Wireless technology. To some: Magic. To others: Boring. No one outside of the Sound Department on Film/TV sets cares about this important issue, and a lot of people, even within the Sound community, need to be educated about it. But to first really push the point:
Why is it important?
Because everything is wireless these days, which means that there is less room in the frequency spectrum available for things that NEED to be wireless.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, when anything wireless needed to be cleared and have its frequency coordinated by the Sound Department, when it was common sense not to walk on cables, the frequency spectrum was wide and had plenty of room for many frequencies to be used and to get along with each other. But, luck ran out and the FCC sold off a third of the available frequencies, and suddenly your lowly Sound Mixer had tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment which was now illegal to use. That hurt, let me tell you.
So with a third of the available spectrum gone, all the TV stations decided to go digital. What that means is that when they were analog, there were still frequencies within their carrier bands that we could use, but digital stations are one giant unusable block of frequencies that us lowly Sound Mixers need to work around. So the TV stations are taking up more room and within less space, and I have to buy all new gear. Great. Well, we handled it. But the good old FCC did it again, and sold off another third of the useable spectrum a few years later. So yes, the TV stations all need to repack down to the last third of the open UHF spectrum, and we Sound Folk have to find open frequencies within that crowded mishmash. Oh, and we have to buy new gear.
So given that landscape to work with, productions want us to use more and more wireless for their projects.
To give you an example of what wireless demand has become:
Before the late 90s, most people were either still not using any wireless mics, or they may have had up to four at the most.
By 2015, if you had eight wireless mics, you were really rocking it hard doing some serious movies or shows, or (probably) breaking your back on Reality Shows. But you really rarely ever needed that many channels of wireless.
Now that it is barely 2020, I see most people in the TV world using about 12 or more wireless mics.
But keep in mind, we also need wireless frequencies for communication within our department, for listening (IFB) for the client/Director/Script Sup, and often times additional wireless to send audio or Time Code to the camera. But now every Tom, Dick, and Harry in other departments are bringing wireless devices on set, for wireless video feeds, focus pulling, even for operating lights! Even the Walkie Talkies that productions use tend to cause problems for us, and you better believe no one has a conversation with me about that ahead of time.
What affect does all this have on us?
The overall cost of doing business for the Sound Mixer is higher, and the difficulty of getting all those frequencies to work together so there is no intermodulation or dropouts is a lot more difficult, especially with additional wireless devices being used by others on set who do not coordinate their frequencies amongst themselves or with Sound. In order to effectively do all this extra work, you really need more time to coordinate, and you have a lot of extra work to do in regards to antennae, coupling, RF amplification, etc.
So what is the solution?
Well, I’d like to start by minimizing the amount of extra wireless devices that other departments bring on set. That would be really helpful. We went a long time without all those gadgets, and that worked out fine. I also do not believe that using more wireless mics is going to solve any problems or make anyones life easier. It certainly won’t necessarily guarantee a better sounding production.
In the Sound Mixers toolbox, the Boom is the best tool. You can generally cover most of what is happening in a scene with one or two booms. However, getting reliable boom tracks is difficult if you have more than one camera, and your gaffer has to anticipate the boom flying overhead (believe it or not, they often don’t!). But more cameras, more lights, and more wireless really does seem to be the way things are going.
As a side note, other things that need to go right in order for a lav to work is that the movement of the actor be relatively restricted, the wardrobe has been carefully selected for it’s sonic qualities (something you don’t learn in fashion school) as well as offering places to hide the element and the transmitter, and of course, your actor isn’t mumbling/low talking (you may want to google this one, but it’s a big problem these days).
Most TV shows in this day and age will make you put a lav on everyone that has a line, have one or two booms out there that are actually being framed out of being useful by a second or third camera that is likely not getting anything useful its self, and everything is running so fast that if there are any issues, you really don’t have time to address them. Heck, productions move so fast these days, that you don’t get any time in the beginning of the day to scan the wireless spectrum and coordinate your frequencies, and you rarely get enough time to stick a mic on everyone that needs one, and be sure that it’ll be useable. But all this could be foregone if we could just stick to using a boom and having the cameras/lights work with sound as a team so that everything could be quickly covered. BTW the boom sounds better than lavs anyways! But that is not the way things are headed. More people prefer to get every possible angle and have every line be on its own channel in order to make the film/show later, instead of just having a plan and executing it well, like a film maker. However some shows do have part of their act together and just paint the boom out of the wide, knowing that the wide will only be used to establish the scene, and for cutouts anyway.
What I am getting at is that this sort of work is more demanding for useable frequencies, but there aren’t as many available. This is all becoming more of a problem because of how productions are run. If we didn’t need the frequencies, then it wouldn’t be an issue. It is ironic however that budgets are always going down, yet productions expect multiple cameras and tons of wireless mics to appear out of thin air, and all operate without a reasonable plan. This is a “fix it in post” mentality, however realistically, as long as they are willing to pay me fairly for my time and equipment, I’ll happily do it with no complaints. It’s their show.
So how do we work around a diminishing wireless landscape?
The truth is that you need more time to prepare for the day or setup. Seeing a blocking rehearsal, then being allowed time to work out how the recording will be done is the best answer. Give the crew a reasonable amount of time to prepare and to get it right on the first go would be helpful. Allowing Sound to go on location and tech scout ahead of time would be useful. This would allow us to scan the area and see if there are TV/Radio towers anywhere nearby that will pose problems, not just for Sound, but even for productions precious wifi. Basically, cooperation, preparedness, communication, teamwork, having a plan. This is the best solution that I can see. It’ll save you money in the end, I guarantee it.