Education, Sound

I’m an audio student, what do I need to buy?

This is another of my regularly asked questions by students of mine. Usually this is from students who have just commenced thier studies, thus are enthusiastic and excited to start a new phase of their learning, or even thier lives. They want to know how they can start off thier new journey in the best possible way. This is some of the most fun I can have as a teacher as you have a group of students who are keen, determined, switched on, if even a little bit shy.

So the question I get, usually by someone after thier very first class is “what audio gear should I buy?”. They often ask about computers, DAWs, mics, plugins, speakers and almost any other piece of gear. The right answer, or at least the answer I give?

HEADPHONES

A good pair of quality studio headphones that you like the sound of and make sure that you try before you buy. That’s my answer and I’d say more than three-quarters of students really don’t like that as an answer.  It took me a while to understand why. What I’ve discovered is that the students have come to learn from me because they want to be in the business of creativity. Which is fantastic and that is exactly what I’ll teach them.

They don’t like my answer of headphones because they want tools that will allow them to create. Headphones aren’t typically looked at as the tool that they will create with. What they are asking when they say “what piece of gear should I buy?” is what is the best tool I need to have to be able to create. And my answer to that question is still headphones.

It’s not because headphones are the most important tool, it’s because they work with the most important tool. Your ears. Having a playback system that you are familiar with will help you train your critical ear. This one of the most important tools you can have when you are working with sound. It will allow you to analyse and understand what you are listening to and how to make it better.  When you are first wanting to learn about sound you should be listening and thinking about sound more than you are doing (and you should be doing a lot). But it all starts with listening and you need a great tool that will help you do that. Headphones.

Now, if you want to talk headphones, then let’s do that here.

But, after you get headphones, go; computer, DAW, interface, speakers, mics, desk/surface, outboard. Which is a relatively logical order as you usually need the thing before to get the next thing. But at any point, you’ve still go your own personal monitoring system that you are tuning and improving. If you are a student at a school (like my students) then the institution should have all the other tools you need to produce with (I would hope). But get your own headphones, because trust me, there is nothing worse than “communal” headphones.

Sound

What headphones should I buy?

Like most of my other “buying guides”, there are a few ways to answer this depending on what you are looking for. I have three regular pairs of headphones and they are all for different uses. Oh, and none of them are earbuds*, just no, no earbuds.

Casual / Consumer

These are for when I am hanging out on the couch watching some TV or playing a game, or if I am on public transport and I’m listening to a podcast, etc. For these, I use the Bose QC25. They have active noise-cancelling and are over-ear cans, they fold up and pack into my bag nicely. I picked these up for an overseas trip so I could sleep on the plane and they have become my main casual headphones. Would I use them for critical listening or in professional situations? Nope. They sound great and they could likely do a good job at it, but they aren’t designed for that type of thing. However, I do like to use them for testing my mixes.

You want to look for something that is designed for general use. If you are planning on being an audio professional, go for something decent. Bose and Sony are good options and these are brands that I trust for consumer listening. Most people already know brands that they like for this sort of thing and there is not usually  anything wrong with keeping to the brand you know.

Working / Location / Production

These should be a good, robust pair of cans that can withstand being tossed around a studio or surviving the elements in a demanding shoot. So build quality and durability are important. These are headphones that you can stuff into a production bag or give to the drummer your are tracking in the studio.

Closed back are generally desirable as we don’t want to create to much spill from what is coming out of the headphones and allows you to hear clearly what is coming out of the headphones. However, if you are a musician playing with others or you are on set or on location, you need to be listening out for things outside of what is coming through the headphones. I use the Sennheiser HD215 cans. These are closed back, the components are easily replaceable and you can rotate one of the cans so that you are listening through one and not the other. I know it says for “DJ” use, but being able to rotate one of the cans really helps in being able to clearly monitor from one side and listening to the environment from the other.

They aren’t the most top of the line headphones that Sennheiser produce, but again, I’ve grown up with this brand and I know the sound. I know what they sound like and how they translate. As well, I’m not using them for critical listening, more for practical hearing.

Professional / Critical Listening

Here is where you need to have quality and uniform response. These are the headphones you will do some mixing on. These are also the headphones I recommend you get first. Closed-back and open-back can both work here depending on your preference. When looking for what you want to buy, make sure that you try them out first. Bring some music that you know really well and try them out. Any pro-audio retailer should have test cans that you can do this with.

My choice is the standard Beyer-Dynamic DT 770 Pro. The 990s are the open-back version which also sound great. Realistically I could go with either. When I went to get my pair of 770s, they were slightly cheaper than the 990s and that was honestly the reason why I went with the 770s as both are great.  These are headphones that will last you a good while.

So when it comes to buying headphones, think about what you need and what headphones would be best for that.

General Other Notes

  • I like headphones that have a cable that only runs out of one side, not out of both cans. This just makes cable wrangling as you are using the headphones easier. Often, these types will also be the ones where you can replace the cable if it stops working.
  • Comfort is key. You will be wearing these for a long time.
  • *In-ear monitors are fine, I don’t use them as I don’t do live sound and I don’t like the way they feel in my ears (I have weird ears).
  • Consumer Buyer Guides: Wirecutter
Sound

What Location Sound Recorder Should I Buy?

One of the most common questions I get from students is “what recorder should I buy?”. There are a few ways of answering this question as the right recorder depends on your circumstance, goals and budget.

Are you wanting to pursue location recording as a career?

If this the case, then you will want to invest in something that works really well and is either professional level or is customisable that it would be useful in a professional environment. Just like pre-amps in a studio-based environment, the quality of the gear influences the quality of the recording. Having a Neumann U47 won’t guarantee a great product, but a great large-cap condenser mic is worth investing in if you want to work as a professional. And price isn’t always an indicator of quality or a professional level tool. The Shure SM57 is a great example.

So, going for the professional top-end location recorders and mixers, aim for: Sound Devices, Zaxcom, Aaton and Nagra. These are some of the top of the line brands. The consumer or semi-professional level recorders can also be really great. Zoom, Tascam, Roland, Edirol and Sony all make great recorders in different forms.

If this is going to be your main career path, its worth investing a few thousand dollars in getting something that will last and will sound great. However, you can start small and go with a modular style setup that won’t break the bank.

For example, grabbing a Zoom H4n and a Sound Devices 302 Mixer. The mixer has a couple of nice sounding pre-amps which you can then run into the Zoom and use that as the recorder (as the 302 can’t do recordings). I’ve used this setup a number of times (and I have my students use this setup as an intro to location recording) and it works well for something that sounds solid. If you’re going to go with this type of setup then you can upgrade different parts to improve it over time.

Do I need timecode? (aka What is timecode?)

Short answer yes with an if; long answer no with a but. (c) The Simpsons. You need a recorder that can handle timecode if you are working on productions that are running timecode. Timecode is a piece of information that we can record with our media that allows us to sync up our picture and audio based on the data and there is plenty of different gear that is associated with working with timecoe

Having a recorder that runs timecode (or the timecode version of a recorder) will always be more expensive than something that otherwise has the same feature set. So I’d only recommend investing in the timecode side once you have got the type of work that requires it. (This results in a bit of a chicken-egg situation; “I can’t take this job because I don’t have the right gear. But I need the jobs to justify buying the gear.”)

If you are planning on working on student or indie films, its unlikely they’ll use timecode. Also if you are shooting on film, you won’t use timecode as you can’t record timecode to analogue film. Also also, you might be shooting digital, but the cameras might not be running timecode … So it really depends.

So, my recommendation is; If you are starting out, rent the gear if you need it. Have your own recorder, if they want to shoot timecode, then rent it. If its a one-off then you should have the budget for the production cover it (this should be organised when you come on board to the project and be really upfront about it). If you are repeatedly doing this, then invest in the gear.

Do you want it for location sound effects recording?

This is where timecode is much less of an issue and realistically, you don’t need to worry about it. Here, you aren’t usually ever working with picture and even if you are it would usually just be for reference, rather than shooting.

Have a couple of channels for a nice mono mic and a stereo rig will get you through most sound hunting adventures. A good mic with a good pre is key here as these will be effects that you master and use in a specific production or into a sound library for use later or for selling (which is becoming a bigger and bigger market). You’ll also need only one headphone out.

Do you want it for working on film sets for recording production sound?

Here is where timecode can potentially be a factor. If you primarily want to be a production sound mixer (or a sound recordist or boom operator), then you need a fairly flexible and variable setup depending on what the requirements of the shoot are going to be.

Likely you’ll need multiple channels of recording (4+) to handle booms and wireless receivers as well as needing to provide headphone mixes for yourself, boom operator, director and host of others. Depending on the type of shoot, you’ll be going with a bag setup or a cart setup. Bags are great for small agile productions (shorts, commercials, docos, etc). Television and features can potentially need a sound cart with a larger mixer to manage the signal flow required on a larger set.

Here, flexibility with signal flow is key. Your focus should be on mixing features as this will give you more options. For example, the Sound Devices 552 or 664 gives you either 2 or 4 tracks of recording, but has more options with inputs and outputs. This would allow you to dump a mono mix live onto the camera for the editors reference before post starts. If you need more channels of recording, add a small 2-track handheld to get another couple of channels of recording.

So, which one do I buy?

Whichever one is right for you. The best piece of advice is; go for quality, relative to your requirements, because it will make a difference in the long run.

Other great resources on this topic:

Education, Sound

The Language We Use

I’ve been thinking a lot about language we use over the past couple of weeks. This has been prompted by conversations I’ve had with my students and its come up in two ways. Firstly, the type of language we use within our industry and secondly, the language we are using when discussing our learning. It has really struck me on how much impact the language we use impacts what we do.

One of the big questions we get asked about is mastering. In the context of audio production, this is the final stage of preparing any sound asset for it to be used elsewhere or ready for distribution. Conceptually, that is pretty much it. But you often hear everyone talking about it as some of “dark art”. I’ll agree that you need to have a keenly trained ear to be able to be an effective mastering engineer, but making it sound like magician’s work feels like it lowers the professionalism of the industry as a whole. Its the same when we talk about “tips and tricks” of mixing or recording. If we refer to the skills and knowledge that we have spent years of time and mountains of money learning about as a set of life-hacks then we aren’t doing our own profession, and ourselves, any justice.

Would you pay $2000 for someone to do some “tips and tricks” on the sound of your TV commercial or for someone to apply years of practice, experience and skills to create an engaging soundtrack that meets the needs of the product you are trying to sell? One of those options gives you value for money, the other one is way over priced.

When discussing with students about the work they are completing, they way in which we are discussing the work changes depends on the context of the subject. In one subject, we are working on the development of a major large-scale project. In the other (with essentially the same set of students) we are working on a series of creative projects in the studio for short-turnaround completion. When discussing the development unit, this unit has “assessments” and “due dates” for the “students”. When discussing the studio projects unit, we use the terms “projects”, “deadlines” and “team members”. In the development unit I get asked about “… what do I need to have for the presentation … ” and in the studio projects unit I get ” … how does my mix sound …”.

Admittedly, one unit is more about documentation and prep and the other is about production, but the style of questions shows a difference in cognitive approach. One is asking about what they need to do to get through the assessments, the other is about how can they be better at what they do. What I find interesting is the difference in approaches the students are taking. Because one is using typical “school” language and the other is using professional language they seem to be thinking about them differently. Both subjects are looking at the creation of creative works, so I think the difference is in the way the brief is set, which influences the way they are thinking about it – or at least discussing it with me.

The institute I teach at has recently undergone some changes in its teaching philosophy. One of those changes has to do wits modeling the correct behaviour that we expect of our students. If I write blogs, then they will write blogs (hence the blog writing). I’m a big fan of this pedagogical approach. So if I use the type of language I’d like the industry to use, then hopefully I can get my students to use better language, which means they will think better about their productions, which means they’ll be better as professional practitioners and use better language in the industry, which will hopefully means there is a new way that everyone will look at the creative arts because we won’t be referring to what we do as “tips and tricks”. Am I too egotistical/ambitious/delusional to think that my teaching can have an impact on the industry?

I guess I have to be.