Sunday, August 14, 2011


Hey friends and family. About a week ago I got the kind of job that takes years to snag. I cannot discuss it in too much detail because I have signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but I can say that it is a Reality show that is shooting for 10 production weeks near Houston, TX. I am actually writing this from the Lone Star state as we speak.

I was busy right up until I left. Before leaving, I wrapped up production on an infomercial, and was doing sound for a documentary on Keanu Reeves’ old metal band Dogstar. Unfortunately, taking this job meant I would NOT be meeting the big K, or other stars like Carrie Ann-Moss and Sandra Bullock, but this was too big of an opportunity to pass up.

In addition to all that, I also subbed for a production sound class at Columbia. After which, I had to give my notice to the Dean (my old boss) that I would not be able to teach in the Fall as I had originally planned.

Without question, Houston is the hottest and most humid place on Earth. I was practically swimming when I got off the plane. My hottest day in Chicago doesn’t even compete with this place. Production on this show will start on Monday, with two days of “prep” on Saturday and Sunday. This turned out to be much more difficult then I thought. Unlike my usual gigs, where productions pay me for my labor and rent my equipment (this is called a “box rental”), this time the production was supplying the gear. This is typical when a production company shoots a lot of shows. The problem with this is that I’m using someone else’s gear, and it was not in order when I got there.

In fact, it was a complete mess. The audio package was spread over six or seven Pelican cases, and countless other odds and ends were in other boxes. The first problem was that I could not find the recorder, the nerve center of my operation. After about two hours of looking for it, I finally had to bring the matter to the Production Manager, who promptly flipped out and called the main production office in Burbank, CA. We eventually found it in the catering department. Whew!

It ended up taking me a full 12-hour day to find all of the little pieces and wire the audio package. The package currently consists of the recorder, the mixing control surface, eight receivers, two camera hops, a Comtek, and a bunch of little audio accessories. The picture below may help to illustrate this. All of this is attached to my back and is a considerable amount of weight. This is serious, folks.

Serious Audio. The silver thing is the audio recorder.
The bottom half is the mixer. Receivers are on top.
The blue wires to the right lead to the wireless audio for cameras.

A lot of you have asked for more info about what I actually do on set, so I will try to explain what my job is. With a reality show, we shoot with multiple cameras at the same time. We follow multiple subjects (or “talent) with these cameras, and this has very specific demands from the audio dept. I use the words “audio dept.” loosely, because it’s just me. I don’t even have a boom operator.

In order to pull this off, all the talent must be recorded several times. People on camera will have a tiny microphone (called a lavalier, or lav) hidden on their person. The mic is connected to a transmitter on their belt line. The transmitter is that tiny box you see refs wear on their belt in the NFL. The receivers are in my audio bag, and the signals are fed directly into the recorder. The recorder is the Sound Devices 788T, and has a built in mixer. This allows me to route, or “mix” the signals any way I need. The recorder can accommodate up to eight inputs, but it can record up to twelve tracks: the two channel “mix,” individual isolated tracks (called “Iso’s” or “stems”), and two auxiliary tracks. I will explain that more, don’t worry.

A mix is the main audio on a project. Basically, it’s a selection of what I think is the best audio. It consists of two channels: left and right, like stereo. In this particular case, the host of the show will be placed on the left channel, and all other talent will be on the right channel. In order to make it to the mix, I have to have the fader turned up on the given talent. This is done so you, the viewer, only hear who is relevant to a particular shot. For example, if we were in a garage with eight workers, but only one of them was talking to camera, I would have the other workers turned down in the mix.

The isolated tracks will record every talent separately regardless if their fader is muted. This is done as a redundancy in case I miss a line, or if there is an add-lib. The auxiliary (or aux) tracks are two more tracks that I could put anything on, but in this case I won’t be using them.

Since there are multiple cameras shooting wide shots and close-ups at the same time, I probably won’t be booming much. This will require very careful mixing on my part. As if that wasn’t enough, I am also in charge of sending audio feeds to several key personnel on set. The left mix is sent wirelessly to Camera A, the main camera that will primarily feature the host. The Right mix is sent to Camera B. In post-production, the cameras will be synced to the slate (aka the clapper), so the editors can use the audio sent directly to camera without having to sync my audio up.

Another duty I have is timecode. Timecode is a numerical system for labeling frames of film and video. Represented visually, it might look something like this 09:17:52:03. The numbers mean HOURS:MINUTES:SECONDS:FRAMES. Since timecode is set to time of day, in this example it means that the footage is currently rolling at 9:17am, plus fifty-two seconds and three frames. I set the numbers on my audio recorder, and feed the timecode into the cameras via BNC cable. This means that if an action happens on the cameras, the editors can locate the audio that goes with it by simply typing the numbers on a keypad. This is very useful if we must roll cameras without getting a marker.

A close-up of the Countryman B6 lavalier.
This mic will be used on the host.
It's so small I can hide it behind a shirt button!

I also need to send audio feeds to the producers. Most likely they will want to hear their star talent only; regardless if he’s on camera. To do this, I route his lavalier into Output 1, which is hooked up to a Comtek transmitter. The producer and several other personnel have receivers with headphones tuned into the same frequency, and are able to monitor talent at all times.

The recorder is completely digital, and this is how it is able to accommodate many of these advanced functions. At the end of the day, I download the takes as computer files directly onto a hard drive. From there, I burn two sets of DVDs, one is the actual masters and the second is a back-up copy. I also make notes on a sound report when possible to let the editors know of any sound problems I had during the day. All of this is combined with the shot rolls (the rolls are HD video tape), and shipped back to California.

Back in LA, the post people will digitize the tapes, sync my audio to the “dailies,” and begin editing. We can easily shoot 12 hours or more a day, and it usually takes five days to shoot out an episode. All of this will eventually be cut down to a program of less than forty minutes (expanded to 60 with commercials). We have an order for an eight-episode season, so as you can see, this is a LOT of work.

Production is currently scheduled to go at least 10 days straight. I should have one or two days off, but that will not be enough to fly back to Los Angeles, so I will be staying here in Texas. After that, there will be another extended shooting schedule before the next hiatus. How long, I do not know, but at some point in September I should be able to fly home for a week or so before flying back for round two. As of right now, my stay in Houston is indefinite. My return is dictated strictly by the schedule of our host. Funny thing is that I’m going to have to find more work in LA, or people will forget about me! Gotta stay relevant.

Needless to say this is quite a change from my usual projects. This TV show will air on a cable network, and I look forward to giving you that info soon. The pay is very respectable and I shouldn’t have to work for months if I don’t want to. Plus, I’m hoping with this experience I will be eligible to join the sound mixer union. It will be hard to be away from Jen this long, but we both have our eye on the prize. We did long-distance when I first moved across country for college, so this will be a piece of cake. Still, I miss her.

I really don’t have the words to describe this (well, clearly I do, look at how long his post is!). I have been trying to work on a real film or TV show for over seven years; pretty much ever since I came to Hollywood. I never thought it would be in the sound department, but I am thrilled to finally earn some serious credits. Here’s hoping that the show is renewed for season 2!

A closer view. The top module is the recorder.
The faders below adjust the volume being fed
to the main mix.


  1. You are a genius! Oh...and your sMother loves you. xo

  2. hells yea Mo NooKa

    That's what I'm talkin 'bout

    It'll be fancy cars and swimmin pools for all of us sOOn enough.

    Congrats bro-honis


  3. Hey Mikey! I'm so happy you got that gig! I wonder if there are any old school Real World Chicago peeps on that shoot! The best thing about reality TV is that it can be a very long and successful career because reality tv isn't going anywhere!
    Eat steak and BBQ for me!
    Xoxo Julie