Ideas for New Audio Gear

There have been some amazing advances in video tech recently. In post, Adobe has been leading the way, with new workflows, faster everything, and a very cool new warp stabilizer and some extremely competitive 3D camera tracking. Premiere and After Effects both have a whole bunch of new tools, and these are accelerated by a bunch of new advanced GPUs from nVidia.

Also, there’s no shortage of fantastic new HD cameras, like the Blackmagic Cinema camera, which gets you uncompressed 2.5k video for less than $3,000, or Sony’s just-announced NEX-VG900, which is a full-featured camcorder with full-frame 35mm sensor, and next week Panasonic is going to unveil the Lumix GH3. Everything is getting better, smaller, and cheaper.

With pro audio, however, not so much. Sample technology for composition is advancing by leaps and bounds, but mics, mixers, and recorders haven’t changed much since the digital revolution over a decade ago. Stu Maschwitz has a great post up asking for a new revolution in audio support for newbies, or in other words, video guys.

Being the mastermind behind Magic Bullet, Stu has had some great ideas on how to give not-quite-professional users very professional results with fast and powerful color grading tools. Now he has some great ideas about how better software could get us better audio using the tools we already have. I’m completely behind his suggestions, but I’ve got some specific requests for the industry. I want new hardware.

Case in point, the wonderful and bulletproof Sennheiser EW 100 series. I’ve owned four sets of this wireless kit from different eras, and they’ve never let me down. They, more than the Zoom recorders, are my go-to audio tools; rugged, simple, they run on AA batteries, and they never fail. I can’t say enough good things about them. That said, they’re big, heavy, and really expensive. As far as I know, their cost hasn’t come down, ever. It used to be that a set of these was 5-10% of the cost of a camera. Now, however, they’re about 100-120% of the price of a brand new 60D.

Realistically, though, I’m not expecting the price to change; in fact, I’m just impressed that Sennheiser has kept the price steady during inflation while adding features like IR frequency sync and better displays. But it’s still old tech. It’s the same analog UHF radio system that we’ve used since the very first wireless lavs were invented. I think we can do better.

Sansa Clip+

Just for illustration, check out the Sansa Clip MP3 player. It plays almost any audio codec, has an FM radio, voice recorder, microSD slot, OLED display, great battery life, and weighs less than five grams. It packs a processor beefy enough for variable speed audio, full EQ, compressor/limiter, and, with a little tweaking, it can play games, like chess or Doom. When it’s not on sale, it retails for $30.

It has the raw ability to be a serious pro audio recorder – sampling rate up to 96khz, WAV, MP3, or lossless compression, prebuffering, manual gain, hot-swappable external storage, etc – but it’s limited by a terribly tiny built-in microphone and a consumer-based menu system. How hard would it be for Sandisk to put a bigger and better mic on board, add a few features to the menus, and sell us a recorder small enough to be a lavalier mic all by itself? Just clip it inside a collar, pocket, or lapel and start shooting!

Motorola Headset H9

And why couldn’t we have a wireless lav that size? Bluetooth headsets these days are tiny. Now, it should be pointed out that regular, old, original Bluetooth 1.0 is terrible for video. The quality is low, it cuts in and out because the range is incredibly limited, and worst of all, it has variable latency that slides all over the place and makes it impossible to get good lip sync. But Bluetooth has come a long way.

Enter Bluetooth 4.0, the latest standard. It uses the higher bandwidth of Bluetooth 3.0, plus some new low-power features. In short, it means higher quality audio, up to 300ft range, less power consumption, and much less latency, somewhere between 3ms and 6ms (for reference, 41ms throws you off by a single frame). Being a standard, plenty of manufacturers are making radios for it, and it’s globally usable (UHF and VHF radios might be illegal to operate in certain countries, depending on the band you have).

So let’s take the brain of an upcoming Bluetooth 4.0 headset, ignore any of the telephony protocols and the speaker, give it a really nice omnidirectional mic, and power it off of an easily replacable AAA battery. It would be a little over two inches long (since the largest part of the system is the battery), but that’s still very small. Documentary filmmakers would love it. Affordable to buy, easy to carry, and easy to use. No more running long, thin mic cables under shirts, and then spending hundreds of dollars replacing them when they get kinked and snagged.

For the receiver, let’s have two radios, two high-gain antennas, run it all on two AAA batteries, make the output hot enough that you can bypass consumer grade preamps, and give it the duotone OLED screen from the Sansa Clip (stuff is cheaper if it already exists). Now you can connect to two Bluetooth lavs at once, and send both channels out to your camera’s stereo input jack. Stick it on your camera’s hotshoe, or clip it to the strap; it’s that small.

Now, there are a number of companies that make products for digital wireless audio streaming and a lot of them use proprietary codecs and chips, for good reason. Any one of them could build the gadgets that I’ve just mocked up using their own tech, but I think there’s some merit in sticking with Bluetooth. The more devices that use it, the more flexibility the filmmaker has. Shooting a TV show in a really loud environment? Use a Jawbone headset’s incredible noise-cancelling ability to get clean audio anyway.

And hey, can your smartphone connect to multiple Bluetooth devices? Boom, it just became your software-based audio mixer. Record individual tracks on it and send a mixdown feed to your camera at the same time. Does your phone not connect to enough devices? Some enterprising electronics company can just build an add-on case containing multiple Bluetooth radios and you’ve got the equivalent of a full flyaway case of rack-mounted audio gear in your pocket or attached to your camera rig. It would sure beat carrying all the analog equipment.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that Sennheiser receivers fit perfectly into M4 mag pouches, so if you attach four of those to a Molle vest and wire them into a four-channel mixer in a dump pouch on your chest, you can run its headphone jack out to your camera, and its line out to a Zoom H2 in a radio pouch, and you can add an H1 in a pistol mag pouch for backup. It works great, but it’s not exactly low-key. It’s also simpler and cheaper to have everything Bluetoothed into a single receiver.

And we might even be able to ditch the receiver. Lots of cameras these days have GPS and Wifi radios… why not Bluetooth radios too? A lot of off-the-shelf wireless chipsets have all three anyway. Just stick the audio levels for these lavs in the camera’s audio menu, which is usually a touchscreen anyway, and simplify everything. Nikon and Samsung have both released point-and-shoot cameras running Android, and Samsung’s Galaxy camera actually is a working cellular device – with 3G and everything. Eventually, this is coming to camcorders and dSLRs.

Of course, using Bluetooth for wireless audio connectivity is only one idea. It could just as easily be work over Wifi, or a proprietary system. But the point is that some consumer gear has more raw power now than the dedicated professional tools. My $30 Sansa Clip has a higher sampling rate, better battery life, and cheaper storage than ten-year-old $1000 DAT tape decks. Stu’s idea of using GPS clock data to line up audio and video files is probably more accurate than jam synced smart slates, and costs nothing. Digital audio streaming can use less power, less bandwidth, handle interference better, and operate using cheaper parts than analog wireless audio radios.

And being able to easily use multiple, cheap, wireless lavalier mics on set is the fastest and most idiot-proof way to improve audio quality. Tiny capsule mics on collars will never sound as good as an expensive shotgun operated by a pro, but they’ll never sound as bad as cheap shotguns run by amateurs. There’s a lot of money in semi-pro audio gear for pro video production, and a lot of money to be saved in making these tools using existing digital technologies.

  1. Isaac,

    I couldn’t agree more. I sincerely hope someone in the industry, or even a creative entrepreneur, is listening to Stu’s suggestions! The only discrepancy I had with Stu, is that I’m not looking so much for dummy operation (e.g. my phone selects best settings), as I am a way to produce superior sound quality with limited budget and a small form factor.

    I work with the exact wireless UHF lavs you mentioned regularly and find them a pain in the neck for talent. It would be incredible to have a small device that transmits their voice without a wire, whether in a small all in one device or a wireless mic/transmitter and small receiver so I can monitor remotely.

    Overall, you both have some creative and inspiring ideas and I look forward to a digital sound revolution!

    - Morgan
  2. Thanks, Morgan. Yes, I agree… we don’t have to put less control in the hands of filmmakers, but things can be cheaper and easier to use. I’m still blown away by the capabilities of the Sansa Clip’s audio chip. Why spend $2-3k on a Nagra or a Marantz recorder when a $30 MP3 player can record 96khz stereo WAV files for 10 hours between charges, and it fits in a matchbook.

    Now, there are some ways that things can be simplified in post. For example, most digital audio tools have displays that are meant to mimic analog audio tools. Slider-based EQs, oscilloscope-based frequency analysis, tape-based delay filters… it’s probable that there are better ways to show audio data to us. I don’t want any features to be hidden or secretly automated (Apple style), but if spectrum data could be color coded based on human voice, background noise, 60hz hum, probable echo, etc, that could be neat.

    I’m sure there are other ideas. The way that Melodyne breaks musical notes out of a waveform, for example. It’s a very intuitive information display, probably because there was no previously-existing hardware-based legacy interface for doing that.

  3. Man, you have hit the nail on the head. It’s stunning how much money is poured into wireless audio every year and it STILL doesn’t work like it should. Bluetooth 4.0 to the rescue! Sounds like a totally plausible solution to me. Great mockups in your post as well…

    - Christopher Welch

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