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.
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. 🙂
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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.