Field mixers are a great way to add power, flexibility and quality to your location audio recordings.
Maybe you’ve recently bought a field mixer or are considering one of the models in this month’s Buyer’s Guide. Regardless, it’s probably a smart idea to learn your equipment and all its options. In this month’s Audio, we’ll explore the benefits and pitfalls of using your new field mixer out in the real world. Although they’re rarely finicky, field mixers can have a variety of knobs, buttons and connectors that require your attention. Stick with us for a few minutes, and you’ll be ready to tackle your next location audio job.
Know Your Gear
Let’s create a generic shoot scenario and walk through all the steps needed to get you from start to finish. Your assignment is a basic industrial video project that includes a couple of interviews, factory assembly footage with sound and some B roll that includes sound effects and coverage. You also know the CEO wants her interview shot by the company fountain – great. Before the shoot, it’s a good idea to install fresh batteries and set everything up to test the gear. You’ll use a shotgun and wireless lapel mic for the project, but everything has to be very portable, as you’ll be running from location to location throughout the day. One way to simplify setup is to dedicate each microphone to its own input; plug them in and leave them there. If you have a stereo mixer, another option is placing each microphone on its own output. With pan knobs or switches and dedicated (and labeled) cabling to the camera or audio recorder, it’s easy to guarantee that the shotgun will always be on channel one and the wireless will always be on channel two. This setup also provides consistency for the editor, even if it happens to be you.
Now, with everything hooked up and working, grab your headphones, and check for noisy connections, hum, buzz or any other odd noises that could ruin your recordings. In addition, you’ll save time during the shoot if basic audio levels are set beforehand. Set the shotgun a couple of feet from your mouth and, using the audio meters on your mixer or camera, bring up the volume until you get a good, strong signal from a normal tone of voice. Likewise, clip the lapel mic in a standard location and check its level too. You can’t duplicate the voice of your interview subjects, but this test serves as a baseline and will get you up and running more quickly during the shoot.
Know Your Options
Every field mixer is different. While some are quite Spartan in features and options, others are miniaturized versions of full studio consoles. Regardless of the knob and button count, the whole point of a field mixer is portability. Your mixer may come with a carrying strap or bag. If not, you need a way to transport it to locations. Several manufacturers offer bags and cases for standard models, along with generic models for other mixers. If these don’t suit your needs, consider using a padded backpack, briefcase or laptop case. They’re inexpensive, durable and readily available, and they offer extra pockets for accessories. Some creativity is required to press them into service, but the result may be more flexible than a dedicated bag.
Some field mixers offer two or more sets of outputs. This is perfect for dual-system recording. If you’re not familiar with this process, the August issue of Videomaker outlines the technique in detail. In short, dual-system recording splits the output of your mixer, feeding the camera audio inputs and another audio recorder, like a laptop computer or dedicated field recorder. If your project needs this level of flexibility, it’s better to plan for it before the shoot. A common setup will send the XLR output(s) of the mixer to the camera and an unbalanced set – either 1/4″ or RCA – to the auxiliary recorder. If your mixer doesn’t offer dual outputs, it’s possible to split them with standard audio adapters. Just try it beforehand – you don’t want any surprises on location.
Know the Ropes
You’ve set up and tested everything, it works great and you’re ready for the shoot. On arrival, the first shot is an exterior of the manufacturing facility. It’s unlikely this shot will use audio in the final edit, but you never know. Why not use both microphones, just for safety? The shotgun will pick up specific sounds like the truck driving by, while the wireless can be repurposed as an ambient mic. This will sound strange in the headphones at first, but, throughout the day, your hearing will adjust. In time, you’ll be able to pick out the different sounds coming through each ear. If not, just pull one ear cup off, and bring up the headphone volume a bit.
Remember that fountain interview? It’s time to leverage the power of your field mixer to get the best sound from this difficult setup. First, scout the scene while wearing the headphones. Hold the handheld mic, and try the shotgun in sample locations. Listen closely for minimum noise from the splashing water. With your battery-powered, portable equipment, it’s easy to narrow the options quickly, giving you the best possible sound in a tough situation. If necessary, record both mics on separate channels for flexibility in post.
Back in the plant, you need to move quickly from process to process. This is mostly ambient sound – machines chunking away, hydraulics pumping and motors spinning. Again, your field mixer makes this easy with full control over microphone and headphone volume. Choosing the best microphone for each setup is easy with the controls on the mixer. If the sound is especially loud, the input pad on your mixer will come in handy, keeping the audio signal strong, but not too strong. This may sound mundane, and it can be. However, with the right field mixer and equipment, it’s unlikely you’ll find a situation you can’t handle. That’s the whole idea.
Your field mixer is a powerful addition to production value, audio quality and your reputation as a media producer. You won’t be a genius with it the first time out, but your skills will grow with some experience, and every project will benefit. Don’t forget: a clean, professionally-recorded audio track will make everything easier in post, and the finished product has a real chance to shine. Congratulations on your decision to use a field mixer. Now, get busy and create some awesome audio!
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.
Side Bar: Dual Duty
You don’t have to box up your new field mixer after the shoot; it can do double duty back in the edit suite too. With a couple of simple adaptors, the output of the mixer will plug into your computer sound card, providing a powerful, flexible front end for recording. Now, you can use it for recording voiceovers, sound effects and Foley. Depending on input options, your field mixer can also serve as a level-matching interface for consumer audio equipment and camcorders. You’ll have professional connectors, headphone monitoring and even phantom power for studio microphones, making the most of your investment.