Teaching The Control Room: Audio and Video Engineer

Audio00Who is one of the most under-appreciated crew members on a student video production? 

In my experience, it’s the audio engineer or simply “audio.”  The students seem to think it’s one of those throwaway positions, but the audio engineer can truly make or break a production.

There is another crew position that my students also feel is one of those throwaway jobs, the video engineer or “video.”  Now, depending how your studio is setup and the type of cameras you have, there may be a dedicated person for this job or the camera operators may be responsible for this.

Audio EngineerAudio01

The audio engineer is one of the most important crew positions in a broadcast.  A show with bad audio will be unwatchable or at the very least look amateurish.  Viewers will put up with less than stellar video quality, but not poor audio.

So what’s the first step to good audio?  Preparation.  All mics should be tested before a broadcast starts and before the talent arrives.  Check the mics that have batteries and change them if necessary.  If you will be rolling in pre-produced segments, make sure to check audio levels coming from tape machines or video players.  Will you be using music from a CD or iPod?  Check those levels also.  If you are using lavaliere mics, make sure the person checking the mics for you clips them on, not just holds them in front their mouths.  It’s impossible to get a good level that way.

Once the production starts, the audio person needs to be somewhat of a multi-tasker.  They need to constantly monitor the audio levels and audio quality, preferably with closed-ear headphones.  They also need to be paying attention to the director so they can “pot up” or raise the level on any videos that are played or any music that is called for in the broadcast.  This is a job where you truly have to STAY FOCUSED and be able to tune out the distractions of the control room.

When teaching students to be good audio engineers, I find the hardest concept for beginners to grasp is the difference between audio level and audio volume.  Just because it sounds loud enough coming through the speakers or in the headphones, that doesn’t mean the audio is at a good level. 

Nearly every mixer has some type of meter and they all should have the level of “zero” for 0db marked.  This is the optimal level.  A sustained level above 0db may be distorted or clipped and a constant level below 0db will introduce noise inherent in various pieces of audio gear.

Most modern mixers have an LED scale where green is below 0db, yellow is just above 0db and red is 6db or higher.  Bouncing in the yellow is ok, but not in the red.  Also, if the “peak” or “clip” LED illuminates, you have distortion.

When setting the knob or slider on the mixer, look for the “U” for unity gain.  This is the optimum setting for the mixer’s knob or slider meaning there is no gain or attenuation in the signal.  What I get my students to do is set the sliders on the mixer at the “U” setting, and then use the gain knob on the track to set it to an acceptable level.  That way if they have to quickly “pot up” a track, they can put it to the “U” setting and be in the ball-park on the proper level.

Video Engineer

Video03It’s the job of a video engineer in most commercial television studios to be in charge of the look of the video.  It’s their job to “shade” or “paint” the cameras, which is setting the iris and gain if needed.  It’s also their job prior to a production to phase or time the cameras with color bars and to white/black balance the cameras.

Most of the responsibility of a video engineer takes place before the broadcast starts and then it’s simply making small adjustments with the CCU (Camera Control Unit) as the camera zooms in or out.  The only caveat would be is if you have a lot of contrast between the light and dark areas on your set.

In a studio setting it’s not too tough, but on location the job can be tricky.  Places like football stadiums and gyms have notoriously uneven or bad lighting.  In one of my freelance jobs, I occasionally run video for the New Orleans Hornets in Arena broadcast.  Their lighting is all over the place with LED boards and spotlights.  It will keep you on your toes!

So how do you teach this skill?  First, you should have a basic knowledge of a waveform and vectorscope monitor.  The vectorscope is for phasing or timing the cameras and should be a set and forget process.  The only time the camera timing should change is if you change the length or type of your video cables. 

The most important function of a video engineer and the part of the job that needs the most attention is the camera iris.  To be a good video engineer you need to be one step ahead of the director.  In other words, by the time a camera hits the air, it’s too late.  The person working video should constantly be looking at the cameras that are not on the air and make any necessary adjustments.  I advise my students working video to just watch for 100% white or “crushing” the whites.  If they can stay ahead of that you’ve got the battle won.

If at all possible, stay away from auto iris.  Your productions will look cleaner and the video will look better because in auto iris, the camera will constantly be making adjustments and depending on the contrast in your scenes, the video will be constantly “throbbing.”  At least that’s my term for the iris opening, then closing, then opening, then closing. 

Conclusion

Every studio is different, so coming up with one way of doing things is nearly impossible.  The key is really getting the students to stay focused on their task and have them realize that EVERY studio job is important.  Any person on the crew, including the teacher, can cause a production to crash and burn if they aren’t focused on the task at hand.

Next month: Teaching The Control Room: Graphics and Teleprompter Operator


Dupont-HeadshotAlbert Dupont has been the Advanced TV Broadcasting Facilitator (Teacher) at the Satellite Center in Luling, Louisiana since its opening in 2005.  The Satellite Center is a “satellite” facility of Hahnville and Destrehan High Schools.  The schools are a part of the St. Charles Parish Public School System located near New Orleans.

Before becoming a teacher, Mr. Dupont was a news and sports videographer for WVUE-TV in New Orleans for twelve years and news producer at WAFB in Baton Rouge and KATC in Lafayette for five years.  As a sports photographer, Mr. Dupont was a field videographer at the New Orleans Saints games from 1994 to 2009.  He also was a videographer at two Superbowls and numerous college national championship games in a variety of sports. He is an Avid Certified Instructor in Media Composer 5.