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Business: What you need when you need it

Major studios have warehouses filled with equipment—often aged and some in the realm of antiques. Indie producers know they can get the latest gear by renting it.

By Ty Ford

Glenn Trew surrounded by audio gear

Glenn Trew surrounded by audio gear

The relative health of the film and video production industry in the United States can be measured by the profusion of location audio rental houses. Glen Trew, owner of Trew Audio, with stores in Nashville, Toronto, Vancouver, LA and their newest location in Atlanta is the perfect model for this growth pattern. Trew says, “LA is number one, of course. Atlanta is now considered our number two, New York is three. There are more feature films shot in Georgia now than LA, but a lot more TV series are shot in LA. New Orleans is a very close fourth.”

Richard Topham of Professional Sound Services runs shops in NYC; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and New Orleans. He notes widespread growth and the tendency for it to follow the money. “Yes, they’re building studios in Atlanta, but they’re building everywhere; The Dominican Republic, Columbia, New York, New Mexico, Michigan. Wherever the incentives are, the production goes. It changes depending on who’s lobbying the hardest and what else is happening.”

Peter Schneider (left) and Jim Guzzi cut the tape at their new Atlanta shop

Peter Schneider (left) and Jim Guzzi cut the tape at their new Atlanta shop

It’s very clear that, at the moment, Georgia has one of the better incentive plans. These plans typically are adjusted annually. The hot state today may not be so hot tomorrow.

While the big hubs keep the large projects turning, everyone I spoke with agreed that there is widespread growth. According to Trew, “The affordability of the new digital video gear has had a noticeable impact on audio rentals. Film has all but fallen off the face of the earth, and for every film camera not being used there seems to be five more affordable digital cameras that don’t require film stock. Lower-cost camera equipment, and the lower cost and ease of editing has resulted in a lot more content, but at reduced budgets and, usually, dramatically reduced quality in the final product.”

Jim Guzzi and Peter Schneider own Gotham Sound. They follow the path of the others with offices in NYC and also in Atlanta. Schneider’s take is that Gotham actually is in the glue business. “We’re gluing manufacturers together, gluing products together, and gluing customers together. We compete on the basis of knowledge and support, and applying the technology in creative ways for both sales and rentals.” On the high end, that direction has led Gotham outside the box to invent new systems to handle the complexities of today’s productions.

It’s in the matrix

Rentals for reality television, for example, have grown increasingly complex. Schneider says sound supervisors often are requested to make a mix for each camera. “The competition shows have relentless schedules and the technology, as the manufacturers sell it, doesn’t exist to route all of that audio in real time as quickly as they want. The new Dante platform prompted us to create a custom 32” touch screen surface for the control room with a 250 crosspoint matrix, for all of the audio sources and all of the audio destinations. You have one operator routing audio. That person makes multiple mixes from wireless lavs and booms.”

Schneider adds that the boom ops don’t wear bags. They use Sound Devices MixPres for headphone and level control and go wireless to the matrix. The sound supervisor controls levels for the record/overall mix chain and for the touchscreen.

Gotham Sound shows off some of its new digital gear.

Gotham Sound shows off some of its new digital gear.

Schneider wrote code around a program originally written for interactive multimedia dance performances. Guzzi says it got a lot of interest from sound supervisors. “Some are true visionaries. They understood it and also saw how it would help them. So, yes, a bigger upfront cost, but it would give them the control they wanted at the speed they wanted.”

For less stratospheric work, Guzzi says Gotham’s rental business echoes Trew’s “more projects, lower budgets” business model. “Maybe it’s just a Zoom, a Rode and a G3,” he says. “In the middle are sound mixers that are augmenting their kit or renting additional pieces for a particular job. Then we have broadcasters and feature film rentals on the high end. Sometimes we have to put together 30 packages on a Friday afternoon, but that keeps us from being dependent on one or two large clients.”

Richard Topham on the teaching circuit.

Richard Topham on the teaching circuit.

Tool school

All three companies practice educational outreach. Schneider says renters can come in and sit with the techs for as long as they need to understand the gear. “We had one customer who does a lot of hunting and outdoors shows where the producer does the sound. He really wanted to use a Sound Devices 633, but didn’t know if the crew could make it happen with two wireless mics and a shotgun. They brought in all of their producers and we had a free class for them for six to eight hours and now they’re all out in the field and doing pretty well.”

Schneider says they typically don’t charge for education, because it usually results in more business. “We held a ‘Field 101’ class and charged $10 per person, just to get a handle on how many people would show up, but we gave it back as a $10 store credit.”

Spectrum squeeze

With the 700 MHz band gone and the 600 MHz band on the way out, wireless manufacturers are going to have to work hard to meet the growing demand for wireless mics. According to Topham, “The Federal government only cares about the money they can get from telecom companies and Google and people like that. When you dangle a $27 billion dollar carrot in front of the government, who is not getting any income from current end-users, and you look at the sales differences between wireless mics and cell phones and iPads, consumer electronics win the day simply because of the numbers. The FCC is saying they won’t sell off the 600 MHz band until 2016 or 2017. That’s not really that far away. That may drive some to rent now rather than to buy now and then find they can’t use that gear as early as next year.”

He also points to the new, less expensive digital wireless systems from Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, and Rode operating at 2.4 GHz. “They work up to about 150 feet. Some people are trying them when range is not an issue. “If you need more distance than that, you need to buy or rent higher.”

Audio is becoming colorful as well as clear in the digital age.

Audio is becoming colorful as well as clear in the digital age.

There’s another RF gotcha. “If a mixer who already owns block 24 gear gets on a show and production says, ‘No, we’re using block 22,’ then the mixer will come to me to rent block 22 because their 24 won’t match up,” says Topham. “Especially in reality shows, because the crews switch in and out, they all need to have receivers in the same blocks as the transmitters on the actors; one transmitter, but multiple receivers. They want the sound to transmit to the cameras. They want those wireless on certain blocks so if they move camera with sound, everything works together.” He explains that’s why wireless manufacturers are now putting out wireless mics that cover three blocks, or 12 UHF frequencies.

Time code

Topham notes that time code slates and other boxes have become more important, especially with the newer cameras. “There just aren’t a lot of cameras out there with solid clocks. From an F300 to a Lexa to a RED, the time code is no good. The Ambient clocks inside the Sound Devices gear, Zaxcom, Denecke, and Mozegear clocks are all very reliable. That’s why you have Lockit boxes on the side of all these cameras. Zaxcom makes an IFB that carries audio and time code, so you can feed both into a camera from the same box. Camera operators like this because it’s one less box hanging off of their cameras.”

Many of the new, less expensive digital cameras don’t even have time code connections, but Trew adds that while there used to be three types of time code connectors, “Now there are connectors that are sometimes unique to each camera. So we have to find out what devices are being used and what interface cables are needed, and then help people understand how to use them.”

In addition to Topham’s time code gear list, Trew adds Betso and Timecode Buddy. “Betso had some consistency problems when they first came out, but they seem to have fixed them. Timecode Buddy is a very nice system that incorporates metadata, slates, and script supervision. Mozegear is the newest, but seems spot on in quality and utility. Industry leaders Denecke and Ambient continue to be excellent.”

Popular rental audio gear

When renting, it’s good to know that some shops price by three-day weeks and some by four-day weeks. For example, three day means, you pay for three days, but get the gear for five days. Some shops have monthly rates; others just stack weeks to make a month.

And make sure the shop you use has the gear you want. The two major players for recorders and mixers are Sound Devices and Zaxcom. Sound Devices followed their 788 and 664 with the 633 and 688 compact mixer/recorders, and Zaxcom recently introduced their own Nomad and Max compact mixer/recorders. The consensus is that people coming in for rental gear appreciate the Zaxcom with their “NeverClip” circuitry that lets you scream into a mic without overloading it. Wireless systems suggested by the rental houses include Lectrosonics, Zaxcom, Sennheiser, and Wisycom. Boom mic choices continue to be Schoeps CMC641 and CMIT, Sanken CS3e, and Sennheiser MKH 50. Lavs mentioned range from DPA 4061 to Sennheiser ME2 and MKE-2, Sanken COS-11, Tram 50, and Countryman B6.

Ty Ford is the owner of Ty Ford Audio & Video. He has been involved with professional audio and video for over 25 years. For more information, visit www.tyford.com.

June 26, 2015