Category Archives: Pro Sound Business

Business aspects of professional sound

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.

A New Shotgun

Thanks to some series work that I’ve landed in Knoxville, I’ve recently made an upgrade to my mic locker. My workhorse mic, a Sennheiser ME66/k6 combo, is a very good mic… for the price. They can be bought new for around $500. But it’s long been on my list of things that I’d like to improve, if ever I could afford it.

For critical applications, I have a MKH415T that I love. It’s a beautiful old mic, once used by the ORTF (the French equivalent of PBS). But there are some considerations that prevent me using this mic as much as I’d like. Mainly, it’s the fact that 415’s don’t like humidity, and begin to develop self-noise in damp air. Once things dry out, they return to normal, but the unpredictable nature of the mic means that it stays in the box 95% of the time. (According to Sennheiser, the 416 was a later development and uses improved circuitry to eliminate fluctuations in performance from humidity.)

The other soundperson on the series, Raleigh mixer Neal Gettinger, loaned me his 416T to use for the shoot, and it sounds markedly better than the mic I normally use. Thanks to some sales of used gear at Trew, I had a balance that I applied to a brand-new Sennheiser MKH416p48.

It doesn’t seem like much until you plug it in. Physically, it’s a bit smaller and slightly heavier than the 66, so I had to get new mounting clips for my Rycote suspension. Soundwise, though, there’s a big difference in the two. It’s hard to describe in words, but the 416 has a smoother overall quality… the top end is more defined, and the low end seems extended. These differences really show up when you compare the mics side-by-side and switch between them. But almost as important is the familiarity factor… most people know the 416, and it’s been a common player in movie production…. so much so that years ago, when the 416 was discontinued for a model with improved specs, the resulting uproar from the location sound community caused them to put it back into production.

I hate to do it, but I’ll probably sell my 415T to help pay for the new mic. I’ll most likely need to sell the ME66 as well, but I haven’t quite decided yet. The fact that the 66 can be battery powered gives it a slight advantage, since this mic can be plugged directly into any camera without the need of a mixer. Like many true condenser mics, The 416 needs  48 volts phantom power to operate properly, and some  cameras (and even mixers… older Shures are reported to deliver only 18 volts) can’t provide enough voltage.

Studio Construction is Finished

I’m happy to report that the heavy construction work on my studio is complete. All the drywall has been hung, sanded and painted (except for a section near the service panel… if I drywall there, then I can’t add other electrical lines, so that part will be left bare for awhile). I laid the last of the flooring a few days ago. The maintenance and engineering dept, aka my workbench, has been built and is ready to work. Now I’ve got to figure out the best place to put all my stuff.

Almost as soon as I got my bench finished, I turned my attention to the mixer. I’ve discovered much more than the “few issues” that I was told about when I bought it. The good news is that nearly all the input channels are functional… one channel wasn’t connected, so that was easily corrected, and number 26 has a bad HPF switch and only works when the filter is active. And the power supply does have new capacitors in it.

The bad news is the master section has got a number of very mysterious problems, with no obvious or easily traceable causes. I think the best course of action here is to send it off to Creation Audio Labs in Nashville to see if they can sort it out. I expect to be sending them a lot of work over the next few months, but I plan to break it up into installments and have them do the work as I can afford it.

The next job on my work list will be to build a cabinet to house the mixer and equipment racks for the outboard gear. I’ve designed a desk that I can build for about $150 or so, it’s just a matter of getting the plywood and slicing it up.

Lots of other finish work remains… installing double glass in the window & trimming that out, treating the door for sound isolation, etc. I expect that to take awhile yet. And I’ll need to buy an air conditioner before the heat of the summer starts up in earnest. But it’s very nearly a useable space right now, which is an enjoyable feeling.

Update: By replacing a voltage regulator in the power supply, I was able to correct a mysterious problem with the LED meters where it would only illuminate in segments of five LEDs… as the signal increased, the lower five LEDs would go dark while the next segment lit up. Very odd. Channel 26 was repaired with a copious squirt of contact cleaner. Next on the list is a rather large order for capacitors from Mouser… there’s room on the boards to increase the voltage and temperature rating.

Building a Studio- The Soundcraft 800

Work on my new studio space continues steadily. And while things aren’t necessarily moving as fast as I’d like, I’m getting things done one job at a time. Today was blowing insulation day, which was a messy, nasty, dusty affair. But it’s

My studio as of Jan 14th... there's a LOT of drywall mud to sand yet.

also probably the most effective low-cost solution for my roof space, as it pretty much fills all the gaps between the drywall ceiling and the underside of the roof deck (with a layer of QuietBrace screwed on for better isolation).

Old Busted or New Hotness? Depends on who you ask, but probably a little bit of both... my Soundcraft 800

And just as I was getting completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of remaining jobs I have to do, I gave myself a morale boost by taking delivery of the centerpiece of the studio, a Soundcraft 800 26-channel mixer. While it looks impressive (to me, at least… but some say I’m easily amused), it has some issues with the master section that will need to be addressed. The age of this mixer means that it will pretty much need a full rebuild.

I’ve already corresponded with the good folks at Creation Audio Labs in Nashville, they specialize in mixer rebuilds. (There was a great article by Rob Tavaglione about rebuilding a Soundcraft Ghost in a recent issue of Pro Audio Review.) I’ll be doing some of the upgrades myself, and I’m going to let them do some of the work. Part of the reason I wanted an older Soundcraft was the individual channel strips… this makes regular maintenance and repairs much easier than a newer mixer like the Ghost.

While this mixer isn't quite as nice as the Soundcraft TS12 that I formerly used, it didn't take four guys and a truck to move, either. While it's certainly a "midsize" mixer, these are a more practical choice for a smaller studio like mine... and they are a lot easier to resell when the time comes.

Fortunately, this mixer came complete with the original owners manual with schematics, a newly recapped power supply, and a bag of extra parts. The extra parts are a bit concerning… it means somebody has been poking around under the hood with a soldering iron, which can be a bad thing if the maintenance maverick isn’t particularly skilled. Since the electronics bench is a part of the studio, I won’t be able to start work on the mixer until the studio is complete. Fortunately, I’m not facing a particular deadline, so I can take the time to do things properly… but I’m sure anxious to start working on it.

The nameplate on the mixer gives a clue to its age. This one was built, I believe, around 1981. Note how the connectors are individually screwed to the chassis and not held in place by a common PC board... common in older gear. The downside is that connectors often need to be replaced... tedious because there are so many, but a fairly easy upgrade.

Building a Studio

Karen and I recently moved to a new house. It’s quite a bit larger overall than our old place… there’s more room for our teenage son, a more-isolated space for Karen’s work (she delivers web-based training, so things have to be quiet). And for me… a freestanding, 2-car garage.

My soon-to-be studio space

This is going to become my all-purpose space… my office, certainly, as well as equipment storage and a bench for electronics fabrication and repairs. But primarily, this space will be my studio, though it won’t have a separate control room. Instead, tracking and mixing will be done in the same area to capitalize on the relatively small footprint (about 300 square feet). We did a lot of work this way at my old studio.

It’s been awhile, but this isn’t the first studio I’ve built. Robert and I built the first OnLine Audio location in Charleston, SC, rebuilding two front rooms of his house into a studio and control room. We started with a 1/2″ 8-track, and then quickly went up to a 1″ 16 track recorder. When we bought the 24 track, we moved to a large space on East Bay St in an old cigar factory that had been converted into a small business development center. The other tenants hated it when we fired up a big stack of Marshalls, but that usually occurred after regular business hours. Robert and I designed and built the control room, iso booth, and large studio room, and we put the 16 track and mixer into a “B” room.

The interior of the studio looked like this when I started.

Construction has been going on for about six weeks now. The old “ceiling” has been removed, exposing the heart pine beams. The underside of the roof was layered with Quiet Brace (tarboard), and drywall has been applied to about 75% of the roof joists. I’m exposing the old beams and installing a vaulted ceiling. It’s a pain in the ass, but it will add a lot of cubic footage to the space… and it should look really classy besides.

Electrical work was finally completed last week… I went through five different electricians before somebody finally showed up to do the work. But I’ve now got a separate 50-amp service line for the audio and lighting, with a dedicated ground. I’ve installed new outlets along all of the walls, and now the insulation and drywall are going up. Garage doors were removed and replaced with an insulated double door and insulated stud wall to reduce sound transmission in both directions. I still have a lot of acoustical leaks to plug, but since it’s a cinderblock building, the space is already relatively quiet.

The studio as of January 4th, 2012… it’s a construction site minus the workers. Things are progressing, despite the mess.

I’ll be posting more photos as work progresses. Right now, everything’s a big mess. Work remaining to do… install blown insulation in the ceiling and seal up the sheetrock, install sheetrock and insulation on 2 more walls, insulate and sheetrock the gable ends. Tape, mud, and sand all the joints. Seal up & insulate the doors, install another window, add trim. Paint, Install the floor, build the workbench and gear storage racks. Then I can start looking at studio furniture and consider the purchase of a larger mixer… ideally, something like a Soundcraft 600… but not as big as the TS12 we had at OnLine Audio. I figure it’ll be a month longer at a bare minimum, but probably 2 more month’s work before I can start moving equipment in.

My studio will have digital capability, but the plan is to use an analog signal path for mixdown as much as possible. Plus I’ve got a design in my head for an old-school plate reverb that I’m dying to try.

Building a studio in today’s economy doesn’t seem like a good idea, but it’s about the only way that one can do studio work anymore. There are very, very few “studio jobs” left as more places close down. Several other studios exist here in Chattanooga, ( one less than a block away) plus Nashville is less than two hour’s drive from here. So I won’t be taking out any loans or installing a Neve. But I feel quite certain that I can bring some rather unique skills to the party, and that I can develop some markets for my little studio. More info will be posted as it develops.

Critiquing Someone’s Music

I’ve recently read an interesting discussion on the Nashville Music Pros forum that many music professionals deal with in one form or another. Bret Teegarden, a very accomplished and well-respected engineer/producer who I’ve met, had someone ask (via Facebook) to “listen to his music” and asked for advice. (The entire conversation can be read here)

As (current or future) industry professionals, we’ve all been approached with this sort of question in one form or another. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will be.

The way it went down is this: Bret was asked for his opinion, and in a nutshell, the music was not marketable. The singing ability was lacking, and the singer’s abilities were not on par with what is commercially available. Bret’s response was genuine and was intended to help this person, even though the truth was surely painful to hear.

Bret should be commended for handling the situation as he did… his honest appraisal was intended to help this person learn and improve. Unfortunately, we cannot win in this situation no matter what we say. If we are honest, they get pissed off… if not, then we are lying… and that will always come back to bite you in the butt.

I make it a point to ALWAYS be straight with people. There are times when it’s difficult, i.e., when someone in a hiring position asks you to work on a substandard concept. But it is an extremely rare situation where lying makes things better.

Personally, I am a bit less altruistic than Bret when I’m presented with this kind of situation. I can’t get involved in a big flame war with this kind of person… it just isn’t worth the time and emotional energy.  Many people aren’t honest with themselves about their abilities, they don’t want to do the work required to improve… they just want their magical daydream to be true, where you just step into a studio and become an instant hit. This myth makes a good story, and that’s why it’s so often repeated. But it almost never happens that way in real life… professional musicians spend years honing their craft and marketing their skills, and even then it requires a bit of luck to be successful in the music business.

I try to never give a professional opinion about someone’s music unless specifically asked (as Bret was), and then I preface that opinion by outlining our position in the industry… where stroking an ego does no one any good, and honest critique just pisses ’em off. I tell them that ANY critique is going to be hard to take, and if they cannot understand that my intent is to help them improve, then I’ll save us all a lot of pain and just keep my thoughts to myself. I also tell them to take what I say with a grain of salt, since it’s just one opinion after all… there are others out there as well, and performers MUST develop a thick skin to survive in the industry. (And to be honest, specific, detailed coaching is reserved for clients.) I think Bret did the right thing, but you often can’t win with these folks.

There were several good discussions in this particular forum exchange. One of the best tips was to never give this sort of advice and critique via email, only in person. There really is no substitute for face-to-face communication, and you just can’t read a person through an email. Your meanings are often misinterpreted as well.

A great quote from Jim Evans– “You are never closer to victory than when you fail… IF you learn WHY you failed.”

The AFFT quarterly meeting

The AFFT Quarterly meeting at the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga.

The AFFT Quarterly meeting at the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga.

The quarterly meeting of the Chattanooga chapter of the Association for the Future of Film and Television as held this past Thursday. I helped a little to organize the event, but Emily Bowman did all the heavy lifting. We had a comparatively large turnout… over a hundred people… including several people who regularly work in LA or NYC in the film industry.  Congressman Zack Wamp addressed the crowd for a few minutes and declared his support of the film incentive tax credits program, which is an important AFFT goal.

I also distributed the first hardcopies of the AFFT Chattanooga directory. I had 42, and we went home with about 5, so the quantity was about right. These were a pain to create, since I had to do most of them at home. The office supply print shops have jacked their prices while no one was looking, so the first pile of these were laser printed and assembled at my office at a cost of zero. But we may need to put out a donation jar at the next meeting to help defer the cost of these, since they cost $1.40 each to produce. But if you’d like a copy right away, I have a PDF version that I can email you, as well as a VCard file that you can import into your address book. (I know it works well with Macs, and it’s supposed to work with Windows as well, but no promises.) My email is hammerguy at bellsouth dot net.