The State of Sound: A Rant

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I know I’m always talking about how doing location can be an uphill battle. I’ve complained about how things suck for the department of my day job so often that it’s probably a good 30% of the “waah” in Big Waah. Just to fill you in if you haven’t been following along, the problem is, while pretty much every other department on a job — lighting and camera and art department and make-up and hair and wardrobe — is concentrating on making the shot look good, we, just three or two or sometimes only one of us are are in the lonely position of trying to make it sound good. This, even though, since we stopped making silent films and started writing the dialogue on which many films and certainly most television shows depend for their storylines, character development, exposition, humor, and profundity (even if they shouldn’t, because you should really never be dependent on dialogue to tell your story), sound is easily an important half of the finished product. No, because 1) we are grossly outnumbered and 2) looping exists (even if it costs money and sounds like crap and actors hate it), the sound department seems to be the one whose work is always demoted and discounted when deemed necessary.

Believe it or not, though, recently, it’s gotten even worse — or maybe I’ve just been noticing it more since I’ve been spending so much time working in TV. I seem to have had even more conversations on set recently that have made me nuts, like when an actress said, when we were trying to figure out how to get her not to dump a whole bunch of silverware into a sink in a kitchen scene so that we could actually hear her dialogue — which basically just meant starting as if the silverware was already cleared from the table, which would have made a difference to exactly nobody because god knows the silverware was not the point of the scene — “We’re just going to have to loop it anyway.” Really? Why, aside from your prophecy-self-fulfilling attitude? I seem to be hitting even more resistance when I’m trying to do my job, like when I asked a camera operator for information about the frame about a month ago, and he turned to me and said, “You know, we’re not shooting that kind of show.” Really? Then what kind of TV show are we shooting? The kind where we just don’t give a fuck? And I seem to be hearing even more stories like the one a sound person told me last week, about how he was on a TV show and was told he had to move all of his equipment to the other side of a huge park for a turnaround, they decided to start rolling without telling him while he was still doing that, nobody noticed that the boom wasn’t on set to not say “speed” so they had no idea they had no sound until they’d done two takes, and the response of the show runner, who was directing that day, was to say to the sound guy, “Keep up.” So, wait: you’ve made the show you’re running so chaotic that even you don’t know what’s going on on your own set, and we’re the ones who are supposed to “keep up”? Right. 

Ironically, the reason things are worse seems to be in large part because technology has gotten so much better. For one thing, digital sound equipment has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years. Wireless microphones in particular are much more reliable and free of interference than they used to be (unless you’re in an RF-heavy area like Times Square, or in some weird line-of-sight from the Empire State Building that many neurotic sound people are convinced is an outer circle of hell — and I’m not saying it is, only that I’ve heard about it often enough to think that they can’t all be crackpots). The result of this has been that assistant directors want everyone to be miked all the time on TV. And “Why not just mic them all the time?” as one DP recently asked me? For one thing, all of the other problems with wireless mics that I talked about here have not been solved: clothing noise, distortion when actors get loud, the fact that, no matter the size of the shot, they always sound like they’re on the actor’s chest because they are on the actor’s chest, the fact that they are just tiny and overall crappier mics, the fact that actors don’t like to be wired, and that many outfits are tough to wire and many wardrobe people seem to think it’s their job to stand back and complain about what you’re doing to their clothes rather than help you get the mic on them so that nobody sees it, all of which guarantees that wiring people will not, in fact, be quick or easy. Then, once wiring everyone all the time becomes the norm, if sound wants to try and get good sound by booming a scene, getting frame lines and working out how to deal with shadows and reflections, you inevitably hear from somebody, “Well, they’re miked, aren’t they?” Add to that that mixing multiple mics is always harder to deal with as a sound person, and having the wonderful multi-track recorders that are now ubiquitous doesn’t necessarily make that easier. TV shows still want mixers to deliver a mono mix that they might be able to use for dailies or if they are pressed for turnaround time before airdate (which they usually are), and a decent-sounding mix is way harder to do with five mics than with one or two. And even when you have every mic isolated on a separate track as a back-up (as we now generally do, thanks to the aforementioned wonderful multi-track recorders), you have no control over what the people in post are going to do with those tracks. So even if you did manage to boom the shot and the two booms sound much, much better than the four crappy wireless, you can’t be sure that the post sound people might not go and use those four crappy wireless microphones anyway, just because it’s easier/faster for them. Which is not to say that we don’t trust post, but, they have different priorities, and…okay, sorry, but people in post have fucked things up often enough that no, we don’t trust post.

Meanwhile, really good digital HD cameras have come along. The main thing about that is, as I’ve said before, the lower cost of shooting digitally means we can just shoot and shoot and shoot way more than before. Rolling for 45 mins or so without cutting until a card was fills up is a booming challenge, but there are ways to deal with that (there’s always a chance to rest when everyone is resetting and the director is giving the actors direction or giving the operators notes or they’re changing lens sizes – in other words, when they should be cutting. Somehow, they think it’s faster to not cut and save like five seconds by not slating, even though they’re going to be wasting much more than that of the editors’ time when they have to sort through this useless footage, but whatevs). But then came using two or more cameras for everything, thinking that this, too, always made shooting faster, and therefore cheaper. I’ve got news for you, directors/producers/UPMs: IT DOESN’T. Now, rather than lighting for one angle and/or one part of a scene and making that look good as fast as possible while also considering that you don’t want to make life too difficult for the sound department, DPs light for the 270-degree view of a room in which the cameras are not, and in which the director will run the scene from top to bottom, even when the angles being shot — say, a gigantic wide shot or the back of someone’s head — will be of absolutely zero value for most of the scene. The thinking seems to be that even if one camera is only getting one tiny piece that works for one short part of the scene, one of the other cameras can surely find some other tiny usable piece in some other short part of it, and even if they don’t, heck, drive space is cheap. So we spend a shit ton of time setting up shots that might never be used, rather than figuring out just what, exactly, we will use, and shooting that until we get it right, both in terms of how it looks (because you’re often stuck lighting and shooting from not the best angles either when you have to hide all of the lighting and camera equipment from two or three cameras) and how it sounds. Which we can tell we clearly aren’t paying attention to with two cameras most of the time, because even if you can get a boom or two in the room with them, directors will also often choose to shoot “wide and tight”: a wide shot and a close up at the same time. This means your boom mic has to stay out of both shots, which means the mic is going to be farther away from the actors, putting the actors farther off mic and letting in more outside noise. On top of all that, add that these cameras are lighter, so that an increasing number of shows can be styled to be shot mainly handheld to give them a certain “look.” When camera people are working handheld, it’s rare that you get to see the actual frame before you shoot, so you have to do guesswork, again, about where the boom can be, which is not helped by the fact that camera operators get tired and cranky from doing all that handheld, and are therefore not particularly thrilled at the idea of having to put the camera up on their shoulders again, just to give you a frame line (see the aforementioned conversation that ended with, “…we’re not shooting that kind of show.”). Oh, and did I mention that many TV shows don’t like to rehearse any more either, because, again, drive space is cheap, and people seem to think not rehearsing also saves time and therefore money (rather than considering that your first few takes will be your rehearsals, so, again, you’ll just have more bad material to sort through in post)? Which really basically sucks for everyone on a film set, except PMs (who only care about money), ADs (who only care about time), certain actors who are better on the first take because they’re new, and a certain type of director who can’t make decisions and therefore likes to cover everything six ways to Sunday.

What does this all mean for TV, ultimately? Well, for one thing, you will be hearing more shows that don’t sound great, maybe even bad enough that a normal person might notice. Wireless mics will often be EQed (equalized, which means diminishing problematic frequencies and pumping up others) if post-production is trying to get rid of clothing rustle or other sound problems we won’t wait on (planes, cars), making already not great sounding mics thinner and tinnier, and they will have to be mixed in with other mics on other takes and shots, which can sound noticeably different. Post can do a decent job with this given enough time, but in TV they often aren’t, due to, again, short turnaround times, combined with adding extra shooting days at the last minute to cover more stuff they don’t have time for because they thought that more cameras = less time to shoot = we can shoot something that should be shot in ten days in seven = just plain idiotic. But TV audiences will get used to the new way TV sounds, because people can and do pretty much get used to anything.

Just as we are all getting used to this new way of working, even if it also means that sound people in NYC — the majority of whom work in TV these days because that’s most of what’s shot here now — are getting pushed closer and closer to the brink of losing their minds. See, I’ve discovered that something that drives you crazy as a human being is not when your job gets more challenging, but when you add on to that the fact that people seem not to care about how good a job you do. I mean, in theory it could be liberating, because obviously they’re giving you license to not care either (although not to the point where it gets you fired, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where that point is), but in practice, it’s just demoralizing. You start losing any sense of what it even means to do your job well, and then it becomes just about the paycheck.

And it’s not just old farts like me who are feeling this way. Recently, I worked with a really young sound team — everyone was early 30s or younger — on a TV show that is really tough for sound. The last thing I worked on with them was the kind of scene we literally have nightmares about: six-pages, five speaking actors, three cameras, and two mirrors; one of the characters got attacked and thrown around so he couldn’t be wired; in the first several set-ups, at least one camera was wide enough to see the ceiling, while others were tighter; even when we got into tighter coverage, because there were three angles, a boom was nearly always going to be seen in the mirror at some point; and the tie of the actor with the second greatest number of lines sounded so scratchy as to make his mic often unusable. It’s the kind of situation where you just have to do triage, cover what you can when you can and hope you get every line decently — not good, necessarily, but decently — at some point. I felt so bad for these young guys who have to work on this show every week, for 12-plus hours a day, for nine months, who got into sound thinking it was going to be a decent career and are now finding that it’s just destroying their will. The boom and mixer joked that they were going to turn the third into “the oldest-looking 25-year-old ever.”

Often in these situations, it’s like I’m spending half my days as a therapist. It starts out with, “How does so-and-so wire people?” “What mics do most other people use?” “Does anyone else use a system like mine?” Then it turns into, “How do other sound mixers handle this type of situation?” “Would so-and-so put up with this?” Then at some point it stops being questions, and it’s just me listening: “I feel like people like you [aka old] learned the right way to do things, and I’m never going to learn that.” “I feel like I can’t remember more than one page of dialogue any more.” "I know that was a bad mix, but they’ll just compress the shit out of it in post anyway.” "I think I’m a decent third and a pretty good boom operator, I don’t even know if I’m a good mixer any more.” "I know, not everyone’s cut out for this job…” Plus, feeling this useless and stressed all the time is also really hard on our relationships — and I mean within the sound department (I won’t go into how bad it is for people’s personal relationships outside of work, although my therapy sessions do occasionally go there). This leads to other, passive aggressive or just aggressive conversations that I participate in or overhear:

“What happened there?”

“So you missed that cue, huh?”

“I am doing that, you just didn’t have me potted up!”

“Do I need to come in there and talk to them for you?”

“No, it’s fine, just let me know when you take your headphones off, so I’m not talking to myself!”

“You are way too far, you can definitely get closer than that.”

“Just don’t push it, I don’t want to see you in the shot, okay?”

Sigh. PEOPLE: it doesn’t have to be this way. I do work on shows sometimes where the director comes in knowing what he or she wants, where they only shoot with more than one camera when necessary, and work out problems, and rehearse – they do still exist. Just because the tools have changed to make production easier, faster and cheaper, doesn’t mean that we should take advantage of that to the point of forgetting everything we already knew about the process. What if we planned and shot coverage the way we used to when every frame was precious instead of rolling every camera every time, because we can, just to see what we come up with? What if we communicated and rehearsed, so we all knew what was going to happen in a shot, instead of just rushing through the day in a frenzy — again, just because we can? There is nothing artful, or economical, and certainly not collaborative, in that way of working. TV production is supposed to be a process whereby a whole little village of people — because that’s what you need to make a show — work together to not just “get” good visuals or good sound or good performances, but to tell a story in an engaging way. For that, we need all of those things combined into some wonderful whole that is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what happens when you make a movie or a TV show the right way — and as side benefits, you get a safer, less chaotic set, a happier crew that feels proud of the work they are doing, and a sound department that remains sane.

A TV production is a high-speed train. Once it really gets moving in a certain direction, it’s not easy to stop, and the lowly sound department is the last thing that’s going to be allowed to slow it down. But if we can all get on the right track from the beginning, working together to make everything good — yes, even the sound — we’re going to arrive at a much better destination, and have a much more pleasant ride.

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