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Small Packages for Professional Sound

While the capabilities of cameras have been squeezed into smaller and smaller packages, to the point where a handful of feature films have been shot on iPhone cameras, sound kit capable of delivering professional level clean audio hasn't quite shrunk to the same level, and remains similarly sized to kit from the last 30 years. There's always at the very minimum a shoulder bag with a recorder/mixer and a boom mic.

One example of a tiny professional recorder is the Sonosax MiniR82, a recorder about the size of a well filled wallet (which Sonosax would gladly empty in order to own one), small enough it could feasibly fit in a pocket. However, you'd still need the boom mic and cable running to the unit, making the package considerably bigger and thus unwieldy to use without a specifically designed pouch/bag/case system.

However, what I'm investigating with this article is the "standard" PSC/ENG sound package and what can be achieved with new technology to make it smaller lighter and healthier. It used to be that a sound person on a small shoot would turn up with his SQN, maybe a couple of radio mics and a boom, and connect to camera for recording. These days it can be acceptable for a recordist on a reality show to be covering up to 12 radio mics in a bag, with mix panels and enough battery power to run all of the receivers and the mixer/recorder all day. This all starts to add up rather quickly when the Sound Devices 688 or 664 start at around 3kg, before you start adding the CL6 mix panel and and SL6 six channel radio mic slot interface, plus big NP1 batteries to power the lot for a few hours.

My personal goal has been to reduce the weight in my bag over the years. It's something our advances in technology should be allowing. I want strong, lightweight materials, miniaturised electronics, and software based UI to reduce front panel space. For me only two devices have come close to these goals, the delightfully pricey Sonosax SX-R4+ and the rather cheaper Zoom F8. Both weigh less than 1kg without batteries and have 8+ channels, with small footprints and make use of modern tech in ways I can appreciate.

I'll start with the Zoom F8... This box has eight analogue inputs all on split mic/line connectors. No other recorder has this. As the most widely used connection system for mics XLR connections offer an incredibly low cost way of getting eight channels into a recorder, without having to go down digital routes like AES. The software UI is as intuitive as can be expected, but the front panel controls are a little cramped. That is overcome when in "cart mode" using the optional USB fader controller, which gives better tactile control over the mixer. I'd be really keen on a small eight rotary fader panel for bag use too, but Zooms development team don't seem to be showing all that much love for the product range at the moment.

Then we have the Sonosax SX-R4+... This is probably one of the most technologically advanced recorders on the market. The base unit is a 16 channel recorder, which has six analogue inputs (4x mic & 2x line) and five sets of AES3 inputs split across two connectors (1x multi pin DB25 and 1x TA3). The TA3 input is also assignable as output with SRC to connect lower sample rate AES devices. It also has an optional RJ45 on the side to allow communication with audio over IP systems like Dante.

The base unit is then expandable through the multitpin AES connector to have a couple of options. The first is the RC8+ eight fader panel, breaking out the AES inputs onto 4x TA3 and providing extra hirose power outputs, from the internal Audioroot battery, for radio mic receivers and the like. The second is the AD8+ which gives the SX-R4+ eight additional mic inputs.

These two systems are perfectly suited to small high channel count rigs that weigh in at not much more than 5kg with batteries and mic receivers. With the recent proliferation of dual channel radio mic receivers it is possible to fit eight channels of radio mics into incredibly small packages with just four receiver units. This allows systems to be put into incredibly small bags like the K-Tek Stingray Jr without breaking the spine of the operator!

Case study

Here's my complete setup from a shoot for an online commercial which fits handily into a K-Tek Stingray Jr.

A Zoom F8 running six channels of radios; two Audio Ltd EN2 dual receivers and two Sony UWP-D single receivers. I was also rigged with a Sennheiser G2 transmitter feeding my G2 IEMs. The EN2's and the Zoom F8 were powered by my usual Hawkwoods NP-F shoe and a Baxxtar NP-F990 75Wh battery which ran all day. The Sony receivers and the G2 transmitter were powered by Eneloop Pro 2450mAh AA rechargeables.

All in the package was fairly lightweight at a very reasonable 5.6kg, and remained compact within the confines of the Stingray Jr bag.

The boom was wired, phantom power provided by the F8. All-in-all a super compact and surprisingly low power drain system which could easily scale to eight radio channels, with power consumption rising rapidly with the addition of digital receivers.

In a world where digital radio transmission is making more and more sense, an upgrade to a 98Wh AudioRoot or NP1 Lithium battery might be a good move for power stability.

If you'd like to check out more info on how heavy modern kit can be, check out my older post "Can Sound be Light?"

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