Audio for Television - Mixing the "Basic" Event

I wish that I could say that the life of a professional Production Sound Mixer consisted only of sitting around on a large, Hollywood feature film set while being obscenely overpaid.

But more often than not, we actually have to work for a living and that often entails mixing low budget “reality” television (video shot for cable, etc.)

On shoots like these, we are usually under staffed, under budgeted, and under equipped. Never-the-less, our paying clients expect it all to come out looking and sounding like a big budget, network funded, broadcast remote.

Here is a breakdown of how we might handle the typical “low budget” television demo or competition, such as a local cooking show, sporting event, or how-to-do-it.

First, we have to deal with our on-site reporter/commentator. Use a handheld, dynamic omni or cardioid “reporter’s mic” to pick up their audio.

A dynamic mic will give you the cleanest sound with the least amount of background noise. Omni mics such as the ElectroVoice RE50, Audio Technica AT804, and Shure VP64 are industry favorites. Omni’s pick up from all directions, so mic angle is not critical; only proximity to the sound source is important. In other words, keep the mic close to the chin of whomever is speaking!

Cardioid mics, such as the Audio Technica ATM29HE or the ElectroVoice RE11/RE16 are popular and offer the advantage of even better audio isolation in extremely loud venues since these mics are directional. However, the reporter must remember to aim the mic towards the mouth!

Our Reporter will provide an on-site introduction, interviews with the contestants, interviews during intermission with coaches, judges, bystanders, etc. During the “action”, our Reporter will also provide on-going commentary or play by play.

The Director or Producer will need to communicate to the Reporter in order to provide stage direction, prompting, cues, and so on. So the Reporter will wear a simple earpiece which is fed from some sort of wireless. This is known as an IFB.

IFB stands for Interruptible Foldback. A small receiver is worn by the Reporter or Commentator, which provides an audio feed of the main program to the earpiece. At any time, this program feed can be interrupted by the Director or Field Producer in order to prompt, direct, or brief the on-air talent. Some reporters like to hear their own voice in the earpiece; others find it distracting.

The sound mixer will consult with talent to determine what audio should be present in the earpiece as default. Depending on the nature of the production, the audio feed might include general program material, other commentary, questions from the “studio anchor”, etc. Audio that would be considered distracting and non-useful to the Field Reporter, such as sound effects, would be left out of the IFB mix.

Usually, we will use a professional assisted listening device such as a Comtek or Listen Tech system.
These systems consist of a small transmitter that is able to plug into the Aux Send of your mixing panel, along with a personal receiver with earpiece, worn by talent.

For example, I use the Listen Tech system quite often because it is relatively inexpensive and the basic input cable has an RCA line input (for the Aux Send of the mixing board) as well as an input for a lavalier mic (that I can just hand to the Director or Producer). That is the simplest way to rig the IFB, since it does not require understanding how to configure the Aux Send of the mixer to include a live mic that is not part of the main program output. (Sure, I know how to do it in my sleep, but novices can easily get confused and end up sending the Producer’s mic out over the air!)

However, if a dedicated transmitter/receiver communications system is not available, you can improvise with a spare wireless mic. Make sure that you have an adapter cable to take the Aux Send output of the mixer (usually a ¼-inch jack) into the bodypack transmitter (connector will vary base on the make/model of your wireless). Most wireless mic portable (camera mountable) receivers offer a headphone jack, so that your Reporter can monitor.

Assuming that you are using a simple and relatively inexpensive mixing panel such as a Mackie or a Behringer, you will want to feed your Reporter from the pre-fader Aux Send. The reason that you will use the pre-fader Aux and NOT the post-fader Aux is so you can easily run a mic from  the Producer into the board and send it out to the Reporter without that same mic signal going out to the camera or recorder!

On a mixing panel, there are two types of Aux Send. The pre-fader mode mean that incoming signals are “split” by the panel to the faders and to the small knobs (pots) that control the Aux Send. The controls of the Aux Send are completely independent of what the fader may be doing; it does not care if the fader is completely on, off, or in the middle. The Aux Send is completely separate; same as if you had two mixing panels on your desk. So, it is now possible to send the audio from the Producers mic out to the Reporter even though the main fader of the Producer’s mic is off or closed.

On the same token, we want the Reporter’s mic to be audible to the camera or recorder – but NOT audible in the Reporter’s own earpiece (to avoid feedback howling in the earpiece and to avoid hearing one’s self on delay while trying to speak). To accomplish this, just turn down the volume of that mic’s Aux Send. It will not go out to the Reporter. But if the fader is opened, it will go out the main mix (as we want it to).  Note, while you are turning things down in the Reporter’s Aux Sends, you might also want to screen out the tone generator and the sound effects mics!

If the wireless transmitter that you are using does not have a Line Level input, then turn down the level of the master Aux Send.

Okay. At this point we have the Reporter on a mic, as well as able to hear our field Producer or Director who is also on mic (another handheld or a lavalier, whichever is handy).

We will need a boomperson to mic the general goings on in the event. Feed the Boomperson’s headphones from the post-fader Aux Send of your mixer. Post-fader means that the signal passes through the main fader first, and then is send to the Aux Send. If the fader is closed, then no signal makes it up to the Aux Send. This means that the Boomperson will be able to hear the final mix, and will know what mics on the set are open at any time. You can turn off the Aux volume for the tone generator, and maybe for some of the FX mics (if the boom mic does not cover the same sounds). If the Boom mic does cover the same sound FX as the dedicated FX mics, it is better to let the boomperson hear them so that he/she can tell if phasing is taking place. Phasing is when two mics hear the same sound, and the signals interfere with each other, causing echo and hollowness.

The boom mic will cover most of the live audio from the action, including contestant’s utterances, the Referee or Judge, and general sounds. If the Reporter is in too close, the Boomperson must steer clear so as not to cause phasing. (The Producer should instruct the Reporter to move away from the action, so as to allow the Boom mic to get general audio.)

In addition to the boom’s general coverage, you will want to deploy at least one dedicated sound effects mic. Lavaliers taped to table surfaces, pressure zone mics, or other sensitive mics may be good choices. We want to exaggerate the sounds of the event in order to add excitement.

For example, in the course that I teach, I had the students cover a “penny football” game played on a hard tabletop. We attached a very sensitive Audio Technica MT830 lavalier to the underside of the table, and it enhanced the sound of the coins spinning and sliding across the surface.

Note that we only have four mics in this example: Reporter, Producer, Boom, effects. Why only four? Because most small mixing panels only have four mic inputs! If you are lucky enough to have more inputs, then by all means feel free to deploy more mics!

If your mixing panel is two-track output (stereo), then resist the temptation to mix in left-right stereo. Keep the Reporter on one track, and mix the Boom and FX  mics to the other track. During the final mix, the Editor can simulate left-right placement of the sound effects.

During the recording of this “penny football world championship”, the students had to cover:

Reporter introductory stand-up. “We’re here live at the…..”  Live sound effects in the background from Boom and SFX mic.

Reporter then interviews the Players during their warm-up. Producer prompts the Reporter with interesting factoids or probing questions to ask.

Referee comes into frame and reviews the Rules. Begins the gameplay. Boom covers the Ref as well as the Players. Live sound effects from the SFX mics.

During Gameplay, the Reporter comments on the play-by-play action.

Referee calls end of period. Reporter might interview the ScoreKeeper or Audience/Fans.

Referee comes back to begin the next period. Producer prompts Reporter to cut short the chit chat and announce that the match is about to resume.

After the final match, more interviews with the Players, etc.
Producer finally prompts the Reporter to wrap it up and “return it to the studio anchor”.

This is a great exercise for students, and can be done without too much equipment. Have fun!