Do you know a person with a loud, booming voice? Do you know of a person with a tiny, reticent voice? And do you know a person with a voice that’s pretty mid-range, not too loud or too soft? And do you also know that all of these three types of people often end up at the same workshop? Well, there’s your biggest problem if you’re going to have your audience voices on the recording. Your final audio is going to have loud, soft and medium, driving the eventual listener crazy.
But that problem goes away with a good sound engineer
Notice the word “good”. Because it doesn’t take a lot to be “good”. But there’s a lot of folks out there who’ll say they can help, but you need to watch out for the following elements before you get started.
A good sound engineer:
- Is always watching and tweaking the levels.
- Is reasonably comfortable with the equipment/software and is always watchful of what’s happening.
- Knows how to deal with minor emergencies.
- Makes sure the batteries on the wireless mics are topped up.
1) Watching and tweaking the levels
When the audio is being recorded, the levels show up on the mixer or on the computer. So if someone is too loud, the engineer eases back the levels. If they’re too soft, the engineer boosts the levels. The engineer is always listening and watching for the levels, and making sure it stays at a pre-determined um, level. This takes work. And takes concentration. Technically speaking anyone can do it with a little training. But an undisciplined person will not take care. And you’ve got a crappy recording.
Admittedly you can salvage the recording
On your software you’ll have something called “normalization”. That little tool will kinda even the loud, soft and medium, but hey it’s only a computer. It will take an average of everything and make it seem OK. But your recording may end up too soft and then you’ll have to boost volume levels (which increase noise). You can do some sort of magic tricks with software, but your best bet is to have a disciplined sound engineer, and then you don’t waste time with trying to fix things. Most software will run audio files through normalization anyway, just to be sure, but it’s better to get the recording right at the event itself.
2) Is reasonably comfortable with the equipment/software
Most recording software is easy to handle. And so are most mics. Yet it’s critical that the engineer is very comfortable with both the software and the hardware—in advance. A good sound engineer will take no longer than 30 minutes to get in a room and set up the software/hardware and be ready to roll (We’re talking about a set up with about three microphones). In less than 30 minutes that person should be able to set up, do a level check on the main presenter, test the recording and be ready to sip a nice, warm coffee and relax.
4) Makes sure the batteries on the wireless mics are topped up.
This may sound dumb, but I cannot tell you how many times recordings are goofed up simply because the battery levels are low. The sound engineer must be monitoring the battery levels (especially of the presenter) and change those batteries at break times. Usually a 9 volt battery will go half a day without a problem. Perhaps even a day. It’s not a chance you want to take.
The presenter is too busy to notice the drop in the battery levels (on their lavalier microphone) and so it’s the job of the sound engineer to replace those batteries. Incidentally, it’s also important to move away the used batteries into a separate box. Nothing’s worse than replacing “old” batteries with “old” batteries. Of course, this drop in sound level is immediately visible on the levels (in your recording software) and that’s a cue for the sound engineer to replace batteries, but that often slows down proceedings. A good sound engineer will make sure batteries are replaced at reasonable (and often fixed) intervals.
This level of set up time tells you that the person is familiar with the equipment and will be relaxed through the recording. Monitoring the recording all day is a reasonably tiring job (you’re looking at the screen all day) and monitoring levels all the time, so they can’t waste their energy on “learning on the job”. This of course takes us to minor emergencies
3) What’s a minor emergency?
Hard to tell. But it’s usually restricted to a microphone failing for some reason. Or a problem with the computer or software. The sound engineer should be ready for such an emergency. Also sound files can tend to be rather large. It’s best practice for the engineer to keep saving the files and transferring them onto a back up disk. Some sound engineers will record the same event on two separate hard drives/hardware, but that’s not always needed. The most important factor is for the sound engineer to be aware of what’s happening and to be able to quickly fix the problem. In an emergency, the presenter can call for a break while the problem is fixed. But the sound engineer must know enough to use that “break time” effectively, so that the show can go on.
So do you need someone from NASA to do this job?
No you don’t. What you need is a person who’s familiar with the software/hardware. A person who’s diligent and watchful. And a person who’s well organised to change batteries and do backups. It’s not an easy job, but it’s not a tough job either. And believe me you can get dumb folks. We’ve had situations where the video engineer (in this case) shot video from weird angles and even had people’s heads in the video. That’s clearly appalling but it comes from lack of confidence with handling the equipment and being in charge of several sound situations.
This brings us to the cost
A sound engineer isn’t cheap, but it’s possible to not have to go to a “professional” and instead find a reasonably diligent person instead who can do the job. You can even have a teenager, or ask around in sound training schools (there’s usually one around) for someone who wants to earn extra cash. If you’re hiring a professional, expect to pay no less than $500-$1000 a day (and that’s usually cheap).
In our case, we had a professional for our first event. He brought in all the equipment (excluding the mics which we purchased separately). And he recorded the event and edited it. And that cost us about $5000 back in the year 2004. Renuka then took over from the next event onwards, and she’s handled sound ever since. It’s easy to say: “I don’t have Renuka to help”. You have to find your own person who can handle things, and quit grumbling about things you don’t have. We had to work out how to do things so we could move ahead, and so we did. If Renuka didn’t handle the job, we’d have found someone else. It’s that simple. Work it out and get moving.
And so you have it: Sound engineers for you.
Do your due diligence. And you’ll find someone who can do the job effectively and get you a great recording. It’s not rocket science, but yes it does require someone with an organised brain.