A Q&A with Arran Murphy

PART 2: Nerding Out

Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with veteran sound mixer Arran Murphy. In today’s episode, we talk about things like “MKH 416”s and “directional

Arran Murphy - Sound Mixer Extrodinaire

pickup patterns.” And then we push the glasses up on the bridges of our noses.

Here’s Part 1  if you missed it.

What’s your gear of choice?
I’ve worked with different kinds of sound cart set-ups and over the shoulder rigs with lots of additions and bell and whistles, but as far as the basics go I still like to use the good ‘ole MKH 416. This microphone has been a good workhorse for many years and I think it will always be among my arsenal of shotgun mics. It’s not very common anymore, but I’m also a big fan of the MKH 816. It’s a super hyper cardioid mic that works great for when you have to boom wider shots. For lav mics themselves, I like to use Sanken COS 11’s . Although, I have become fond of the Countryman B6‘s, as they’re very small and easier to hide, yet still have a high quality sound.  My favorite* recorder is the Sound Devices 788T . It’s a great multi-track recorder that has great pre amps and is very easy to work with. Multi-track recorders enable the sound mixer to record a mix track whilst** simultaneously recording isolated (or “iso”) tracks of each individual mic.

For example, if during a scene an actor unexpectedly messes with his mic over another actors dialogue, then the sound is ruined – as far as the main mix goes. However, having the iso tracks that record each individual mic simultaneously allows the editor to disregard that bad audio in the main mix and refer to the clean audio of the iso track assigned to that actor. Multi-track recorders are very important nowadays, especially in TV where there are often multi-camera set-ups where you have a wide shot with A Cam, a two shot with B Cam and real tight shot with C Cam etc… So the ability to boom a scene isn’t possible. Mixers have to deal with multiple wireless mics in these situations. Multi-track recorders can be a lifesaver. They’re a great safety net that helps ensure that the dialogue is captured on the day, which can help eliminate the need for ADR down the line.

Lavs or Booms?  Where, when, why, how?
My first approach to any scene is with the boom.  Why? Because the mic-to-source (actors voice) distance creates a better balance between the dialogue and the surrounding ambience, creating a much more natural sound. I always prefer to boom a scene and always try to make it work. If booming from above isn’t working because of shadows cast by the mic and/or boom pole, I’ll boom from underneath. If coming from underneath doesn’t work, I’ll look for ways to plant a mic. Failing all of those options, I’ll resort to micing the talent with lavs. I’m sometimes very reluctant to use lavs because unlike the boom, they don’t give that natural sound and instead can sound too close and personal. The mic being buried under clothing doesn’t help and can sometimes lead to unwanted, nasty clothing noise which means taking the talent aside to re-tweak the mic positioning (and to any actors reading this, believe me, I don’t like having to get into your personal space any more than you want me there!)

Most often, lavs are used for convenience. For example, the shot is too wide or the movement of actors around a tight space with low ceilings would make it not possible to get a boom mic in.
On the other hand, there have been times when lav mics are a lifesaver. On outdoor locations where the ambience is to loud or indoors where the acoustics are not so forgiving, lav mics are more favorable over shotgun mics. When I have actors wired for a wide master shot, if the lavs are sounding nice and clear, with no clothing noise, I don’t remove them after the master shot, but instead leave them on throughout all the tight and medium coverage shots which allows for consistency between cuts and a seemingly flow of sound for the whole scene. In short, my opinion is to use the boom as often as possible and only use lavs when there is no other alternative.

Is a boom operator really needed?
YES! The importance of a good boom operator is probably one of the most under looked things when crewing up for a show. Even some of the most seasoned sound mixers say, “I’m only as good as my boom op”. Because no matter good they are on the mixing board, if the microphone isn’t in the right spot at the right time, you wont be getting the clear, crisp sound your project deserves.

Don't knock it, Scotty from 'Boogie Nights' could be the perfect boom guy.

Despite what some people might think, it’s not simply holding a pole with a mic on the end. That would be like saying to a drummer: “it’s just hitting things”. Yes, that’s the concept, but if you’ve actually sat behind a drum kit and tried to make your right hand play something independent of your left hand while left foot plays something independent of your right foot, you’ll soon discover it’s not that easy. Believe it or not, boom operating is very similar. It takes quite a bit of skill to able to move a twenty foot pole across a space between two (or even several) actors who are having a quick exchange of dialogue, without creating handling noise on the boom pole that will make it’s way onto the recording. Also, usually, the shotgun microphone on the end of the boom pole has a directional pick up pattern. So, the boom operator has to be able to get that mic in the “sweet spot” each and every time to clearly catch those quick lines of dialogue. I’ve come across many people who claim to be a boom op but clearly have no real idea with what they’re doing. Therefore, try not to assign the role of boom operator to a P.A. or intern that doesn’t have this experience. If you do, you will be infesting the industry with the monster you’ve created who will go on to the next set saying, “yeah, I’ve done boom…it’s easy.” Then you’ll go on to tell your sound guy down the phone:*** “Sorry we can’t afford to hire your normal guy, but we have someone we can assign you who says he can boom…..” Then during the take, your attention at video village will be drawn away from the monitor over to the sound guy wondering why he or she is pulling their hair out!

How big is your ideal crew?
Ideally, the sound crew should consist of three people: sound mixer, boom operator and a sound utility person. Obviously, having a good boom op allows the mixer to fully concentrate with the mix on his end, but having that third person can make a world of difference. As well as being on hand to change out batteries in the talent’s mic packs, run cable and help move equipment, the sound utility person is best utilized for operating a second boom. With multiple characters speaking in scenes that involve complex choreography such as talent moving around and entering and leaving the room, a single boom op may find this hard to cover by themselves. However, a second boom op covering those actors the first boom op can’t reach can make life a lot easier and eliminate the need to put multiple lav mics on the actors.

Do you go on location scouts?  Do you find them useful?
It’s very rare for me to get invited to location scouts. Probably because production worry that if they find a location with their DP that they like I’ll be the one who spoils the mood by saying, “yeah, this stretch of beach looks great for the scene where the guy is on the desert island by himself…but unfortunately we’re right next to Pacific Coast Highway!” I do find them useful though, as I get a good idea of what to expect on the day and can prepare for it.
Sound is all around us. There are so many sounds happening around us in our day-to-day lives that we naturally just accept and therefore so many noises go unnoticed. Most people walking into a room wouldn’t give much thought to the fact the air conditioning is on. Again, it’s something you’d just accept…. but in the world of film, things like that play havoc with the audio. Then on the day of shooting, the sound mixer will want that turned off once they hear the nasty hum in their headphones. Then at that point we find out from the site rep at the office location that all the units are connected and if one goes off, they all go off which the people working downstairs won’t like. Then what? Well, you either live with bad hum, or you make a time consuming effort to have the A.C. in that room turned off. This could all have been taken care of ahead of time if the sound guy was invited on the scout.

What is a good example of how sound makes a sequence great?
A great example that I feel everyone can relate to even if they’re not in sound, is the movie JAWS.  For example, when you see something from the shark’s perspective, it’s just a shot from underwater that doesn’t look very interesting (except for the occasional fish or plant we see for a second). However, once the music is laid down on top (and we all know the theme) it adds to the suspense and build up that something is on the prowl and about to strike.



* Arran’s favorite TV show is Blackadder.

** He also likes Peep Show.

*** And The Young One


–by Will Slocombe for Film Independent

December 14th, 2011 • No Comments

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