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DP Dave Sperling Augments His Shoots With Audio Skills

Sony PCM-M10 Valuable Element of Videomaker’s Kit
A multi-faceted independent DP/camera operator, Dave Sperling has long appreciated the value of augmenting his visual skills with quality audio backup on location shoots. "After 25-plus years and a wide range of film and video projects, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s keeping a few small, simple accessories in your kit that can make a world of difference for your production," he said. "Fortunately the current generation of portable digital audio recording gear makes keeping those items on hand a lot simpler."

Called to shoot the performance of an up-and-coming rock group at a small venue, Sperling felt that the board feed by itself would have too sterile a feel, and that the sound balance at the camera position wasn’t optimal. A multi-track recording would have been great, but certainly wasn’t in the budget.

Enter the Sony PCM-M10 portable digital audio recorder he had acquired late last year. Sperling mounted the unit at a choice location above center audience using its built-in ¼-inch thread and some camera mount adapters. By presetting levels during a sound check, he was able to add two more tracks with ease. Mixing the board feed recorded on his Sony XDCAM EX PMW-EX1 camera with the additional tracks recorded simultaneously with the M10 assured him of a tight, robust audio performance.

"In the past few years I’ve gotten very spoiled using the Sony PDW-F355 XDCAM HD optical cameras with their four audio tracks to shoot Broadway show reels, and now I have a four-track solution when using my EX1 as well," Sperling said. "I’d also be totally comfortable plugging the M10 into a soundboard, leaving me the option to roam at will without having to worry about interference in an RF link."

Sperling added, "I was amazed when I first lined up the tracks in [Sony’s] Vegas9 software that they stayed perfectly in sync, and just how much better it sounded adding those additional tracks. The built-in electret condenser stereo mics on the M10 deliver terrific sound quality. Since then, I’ve actually done one project where I’ve added two recorders for a total of six tracks, and then mixed them together in Acid Pro with great results."

Sperling finds the PCM-M10 recorder not only easy to use, but easy to pack. "This is an incredibly compact and rugged digital recorder," he said. "It’s the perfect addition to any video professional’s kit – camera, audio, producer/director – everyone’s going to have at least a dozen uses. It’s flexible, easy to set up, has an incredibly long battery life (yes, using interchangeable ‘AA’ batteries available everywhere), it’s just really well designed. It can take micro SD or M2 cards, and if you forget to bring a card the 4GB of internal flash memory will give you 6 hours of WAV recording at 44/16. I can pop out the card and give it to a client, or quickly transfer the data from the USB2 port. I’ve had no problems with hums or buzzes when connecting to a variety of external sources and mixers, and the recording quality, which can be set as high as 96k/24bit LPCM, is absolutely stunning! It even features several MP3 modes for long recording times."

In doing a series of interviews for a corporate client, Sperling used the PCM-M10 as a transcription recorder. "The variable speed playback function of the M10 was immensely helpful to us," he said. "There are times when you need to review what was said for accuracy, and being able to listen at increased speed with pitch control saved us a lot of time."

While HD video is his primary stock in trade, Sperling occasionally finds his audio skills on call for assignments. Recently, the directors of his local New Jersey synagogue were interviewing candidates for a new rabbi. Due to time and budget constraints, it was not possible to bring the candidates in for their initial meeting. To work their way through the stage one screening process the committee decided to do the interviews with the aid of their conference room speaker phone.

"I did some experimentation and found I got excellent sound quality by positioning the M10 about 18 inches from the speaker phone, engaging the built-in digital limiter, and locking in a specific volume level rather than relying on auto volume," Sperling said. "Because my business work load made it impossible to record the interviews personally, I easily trained a couple of the interviewers to operate the M10 themselves.

"I set the unit to record in WAV format because I planned to edit the recordings in Sound Forge. I was glad I enabled the 5-second pre-recording buffer, because sometimes starting the recorder was done at the last moment. I had originally planned to distribute the interviews as CDs, but when I realized they were each running 30 to 40 minutes or longer I decided to down-convert and burn MP3 files instead. Ultimately, they recorded quite a significant amount of material, over 12 hours," he adds. "The only glitch I encountered was an intrusive buzz caused by the malfunctioning speaker phone of one of interview subjects, and I was able to use Sound Forge to isolate and virtually remove the buzz."

Sperling concluded: "Overall, the Sony PCM-M10 is an outstanding portable digital recorder. It’s already found a spot in my camera case, and seems to keep finding new uses on every shoot. I just can’t imagine being without it."

Dave Sperling’s credits include serving as a DP for the popular American Movie Classics Remember WENN series. He has worked with music documentarian Robert Mugge on an ongoing series of feature length music documentaries. He also shot Lush Life, Robert Levy’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning PBS documentary on Billy Strayhorn.

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