The Moving Picture: April Fool’s Day, 2005

You can learn how to shoot video in one of two ways. You can apprentice under the direction of an experienced videographer who’s done it all and seen it all, and leverage the lessons he or she has learned over the years.

Or, you can book the jobs, buy the gear, do your research, and shoot the shoot. Though the first technique isn’t foolproof, the latter is reminiscent of what experienced cyclists will tell you about falling off the bike. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.

Sooner or later you’re going to fall off the bike (I’ve tasted dirt twice in 20 years of riding), and sooner or later, if you’re a self-taught videographer, you’re going to screw up.

Well, this week was my week. My wife and kids were in Atlanta with the grandparents, so I was free to shoot a marimba concert at the old courthouse in Independence, Virginia. The artist was Larrisa Venzie, a homegrown talent trained at Radford College and about to start graduate work at some hoity-toity university up north.

This was a free gig, I’ll admit. I do a lot of work for free, sometimes to test products like DV cameras—my background being video technology, not videography—at other times simply for the experience or to build my reputation. This time, I had a different motivation.

Last December, I shot Taimo Toomast, an Estonian opera singer, at the same venue. I was testing the divine duo of the Canon XL2 and Sony HDR-FX1, and also experimenting with my first 16:9 project. The Independence courthouse doesn’t have a sound system to connect up with, so I captured the audio with the on-camera microphones from the back of the auditorium.

So there I was, three weeks later, standing next to Taimo in my living room as he previewed the DVD on my big-screen TV. The image quality was wonderful, and though my framing could have been better, the variety delivered by the multiple-camera approach worked pretty well. Taimo was oohing and ahhing at the video, clearly pleased.

Fishing for a compliment, I asked him, “So, how’s the audio quality?” Taimo looked over and said, “Oh, it’s horrible,” like he was saying, “Your shirt is blue.”

Which should have come as no surprise to me. Objectively speaking, it’s virtually impossible to record a concert from the back of the room and hope to get even passable quality, at least from the perspective of a true artist. You’re just too far from the source, and end up recording echoes from the walls and ceiling, noise from the HVAC system, crowd noises, and the inevitable camera-handling clatter.

Of course, I couldn’t reshoot Taimo’s concert and capture better audio. But when the marimba concert came up, I volunteered to record the shoot, just to see if I could deliver pristine audio.

In the days before the shoot, I researched how to mic marimbas and pianos, and then bought $400 worth of microphones, cables, microphone stands, and headphones. Not a lot of money for audio equipment by any means, but it’s a hit on the old American Express.

I met Venzie and Sherry Hoffman, who would accompany her on the piano, at 12:30 for a soundcheck. I set up as planned, and the sound was absolutely perfect.

So I showed up at 7:00 p.m., rechecked the sound perfunctorily, and the concert began. A friend stood in the back, monitoring the main camera connected to the new audio gear while I ran Camera 2 from near the front of the stage.

At the end of the second set, my buddy reported hearing “voices” in the audio feed, which he attributed to folks chatting in the hallway outside the concert hall. I had purchased unidirectional mics that would pick up minimal crowd noise, so thought nothing of it.

Till I got home, captured the video to disk, and listened to the sound. Gone was the pristine audio, replaced by a noticeable hum, significantly less volume, and to top it off, a country music station, somehow embedded in the audio signal.

What did I do wrong? Well, lots, but I haven’t totally figured it out yet, so I really can’t tell you. One tip is never to cross a microphone cable with an AC power cord. Another is to do your soundcheck under conditions identical to the shoot, which means turning on the lights in the middle of the day and so on. But the real answer lies in the types of cables that you should buy and shields that minimize interference, and that’s what I plan to check out for a future article in EventDV.

The point of this column is this: when you try things you’ve never tried before, sooner or later you’re going to screw up. So you have some options.

First, find a veteran or two who have done it before, and ask for their help. I’ve done this several times in the past with good results, but it wasn’t possible for the marimba concert.

Second, make sure you have backup, not just for first-time equipment trials but for all your important shoots. I put a small shotgun microphone on the secondary camera I used at the shoot, so I have at least Taimo-quality audio, camera noise and all. I’ll probably buy a DAT recorder for my next gig for additional security.

In my view, it’s OK to screw up—inevitable, in fact. What’s not acceptable is to screw up without a backup.

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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