Sound and Vision: An interview with Audio Expert, Rex Morris

5 minute read

How many times have you been watching TV and clearly heard one commercial, then have the next so muffled you can barely understand it? Professional sound is crucial to a successful video project, and there’s no denying that – when you spend money to have your message heard, you want to make sure it can actually be heard. We believe it’s a very important element of production, so we hire the best to capture sound on our projects – Rex Morris. Rex has been working in professional production since 1981, and with us for over 20 years. Rex was kind enough to answer some questions about capturing audio and some of its challenges.

Sound and Vision: Q & A with Audio Expert Rex Morris I North by Northwest Boise

NXNW: What are the primary duties of a sound mixer in the field?

Rex: The sound mixer or sound recordist is responsible for field recording all of the sounds that will ultimately be heard in the final production. All the dialog and sound effects must be recorded as cleanly as possible because they are never technically more accurate than the first time recorded. It is important for the final mix and sweetening steps have the best possible elements to work with.

In order to accomplish this the sound mixer must have an understanding of recorder setup, signal path and gain structure. It is important to have proper levels. Too much signal and the audio is garbled; too little and it does not stand to successive mixes and post production techniques.

Another part of the job is the proper choice and physical placement of microphones. That is choosing the right tool for the job. This is often dictated by the dynamic structure of the scene.  The goal is to get the microphone within a couple of feet of the dialog or talent. Knowing the pickup pattern of the mic used and the action of the talent is essential. Common are the use of radio mics placed on the actors, overhead boom mics, and mics planted somewhere within the scene.

One more duty is the bookkeeping involved with scene and take information so that the sound files can easily be “synced” with the picture.

NXNW: How has field audio production evolved in relation to the advancement of video technology?

Rex: With the change from analog audio to digital, the audio file based systems actually came ahead of picture systems. I think that this was largely due to the size of files involved. The audio files were much smaller. The manipulation and storage of these files required much less memory so it was a more cost effective technology in the beginning. This early change to digital audio necessitated the use of a separate audio recorder much like the early days of film where the standard was a film based movie camera for picture and a tape based audio recorder for the audio. Today both the sound and pictured are recorded as digital files but with a variety of recording schemes in place, the cameras and audio recorders today support a wide number of ways to slice and dice the picture and sounds. This requires both devices tend to be a bit complicated and the crew to know a lot of numbers and terms to be on the same page with regard to framing rates, recording codecs, etc.

NXNW: What are the benefits of using an external audio recording system vs recording directly to camera?

Rex: Because cameras and recorders are complicated today we are back to a system where the sound and picture are often recorded on two separate devices. This is referred to as double system recording. Each device is optimized for its own job. The flexibility required for today’s work would make a device that fully addressed the the requirements for both processes would be unwieldy indeed, not to mention extremely expensive. The double system also affords the individual operators of each craft (sound and picture) to have full flexibility in creating the highest quality sound and picture elements. Having a single operator/artist trying to create and technically monitor both jobs only leads to a mediocre product.

Sound and Vision: Q & A with Audio Expert Rex Morris I North by Northwest Boise

NXNW: Why is it important to get clean audio during field production?

Rex: As humans we transfer information by talking so its important to hear the language with all it subtleties. The audio signal never gets better than its first recording, so the initial recording is the most important step in the audio process. As it is re-recorded and manipulated in post production the best that can happen is to keep the original quality. Clean dialog can explain a poorly shot scene but garbled audio under a clean shot makes no sense. Think foreign language film, two people sitting at a table talking with no subtitles. And nobody ever left the theater humming a great two shot or quoting a beautiful scenic cut away.

NXNW: What are some challenges that typically arise when on set?

Rex: Challenges to clean recording often center around wardrobe. Certain fabrics are abrasive or noisy. The sound of the actor moving within the fabric is often transferred to the body mics as a rustle and is a distraction. Other wardrobe issues arise from design of the costume. Tightness or lack of the wardrobe creates a lack of place to hide mics. Other challenges with wireless mics can be an issue of distance. Think of wireless mics as little radio stations with very limited transmission area. They are only designed to transmit a relatively short distance. Think how far away we can hear a soft voice versus how far away we can see something. Other challenges can be related to the action and movement of objects. The sounds of bodies and objects in motion create noise that our brain filters out but recording devices hear and record everything. Then of course the usual distractions, planes, trains, and automobiles.

 

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About the Author

Stephanie Norell is the Marketing Director for North by Northwest’s Boise office. She loves horror movies and Pinterest, adores the classic film Xanadu, and “enjoys” disseminating her thoughts for trolls to discuss online.

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