6 Ways to Learn Field Recording Skills – Part 2: Schools


University of Toronto

Are there college courses and university degrees that teach field recording skills? There certainly are.

Last week’s article explored at learning sound recording in schools with thoughts from Shane Rees, and Iain McGregor. Their questions showed an interesting contrast between a strict hands-on approach, and other options that also include theory, and conceptual sound design.

This week we’ll read about two more contrasts.

The first guest is professor Stephen Barden of Sheridan College. The second is Scott Aitken, lecturer at The Art Institute of Vancouver, and at Capilano University.

We’ll read thoughts about sound recording skills at the beginning of the production audio chain, and at the end.

Scott Aitken, who also works as a production sound mixer, will share his ideas on the value of sound as a project’s soundtrack takes form.

Stephen Barden, Sound Supervisor for Sound Dogs Toronto, will share his thoughts on giving audio its final shape.

Sheridan Logo

Stephen Barden

Stephen Barden has been a professor of the Advanced Television and Film program at Sheridan College in Toronto, Canada since 1999. He’s also the vice-president of Sound Dogs.

Toronto is a small town for post-production, and I met Stephen there years ago while working in TV and film. His work in the edit suite is well known for its excellence. I wanted to hear his thoughts on learning sound from the perspective of an editor, and as a professor at Sheridan College.

See Stephen Barden’s IMDb page.

Paul Virostek: Which courses do you in the TV and Film Studies Program?

Stephen Barden: At Sheridan College, I teach sound and sound design at the intermediate and advanced (thesis) levels of study in the 3-year Media Arts advanced diploma program, as well as in the 1-year post-grad Advanced Television and Film certificate program. By this time next year, if all goes well at the Ministry of Education, the former will be expanded into a full 4-year Bachelor of Applied Arts degree program.

Courses include pure theory (i.e. non-technical) courses like Principles of Sound Design as well as more “practical” or applied courses. Those run the gamut from Location and Studio Recording where we break down advanced methodologies for recording in a both remote and studio-based production environments, to Advanced Audio in which senior students learn refined sound editing and re-recording mixing skills in a 5.1 environment.

Audio Post Production Techniques is an intermediate course that breaks post-production sound down to the components of Dialogue, ADR, Background and Specific Effects editing. It also spends significant lecture and studio time on the craft of Foley walking/recording and ADR recording.

PV: What are highlights of the program? Anything students take a particular shine to in your courses?

SB: I think the strength of the program actually lies in the fact that my students can take a shine to any one of these areas and really hone their skills in it. We don’t teach just mixing, editing or Foley, but all of those crafts. Students can gravitate as they see fit, but also understand how each of those departments fits in with each other.

PV: Do students have an opportunity for field recording/location recording/sound design/actual editing?

SB: Yes to all of the above, on a mandatory level at first (i.e., the student has to do a bit of everything you mention here at some point), but then they might choose to focus on one particular area as they advance through the program. That said, I think nearly every student will tell you that they love recording a solid production track and then having the opportunity to also work those tracks during the final mix.

PV: What equipment can students expect to use for editing, recording, etc?

SB: Our production mixers and recorders are all Sound Devices (we still have some Fostex FR2s around as well) and we have plenty of Zoom H4n recorders on standby as well.

Location mics include the usual Neumann, Sennheiser and Røde suspects – all quality goods. Studio mics include Neumann, Audio Technica, AKG, Sennheiser, Shure, etc.

We are an Avid house…Pro Tools 10 everywhere. Avid LogoStudios are HD and monitoring in 5.1 (Genelec), and all audio students have Pro Tools on their laptops as well.

Our in-house library is accessed through several Soundminer workstations for sourcing sessions.

PV: What general advice can you share for new people interested in sound?

SB: If a person has an interest in some aspect of Sound For Picture, I actually would push them towards spending a fair amount of time focusing on the picture side of that equation.

Let me elaborate: As a sound supervisor, if I was approached by two equally ambitious individuals who wanted to join my crew, I might look at their educational backgrounds to gauge their level of understanding of the Sound For Picture process. If one of them had attended a “sound” school (perhaps a school where there is an emphasis on music engineering or production), while the other one had attended a “film” school without a particular specialization in sound, I would actually be more inclined to take the film student on my crew over the sound student. My feeling is that the required knowledge of sound is so much easier to learn (on the job) than that of the overall film process.

In short, whatever filmmaking or visual storytelling experience can be acquired is only going to help someone on their journey to working in Sound For Picture.

Also, a reasonably simple piece of advice would be to watch (and listen to!) as many films in a good screening environment as possible.

PV: As a sound supervisor who has worked internationally in Toronto, LA, New York, and at the Skywalker Ranch, what are your thoughts/observations on how an editor/recordist’s work affects a project as a whole? What is the best thing a dialogue editor or ADR recordist can contribute?

Sounddogs TorontoSB: I had been working for about 5 or 6 years by the time I traveled to Marin County to work at Skywalker Sound, and the most rewarding and fulfilling thing that I discovered on that particular job was that dub stages (and post-production sound facilities in general) subscribe to the same procedures no matter where you are. It was gratifying to know that everything I had learned in my first few years in the industry in Toronto (within Sound Dogs and Deluxe Post Production) prepared me to walk onto a stage at Skywalker confident in my craft and earn the respect of the professionals who worked there.

Scott Aitken

Scott Aitken has been working in the location sound department since 1996. He began work in sound with a Film Degree from the University of Western Ontario, and was a projectionist for 35mm and 16mm film.

He belongs to IATSE 891, and has been a Sound Assistant/Sound Utility, and Boom Operator. He now primarily work as a Production Sound Mixer, who works on features and TV movies.

I had the good fortune to work with Scott Aitken while living in Vancouver. He taught me an incredible amount about recording dialogue on set. He now shares his knowledge with others, lecturing at the Art Institute of Vancouver, as well as the Location Audio course at Capilano University.

Paul Virostek: Can you describe the courses you teach?

Scott Aitken: About four years ago a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in designing and teaching my own ten-week location audio course at the Art Institute of Vancouver. I was provided with a set of course outcomes that included:

  • Set etiquette.
  • Operating a field mixer.
  • Understanding microphone choice and placement.
  • Calibrating to an external recorder.
  • Use of a wireless microphone system.

This is a very hands-on, learner-centered course. The students themselves motivate the way the class moves along. I base most of my lessons around learning in small shooting groups of two or three students working with a small location sound package consisting of:

  • A 4 x 2 x 2 Wendt mixer.
  • Sennheiser ME 66 and 64 microphones.
  • PSC duplex camera snake.
  • K Tek 4 stage 12 ft boom pole.
  • Sony 7506 headphones.
  • A Sennheiser G3 wireless system.

Capilano University Logo

Two years ago I also began to teach Location Audio in the fall semester at Capilano University as part of the four-year film degree they offer. I now teach sound lectures as part of a first-year course in cinematography (!!??). This is a four-session course in sound for Documentary as part of an eight-month documentary production degree.

I also teach a second year Technical Arts course which I team-teach with cinematographer James Wallace and a former 1st Assistant Director Ty Haller (who is so much more than that due to his decades of film and writing experience).

In the tech arts course we do six hours of sound intensive “review,” and introduce:

  • The concept of working from a sound cart.
  • Setting up a Comteck system.
  • The sound quality/possibilities of wireless boom verses XLR cabled boom.
  • Hidden lavaliere microphone techniques.
  • Working with two boom operators.
  • Planting microphones.

Also, we shoot one-page, two-person scenes from Taxi Driver, Taxi Driver PosterCasablanca, Turning Point and a few other classic films that the students have seen, and we all enjoy. It’s a fun, intense, focused couple of weeks. It gives the students an introduction to working on set as part of a shooting crew. Every student shifts roles to become an AD, Camera Operater, Grip/Electrics, Act/Stand-in and Mixer/Boom Operator.

At the end, they really understand how all jobs need to work together towards the common goal: recording a take using the double-system method with an external Sound devices 702 recorder. The footage we shoot – which includes basic coverage – is then used in the editing classes the following semester. This is where students begin to recognize they can’t fix everything in post-production.

PV: What is the importance of studying/theory, as compared to practical experience?

SA: In my courses I stress the theory of the two major principles of audio: the concept of unity, and the idea of setting up a proper gain structure based on this concept.

Everything else, from mic choice and placement, is built on these guiding principles. This includes proper metering (understanding levels based on the concept of unity) and monitoring (understanding how your recordings are going to be used in the final production – i.e., close coverage, perspective in a master, multiple microphones, when to wire).

For me, these theoretical principles are nothing without the actual practice of shooting something so that students can listen to what they just shot in a screening environment.

Because the course at the Art Institute is longer, I build into each four-hour class a shooting exercise based on the lecture/principles we’ve just learned. We then screen these small, improvised scenes (which are usually comic in nature mostly due to bad acting by total student non-actors!) at the end of class so that the mic placement and what they think they heard in the headphones is still fresh in their minds. I find this immediate feedback essential to training our ears on how our recordings will translate to the screen.

PV: What advice do you have for curious people new to location recording? What would you say to beginners?

SA: You have to pause, stop talking about movies and how great they are (which is fun, but most people that get paid for this have never really made a movie), and go out and make movies and see if this is the job for you. Location Audio for drama is different than location audio for documentary. Post-production recording is vastly different than recording on set. Find out what you like. Or, maybe you like none of it, and you just want the relative peace to edit!

Lift Logo

Join a filmmaking collective. The one in Vancouver is called CINEWORKS. In Toronto they have one called LIFT. They have cheap equipment rental for members, and give classes in the basics of good filmmaking skills. You’ll be hanging around like-minded individuals who (at least in my town) are always looking for somebody to do sound on their movies! You’ll begin to learn on professional equipment and start to do things with art and science in mind, rather than just “it’s good enough for YouTube.”

If you want to do this professionally, you have to be dedicated and practice your craft. This was originally done in “the old days” through the act of apprenticed labor. You would work for an experienced mixer and boom operator, learning the “tricks of the trade.” I regularly try to have volunteers and former students on set to give them the experience of a 12- to 14-hour shooting day. It’s not the life for everybody – kind of like those that work on ships or for the circus – but those who bond with it wouldn’t ever be caught dead working nine to five in an office, looking forward to “casual Fridays.”

PV: FX field recordings are often used to supplement projects. As a sound mixer, your dialogue tracks are key. But what are your thoughts on the importance of recording supplemental wild lines, distinctive props on set, room tone, ambient fx tracks, etc?

SA: I’m always asked by editors to record wild lines. I try to use the same microphones, and if we’re on the same location, try to record in the same space. It’s hard to do with the juggernaut that is a shooting crew. I tend to approach each day’s work like taking a river rapids rafting adventure – usually calm at the start, then it gets crazy, and you’re just trying to stay upright and on course! Some locations (like rivers) are treacherous and unrelenting, so it takes all your focus and technical know-how to get useable tracks for the day.

So, add the needs of room tone and anything else that post-production thinks they need (“can you go out and record all the car doors slamming and drive around for a bit?”), and it can make for a tricky juggling act, especially when we’re just trying to stay afloat on set.

For me this only works if we have time. Mostly we’re getting wild lines for the editor to cut for timing. They’ll probably be replaced or ADR’d in the post sound edit.

Treme Logo

My favorite thing to do is a record the actual musician on set as part of a scene. I’m a big fan of shows like TREME on HBO whose post crew and location crew work very hard to capture live performances in real New Orleans locations with real musicians.

PV: It’s easy for those of us who love sound to become fascinated by gear. What are your thoughts about the role of equipment vs. the effect of the mixer?

SA: A long time ago when I when I bought my 16-foot Panamic boom pole as a sound assistant (which I still have and use), the mixer (Larry Sutton) said to me: “Don’t ever go into debt for a piece of gear, and only buy what you need to make the next show easier.”

We get excited fairly easily with the next “new thing” in this day and age, but for me there’s a community of audio people out there that either reject or adopt these things fairly quickly. If something is good, say like the Sanken COS-11 lavaliere microphone, you’ll find lots of people chiming in about it in online film communities. If you do sound professionally you know places like JWSound, RAMPS, and Gearslutz are pretty helpful for asking questions and getting answers from a wide group of people with different levels of experience and types of careers.

Zaxcom Nomad

For example, currently there’s a “debate” going on about Nomad vs. 664 location recorders. They’re both new, they both have plusses and minuses, but you, the mixer, have to make a decision for yourself based on what types of jobs you’re getting. Maybe you only need a 702 or a Zoom recorder because it’s going to take you a year or two to make profit on your investment.

664 Audio Recorder

There’s a whole world of producers, production managers, and directors out there that in this age of practically “free cameras” (RED, DSLR, etc) allow for people of limited experience to become camera operators and directors of photography purely based on the production’s need of the newest greatest piece of visual filmmaking equipment. In location sound, nothing much has really changed other than miniaturizations of components. We moved from reel-to-reel NAGRAs (which some still consider a superior recording machine with Dolby SR) to DAT machines not because we wanted to, but because we had to based on the needs of post-production workflow, not on the quality of the recording device!

Now I’m entering metadata and notes on my Zaxcom Fusion and Sound Devices recorders, but I’m always going to do a sound report. Why? Because as mixers, we’re collecting the best possible recordings that are labeled and organized for the post-production sound team to assemble the best possible sounding movie with all of the elements they will be adding to my basic dialogue recordings. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. Like the guy that pours the cement foundation for the house, if it’s not done right, somewhere down the line there’s going to be a whole lot more frustrating work that needs to be done. I don’t want to be that guy, ever.

Thank you to Stephen Barden and Scott Aitken for sharing their thoughts.

The series will finish next week looking at a completely different way of learning field recording skills: workshops practiced in the wild.

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2 responses to 6 Ways to Learn Field Recording Skills – Part 2: Schools

  1. Stephen Barden 2012/12/13 at 09:18


    Thanks for having us “on”…great article.

    Scott – one thing you said really resonated with me and, if I may, I’ll quote it for added emphasis: “You have to pause, stop talking about movies and how great they are (which is fun, but most people that get paid for this have never really made a movie), and go out and make movies and see if this is the job for you.”

    Very true.

    Everyone likes to eat good meals, but not everyone is cut out to be a professional chef. Most people enjoy driving a well-designed automobile, but not all have what it takes to be an automotive engineer. Music brings happiness to the most savage of beasts, but few of us are willing to live the life of the professional musician or composer.

    The same goes for filmmaking and, specifically, the craft of sound and sound design. When it’s done properly, it’s a tough gig. It humbles me daily. I applaud you, Scott, for taking as many students on set with you as possible, and you, Paul, for putting this article together. We need to propagate our trade by introducing it to the right people, but the corollary is also true: people need to be exposed to what it’s really like to be a sound person (mixer, engineer, editor, re-recording mixer) to know if it’s right for them.

    I hope this piece ignites fruitful conversation in this direction.

    Best wishes and continued good tracks,

  2. Barden,

    I agree that the gap between appreciation and practice is bridged by action. One of the first steps across this bridge begins with exposure to the craft and art of filmmaking, as you noted.

    In my opinion, this is often how one first becomes drawn to learning more, and eventually become involved as a professional. That’s how it happened for me, anyway.

    It is my hope that by sharing ideas, such as the experiences and reflections you kindly contributed here, will help people curious about sound on a path across that bridge.

    Thanks again, Stephen, for your thoughts and comments here!