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VIDEO: An Insider Look at the World of Production Audio for Television

Matt Hughes, professional sound recordist for multiple leading British television shows, discusses gear, mic placement, and career paths.

I like to think I’m a pretty solid jack of all trades regarding the broad range of roles within the filmmaking umbrella. Cinematography, lighting, editing, motion design…I even like to dabble in the practicality of making props. However, I’m not exceptionally versed in two areas: 3D (that changes this year) and audio.

While I know the fundamentals of audio, the advanced areas of the topic have not yet graced my CV. And that’s okay. Realistically it gets to a point where it’s more beneficial to focus on a specific area if you want to progress with your career. There are audio professionals for a reason, and people have dedicated their careers to ensuring a production has incredible audio.

Therefore, instead of presenting a series of researched audio tips, let’s bring in a real-life audio guru who has hands-on experience with recording sound. Matthew Hughes is a professional sound recordist who has recorded reality and documentary sound for several broadcasts across major British regional TV channels such as BBC 1, ITV, and Channel 4. In the video below, he discusses the mechanics behind recording professional sound for TV.

STTK. I think there is a common misconception about what sound recordists do (standing around holding boom poles.) So, what does their day on set actually look like?
Stock photo of boom mic operator working on set outdoors
Image via Kzenon.

Matt: Many people think of production audio as someone on set just holding onto the boom, but there is a lot more to it. We like to think of ourselves as part of the whole process. The sound department needs to be involved early in pre-production because we can help with locations, recommend specific audio kits, and think of creative ways to solve potential sound problems on the day of shooting. It is good to have the audio team in the planning stages.

On professional television sets, more than one person ensures the audio is well recorded. Usually there are two assistants, a first and second sound assistant. They will be the ones to hold the boom and set up the lav or radio mics. They will also look into all possible options for fixing sound problems like hums, room noise, traffic noise, etc.

The boom operators are akin to the first assistant camera/focus puller. They’re on set, they learn the script, and they’re trying to find the best possible way to capture good, clean sound. It is an important role, and it’s often overlooked.

Sound mixers monitoring audio on set
Image via Grusho Anna.

In addition to the sound assists, you will have a sound mixer. They’re following the script and mixing so that the live recorded audio can go straight into the edit with minimal tweaking (until it gets to the final audio engineer, of course.) The added advantage is you’ve got a perfect mix, and the director on set can hear that and stay focused more clearly on the result.

STTK: Your recording and mixing kit looks much more complicated than what I have as a solo filmmaker. Can you explain to us what all this audio gear is and why you need it (you’re going to want to refer to the video for this specific transcript)?
Closeup of Matt Hughes' audio gear setup

Matt: Yeah, I suppose it looks intimidating if you have never seen it before. I’ve got a microphone in a windshield (aka deadcat) because I do a lot of filming outside. There is a shotgun mic in there, which is an NTG-3.

That brings us to the mixer, a Sound Devices 664, which allows me to mix the boom mic with radio mics and vice versa. Attached to my mixer, you will see all the radio receivers for the lav mics.

I also have a transmitter that sends audio to the camera on set. So, instead of being connected to the camera via XLR cable, the mix goes wirelessly—making the camera operator and myself free to move around as needed.

STTK: Typically, we know that sound—specifically external noise—can hinder most amateur filmmakers. I’m talking, refrigerator buzz or AC hum. How does that equipment accommodate those issues? Are you able to block those types of sound issues using your specialist gear, or are you faced with the same problems?

Matt: We are often faced with the same problems. The best bet with external noise is to get in there and try to remove as much of that ambient noise as possible. If there is a gardener next door, speak to them politely and discuss your production’s plans. Most people are very accommodating.

The weapon that all sound recordists have is a shotgun mic for outside, which does help remove extraneous noise, but it’s not a catch-all.

Boom mic operator on standby on an indoor set
Image via Grusho Anna.

STTK: Could you still theoretically do your job on a professional TV show with prosumer or less expensive gear?

Matt: I could, yes, if I had no other option. It’s more about the ease of use for me. You will find many sound mixers turn up with their gear because it’s a part of them. I need to know where everything is and be able to do things quickly not to slow down the production.

The Mix-Pre or similar devices are tremendous, but straight away—you’ve only got 3.5mm outputs, whereas, on my Sound Devices recorder, I’ve got XLRs, Mini XLRs, and TA3 input options. So, it’s the feature set that lends to ease of use for me.

So, yes, you could do it. But with better gear, you can mix the signal better, add extra mics more quickly, and use more mics in general. So just like anything in the creative industry, there is a turning point where it’s like, “we need to get someone in with the gear to be able to do the job correctly.”

For example, the mixer I use will take in 12 signals, meaning a total of 12 mics can feed into my mixer. Most budget handheld mixers will only give you four max. There are more outputs on my mixer as well, so I can output to multiple cameras simultaneously, as well as audio feeds for the director to listen to.

There are also better timecode features and the ability to sync with the camera/s on set. Sound Devices recently released some new gear, which has built-in auto mixers and de-noise plugins. There are also a plethora of accessories for the more pro-level equipment.

STTK: So I think it would be fair to say that everyone gravitates towards the camera and wants to be a cinematographer or a director in this visual day and age. But there are still audiophiles who prefer everything to do with sound. From your experience as someone who works professionally on documentary and reality TV shows, how do you break into the sound department? What was your journey?

Matt: I’d say, first off, it’s a fair amount of luck and being in the right place at the right time—like almost all roles on set. I dabble with a few different instruments and originally wanted to work in recording studios and recording bands. I went off to uni, did all that, and towards the end, I thought, “oh, I don’t know if I want to do this.”

Around that time, a local filmmaker and close friend were making short films. He said, “You do sound in uni, right? You must know how to run sound on a film set. Do you want to come to help out?” and I didn’t have a clue, but yeah, we used the kit he had, which I think it was a TASCAM, a mix-pre, and that NTG3.

From there, I worked on other short film and web series projects here and there, and that’s important for the experience because I came out of uni thinking I knew everything, but those short films showed me I had a lot to learn only knowledge could teach me.

Audio recording artist on set outdoors
Image via Grusho Anna.

Luckily, around that time, I discovered there were some audio training programs in place with television channels. You could go on as a trainee and sort of help out in the sound department and learn the ropes.

From there, I started buying my kit, which, as everyone knows, is massively expensive. I had cobbled a few pieces of gear together, and then I managed to get a job on a show on TV every day. I could say, “I’ve worked on this television show that airs on TV every single day,” instead of saying, “I worked on my mate’s short film.” Just having that credit opened doors for me instantly because I was working with people in the industry.

I’m sorry to say there’s no “do this, do this, and then this will happen.” It’s a fair amount of luck—an email at the right time to the right person or meeting someone new on set and vibing with them. Expanding your network is the biggest thing that’s opened the door for me.

Speaking to other sound recorders, it’s a friendly community, and that community has greatly benefited me. They might not be able to take a gig, and they will say, “oh, a mate of mine—he could do it.” That will benefit you massively. Also, being an expert in your craft. Do the research and get great sound every time.

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