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Facing Wireless Challenges As Video Comes Under The Umbrella

CHATSWORTH, CA—Over the past decade or more, as the music recording business has evolved and the primacy of the recording studio has been challenged by home and even mobile production, facility owners have had to look elsewhere to maintain revenues.

CHATSWORTH, CA—Over the past decade or more, as the music recording business has evolved and the primacy of the recording studio has been challenged by home and even mobile production, facility owners have had to look elsewhere to maintain revenues. For some, video production and post production has offered a solution, but as Andy Waterman, CEO and creative director of Umbrella Media, observes, the two businesses require some of the same skills, yet can also be very different.

“This is becoming a secondary market for a lot of us former studio guys,” says Waterman, who was a studio owner in his native Chicago in the 1970s before relocating to Los Angeles in the 1980s and setting up shop. “It’s another other revenue source that is very complementary to the audio side that we’re doing.”

Yet even now, six or seven years after first moving into video work, much of it for Umbrella’s number-one client, Hal Leonard, the world’s largest music publisher, Waterman is still learning, he says. “I’m coming from being a studio guy. But it’s not like putting a Neumann into a great mic pre. You have to be super-prepared or you’re not going to get the shot. That’s a lesson that Hollywood teaches people who come from the more pristine, casual background [of record production].”

With the changeover to DTV in the U.S., RF mic users lost access to the 700 MHz band. Currently, plans are underway to auction off the 600 MHz band to the telcos, further reducing the usable radio frequency spectrum available—to current pro audio wireless products, anyway. Combine the competition for the shrinking spectrum with the time-pressure of a video shoot and there’s the potential for disaster— and Waterman’s moment came several months ago.

“We worked on a project called Music Express, which is a kids-oriented music magazine, but it has a lot of edutainment aspects. That day, we were on the Disney lot to go behind the scenes to see how their musicals, especially the animated features, including Frozen, are made. The assignment was to interview these people and get a tour of the infrastructure.”

But, he says, “The big surprise was that we got on the Disney lot and we had all kinds of interference problems. We had three wireless mics all fighting one another. One thing I had never experienced was the competitive nature of the frequencies available for wireless technology. I’m sure people working on Broadway or in Hollywood have to deal with it every day, but I had never been in a situation where we couldn’t solve it by finding another frequency. What we had never experienced was being on a lot where there is probably tons of other wireless transmissions and Wi-Fi all over the place.

“On top of that, we found out later that one of the guys we were interviewing had his iPhone in a pocket right next to where we put his wireless. As the director, I take responsibility for that—when you’re on a wireless set, you’ve got to have all the other wireless devices turned off.”

That particular day was a run-and-gun shoot, recording audio into the camera. “We also have a small Pro Tools system in a laptop with a Focusrite Scarlett, which is an amazingly great box,” he says. “We can do eight or more mics with that, and for some of the interviews, we’ve used eight lavs. Then it’s the same old frequency problem.”

On that day at Disney, he continues, “One by one, all of these things compounded to become a little bit of a nightmare. We muddled through it, but a day later, I called Brad Lieberman at RSPE and said, ‘We’ve got to upgrade our wireless capabilities.’”

Lieberman, design consultant at the L.A.-based pro AV solutions provider, steered Waterman in the direction of Sennheiser. “Whenever we had a big job, we would rent from Location Sound,” reports Waterman. “Some days, we’d have a Lectrosonics; another day, we’d have Sennheiser. I’ve also rented Shure and Audio-Technica. They’re all great products, but the price point for the Sennheiser G3 was right in our wheelhouse—and it sounds fantastic.”

The features were also right, he continues. “You can pair the transmitter to the receiver automatically just by holding them up to each other and hitting the Pair button. They also have channel scanning—it finds you the best channel that’s available in your location that isn’t being taken by other devices.”

He adds, “I’m also really thankful that Sennheiser gave us a morning of training at our studio. Aron Berg [who has since left the company] came over and took us through the product line and showed us how to get the best performance and the best frequency selection, and how not to mix and match frequency banks. In Los Angeles, there are really only two frequency bands that are usable, he told us. Sennheiser calls them the A and the G band.” Sennheiser’s A band covers 516-558 MHz, the G band 556-608 MHz.

Ultimately, the Disney shoot was a valuable learning experience, Waterman concedes. “It was a great eyeopening experience. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to buy the right gear. Buying the right gear really made a difference for us in solving this problem.”


Umbrella Media