Pro Audio Profiles
The responsibilities of a broadcast news field crew are many. Coordinating personnel and equipment—many times at the last minute—can be a logistical nightmare, whether the destination is across town or the other side of the earth. There are times when arriving on the scene first can make all the difference in the success of a story, but an absolute must is getting the job done under any circumstances. Raphael Gorham has traveled the globe as a field sound engineer, visiting political hot spots and international locations of interest for ABC, CNN International, NBC, CBS, NHK (Japanese Public Television), ZDF (German Public Television), PBS, and ESPN among others. Years spent lugging gear through Europe, Scandinavia, the Far East, South America, the Middle East, and North Africa for documentaries and news features has lead him to a definitive working style, a strong opinion regarding gear, and a big-picture sense of the state of the audio/video broadcast industry.
How has the news industry changed over the years as you see it?
The rapid progression of handheld video cameras has completely changed the face of News/Docs around the world. Pretty much all the historic footage captured in the last 8 years (Tsunami, Chinese Earthquake) were by amateurs or semi-pro videographers, and Networks have turned to the general public as a primary source of content.
How has technology changed your working methods?
Budgets: have changed the most. A [single] technician has to be able to do what took three people to pull off just eight years ago.
Portability: I used to lug five to six large cases of gear around the world. Now I can provide a client with what they need with about 2 medium-sized cases.
Speed: TV Networks (both domestic and abroad) are in more competition than ever, and that means content must be gathered and distributed in a flash.
As we enter the days of Gigabit Ethernet and 3G mobile devices, the technology that's really changing the way we do business in the field is a satellite technology called BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network). Currently, it's only capable of 500kps downloads, but in the hands of an experienced user and decent weather, a field reporter can single-handedly:
1) Shoot an event;
2) Edit footage and record narrative audio track;
3) Encode data and send to any TV Network with a decoder (all instantly via satellite);
4) Provide live (video and audio)crosstalk with any News Anchor in the world by making use of an additional Satellite phone.
All of this can be done from any remote location on the planet.
What gear do you use on a daily basis?
When it comes to mixing sources in the field, unlike in the music and post worlds, analog mixers are still king. There are several great portable digital mixers available, but most field recordists and sound techs still rely on circuitry rather than software for this function. I have two four-channel (battery-powered) mixers that can be bussed together when needed. Whenever there are live musicians involved, even if they are only in the background of the subject matter, I always use higher-quality battery-powered preamps and record to a separate digital handheld. The client doesn't usually request this, but I've assembled an incredible collection of tribal and ethnic performances from around the world this way.
I use almost any type of microphone you can name except large diaphragm condensers. You simply can't have too many channels of wireless microphones. I was working on a documentary about immigration in Amsterdam a few years ago, and was in a sensitive situation where the director requested that I not use lavalier mics on the subjects. I hadn't expected this, so at the last minute I placed two shotgun and two PZM mics around the room. I used portable phantom power supplies with wireless belt-pack transmitters and (surprisingly) everything sounded great. Unlike shooting movies and episodic television, documentaries and long form news stories never have a budget for an audio assistant, and definitely not for a boom operator. It is usually just you and your gear . . . so you'd better get well acquainted with it.
What considerations do you have to make when traveling with gear?
No matter whether I'm traveling for a documentary or Network news coverage, packing has become more and more of a challenge with ever-increasing restrictions by airlines and airport security. Digital recording has reduced the weight of field audio gear to a fraction of what it was 10 years ago, but it is also a [reason] to be extremely smart about taking care of your equipment. Most digital recorders are small enough to pack in a carry-on bag along with some clothing.
Every situation takes some creativity to capture. Do you have any particularly memorable setup experiences that you can relate?
A few summers ago I was in Cape Hatteras shooting a sports documentary about kite boarding for Red Bull. All the activity and interviews were captured in High Def, so the producer wanted the sound to be really exciting. I rented waterproof wireless transmitters and attached mics to all the jumping ramps and to a few competitors. I had an assistant who manned a parabolic dish. Between the waves, the wind, and submersed microphones, we got all kinds of results. That was a really crazy week, not to mention the quiet interview on the beach that ended with a pickup truck and generator accidentally going up in flames on the set.
Has certain equipment ever saved the day for you?
On an ENG shoot where Hilary Clinton was thanking a dozen local politicians in a suburban diner, there were about 6 network crews waiting for her when she arrived. There were only 3 sound techs and we all had planned to use booms to get her audio. I happened to have a Crown PZM mic and phantom PS in my bag, so I set in the middle of the tables where they were to sit and attached a wireless transmitter. When Clinton arrived, Secret Service moved the press further out of range than we had anticipated (which is not a problem for cameramen) so booming her was not an option. The PZM worked great and I was able to record the entire conversation.
What changes do you see on the horizon?
I see mobility. As wireless bandwidth approaches levels for transmitting and receiving high-resolution data, we will find ourselves in a situation where this morning's news will seem ancient by 3 p.m. The challenge amongst an increasingly competitive array of local, national, and eventually international news organizations will be to find a way to be everywhere at once. You'll be able to really watch events unfold right before your eyes . . . right in the palm of your hand.
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