In 1986 I was a new freelancer in Dallas, TX, and was hired to assist with on-set video playback for Robocop. I had never been on a movie set prior to this, my experience limited to industrials, tabloid television and the like. This was a new world for me. I’ve recently came across a stash of items I had saved from those days- callsheets, photos, scripts, etc., so I thought I’d post a few here. I ended up providing this “24 frame video service” to about 40 motion pictures shot in Texas throughout the mid-80’s to mid-90’s. At the bottom of the article is my video demo reel from my playback days.
“Video Playback” was a position similar to music playback on a set. Except, I was working with videotape or providing computer & camera feeds. These sources fed televisions, monitors or computer screens in the camera frame. The sound department often pulled a feed from the video, and I was tasked with hitting the playback on cue with what the actors were doing on set. I also sychronized the film camera to the video. The film camera had to be in-sync with the TV screens, or the 30 frame screens would flicker against the camera’s 24 frame shutter. Interfacing and controlling the camera dept’s raison d’etre called for technical competence and diplomacy.
The Boardroom were Murphy blows away Jones. Notice ED209 hiding around the corner!
The VTR’s used to feed the boardroom monitors in the final scene.
Sound Mixer Robert Wald’s, C.A.S. sound cart on the set of Robocop. Notice the FM radio headsets used for Comteks in 1986. Vega wireless, Stereo FM Pilot Nagra. This was the first “location sound cart” I had ever seen.
ED209- the life-size model present on the set of Robocop.
The 2nd to last page of the Robocop script- boardroom scene
Last page of the Robocop script where Murphy shoots Jones in the boardroom.
Call Sheet from Robocop – 1986- hand-written in those days!
The primary cast of Robocop, as listed on the call sheet, with their call times.
A little set humor was added to each day’s call sheet on Robocop, 1986.
Here’s the demo I would peddle to various productions when they came to Texas. “Need any video playback?” Productions were surprised when they learned the service was available in Texas!
I’ve had a “stereo” of one kind or another since I was 10 years old. Does anybody even call it a “stereo” anymore? Is there a human connection with stereos, like there is with cars?
Restoration of a Zenith Portable Stereo, found for $5. Now in a San Francisco boutique.
So, I was basically hatched in the radio business. There, the day-to-day “fidelity” of what you are working on is just an afterthought. Either something sounds good, or it doesn’t. If “Fleewood Mac’s Rumors” got cue burn, you threw it away and pulled another. The tape heads weren’t cleaned until the grease pencil gunk got under your fingernails. When I was 26, everything sounded pretty damn good to me anyway.
My wife-to-be, 1986, clogging up the heads with white grease pencil
Recently I put together an odd assortment of components for my living room Hi-Fi.
. I’ve always been head-slapped at the revolutionary idea of 2 or more satellite speakers and a subwoofer. Why this idea had not been introduced into the personal listening space sooner is beyond me. For 50 years, manufacturers have been trying to make speaker cones bend in physics-defying ways in order to reproduce music from a single source, or two sources, woofer/tweeter, or stereo. I guess Western-Electric was doing bi-amped systems all along, but they were mostly in movie theaters.
So I rounded up a decent Altec computer speaker system consisting of two satellite speakers and a subwoofer. I got it a couple years back on Woot. for $49.
Ugly Satellite speaker enclosures must go.
I mixed these components with a mono tube amplifier (6L6) push-pull and an extra large full-range ceiling speaker, in its own enclosure. The subwoofer and the ceiling speaker are on the first floor. Add a tiny Behringer mixer for the mono sum and routing, and an abandoned TV cabinet.
A 1950’s Motorola TV Cabinet. The front controls are tube power, tone, volume, subwoofer power, and sub volume.
Oh, and those ugly little Altec black plastic satellite enclosures will have to go. In with some 1950’s police squwak boxes.
Police Squaak boxes found at swap meet. Jensen Speech Master 4″ communications speaker.
Here they are post-restoration:
Restore the speakers and the tv cabinet, stuff the amp, speaker and mixer in, drag it in the living room, put the little speakers on the mantle, and plug it in…..
I haven’t sat down and listened to a record in a long time. Having been raised listening pop music production values, I tend to go there when auditioning sound systems.
I spent quite a bit of time balancing the tube amp with the computer speaker system, while listening to to Steely Dan’s “Aja”.
Its kind of fun running a tube amp, and this one adds lots of volume to the system, and takes away some of the mid-range and bass chores from the subwoofer. Is also got nice glowy glass.
Well, it sounds very nice, for what it is.
The last time I had something nice in the living room for playing music, was before the kids were born. And with kids, all you end up using your hi-fi for is playing Raffi records. God help ya’ll with young kids. Get behind me, Satan!
My main conclusion about my little system is that there seems to be a “wall” just outside the satellite speakers. It sounds nice seated in the middle position, its even loud, but the room doesn’t fill up.
I guess the big advantage to an exceptional stereo system- is that it interacts with the room. You are surrounded with sound, but not just from multiple little speakers- you are surrounded with room reflections.
Then I put on some opera (Cecilia Bartoli), hoping for the walls to go away. And they sort of did, because I was no longer listening to a 24 track studio production of highly isolated instruments, like on “Aja.”
Trying different sources, one thing I noticed was how horrible any music from Pandora sounds. Its take awhile, but I’ve finally, finally developed a real disdain for digital compression. CD’s sound good to me, but I’ve found MP3’s and any other similar scheme really fatigues my ears. I can’t listen to music for very long when its compressed. It starts to get irritating, like when there’s young kids in the room.
I still have the stereo I got as a teenager! A Pioneer SX-450 receiver when I was sixteen. And, a pair of Frazier Mark IV speakers, built in Dallas, Texas. These hang from the ceiling in my office, and take all sorts of abuse from the buzzes beeps and crunches when I’m testing audio signals. But they hang in there. In my office, I’ve been playing a lot of Seeburg background music while I toil away.
Particularly regarding the Instrumentation Nagra SJ, an audiophile client was asking me what made the Nagra sound “special.” The SJ has “extended frequency response” to allow for measurment of vibrations and supersonic artifacts. Does it sound better? Is it the amplifier design?
This 1960 Nagra III has unusual head shielding. Also there is no tone generator or BA (before/after) switch.
The SJ is not necessarily going to sound better. The SJ recording system did not include the same pre-distortion tricks that are employed in the audio Nagras. As you go up in record level, saturation and non-linearity increase. Pre-distortion served maintain that linearity. Otherwise, the SJ has NAB/CCIR record and playback EQ like any other Nagra. The head gaps on the SJ’s were narrower, to allow for higher frequency recording and playback at 15ips. The specifications have the response at 35khz at 15ips. ….Nagras were often built to order, with unique circuitry combinations based on what the individual customer needed. Along with circuit improvements/changes done at the factory, (many undocumented) there’s hundreds of different Nagra configurations. There were even Nagras built without a front meter or input level controls, just a blank panel (Nagra IV-ML) These days, every Nagra I encounter is different in some way from the norm.
The Nagra IV-ML had no front panel meter or level controls.
The levels were meant to be controlled at the mixer.
The Nagra playback amplifiers are simple, discrete transistor designs. I’ve had clients who own outboard tape head pre-amps they’ve paid $4000 for, like the “King Cello” preamp, so they want the outputs of the heads available on the side panel of the Nagra. For example see http://www.reeltapes.net/kingcello -one of these expensive preamps.
King Cello Tape Head Preamp- $4000
Using the Nagra in a home music playback environment goes beyond the sound of the internal amplifiers. Users also appreciate having a very unique, professional, portable recorder. Stereo Nagras sold back in the 80’s for around $10,000. The build quality is remarkable, with no stamped parts, only machined aluminum/stainless steel parts. The functionality and durability were designed to withstand constant use in extreme environments and temperatures. The servo motor speed control can maintain perfect speed while the recorder is dropped to a table, or while the user is running on foot with the recorder on the shoulder. The tape tension mechanics are ingenious, continually self-adjusting tape tension during transport operations. The aesthetic design is a direct reflection of Kudelski’s sensibilities, from the unusual dual-needle meter, to the use of excessive panel labeling. Kudelski’s electronic designs were not complex, but all component values, tolerances and other characteristics were carefully regulated. All transformers and inductors (using toriod cores only) are wound entirely in-house. All fasteners are made of stainless steel. It is a laboratory-grade instrument that found its primary home in the alternative universe of motion picture production. That the film art-form once required such elegant, yet precision equipment is part of the Nagra’s allure. -by Pete Verrando www.txsound.com
Here’s just a few reasons why I love G2/G3 for IFB/scratch track feeds over Lectro or ZaxcomIFB solutions:
– The mini plug input/output is highly compatible without need for custom cables. You can feed a scratch track to a Red Epic with a standard ipod cable. Transmitter Mic/line input selectable thru tip or ring on the cable. You can hook up to anything with a good set of adaptors. Have you sent audio to a Black Magic camera yet? Non-standard, strangely wired 1/4″ jack inputs, but no problem with a Senn and an ipod cable with a headphone adaptor.
– you can feed hops and Ifb with same transmitter. 1 less frequency to coordinate.
-Less weight and RF mess in a sound bag. I’d rather carry around a 2 ounce, 30mw G3, than a 1/2 pound, 250mw flamethrower like the Lectro T4.
– I purchased my first set for scratch track hops in 2005. I now have 6 transmitters, 4 plugs, 6 receivers and 15 IFB’s. All purchased on ebay, and on average, less than half of retail. (Many misguided soundies and one-off project users buy these, then dump ’em. )
I’ve yet to have one break. I’ve replaced many antennas at 5 bucks each, if you can solder well, you’re good.
– huge battery life. 3 days with a pair of lithium AA’s
-audio/rf metering on every unit
-Better range than lectro R1a or zax 2.4 gHz IFB units, owing to external whip antennas
-transmitter won’t RF swamp a sound bag
-some venues now restricting 2.4 gHz devices as they compete with wifi (Zaxcom IFB)
-super wide input/output audio level settings. It’s easier to set the level on the Senn than dig around on the cryptic Red Epic’s audio screen. So why bother?
-instinctively intuitive to use. Big, understandable, backlit display
-great for feeding video assist, pa systems, or pulling feeds from PA or press feeds
–velcro them together for 2 channels, and they are still a very small receiver pkg.
-They’re Great crash wireless for talent- (about the only time I’ll put one on a talent).
-30 mw is low for transmitter power, but as an IFB, the pack is not against somebody’s body.
Instead, it is out in free space on your cart or bag. So no RF absorption from a sweaty cast member’s body.
I’ve have found that the Lectro IFBs are better if your crew needs to change receiver channelsfrequently to listen to different sound units. WIth Lectro R1a’s, They just push the volume button to cycle thru programmed channels, without needing to look at it. (Don’t know if the ERX can do this).
-Senn’s butt-plug transmitters are also cheap and great for a quickn’dirty wireless handheld for PA or voice-of-god mic for AD’s
On a recent commercial, with one Senny transmitter, I fed scratchtrack to two Alexas, video assist, client-lounge PA speaker and 15 IFB’s. Excellent range, kinda nice.
-iem headphone amp VERY loud. Even the regular receivers can drive a headphone at +6
-easy to coordinate freqs with internal pre-selects/rf metering, or use the freq finder app.
IEMs and beltpack receivers will also receive acceptable audio sent from more powerful lectro IFB transmitters.
-I could go on. I’ve got buckets of these things.
But I never will use them as frontline talent wireless. They breakup a little at high audio frequencies (sibilant sounds) unless you stay well within the headroom, like half-level.
How about an ongoing gallery of some of the more outrageous sound recording configurations for run-n-gun use? Such as the above. Is somebody supposed to wear this on their chest? Don’t forget the Ipad (right), which packs, oh, I don’t know. Where do we put the Ipad? Across the top. This rig is also good for lunch break, you can just eat right off the rig, you don’t even have to sit down. Throw a napkin down first, of course.
Imagine yourself listening to your favorite music on an Ipod with some really nice headphones. Maybe those Bose Quiet-Comfort 15’s, my fave on airplanes. They really sound great.
Now imagine you’re at a Skrillex show, 1st row, next to a massive stack of loudspeakers, while still listening to your Ipod with those great Bose headphones. What? Can’t hear your Ipod? You might say you’ve been swamped or more technically, de-sensed. Your headphone audio can’t compete with a Skrillex speaker stack. Bass, highs, no matter. Can’t hear a thing. No matter how great those headphones are, Skrillex’s speakers are overwhelming them.
Skrillex is swamping your headphones. The only remedy is physical distance between you and Skrillex.
Various Lectro Scans…Top left- pretty swamped! Bottom right- wide open.
The whole hop affair requires robust, expensive wireless audio systems. But, like my Bose headphones, my fine audio receivers had to share 1st row with the blazing Skrillex video flamethrower, and were de-sensing as a result of the powerful RF eminating from said blowtorch. The receivers have a frequency scan function (Lectrosonics UCR411a), and it was showing complete RF obliteration with the video transmitter switched on. A solid black block, floor to ceiling. When a powerful RF transmitter comes shoulder-to-shoulder with an RF receiver, de-sensing happens. The trans RF overwhelms the circuitry in the receiver, regardless of frequency selected. The only cure is distance.
Move the transmitter 3 or 4 feet away, and everything’s OK! But the only place for the video transmitter and my receivers to live were on the side of the camera. So who’s problem is this? Why mine, of course! Camera and director could not work without the little wireless video system.
No problem, the director says! We’ll just go “hard wire” from sound to camera for the entire week. Dark storm clouds formed over my head, images of water skiing behind camera, with an audio-cable tow rope, inside a wrecked-out house. Outside of interviews and other “tame” shoots, the last time I went hard-wire to camera was probably sometime in 1998.
Cameraman: Works great at home, he says. You can take the camera home tonight and “work it out.”
Another Swamped scan on a Lectro Receiver
So, my 1st day goes down with the cable tether, as the production was in 1st day freight-train mode, and no down time for a little audio troubleshooting. I trudge the camera home that evening to perform the “prep” that should have happened the day before the shoot. On the bench, I learn that the transmitter is tunable from 512 thru 800 mHz. From the internet I learn about the transmitter, specs & how to set the frequency, as camera dept. hadn’t a clue about their little black box. I try different combinations of transmitter and hop frequencies, looking for those that play well together. No go. The video transmitter swamps everything from Lectro Block 21 thru 26 and beyond, regardless of frequency setting.
I try some surgery on the video transmitter’s antenna, running a tightly looped wire around the antenna and soldering it to the BNC shell. This detuned the antenna to the point where it became a less effective radiator. However, this may make matters worse by raising the vSWR of the antenna, which may cause the transmitter case radiate RF, or even burn out the transmitter.
I finally mount the transmitter way forward on the camera, tucking the antenna under the viewfinder, and set it to 800 mHz (channel 69). I mount the audio receivers at the extreme rear of the camera, using Lectro block 21 (520 mHz). Doing a scan, this gets the swamping down to the 50% point on the scan display.
Using 100mw transmitter hops, I send audio to the camera and walk test it in the backyard. Amazingly, no dropouts or hits! The Lectro wireless are robust enough to deliver clean audio despite 50% RF interference levels on the receivers. This is using UCR411a Receivers. I’m not sure I could have accomplished the same feat with the less-robust Lectro UCR401 receivers, or SRa’s, which are the equivalent of 401’s. Looks like camera’s gonna have to lug around a little extra weight on the side!
Regardless, I keep a minimum distance from the camera throughout the week, to make sure those hops were solid. I also ran 24 bit backup audio files on everything. Camera dept. refused to do a free-run sync of timecode with my recorder, something to do with the antiquated notion that sequentially coded files digitize faster. No argument from me. If they need the backup, hello Plural Eyes.
Bill also realized the first “Time Code Slate” using video monitors and a desk clock.
Bill Daly, a veteran N.Y. sound mixer filled in for Tod Maitlandon the first 2.5 weeks of JFKin Dallas, doing all the motorcade scenes. I was the 2nd mixer and sfx recordist with my Nagra 4L and one of the early portable DAT machines, 5 years into my career. Bill was pretty gruff and would occasionally tear me a new arsehole by day, but always followed up by buying me a drink after wrap and regaling me with war stories. I’ll never forget one day, while sitting in the window sills of the 6th floor Book Depository, seeing Bill’s massive cart on the street below, with his huge Sela mixer and umbrella anchored to his cart, but no immediate sign of Bill. A gust of wind hooked the umbrella and pulled the cart over on its back, his stereo Nagra flipped lid-down and skidded on the pavement. Boom op T.J. O’Mara dashes over to the pile and slaps his hands to his head, and frantically he goes about righting the whole mess. I think they were back up and running in 15 minutes. It was surreal. He was just as encouraging and kind to me as he was a ball-buster. Cheers Bill! by Pete Verrando, www.txsound.com
Nagra tape recorders were the de-facto industry standard for motion picture film sound for almost 40 years. Made in Switzerland by the company Kudelski, there was no higher standard for battery-powered, analog audio recording. Nagras are an object lesson in quality engineering and excellence in manufacturing. Now that digital recording has largely replaced tape in motion picture production, there are thousands of Nagras in disuse, deep storage, or on the shelf of the vintage audio collector. On the bright side, audiophiles and tape recording enthusiasts have embraced Stereo Nagras as the primary record/playback device in their very-expensive listening rooms.
Of the many Nagra models, I have a particular attraction to the Nagra III. The III was the 1st culmination of Kudelski’s hard work in addressing the needs of professional audio recording for film and many other fields of sound acquisition. Even since its introduction and acceptance in the early 60’s, technical specifications for analog recording have rarely been exceeded. Using mostly germanium transistors, and all fixed-value components, the Nagra 3 can achieve recordings with 70db signal to noise ratio, just about the limit for analog, (with no noise reduction). There are no trimmer potentiometers under the deck. All alignment is done by changing/soldering fixed value components. Its meter, the modulometer, was a far more precise instrument in gauging record level than any ordinary VU meter. The III could record in either NAB or CCIR equalization curves at 3.75, 7.5 and 15 ips. The single motor is hand-assembled, and has rock-stable servo-controlled speed regulation. Upon playback, even the internal speaker is loud and robust, probably more so than any Nagra since. The tape transport allowed fluid movement of the tape for racking/cueing, loading and unloading, and has a grace that surpasses the models IV, 4.2, etc. Moreover, the III has an aesthetic that represents a labor of love. It is a study in circles. A simple form factor with few controls performing many functions. A classic Swiss Army knife! A feel and solidness that exceeds all the models that followed.
Why then would I hack up a beautiful machine like the Nagra III and force feed it lowly compressed digital files of pop music? I used these machines on a daily basis in the first 10 years of my sound career. Countless 12-hour days staring into the face of these machines. Thousands of recordings, head cleanings, reloads, battery changes, expensive service tuneups- cleaning, rebiasing, lubrication. Enduring blistering hot and icy cold condtions. Lugging over the shoulder, or perched atop a recording cart. A thousand drained D-cells.
Well, then, with the advent of digital, it was all over.
Suddenly I was working with a little clock-radio affair, a DAT recorder, at less than half the cost of my time code stereo Nagra IV-S. The DAT had superior specifications to the Nagra, but none of the tangible, hands-on, craft-feel of sound capture that the Nagra gave me daily. Every day I turned my DAT machine on, I did so with a prayer that it would not fail, because I was no longer in control. It was all inside that tiny machine with its rotating head, a mere spec of dust might shut it down. In summer, it ran so hot, I could not keep my palm flat on its lid. It would be another 5 years before digital recording disposed of tape transports entirely. Those were 5 long years of praying that clock- radio would continue to function. Back then, in the heat of battle, I didn’t think much about the retirement of my Nagra IV-STC and 4.2. It was nice not to hear tape hiss in my headphones. Thinking they would soon be more valuable as boat-anchors, I sold them to pay for my new digital machines.
I have restored a few cast-off Nagras. My goal with these machines is to bring them to as close to original condition as possible, both technically and cosmetically. A few years ago, I acquired three retired Nagra III’s in various states of repair, for $240 all-in. That purchase is what really got me started. Out of the three, plus one other, I created two near-perfect examples of the Kudelski Nagra III. One was sold to a audiophile in Japan for $900. The other is mine and always will be. Its fun to have. Lace a tape, plug in a microphone, and record some stuff. Play it back. Work the controls. Rack the tape. Listen to the robust, boomy, sound of analog, full-track, monophonic recording. My restorations efforts left me with a lot of parts and two Nagra III’s that were shells of their former selves. Ipod popularity had gotten me and a lot of other re-purposers thinking about the Ipod Dock, that plastic affair on the shelf of Best Buy. There’s so much discarded technical equipment from the days of old that can be re-upped into a Gestalt of past and present. For me these Nagra III’s are at the front of the line. I like to play with my old tape recorders, but I rarely have the time. With my Ipod Nagra, I can keep it useful, every day. It now plays music, podcasts, internet streams, with room-filling volume, and a happily bouncing modulometer. It delights all who see and hear it. It lives again. by Pete Verrando www.txsound.com
About a year ago, I restored this Ristaucrat M-400 commercial record changer. A collector in Utah recently purchased it. This device plays both sides of a stack of 45 rpm records. Then, it lifts the stack back to the top of the spindle for replay. Originally designed for background music in restaurants and department stores. It behaves like a pinball machine while functioning. Lots of clacking, abrupt sequencing and high torque motors. There are spinning clutches in this device that use cork as the slip-plate when engaging. The bat-handled switches and chrome carry-handles were added by yours truly. I have only seen 1 other example of this device in the 20 years I have been building/restoring electronics. There is a video demonstration on youtube (below). -by pete verrando www.txsound.com
The photo below shows the device as found from a swap meet.
TV Crew people often say that sound people are the strangest cast at the carnival. After years lurking around some sound mixer list serves, I can see how they would reach that conclusion. Check out www.jwsoundgroup.net and read some of the threads. I’ve never seen so many like-minded people go to the mat as they do, mixed with indulgent reverence for each other. A mostly happy yet dysfunctional family, with a cage in the basement.
If you want to go deeper , check out rec.arts.movies.production.sound on the ol’ Usenet. These days, Usenet is part of the internet wasteland, like CB radio. Nobody knew much about net-etiquette back then. Check out the posts of/about “Senator Mike” or “Roberto.” Mike would wail on any sound novice or “outsider” to go back from whence they came. Mike has softened up in his later years on jwsound, but occasionally, he still manages to let his old self shine. Back then, he and others were sometimes “banned” from the group, only to show up on other groups, like the Lectrosonics group, where he tells folks that their equipment is “broken”.
The Zen of headphone Face-Listening
This kind of relates to my experience as a ham radio operator. I always wanted to be a ham, since I was a kid. My dad told me he would buy me the equipment if I learned Morse code, and passed the technical test. I tried, but did not have the discipline, or mentoring, to see it through. But I finally got my license about 30 years later, and I learned Morse code. Morse code is obsolete. Just don’t tell any ham operators I said so.
Which is why as a ham, I ultimately never spent much time on the air. Those guys weren’t too friendly or fun to engage. Curmudgeonly, reclusive, often ultra-conservative, & not much in the way of social skills. They use words like “diabolical.” Instead of saying “goodbye,” they are just as apt to say “farewell.” Farewell? The below screen capture is Senator Mike himself, as an extra on Hawaii 5-0, sometime around the late 60’s -early 70’s:
Senator Mike worked on Hawaii 5-0 as both sound technican and on-camera extra.
Senator Mike Micheals Today.
I guess, like athletes, electronic gear-heads tend to size one another up on a continuing basis. Back in the 80’s, I met a sound mixer named James Tannenbaum on a film shooting in Austin. Jim’s very talented and successful. I respect him a great deal. I learned a lot from him. He’s written some great articles for Sound & Picture. He is undoubtedly one of the most unusual human beings I have ever met. I was the video assist operator, and a sound wannabe. No doubt I picked his brain to excess. When Jim didn’t appreciate my presence, he wouldn’t use normal cues to dismiss me. He would toy with my assumptions or quiz me into submission. Mr. Jean Clark, his chain-smoking boom operator, would delightfully join in. Some time soon, I will post some passages from a book Jim was writing at the time about sound mixing. Technically, much of it is obsolete. However, the advice Jim revealed about dealing with others on the set was hilarious. “Use your nearly-dead batteries script supervisor Comteks.” I paraphrase, but stuff like that.
Jim Tannenbaum C.A.S. doing a car shot the old school way.
Anyway, among personalities on the set, I guess the sound people rank as the most unusual bunch. Maybe we were the kids who were picked last to be on the team. Loners. There must be some pent-up aggression among us, as evidenced by the tit-for-tat that lives in infamy on the sound mixer listserves. (Senator, that Usenet stuff never goes away, at least for now.)
To be honest, I’m probably just as strange as the rest of them. We are least qualified individually to judge how we are perceived by others. Also, I think my clients are just too diabolical to tell me the truth.
-by Pete Verrando www.txsound.com