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How it started / How it's going

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

Back in 2010, in my mid-twenties, I was in a career limbo. My then place of employment was winding down. The race to the bottom in the live and location music recording market had hit full downhill plummet mode with some new technology and we just couldn't compete with our comparative overheads. I didn't really know where to look for a new role; I had some contacts with other similar scale companies but nothing really as regular as what I was doing. I also had virtually no idea of what other roles could be out there outside of my funny little niche.

Lunch with a friend who was at film school ended up with me recording some student short films with the film schools gear. I really enjoyed it, even with the super basic kit provided I managed to get some solid recordings to help a whole bunch of students out. I probably did sound on around 10-15 films over the course of 12 months, and I started doing some work on other tiny budget short films too.

My previous workplace had some kit for recording location sound for video productions, so I got hold of that and worked out what might be useful. I came away with some pretty nice kit as a basis for my endeavours in this market. A handful of Sennheiser MKH series mics (the 60, 40 and 30) a SQN 4S mixer, an old carbon Ambient boom pole and a couple of older style Rycote windshields, including the big MS blimp. There were also two old Sennheiser G2 radios, but with rack receivers; so I needed to buy some beltpack style receivers to get them working in a bag. I was extremely lucky, the only thing I needed then was a recorder. As I'd not had much experience of anything else I picked a "handy" style recorder. I went off-piste a little and bought a Roland R26, with 2 XLR's a 3.5mm input and a pair of mics built in. Nice little recorder, and actual controls on the face of it. I could run the SQN into two inputs and still have two more for radio mics.

Here's a picture of that hacked together monstrosity:

I used this for a good while and was happy with pure audio results I was getting. But a couple of things started to pop up more and more. Timecode and camera feeds. That's when I needed to make the next step...

At the time I had been working as a boom op a bit for another mixer/recordist. He had a Sound Devices 7 series recorder, which had more inputs and timecode. So that was the aim. Sound Devices were I think on the cusp of releasing the 6 Series mixers, but there was no way I could afford a brand new top of the range mixer. I found a well priced second hand Sound Devices 744T on a Facebook group for sound people, and boom I was back in business. Four discrete recording channels with extremely high quality preamps, and line inputs, with routable outputs for camera feeds and Timecode!

At first I wanted to incorporate the old SQN into the bag to keep four mic level inputs, but it was honestly just too heavy to have round the shoulder all day. Here's how it set up for a couple of weeks before reverting to just the 744T:

It looked great and really at the time 99% of my work was no more than 4 channels anyway, but I think that was just a sign of the times. More channels than that were reserved for big budget movies and TV shows, and I was a fairly typical corporate video and news sound recordist at the time.

That was changing though and even smaller productions were seeing what was possible with new tech and once again I needed an upgrade with more channels as I seemed to be maxing out the 744T on every job I did. I was still fairly budgetarily limited, and while I craved a Sound Devices 788 or 664, I could only really stretch to about 1/4 that sort of money without bankrupting myself. Conveniently Zoom had just entered the semi-pro bag style recorder market and produced a real market shaking device. The Zoom F8 was a sort of watershed moment in the industry. Eight discrete mic inputs all on XLR's, timecode, digital limiters and routable output matrix with a usable mix interface, on a box that cost about £1000. It scared Sound Devices into building a new set of products in that market to compete, and honestly killed off competition from quite a few companies who had been in that market for a while. Tascam, Roland and Edirol had dominated the low to mid end of the market, but their offerings were fairly rapidly wiped away by the F8. So I got one too. Second hand from a new sound friend I'd made. He'd used his as a backup recorder on the dramatization part of a documentary project and said it had worked flawlessly. I took it out the following day to a job that needed 5 channels and it was great.

I've maxed that Zoom F8 out now. The preamps and mix engine have been great for me and I even mixed a feature on it in the summer of 2022. I know exactly how to get the very best out of that little box and know exactly what it's limitations are. It got some great free upgrades over the years too. When Zoom released the F8n it got a new mix interface making mixing on the front panel much easier to navigate on the fly; it got advanced lookahead limiters which made the inputs much less susceptible to overloading; and it got its own implementation of AutoMix, which made scooping intelligibility out of a complicated unscripted mulitway conversation so much easier.

Here's my Zoom F8 mix cart for the feature I was working on in Summer 2022:

Now with the prevalence of higher track count recorders 8 channels isn't always enough and even on the feature I had to have a second recorder for a couple of high channel count days. And tech has once again taken a fairly big leap. Sound Devices released their 8 Series mixers a couple of years ago and the 888 is really the perfect replacement for the F8 (as well as the older but still very capable 788; which is another recorder I very much coveted for a time).

The 888 features: Eight fully featured mic preamp inputs, which are line switchable. AES expansion for another 8 channels, and a 16x16 Dante ethernet audio controller for interfacing with network audio systems, plus a 2x2 audio interface for sending mixes down to a computer for insertion into things like Zoom meetings. They also have dedicated coms routing for communicating with my sound team and the wider crew. The 888 (or the Scorpio) are truly the only boxes on the market that exceed the base functionality of the Zoom F8 in a really meaningful way, and they cost around 10x more money. There are a few other products that also beat the F8 for functionality but they would require a significant kit change to make the most of. Zaxcom would be one of those, and their Nova2 recorder is a unique offering, with integrated receiver slots for up to 8 radio mics, and further connections for more via Zaxcoms RX8 reciever box.

A further advantage to the 8 series is the processing power on board. It has an ARM processing core for the OS and UI, and FPGA system for DSP effects including: 16 channels of EQ, two varieties of auto mix and two varieties of on the fly noise reduction. It's also compatible with 3rd party control surfaces through it's USB ports. Bloody bonkers really.

The 888 then seemed the perfect recorder. Great form factor for all kinds of work and a significant step up in audio quality from the F8. Here's how the new rig looks in it's most primal form. I've got some more bits to add to the rig before it's as tidy as I'd like it to be, but functionally it's all working and capable of some pretty special things.

Needless to say I'm excited to take it out and get some great recordings on ever bigger projects, but within the first week of owning it I've already been able to do a job that would have been beyond the capability of the F8, so it's already started showing off. Review coming up soon.

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