The Live Event Filmmaker’s Survival Guide – Part 2

Today is part 2 of my play by play account of how I handled one of the most nerve-racking situations a live event filmmaker can face: your audio set up changed on you just minutes before the event is about to begin. Let us recap Part 1:

  • I arrive 90 minutes early to set up audio so it’s ready to go well in advance, giving me time to get b-roll
  • Audio guy is stressed and not terribly cooperative
  • I have an XLR to quarter-inch cable out of the audio system into my Zoom H4N
  • Minutes before the speeches begin, I’m told to move my set-up to the press box

The first time something like this happened to me was years ago when I started in weddings. Right before the processional was about to begin, some sort of audio problem occurred. Either the DJ changed a setting or my mic’s batteries ran out. I don’t recall the specifics, I just recall that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. You know that feeling you get on one of those 10-story parachute drop rides at the amusement park right before they drop you? It kind of feels like that. Only, you can’t scream (although you want to).

That was then. Nowadays is a whole different ballgame. Just call me… Mr. Cool. (Commence note-taking).

In the Words of Douglas Adams…DON’T PANIC!

I take my Zoom and head over to the press box. I have to finagle with the extension cord and re-route it to the press box from the DJ station. I look at the press box and see that just about all the outputs are XLR. I contemplate running back to my audio bag and grabbing an XLR to XLR. But I don’t want to if I can avoid it. Luckily, there is ONE quarter-inch out on the press box. YES! I jack in.

I test the audio with the head phones I connected to the Zoom. There’s a popping sound. I adjust the level on the press box and it doesn’t help. “FUUUUUUDGE!” (Only, I didn’t think “fudge.”) The state representatives who will be speaking have taken the stage. The MC is starting. No time to quibble. I have to start rolling the camera. I hit record on the Zoom then get up to compose a master shot. I would normally go in for a medium close up, but I put it on master so that I can capture everything on stage then attend to the audio issue. My second camera person is getting a side-angle for coverage.

I compose a wide master shot of the stage to buy time to fix the audio issue.

The MC begins and I go back to my Zoom. The audio is terrible. Loud. Distorted. I have to act. So I switch the Zoom input from the XLR to the built-in mic. Now I’m recording the ambient audio from the audio speakers that are only about 8 feet in front of us. It actually doesn’t sound too bad. Although, being so close to the speakers makes it kind of hard to discern. In either case, it’s good enough for now. It’ll buy me some time to run and get my XLR to XLR cable. I’m hoping that’ll fix the distortion issue.

I double-check the camera’s composition, then high-tail it around the crowd to the back of the staging area to fetch my XLR to XLR cable from my bag. Got it.

I run back to the press box, find a free XLR out, jack in, then wire the cable over to the Zoom. The quarter-inch to XLR is still plugged in. I plug my XLR to XLR into input 2 on the Zoom. I then unplug the quarter-inch to XLR cable which was in input 1. I switch the Zoom back to the mic inputs. Bingo! No more distortion. (Just one of the many reasons I prefer XLR to quarter-inch).

But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s still hard to discern how good my signal is because I’m so close to the speakers (some high quality, noise-canceling Bose headphones would be really great right about now). I want to be safe. I know the Zoom’s mic sounded decent. So, I decide to make an executive decision. I’m going to switch the Zoom from Stereo mode to 4-channel mode. This will allow me to record both the XLR mic and the Zoom’s built-in mic. To switch to this mode requires stopping the recording, going into the menu, and making the change. I feel it’s worth it. So I wait for an opportune moment and make the switch.

The switch is made. I’m now recording both the ambient audio from the Zoom’s built-in mic, and the feed from the press box. Sounds good and all is well! I now man the camera, re-compose a tighter shot, and keep the headphones on so I can monitor sound. Silent prayers of thanks ascend to the heavens. 🙂

Once the audio issue is fixed, I compose a tighter shot of the speakers. Shot with a 28-70 2.8L.

Three Things Every Live Event Filmmaker Must Do

We’ve learned a lot over these past two days about handling tough situations like this by virtue of my play-by-play. Now let’s just make it plain and break down what is necessary for a live event filmmaker to be able to work under such duress.

  1. “Swiss Army Knife” Your Equipment. This simply means: have all the gear you need, packed and ready to go. In my audio bag (which if you recall I affectionately refer to as “Felix” named because of the famous cartoon character’s magical hat), I have all kind of audio cables: XLR-male to XLR-female; XLR-male to quarter-inch; XLR-female to quarter-inch; XLR-male to RCA; quarter-inch to RCA; you name it. My thinking is, I rather have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
  2. Have a Marines Training Mentality. Every good Marine can operate and change his or her weapon with their eyes closed. They can assemble their fire arms while blindfolded. They are intimately knowledgable about all of their gear. You have to be the same way with your gear. You have to know how to change the settings on your camera without having to look. Do you know how many “clicks” of the dial it takes to get to the setting you need? Can you adjust white balance, aperture and shutter speed while running and shooting at the same time? The better you know your equipment, the easier it will be for you to act under pressure. It will be muscle memory to you. I should also add that when it comes to audio, the more you can know about different audio sound boards, mixers, etc., the better. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve gone to locations where no staff member knew how to work the audio equipment; or even DJs who didn’t know their own equipment. If you increase your knowledge of audio gear (all kinds) the better your chances of surviving out there.
  3. Have Navy Seal Nerves. Imagine going into a live event like going into battle. You can’t afford to crack under pressure. You could die otherwise. Stay focused and frosty. That may only come with experience. I don’t know if you can “practice” that. This is one of the reasons why I say weddings are great for anyone starting out in this business. The experience I had shooting weddings and personal events for the first five years of my business is directly responsible for why I was able to handle yesterday’s event as calmly as I did.

The overall moral of this story is…in the high-pressure world of live event filmmaking, you have to be a “Hicks” not a “Hudson.”

15 thoughts on “The Live Event Filmmaker’s Survival Guide – Part 2

  1. Ron,

    I like the idea of the zoom having 4 tracks. Getting the house feed usually means giving up the abient audio. Which means applause is lost, or at best lessened. And I’ve never heard an editor complain about having too many choices in audio options. I record a regular meeting of war veterens and I always use a mix of microphone and ambient.

    It’s good to have options!


    1. I totally agree. When it comes to audio, the more options the better. Most of my gigs are controlled environments for commercial work where I’m interviewing one person at at time, so I’m used to the Stereo setting. If I did more live events, that would probably change.

      Regarding the ambient audio, depending on the size of the room, the mics of the people on stage do a pretty good job picking up applause, etc. Also, the audio rom the DSLR can be mixed in to add some ambient audio. Just ideas.

      Thanks for sharing again Alan.

  2. Ron,

    I don’t shoot much video anymore, but made my living as a live sound engineer for several years right out of college. The problem you described could have been lots of things, but one thing that comes to mind is that the 1/4″ out from the press box was likely line level, which if you Zoom was expecting mic-level audio, it would be way distorted since line-level is a much hotter signal. I think the H4n can toggle between mic and line level regardless of which physical input you are using, which may have allowed you to keep the original setup. I could be way wrong, but just a thought I figured it was worth sharing.

  3. Great post Ron! Reminds me of a lot of my own close calls! Amazing what you learn when your fanny is to the fire!! LOL

  4. Great advice! I’m glad it all worked out ok. Wow! What an epic and tense situation! I could feel the suspense building up from Part 1. Your hectic day would make a great short film. Ron Dawson starring in “Silence, Smiley, Fudge”.

  5. Having done things like this many times, I find the alternative saves a lot of running around:

    A cube wireless audio transmitter to a receiver on the camera means you can be sure you’ve got good audio, as opposed to having to run back & forth to check, or leave the recorder in place and hope. I have been on several events where half-way through, they change mics, have a different presenter, etc, and THAT mic isn’t on the board feed going to me or the press box. Or the cable feeding the box is bad. Or some jerk comes in after me and yanks mine out. I can only affect change if I hear it live.

    (as a side note, this is why you see so many mics on the podium when the local news covers a corporate event. – NOBODY wants to rely on someone else’s gear. Everyone wants their own mic on that podium.)

    Would it have been possible to just leave your gear plugged into the audio board? I mean, if the audio guy set up a press box and you still had your feed, there’s no harm, no foul, and it holds Rule #1 true: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    And, as Matt says, the Zoom can toggle between mic & line so knowing your gear in and out- especially for live events- is critical. In this case, it would have saved some running around and the change in ambient / board audio part way through the event.

    Great idea about using all four sources. I always seek out as much as possible at a live event because you can always ditch it later, but if you need it later, there’s usually no way to get it.

    1. You’re totally right about keeping my first set up. I tend to be the kind who likes to cooperate so I pulled from the audio guy’s board in favor of the press box. The upside was that I was close enough to the press box to monitor sound. But, next time I’m just as likely to keep my first set up.

      Thanks for sharing.

  6. What you experienced certainly is a very typical situation. I’ve been shooting video for nearly 20 years and that’s exactly what I always prepare for on every live event I shoot.

    One of the best things I’ve added to my kit is the Radial PROD2 stereo direct box for about $150.00. It’s a two channel splitter that can be inserted into the signal path, between the audio console and the power amps and gives you a mic level tap to send to your camera or separate mixer. Obviously, if there is another output available from the audio console you could use the direct line to send to one camera’s line input and the mic level tap to your other camera or audio recording device.

    I’m fortunate: I started out as a musician/audio guy. Over the years I’ve accumulated an entire arsenal of audio patch cables and adapters, (many of which I built from scratch myself.) I even have my own press box which has come in handy on a number of occasions.

    Here’s one thing to consider, especially in very small meeting rooms where amplification really isn’t necessary and usually hasn’t been provided. I’ve found that people are psychologically more predisposed to speaking into your microphone if they think it’s needed for a sound system. In these instances, with permission and enough time I’ve set up my own small sound system to draw the main speaker closer to the mic stand or lectern. I’ve also set up a Q. & A. mic on a stand, at a convenient place for the audience, usually near the front of the room but not too close to the lectern. It doesn’t hurt to announce or have the M.C. announce that no questions will be taken unless they’re asked at the Q. & A. mic. These are just some small touches that can make your recordings that much better.

    1. Thanks for the great tip John. I actually do have a direct box. But it’s been so long since I’ve used it, I forgot I had one. That might have solved the initial problem. I may need to add it to my equipment checklist again. 🙂

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