What you do in the job?
On a television drama production or feature film Sound Recordists are usually referred to as Sound Mixers, although their main duties of producing high quality sound recordings to match the recorded images are largely the same as documentary or factual Sound Recordists. We will use the term Sound Recordist.
A Sound Recordists prime function is to make sound recordings of outstanding quality, free from interference and all unwanted noise.
That sounds relatively straightforward, but can prove very difficult,especially when recording that vital scene or interview near Heathrow, the M4, East Coast Mainline, road works, clock tower, play ground etc.
Recording in sound proof studios is generally less challenging than location work, but making a large space sound intimate or vice versa, tracing the odd hum to source, or isolating equipment noise can still take forever.
As a Sound Recordist it is possible to work across a wide variety of television and film formats or genres, but as with most production roles people tend to specialise in one or two areas, such as commercials and features, documentaries and live concerts, or wildlife.
Each type of production has its particular set of aural challenges. On a large scale feature film, for example, the Sound Department may be relatively large by television documentary standards, consisting of a Sound Recordist or Mixer, one or two Boom Operators and a Sound Trainee. The quantity of microphones and equipment employed may differ also, with two boom microphones which are mics on poles, being operated and recorded simultaneously, possibly in conjunction with clip mics, tie mics which are mics fitted to actors. This requires the Sound Recordist or Mixer to monitor several mic inputs at the same time via a small mobile mixing desk, usually found installed in a custom made trolley.
On a small scale documentary television production, by contrast, the Sound Recordist may record without even using a mixer, monitoring recording levels on the recording device, most likely a Mini Disc (MD) recorder or DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder. The Sound Recordist may need to operate a boom mic as well, carrying the recorder and or mixer in a special shoulder mounted bag. On productions with smaller resources, or on a small second unit, the Sound Recordist may record directly into a video camera.
By and large, most TV drama productions will have a dedicated Sound Recordist or Mixer and Boom Op as a minimum. Documentary productions generally employ a single Sound Recordist.
Productions that need to film in a personal or sensitive fashion may wish to have fewer personnel or crew around their subjects and may capitalise on multi skilled people, combining a Sound Recordist role with that of the Director for instance i.e. documentary maker, Nick Broomfield.
Those with a micro budget or a requirement for an intimate one man approach, often go further, combining the Sound Recordist, Camera Operator and Director roles in one. Budding DV Directors, Shooting APs in particular, need to be very aware of the quality of their recorded sound as this can be the major weakness of the shoot.
Images and audio are sometimes recorded separately. Regardless of the format the production is shooting on, be it video (Beta SX, Digi-Beta, HD) or film (S16mm, 35mm, S35mm) the accompanying sound must be recorded simultaneously and at the same speed as the recorded pictures to maintain synchronisation or sync between the separate recordings (when shooting film a clapper board marks the sync point visually and orally on video, digital timecode is used).
With digital equipment you are unlikely to loose sync, but as a Sound Recordist you still have to be ready and alert to record!
A drama director will happily fire any Boom Op, Sound Mixer or Trainee that miss their cues to record. Likewise, on an unpredictable documentary shoot it would not do to miss the vital accompanying sound to that important shot the cameraman just snatched.
What qualities are required?
Like many production roles you will need stamina, determination, resourcefulness, good technical knowledge, an appreciation of other crew positions, physical fitness and outstanding communications skills.
The ability to relate clearly, calmly and professionally with your crew and your subjects, be they film stars, streets sweepers, politicians, TV presenters, or whoever, is a huge priority.
You may be a technical whizz, but without good people skills, you cant make a successful Sound Recordist or any crew member come to that.
An appreciation of sound, the various qualities it can possess and those things that can effect recorded sound (from hard surfaces, room sizes, interference, etc) are a prerequisite.
Technical knowledge can be vital and run much deeper than merely knowing how to operate a DAT recorder correctly, but that is clearly a good start.
In the same way an experienced Focus Puller,1st Camera Assistant will have, many Sound Recordists possess an intimate knowledge of their equipment and are more than capable of dismantling, diagnosing and repairing a damaged mixer or microphone in the field. This can be essential, after all, who else will be available in the Amazon, at the summit of Kilimanjaro, or as quickly, even in central London?
How you start and where you can go with it?
Getting a good grounding on the job could be invaluable. Becoming a Sound Trainee on a large production (ie feature film,TV drama or major documentary series) can be a great starting point. However, before a Sound Recordist takes you on, they will want to see some evidence of your interest and potential. College courses with appropriate qualifications will say a great deal, but enthusiasm for the subject and a willing attitude will always win the day.
As a Trainee you can expect to build on your knowledge whilst carrying out basic functions for the Sound Recordist or Mixer and Boom Operators, from fetching the teas and ferrying gear, to running cables and connecting mics. You may have the opportunity to operate Boom Mics, attach clip mics or even mix andrecord sound under supervision. It should prove varied and ultimately rewarding.
The next rung of the ladder can be quite a step up, with a whole host of other demands
Sometimes known as Sound Maintenance, or Sound Assistant, the Boom Operator is principally responsible for maintaining excellent sound quality during recording by moving the boom mic with the subject. This sounds deceptively simple.
The boom mic is called such because it is attached to a long pole, or boom. This is because the microphone needs to be placed as closely as possible to the subject(s) being recorded without, and here is the catch, appearing in shot.
The consequence of this is that the Boom Op has to work within fine tolerances, if the mic is too far away from the subject(s) sound quality will be compromised, too close and the mic can dip into shot.
Boom Ops are often jointly or wholly responsible for attaching clip mics to subjects. Here, much decorum and finesse is required. You may find yourself required to reach down Angelina Jolies top or the Prime Ministers back pocket. Fitting (and hiding) a remote clip mic is an art in its self and can lead to potential embarrassment for all concerned. Not all actors or contributors are good humoured, so absolute professionalism is essential!
Boom Operating (within TV drama and feature films) is a professional grade and you could make a lucrative, if physically taxing career of it for many years.
To become a fully fledged Sound Recordist or Mixer, you will need plenty of technical ability and talent. It is a freelance industry and will almost certainly mean funding and purchasing your own equipment. This is potentially very expensive, so you will probably start out with a basic kit of quality components purchased second hand and then add to or replace that kit as you gain employment.