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.

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.

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.

SECOND UPDATE: In the end, I abandoned this workflow. I just didn’t have the confidence that the iPhone could maintain sync. The only way I could come close is to re-sync the phone before every shot, and that took far too long. I finally ponied up the cash and bought a real timecode slate from Denecke. It wasn’t cheap, but it works great and I generally don’t have sync issues anymore, the slate matches the TC in my recorder within a frame or two per day. Cameras are a different story… most drift pretty badly in comparison… but the connector on the Denecke is bidirectional, meaning I can re-jam the cameras using the slate cable as an output, or I can connect the slate to the master clock (my 664) and by just switching it off and then back on again, the slate sees the cable as an input and re-jams itself. I love the thing!

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  www.jimhurst.com. 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.

The Lakehouse video

Here’s a voiceover project that I completed in my studio a few months back:

Lectrosonics SRB

As a part of my continual audio equipment upgrade program, I’ve recently purchased a Lectrosonics SRB wireless microphone system to go with my Sound Devices 664. This is one of Lectro’s flagship products, a dual-channel digital receiver in a smaller package than their other units. They’re often used as a camera link, where the small size and light weight are a big advantage. But one of the reasons they’re so small is they have no provision for battery power… they use a powered camera slot.

My bag with the Lectro SRb installed

My bag with the Lectro SRb installed

But their small size and light weight make them perfect for use in the bag where space is an issue, and that’s really an issue with me… see my previous posts (rants) about finding a good bag. I like to keep my wireless units protected in the bag interior, and there is simply not enough room in Petrol’s 664 bag for more than three wireless receivers and my BDS power distribution. And with these, I have to stuff a piece of foam padding to keep the 664 and receivers from rubbing together and developing a serious case of bag rash. I like to take the best possible care of my gear so that it not only operates well, but also because I’ll want to resell it at some point when it’s time to upgrade.

Compared with the 211, the SRB is quite a bit smaller and lighter even if it were only a single-channel unit.

Compared with the 211, the SRB is quite a bit smaller and lighter even if it were only a single-channel unit.

That’s exactly how I bought my new SRB… by selling two Lectrosonics 201s through Trew’s used audio program.(Thanks, Trew Audio!) This covered a large portion of the cost of the SRB… but that’s the receiver only, not transmitters. So last week I ordered a pair of Lectrosonics LMA transmitters to go with the SRB. These are especially handy transmitters, since they can be set up to work with the older Analog 200 series receivers, or the new digital 400 and SR units. Plus they work with 9-volt batteries, and I really depend on my rechargeable 9-volts. Rechargeable li-ion batteries in AA sizes, like those required by the Lectro SMV series, are much harder to find… though I hear they’re available from a company called Eneloop.

So when my transmitters arrive on Monday, this will bring me up to six channels of Lectro wireless. Plus two fixed-freq wireless for a camera hop. That’s enough for most reality shows that want iso channels for each actor. I’ll probably trade up for another SRB when I gather the dollars together for transmitters. But for now, I have a quite a capable bag… enough to cover most situations.

More About The Daily Show Shoot

The Daily Show segment that I worked on finally aired this week, so I can post a few more details about it. Here’s the completed bit:

Like most shoots, this one was hard work, but a lot of fun. Al Madrigal was the correspondent, producer was Ian Berger, DP was Jim Wells, and B camera was Brett Johnson. Unusually we had two location sound people for this shoot, myself and Steve LaPard of Nashville. A soundperson for each camera is nice to have, as opposed to the usual situation of me having to feed two cameras simultaneously. There were some times where this was overkill, but it gives the producer the flexibility to split up the crew when necessary.

Shooting at Sugar's Barbecue in Chattanooga

Shooting at Sugar’s Barbecue in Chattanooga

The subject of the story was the Tennessee-Georgia “water war.” According to the state of Georgia, a surveying error took place nearly two hundred years ago which resulted in the border being shifted to the south. It was no big deal until someone in Atlanta figured out that if the border went north, then  Georgia could tap the Tennessee river to supply water for Atlanta, where water is scarce. (but according to some, water use in Atlanta is double that of Tennessee per capita.) I can’t say for sure, but it sounds like Atlanta didn’t plan well for all the growth it’s enjoyed in recent years… that’s why diving around that place is such a nightmare. Georgia has offered to accept a few square miles leading to the river, or else they’re going to the Supreme Court to settle the case. If Tennessee looses and the border gets redrawn, it could loose hundreds of square miles. It may not technically be blackmail, but that’s what we called it back in the hood.

We shot for three days… two in Chattanooga, and one day in Nashville with State Representative Jason Powell, who was a very good sport for agreeing to do the interview. Al is very funny, and an interview like this would be tough to do without saying something that could come back to bite you later… and Rep. Powell did a fine job.

Al Madrigal interviews State Rep Jason Powell for The Daily Show.

Al Madrigal interviews State Rep Jason Powell for The Daily Show.

In fact, the hardest thing about the whole shoot was keeping quiet while the camera was rolling. For example:

  • AL-So when did the rockets start landing here?
  • SUBJECT- Um, no rockets have ever landed here.
  • AL- Really? ‘Cause this place looks like shit. You sure somebody didn’t set off a meth bomb or something?

Cue the snorts and guffaws from the crew. We were somewhat typecast as hicks, but that was pretty much expected. Sometimes that characterization is well deserved, just watch an episode of Smalltown Security and you’ll see what I mean.

It was a great shoot overall, and I hope to see them again someday.

Blake Shelton at CMA

Here’s a look at a project I completed a few months ago for Suite Spot productions.

Picture 4

The job itself was rather difficult… it really required different gear than I had, and as A1, I was responsible for both the recorded tracks AND the live sound. I did have two A2s with me, Will Taylor and Bob Toves. Will is my boom operator and assistant here in Chattanooga… you can just make him out in the top still image, probably checking out a wireless.(Just above Blake’s right shoulder, next to the cameraman.) Bob is a sound mixer in Nashville, he was operating the house PA. I was tucked away in a corner… probably tearing what little hair  have left out of my skull as I tried to solve the eternal mystery of why wireless mics that work flawlessly during multiple pre-show checks suddenly drop a signal seconds before going live. In the old days, for a job like this, I’d be in the remote truck, where I’d have multiple backups for everything. But thanks to the Brave New World of broadcast production, you get the same challenges as before, but with a fraction of the budget. The resources that I used to take for granted just aren’t there anymore… or put more correctly, I have to BUY whatever resources I’m going to use… so I don’t have nearly the amount of hardware that I’d like, especially for a job like this, which combines live sound and audio for video. Both are critical, and while it looks easy on paper, there are a pile of details that have to fall into place for the show to come off successfully.

Even though it added several more grey bits to the little patch of stubble that what was formerly known as my hair, I think the finished production turned out OK. The crowd could hear what was going on, we captured Blake’s audio, and the web production looks good. It reminded me of my live TV days, but without the TV station (or their assets).

The Mic Van

I came across the COOLEST vintage VW van while shooting for ZDF at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga. For you non-audio geeks, Telefunken was a German company that made some very nice tube studio microphones (in addition to their much more common radio and television stuff). Telefunken mics are highly sought after today, and are still used in studios where price is no object.

I was trying to figure out how far I could get if I tried to drive it out of VW’s conference center, since they left the key in the ignition.

The coolest van ever, a 1951 VW Type 2 Commercial, with Telefunken markings.

The coolest van ever, a 1951 VW Type 2 Commercial, with Telefunken “Delivery and Service” markings.

The Daily Show

Here’s a look at a recent Times Free Press story about a shoot that I was on for the Daily Show, which was in Chattanooga recently to do a segment on the GA border dispute/water takeover. Comedian Al Madrigal and Producer Ian Berger were both very funny… a common question was, “Do you see yourselves as the Palestinians or the Israelis in this conflict,” and, “So when did the rockets start landing?” When told that Georgia hasn’t launched any rockets toward Tennessee, he said, “Really? “Cause it looks like a bomb went off around here… this place looks like shit… I think it might have been a meth bomb…”

I also got to meet Nashville sound mixer Steve LePard, which was a rare thing… he was on one camera and I on the other. Having a sound person on each camera was a luxury that few productions can afford. It was a little bit of overkill on a few occasions, but good insurance on others.DailyShowTimesFreePress

FCC Radio Station License

A few days ago I received my FCC radio station authorization from the FCC. It was a long process… I tried to fill out the application myself, but in the end I had to hire a consultant (Bill Ruck) to make sure that I’d done it correctly. He said I’d gotten it almost right… just a little bit was missing at the very end.

Unfortunately, it came in with a very short life… the expiration date is listed as 08-01-2013, giving it a total lifespan of two months. Thanks, FCC. (I understand I’m not the only person this has happened to, but I’m pretty sure that there’s not much I can do about it… all licenses in a given area expire at the same time, so I just happened to have bad timing.)

Fortunately, renewal isn’t nearly as difficult or expensive as the original application… and of course, a renewal notice came in today’s mail. Ten minutes and sixty dollars later, and my renewal is submitted. Once this gets processed, I should be legal for a long time. UPDATE- My new station license came in about a week after sending in the renewal form… expiration date 8/01/2021. It may last longer than I do.

The main reason that I wanted my FCC license was simply to be counted as a legal user of the wireless spectrum. This is even more important now that the FCC has announced their intention to take away the 600 MHz  band like they did with the 700 and above. This is going to take A LOT of letters to congress, so if you’re a wireless mic user, start your drafts now.

Grills Gone Wilder

Here are a few photos from a shoot that I worked on a few months ago. Grills Gone Wilder is airing now on The Travel Channel. This shoot was fun because of the subject matter… barbecue… and the fringe benefits. Since everyone else on the crew was flying, they couldn’t accept the “on-camera-Q” that was offered, so I ended up with about five pounds of whole-hog pork from Martin’s Barebecue Joint in Nolansville, TN.

Shooting around the Martin's massive smoker, which can handle multiple whole hogs.

Shooting around the Martin’s massive smoker, which can handle multiple whole hogs.

I’m a bit of a barbecue junkie… I love to try out different Q stands when I travel, so I’ve sampled quite a lot. My top two places are Stanley’s in Tyler, Texas (we hit that one pretty hard when we were shooting on The United Bates of America) and Martin’s.

This shoot wass one of the first I did with my new Sound Devices 664 mixer/recorder, and I can say without reservation that I LOVE this unit. It’s a little intimidating at first, as it has ten times the functions and options of my old 442. But the folks at Sound Devices seem to appreciate the pressures of bag work, and they’ve made all the menus and functions very quick to get to & change. There’s an option to connect a USB keyboard, but I’ve entered the metadata using the rotary encoder & it works fine.

I'm running the risk of getting pig fat on my nice new mixer here, but it was so tasty I had to risk it.

I’m running the risk of getting pig fat on my nice new mixer here, but it was so tasty I had to risk it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few small details that I’d like to see changed. It really should ship with an external power supply, since the battery tube just doesn’t really work. I understand that a tube of AAs lasts about a half hour. I’ve never tried it, since that much time isn’t really worth the weight of the batteries, so the tube stays empty. Instead I use a Remote Audio BDS with an NP1 battery cup to power the whole bag. I get around two hours use out of a NP1, depending on the age of the battery.

I’m also using a PortaBrace 664 bag on this photo, which is currently for sale at Trew Audio. I love the company, but they have got to innovate if they are going to stay around. This is the same basic bag design as the FP32, just with bigger dimensions. Thats fine for small mixers, but this one is large and heavy, and the bag flops around and distorts in use, giving me the feeling that things aren’t secure. I’ve since gotten a Petrol bag which is quite a bit better  (though I wish it were more like the Petrol 442 case.)

The Grills Gone Wilder crew, April, Ilsa, and Joe.

The Grills Gone Wilder crew, April, Ilsa, and Joe.

Another change I’d like to see in the 664 Mark 2 is the way that data is transferred. Right now, you need to eject the cards and insert them into a reader in oder to transfer your data at the end of the day. The CF card is very difficult to remove, as I can’t get my fingers around the edges. And fragile… I’ve already experienced a bent pin on my card reader. The SD card is easier, so I write data to both cards but use the SD for transfers. The better solution is to have the data available at the USB port so the cards could stay in place.

A DIY Equipment Rack

When I designed the table to hold my mixer, I added a pair of sloped racks on either side for rackmount gear. My thinking was that I’d put the gear that I’d use for tracking on the left, and the mixdown gear on the right, so that’s pretty much what I did.

But after a time, it became obvious that this wasn’t the best solution for several reasons. For one, having the equipment relatively low down means a lot of bending over to make adjustments and monitor what the gear is doing… not so ergonomically friendly. I also discovered that I need to have patch points near the interfaces, so I can change the signal routing into and out of the mixer and interfaces. Keeping the interfaces and preamps on the left seems to be ok, but for mixing, I needed a better solution… something at eye level and close to the patchbays, so that cable runs could be kept short.

I decided that I needed another rack. But this one should have casters so I could move it around… and roll it out of the way when I don’t need it. It’ll be taller so I can have some of my gear at eye level.

It will have a similar look to my existing racks, though, so it won’t look out of place. The lower section is slightly angled, while the top section is straight. I did some scribbling on the back of an envelope and came up with a design, and then ran to Home Depot. Here’s a rough cost breakdown:

  • 1 sheet of 3/4″ birch plywood- $48
  • 1 8′ length of 4″ white pine for the rails- $6
  • a box of 1 5/8″ drywall screws- $6
  • Lag screws for casters- $2.50

A set of 5″ casters, 2 swivel and 2 straight, $8 from a local discount industrial supply.

To start, I had the nice folks at the Depot make a couple cuts with their panel saw. This is a huge time saver, and the cuts are always accurate and square. The sides are 20″ wide by 48″ long, and I had them just split the remainder in two pieces so I could get it home easier.

The panels were laid out  back-to-back to increase accuracy.

The panels were laid out back-to-back to increase accuracy.

Once at home, the sides were cut with a circular saw. I clamped the two panels together so the sides would be identical, and made some cuts to make the angled bottom half of the rack and the little notch at the bottom. I cleaned up these cuts with a saber saw and a sander, and then laid the two pieces out side by side on the sawhorses, opened up like a book. This way I would be sure to mark and screw in pieces to the inside face of the rack.

One of the sides with the blocks screwed into place

One of the sides with the blocks screwed into place

Since this rack was going to have casters, I decided it would be easier to have a flat bottom that the casters could screw to. But this flat bottom would be holding a lot of weight, so I added two blocks of plywood to the insides to help take the weight of the rack. They were screwed and glued into place. The wooden “rails” that the equipment screws in to were mounted on the sides, but these were mounted with screws only, since I could envision a time when these pieces would get replaced if/when the mounting holes get chewed up.

Using L-shaped top and bottom panels means that it's easier to screw them to the sides.

Using L-shaped top and bottom panels means that it’s easier to screw them to the sides.

After the side panels were ready, the top and bottom panels were built up. The inside space of the rack is 19 1/8″ wide, so I needed a piece for the bottom (20 x 19 1/8″), a piece for the top (16 x 19 1/8) and two small pieces to reinforce the back (4″ x 19 1/8″) I screwed and glued the small reinforcing pieces to the to and bottom panels. If they’re cut accurately, the rack will be square when you add these pieces. But if you’re not careful and these pieces are misaligned, the whole thing will be crooked. Since the top and bottom panels were now “L” shaped, the panels are a lot easier to screw into the sides without falling over.

Once this was done, it’s a fairly small matter to add on the other side. You’ll want to use screws and glue for these joints, since the rack will be supporting a lot of weight and the gear inside is rather expensive. A weak or wobbly rack just won’t do here. I wouldn’t use cheap plywood, either… use the good stuff. I had some 2″ screws left over from another project, and that’s what I used to secure the top and bottom.

Cutting a square hole with radiused corners is easy... just drill four holes with a spade drill and cut along the edges with a saber saw.

Cutting a square hole with radiused corners is easy… just drill four holes with a spade drill and cut along the edges with a saber saw.

With the other side mounted in place, all that’s left is detail work. I made a cutout in the back for a power switch by drilling four holes with a spade drill, and sawing out the waste with a saber saw.

I didn’t mount the bottom panel on the very bottom of the rack, though. The bottom panel is raised about four inches from the bottom edge of the rack so the large, rather ugly casters are partially hidden. They are exposed in the front, though, so it isn’t a perfect solution.

My completed rack with some of the equipment installed. The two blank panels below the 900 rack are for a pair of Universal Audio 1176 compressors that I'm building.

My completed rack with some of the equipment installed. The two blank panels below the 900 rack are for a pair of Universal Audio 1176 compressors that I’m building.

I had the rack assembled by lunchtime. In the afternoon, I filled the screw holes with drywall compound, sanded the sharp edges, and slapped on a coat of latex paint. The casters were screwed to the bottom, and that’s it… one new equipment rack.

Well, almost. I still need to mount a power switch to the back and screw a surge protector to the side of the rack. Yet another improvement that I’ve yet to finish is a small light to go on the inside of the rack. It’s extremely irritating to try to trace wiring in the back of a rack while you hold a flashlight in your teeth because you need both hands to hold the wiring. I’m still looking for a simple, small, low-wattage lighting solution for the back of my rack that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Back To The Drawing Board

Awhile back, I wrote a post about building a ribbon mic. I completed the first one, with a completely custom fabricated shell and everything. It sounded pretty good, if I do say so myself, and I was quite pleased.

But I use the past tense for a reason. When I went to place the mic in its case, I noticed that my design is fatally flawed. The glue holding the magnets to the plexiglas frame has failed, bringing the two magnets together and obliterating the carefully placed ribbon. (it took three tries before I finally got it right… what a pain in the butt!)

So it’s pretty clear that the whole thing should be redesigned. I’ve learned a few things that should improve the performance anyway. The first and most obvious it my method for holding the magnets. I’d actually considered this before, but I need to include a small spacer to set the magnet gap. This way it’s physically impossible for the magnets to come together. An added benefit is that controlling the gap dimensions can be more precise, since the spacer determines the gap width rather than the frame.

Another design change for this version will be a metal frame rather than a plastic one. Metal (ferrous) provides a magnetic return path that can increase the output a few dB, and I need all I can get. It’s a little more difficult to machine, but I have the tools to do it, so why not?

It’ll be awhile before I can get to this, though. Every time I think of the hours put into the current mic, it really drains my energy and I hesitate. But I’ll start doing doodles on the backs of junk mail shortly, and I’ll get going on another design soon.

Sound Devices 664

After a nearly two-month wait, I’ve finally taken delivery of the new Sound Devices 664 mixer/recorder. It’s a nice bit of kit, though it is naturally more complex than my standard 442 mixer.  This unit will enable me to provide a number of additional services to my clients, mainly a) the ability to record iso tracks, and b) timecode audio files.

DSC_8805

The 664 housed in a PortaBrace bag. I’ve since replaced this with a Petrol bag, which is much better, but still not ideal.

Iso tracks are a digital copy of all the signals that are coming into the mixer. These can save the day if you are in a noisy environment, or you experience hits on a wireless transmitter… you can load the isos into a DAW, and then go back and mute the individual channel where the hits occur. This sort of work is standard for film and scripted projects, but less common for certain productions where speed in post is essential. I’ve worked on both types of productions. It takes time and adds complexity to a project, but the option is there if a client wants it.

DSC_8807

The main menu screen. The visibility is fine in anything but direct sunshine… a soft velcro screen shade would be really handy… I might try to sew something up someday.

Timecode-stamped audio files can be a big help to the audio post process, and some post production workflows depend on it. I’ve had a limited ability to work in timecode for awhile now, but my current timecode setup is rather cumbersome, and completely impractical for quick work out of a bag… which is 80% of my business. Small timecode-capable recorders are not available, other than this unit from Zaxcom, which I’ve avoided buying because I knew I would be upgrading to the 664. It has an onboard timecode generator that can be jammed to a camera or other external timecode source.

These additional features come at a price, of course… not the least of which is the price, which is more than double the cost of my 442. (But to be fair, my 442 was bought used. That isn’t an option with the 664, and it’ll probably stay that way for quite some time.) And the expense doesn’t end with the mixer… the larger format means that I needed a new bag. The media requirements are very specific as well… it uses CF and SD cards, but there are just a handful that are approved for the 664. Using unapproved cards can cause the unit to lock up during use. None of my old cards work with this mixer, so I’ve had to buy all new cards.

DSC_8809

The output side of the 664. The memory cards are under the cover at the bottom of the frame… thankfully this cover is very solid, as some cases (like the Petrol case) press against it rather heavily when it’s opened to change cards. Just above this is the Hirose connector for timecode in and out… it’s a tight spot.

It’s also rather power hungry as well. The normal Sound Devices battery tube is included, but others have said the internal batteries are only good for about 30 minutes of recording time. The manual hints at this, as it says “Internal batteries can be used as a back-up in the event that external power is removed or depleted.” Another indicator of large current draws is found in the specification for the AC power supply, which is rated at 3.75 amps… much larger than your standard wall-wart.  An external battery supply is required. Fortunately I already own a BDS system from Remote Audio that I use with a pair of NP1 batteries. I normally get an entire day’s use from a single charge, powering a mixer and several Lectro receivers. That isn’t the case with the 664. I can drain an NP1 in about four hours, more or less depending on the age of the battery and the number of wireless receivers being used. I’ve since purchased the 664 power supply, which gets used whenever I’m stationary.

Using the 664 will take some getting used to as well, simply because there are so many different signal routing options available. For example, sending 48v phantom power to a microphone requires scrolling through a menu and finding the correct combination of multi-function button presses. Physical switches are always my preference, as they are on the 442. But I have found these knocked out of position before, and at least that shouldn’t happen with a menu-based system.

DSC_8811

The 664 requires a larger current draw than AA batteries can provide. I’m currently using a Remote Audio BDS system with three NP1 batteries.

The 664 has an input for a USB keyboard, and this will be great for adding metadata notes to the recorded files. It isn’t something that I’ll be using much for bag work, but it’s a really nice option. The 664 can also store commonly used phrases for generating sound reports, so adding a note like “wind noise” or  “clothing rustle” is a push-a-button affair, rather than typing out a note. But Sound Devices method of data entry without a keyboard is easy to figure out, and very quick to use. I don’t enter in long strings of info, but I can change a track name on the fly without a problem.

One of the changes that I would really like to see in “version 2” of the 664 is the ability to transfer data via the USB port. Currently, it’s only being used for the keyboard. But it would be extremely helpful to connect the 664 to the client’s laptop, and have the unit appear as a drive. Right now, you have to eject one of the cards and place it in a card reader. I don’t like to do this… the cards are tight, and I have a tough time gripping the CF card with my fingers… there isn’t enough room. And I’ve already experienced a bent pin on my card reader after only three or four insertions. My solution is to write the same data to both cards, then use the SD card for transferring the files as it’s easier to eject and seems a little more robust. I can get about 4 hours of recording time on a 16gb card, and I have yet to do a shoot requiring more than one card… but I bought three SD and three CF cards, just in case. I’m using the recommended Delkin cards, and (insert favorite superstitious ritual here) haven’t had a data issue so far. I believe Sound Devices put a lot of attention into their transport architecture to make it as robust as possible, because they understand that a corrupted file could be absolutely fatal to me AND to them.

Another “Version 2” change that I’d like would be the ability to use the BNC connectors on the unit for timecode in and out. Timecode is currently accessed via a Hirose connector, and you need to buy a rather expensive custom cable. These connectors are very high quality, but they are smaller and longer than a BNC, and are more likely to break from side pressure. The BNC AES digital ins and outs are a feature that isn’t going to be needed by me anytime soon, and even though the connectors are in an inconvenient spot, I’d rather have them available for timecode.

These are fairly small gripes, though, and I’d still buy this unit again without hesitation. I’ve used my 664 on almost every shoot I’ve done over the last six months, and overall, I love it.  I’m not a big fan of menu-operated gear, but I’ve adapted. This recorder is doing a complex job, so there’s lots of info that has to be presented somehow. Sound Devices seem to have taken pains to make these menus as logical as possible, and with a little practice, it begins to make sense. I have gotten several jobs directly as a result of having this unit, so it is clearly earning its keep. About the only real downside is that some clients seem to think that there MUST be a wireless receiver connected to every input, so they are requiring more lavs in their spec sheets. I’m in the process of buying a couple more, but the FCC is posturing to take away MORE spectrum from us, so now isn’t the smartest time to be buying radios.

Cleaning Penny and Giles 1000 Series Faders

Here’s how to clean the faders on a Soundcraft 800. This isn’t exactly a tutorial, rather, it’s just a look at how I’m doing it on my mixer. These are Penny and Giles 1000-series conductive plastic type and are long out of production, so it’s best to keep them clean and working well. It’s time consuming, but an easy job once you get the hang of it.

First, unscrew the ground wire on the back

First, unscrew the ground wire on the back

According to P&G, you shouldn’t use contact cleaner on these faders, only distilled water. To do that, you have to take the faders apart, which is time consuming, but when you’re done, they’ll be properly clean and more likely to stay that way for longer. Cooper Sound published a guide for cleaning P&G faders. It refers to more recent models, but the instructions would still apply. You can find it HERE.

Next, remove the fader's mounting screws

Next, remove the fader’s mounting screws

I did find one of the slider brushes with a broken solder joint. It was still electrically connected, but hanging by a a broken bit of solder. These are too delicate to resolder, so I carefully bent the brushes back into position and added a drop of super glue. Hopefully this will reinforce the brushes for a few more years, but I do need to be on the lookout for a donor console in good condition.

Peel off the tape that holds the fader together. If you're careful, this can be reused.

Peel off the tape that holds the fader together. If you’re careful, this can be reused.

On this console, you don’t have to desolder the fader in order to remove and disassemble it, which is a huge advantage.

With everything apart, I cleaned out the dust with a cheap artist’s brush and cotton rags. The plastic strip was wiped with water and a paper towel and dried.

Assembly is just the reverse of the disassembly. Once you’ve cleaned one or two, it becomes a rather simple process, but be careful, especially with the delicate slider brushes. They are easily damaged and not easily repaired. Replacement is only possible by removing parts from an old mixer… I contacted Penny and Giles, and they told me they have no more repair parts and could not even suggest a replacement.

I lubricated the sliding parts on my fader with a tiny drop of light oil. Penny and Giles instructions specify a lightweight silicon oil. I used an oil designed for sewing machines.

After you’ve cleaned the fader, remember to place a small maintenance sticker on the fader that says “cleaned” along with the date. I have to do this, or I risk forgetting which faders I’ve cleaned and which I haven’t, and you  don’t want to do these twice.

This is the kind of crud that you'll find. This is dust buildup around the fader slider.

This is the kind of crud that you’ll find. This is dust buildup around the fader slider. I cleared the worst of this with an inexpensive art brush for acrylics.

With the tape removed, carefully pull off the cap without wires attached

With the tape removed, carefully pull off the cap without wires attached

CAREFULLY pull out the slider
CAREFULLY pull out the slider

Next, gently pull the cap with the wires on the end. The conductive plastic strip should come out of the aluminum shell.
Next, gently pull the cap with the wires on the end. The conductive plastic strip should come out of the aluminum shell.

The entire fader disassembled

The entire fader disassembled

I cleaned the shell by pushing a bit of soft cotton cloth through the shell with a knitting needle.

I cleaned the shell by pushing a bit of soft cotton cloth through the shell with a knitting needle.

Eww, gross! This is what I got out of the shell. Of course, just about anything would be gross after 30 years.

Eww, gross! This is what I got out of the shell. Of course, just about anything would be gross after 30 years.

Not the best photo, but this is a closeup of the nearly-broken wiper brushes. I fixed it with a drop of super glue.

Not the best photo, but this is a closeup of the nearly-broken wiper brushes. I fixed it with a drop of super glue.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 33,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 8 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

My New Tape Machine

Here’s the latest acquisition for my studio… an Otari MTR10. This was purchased from Chris Mara of MaraMachines and Welcome To 1979 Studios in Nashville, TN. I saw it when I was there for the Producer’s and Engineer’s Summit. Unfortunately it violates my “large equipment rule” (don’t buy anything that’s too big to resell on eBay if you need to), but this one is worth the exception.

My Otari MTR10

My Otari MTR10

We had a similar MTR12TC of these at On Line Audio in Charleston, SC. It was the same machine, with the addition of a special head that laid a narrow timecode track in the center of the tape. We only used this a handful of times, and that feature isn’t quite as useful nowadays.

I’m a big fan of these machines. Their large size means they’re easy to align and maintain. Now that they are all “of a certain age,” they’ll need more care and attention than they did at my old studio (if I recall correctly, both our MTR12 and  our Otari MX80  24track version were brand new. Of course, they worked like a charm.) Fortunately this machine is in fantastic condition… everything works except the return to zero function, and even though it’s non-essential, I’ll have that sorted in a few days.

This one has probably seen quite a few miles of tape through it, as it was formerly owned by Disney. The heads were at the end of their service life, so Chris had John French of JRF Magnetics put on a pair of refurbished heads. Now the record and repro spec is back up to factory standard. (JRF Magnetics was the go-to company for any kind of head work as far back as I can remember, and I was pleased to hear that they are still doing work on tape machines. I wish I’d thought to have John sign my head stack somewhere… he’s a rock star in the tape machine world.)

The deck lifts up for easier servicing... no screwdriver necessary

The deck lifts up for easier servicing… no screwdriver necessary

I’m especially excited to have this machine in my inventory. As far as I know, I’ve got the only real analog tape machine left in town, so that’s a competitive advantage. It opens up several creative options… in addition to using it as a straight mastering deck, it can also be used as a tape delay, as well as for straight tape-to-digital transfers.

There is a real difference in the sound of projects that have been mastered on analog tape. It is very subtle, but it’s there. And while plug-in emulations of tape machines are cheaper and more convenient, they aren’t the same… they will always be copies, and this is the real deal.

 

The Ribbon Mic Transformer Challenge!

Here’s a little bit of fun for all you mic builder and engineer types. I put two different transformers onto the same ribbon motor for a very casual test. One of these transformers is found in the typical Chinese ribbon mic. The other is a US- made, high-performance custom wound transformer from Les Watts. (Les tells me that he may have more of these available soon.) I hooked each up and recorded a few lines lines of voice and some scratches with my fiddle.

The fiddle playing sucks… really, I’m not being modest here… because I just got it back from the shop, it has brand-new strings, and a brand-new bow as well that doesn’t have enough rosin on it yet, so the strings slide and scratch all over the place. It also sucks because I can’t really play fiddle.

You’ll notice a good bit of hum with these samples because the transformer is dangling in the air & has no shielding. When I did my final installation, most of that noise went away.  It’s pretty impossible to do an actual evaluation with all this noise present, and perhaps in the future I’ll do some better samples with shielding, etc. But this was all I had time for… at least for now. There are only two transformers in this test… if someone has a pal at Cinemag, Lundhal, or Samar, get them to send me a transformer and I’ll make it a larger comparison. I’ll probably order an Edcor in a few weeks, and perhaps then I’ll do some better samples.

These are really casual samples, so they’re MP3 files recorded at 44.1kHz, 320kbps files using an M-Audio Duo preamp and a Sony PCM-10 recorder. And remember that it isn’t really a fair test… there are lots of variables that might make one transformer work better than another with any given ribbon motor. I just wanted to see if I could hear the differences.

So here are the samples… transformer “B” first:

XfmrBedit

And now transformer “A:”

XfmrAedit

Which transformer do you prefer? Can you guess which one is the cheapy and which is the better? I certainly have my favorite, but it might be because I know which one is supposed to sound better. (This kind of bias is well documented, and it’s surprisingly difficult to overcome!)

I’ll show you the man behind the curtain here in about a week.

UPDATE: Time to spill the beans… transformer A was the better grade unit, and transformer B was the less expensive garden variety type. I’ll try to put together a better transformer review in the future using more transformers and a better (less noisy) samples. Thanks for playing our game, and here are some lovely parting gifts for you. Sorry, our production assistants appear to have eaten those.

Ribbon Mic Test

Here’s a look at my latest… a ribbon mic motor under test on my bench. Right now, it sounds pretty good. In fact, I’m tempted to just toss it into the case and call it done as it is, but I’m going to wait a bit. I can see some tiny problems with this one that I’d like to correct first. I’m not sure if you can tell in this photo, but the ribbon has a very slight curve… it’s closer to the magnet on the middle on one side, and the edges on the other. This is probably due to the way I corrugated the ribbon, using a fluted dowel pin and rolling it on a mousepad. This method works, but it is hard to get an even amount of pressure, and I probably pressed down a hair more on one side than I should have.

A completed ribbon motor of my own design

Still, it sounds quite nice. It has a fair amount of output, though I might like to squeeze out a bit more signal. A more accurate assessment will have to wait for a new ribbon… I’ve bought a “Paplin Crimper” on ebay for $15, which should be adaptable into a better ribbon corrugator. It’ll at least be an improvement on my current method.

I’m especially pleased with the transformer on this mic. I managed to get a pair of these from Les Watts. He has them wound for use in his microphones, and they have specifications that rival some of the best ribbon transformers available. Of course, it’s hard for me to tell what is due to the transformer and what’s the result of my ribbon motor design. Hopefully I’ll be able to source some cheap Chinese ribbon transformers soon so that I can compare the two.

A “Paplin Crimper Tool.” These are readily available on eBay for about $15, and I’m told they make good ribbon corrugators… we’ll see shortly!

Remaining work on this microphone is a new ribbon and adding some ground connections, but apart from replacing the ribbon, it’s just a matter of wiring it up and screwing it closed. The shell will certainly affect the sound to a degree, but I don’t think it will be too detrimental… the EM shielding that a mic shell provides will likely be an improvement, though I’m not hearing much in terms of self noise as it is.

Here’s a voice test MP3 of this mic just as it appears in the photo above. This isn’t a critical test, just a check to hear if it’s working. It’s on my workbench, not the perfect place for this… I hear reflections from the rear, and the fan noise from the laptop is audible. The cable being used to connect the mic was quite prone to noise depending on it’s position… I just placed everything where the noise was lowest. The mic is connected directly into an M-Audio Duo interface, sample rate was 44.1. Have a listen… comments and opinions are most welcome.

RibbonTestRevA

Bargain Gear: The Crest Audio iPro One Preamp

As you probably know, I’ve been doing a bunch of ribbon mic experiments lately. The thing about ribbons is that, in general, their output level is fairly low, and the mics I’m building are no exception. As a result, you have to crank the input gain pretty high on a ribbon, and when I tested the Austin ribbon mic, it was pretty clear that my preamp department was lacking. And until I start making thousands of dollars in the studio, I won’t be able to buy a nice John Hardy M1 preamp like we had at OnLine Audio (list price, $2905 for four channels. It sounded REALLY good…)

So my alternative was to build one myself. A conversation with Les Watts told me he uses THAT chips for the pres that he’s built, and their performance equals or exceeds discrete mic preamps like those used in the M1. So I began looking at designs and collecting parts to build one or two myself.

The input side of the studio. The two interfaces are usually fed from these preamps, though I have direct outs on my mixer if I need more. I bought the Nady years ago. It works, but isn’t the best solution… I only use it when I’m looking for a quick signal input. It’s due for a complete overhaul soon. My other preamps are relatively new additions, a Presonus Bluetube, and on the bottom is the main subject of this review.

That’s when I came across the Crest iPro One. It uses THAT chips and has a very low EIN (Equivalent Input Noise) spec of -129dB. I found one on eBay for $140, including the shipping, so while I probably shouldn’t have, it was too cheap not to try one. They seem to be discontinued, I can only find them from a seller called Audiosavings. But they are brand-new units and arrived via FedEx just a few days after ordering.

It came in the other day, and I’ve set it in my rack and gave it a listen. Here’s my initial impressions.

About the only real beef I could find was that the name starts with an “I,” which has gotten really overused. The rest is pretty darn good… crazy good considering the price that I paid for it. It is indeed a low noise preamp, and my ribbon mic sounds way better when connected to this box.  In fact, it’s made the mic a viable option for a speaking voice signal, where before you really couldn’t use it for anything relatively quiet like spoken voice.

The Crest preamp and mic processor controls

And there are lots of other options available on this unit for coloring the signal to your liking. Going from left to right, first is a low-cut filter, which will be useful in several cases. It has a fairly gentle 12dB/octave slope, so it won’t be like a brickwall filter or anything like that, but it’ll help with low-frequency noises and resonances.

Next is a basic 2-band parametric EQ section that can be switched into or out of the circuit as needed. With the controls set flat and no mic connected, I noticed very little added noise when the section was switched in and out of the circuit, which was a good thing. It’ll probably be most useful as a notch filter to knock out an offending frequency, and has a greater cut range (24dB) than boost range (12dB). A very handy feature is a parametric to sidechain switch. With this, you can set up a de-esser easily by using the parametric to boost the frequencies that cause the compressor to to operate, causing it to clamp down on the highs. Or if the compressor is reacting too much to, say, a bass note or kick drum, the parametric-to-sidechain button can be used to doctor the compressor’s operation.

Next is a dynamic section which includes a basic expander (I prefer the term noise gate, though that isn’t exactly correct. A noise gate acts more like an on/off switch when a signal falls below a certain threshold, while an expander acts more like a fader that activates below a certain threshold). The release time is fixed, so this unit can seem abrupt on a signal like a voice, but you do have a ratio and a threshold control, so it has a pretty broad adjustment range. The compressor section has threshold, ratio, and make-up gain controls. It isn’t as adjustable as a standalone compressor, of course, but it’s easy to use and works well. There’s also a limiter with fixed attack and release times, I’d imagine this would be useful to prevent overloading your DAW input. The dynamics section also has an external sidechain input and an on-off switch, which are pro-level features.

The “SmarTube” feature adds high-frequency harmonics, which can “brighten up” a signal, according to the manual. I haven’t used it much yet. Personally, I believe that if you want “that tube sound,” you should use tubes. But then again, good tube gear can cost a fortune, so this may be an alternative. It could be especially useful when using the unit as an instrument interface, thanks to the inclusion of a line input and level control… another reason I bought the unit, it should work well as a bass direct in. I haven’t tested that yet, though.

The unit also has a headphone out, which is super handy to have. I love it when these options are available, as I can plug in and concentrate on a single function. It saves time since I don’t have to think about the signal flow.

There are two meters, gain reduction and output level. Sure, Crest could have saved a few bucks by using a single meter and a switch, but it’s great to have visual confirmation of the unit’s operation.

What I really appreciate are the little things, though. The fact that this has front panel connections AND rear panel connections, for example. It increases the cost to the manufacturer, and the suits would argue that the unit would still work with connectors on either the front or the back, but I really prefer both. Sometimes I’ll want to keep things clean in the front and use the back connectors, but when I want to plug in a mic or guitar cord, it’s great not to have to crawl around to the back of the rack, then realize I need my glasses, then go find a flashlight so I can see what the heck I’m connecting… you get the idea. And something as simple as putting the power switch on the front… somehow Nady seemed to think that on the PR8, the back was a good place for a switch, so on my other preamp, I have to reach around the backside of the rack to power it on and off… a stupid place to put a switch on a piece of rackmount gear, makes me cuss every time I do it. (Actually, the Nady is being scheduled for a full heart transplant. I’ll keep the connectors and the case, but replace the power supply and all the circuit boards with something that works better… probably a bunch of THAT circuits.)

Now, I haven’t put this unit through an exhaustive battery of tests, and I’ve only used it on a few actual sessions. A proper audio job is always much more telling than just going through the functions. But it really seems to be an affordable, very functional piece of gear. The overall weight seems lighter than you’d expect for a box of this size, and I’d imagine the switches and pots won’t last into the next century. But waddaya want for 140 bucks? For what it can do, I think it’s a terrific buy… if you’ve been wanting to try an external preamp, and you’re on a really tight budget, this would be a good choice.

Full Disclosure: I don’t have any connection to Crest. This unit was purchased at retail on ebay, and was done so for use in my own studio. I don’t receive any sort of benefit from this review. (though I’m not above that sort of thing at all. Feel free to send me your expensive gear, and I’ll publish an equally expensive opinion.) The post above is strictly my personal impressions, accuracy and correctness are not guaranteed, and your mileage will almost certainly vary- BG