very accurate… Scott says that he saw virtually no drift after leaving it running for two days.

It’s a simple app that has four buttons. One sets the hour (in 1-hour increments), another button resets to zero, the third button starts and stops, and the fourth button starts the clock at the time of day. There’s also a volume control, and of course, a timecode display.

The JumpStartLTC screen is pretty simple.

The JumpStartLTC screen is pretty simple.

Let’s consider a DSLR shoot, I do quite a few of these. While Canon says the latest 5d has timecode, there’s no way to jam the camera that I’m aware of. So the 5d may “have” timecode, but it’s really just a glorified counter. My 664, on the other hand, has a timecode generator with full timecode capabilities. It can jam to received timecode, or output a timecode signal (via BNC connectors) to act as a master clock.

So here’s a possible workflow for the 5d. With the iphone set to time of day, jam the 664 to the iphone using a 3.5mm-BNC cable. You can buy these for around $12… I made one for about three bucks. Now the iphone becomes a timecode display that you can flash at the 5d at the beginning of each take. Now in post, it’s just a matter of matching up the numbers. Most people just use PluralEyes for this, and that usually works fine, but this is just an extra layer of protection… if something happens to the scratch audio track on the 5d, PluralEyes won’t work, so this is another layer of safety. It isn’t a substitute for a lockbox (can’t imagine why anyone would expect a $20 app to replace a $600 device) but you might find it handy.

UPDATE: As an experiment, I used JumpStart on a 5D shoot yesterday (with country music artist Jerrod Niemann about his upcoming album release) to test how it would work. It pretty much works as advertised… though there were a few caveats. I learned that putting the phone to sleep freezes the timecode counter, so I had to restart the time of day and re-jam the recorder to the phone. This got old fairly quickly, so I left the counter running between takes to see how long it would last. I got a low battery warning after about 2 1/2 hours. I might try one of those iphone battery backs to see if I get more runtime. It also freezes if you remove the headphone jack, so it needs to stay connected as well. A useful addition to the program might be a “dim” button that would reduce the screen brightness and lower the volume on the audio TC output signal to save battery life.

I couldn’t tell, but it looked like there were a few frames of offset between the timecode on the iphone and the timecode in my recorder, but it would take a camera test to see for sure. It also appeared that pressing Time Of Day on JumpStart gives you a different offset each time, so once you start Jumpstart, it’s best to leave it running until lunchtime.

About the only other downside was that I couldn’t use my phone for on-set photos, which I try to shoot whenever I’m on set, or check my messages (though it does briefly display incoming text messages). I always stay off my phone when I’m working, but there’s always downtime where you can fire off a quick note. But as a general rule, I never take calls when I’m on the set.

Taping my phone to my slate gave me a visual timecode readout for the camera... not essential, but it probably won't hurt to have it.

Taping my phone to my slate gave me a visual timecode readout for the camera… not essential, but it probably won’t hurt to have it. 

Jim Hurst at Chattanooga’s Barking Legs Theater

I’ve just learned that I’ve gotten the go-ahead to record guitarist Jim Hurst at Chattanooga’s Barking Legs Theater on Friday night. Jim is a spectacular player… I heard him several years ago, when he was playing here with the Claire Lynch band. His playing style is uncommon. His technical skill is off the charts, but he also brings a highly refined rhythmic sense and depth of feeling to his playing. Far too often I hear players that seem to be all technique… or conversely, plenty of rhythm with poor technique.

Jim plays with a sense of balance that has to be heard to be believed. If it works out, perhaps we’ll have some samples available on his website soon. In the meantime, have a look at some of his other performances at Or if you’re near Chattanooga, join us at Barking Legs theater tomorrow night and listen for yourself.

We haven’t worked out all the tech details yet, but hopefully I’ll be able to break out some of my custom condenser mics and my Neumann KM184. I’ll record on my Sound Devices 664, which is an excellent capture device. With six channels available, it’s great for for small ensembles, bluegrass, jazz… pretty much anything without a full drum kit. I’m especially excited since I so rarely get to do music projects anymore… this one will be great fun.