Wall of sound

5.1 Surround comes to a UAE shoot for the first time.
 Many cinemas require a 5.1 mix in order to screen a new film.
Many cinemas require a 5.1 mix in order to screen a new film.

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When location sound recordist David Thirion signed up to his latest feature project, he was making a little bit of regional history too. Champ of the Camp holds the claim to the title of first feature recorded in full 5.1 surround sound in the region.

Set for completion by the end of this year, Mahomoud Kaabour’s Champ of the Camp will be the first feature in the region to have been filmed in full 5.1 surround sound.

Indeed, what better way to record the ambiance and excitement of a huge singing competition featuring an audience of thousands, amidst the construction and chaos of Dubai’s labour camps?

It was a first for the region, and it was a first for sound recordist David Thirion too, who despite being one of the most sought-after sound recordists in the UAE, had to do his homework before he got to work on his latest project.

Thirion explains: “There’s never been a 5.1 shoot in the region that I’m aware of, and it was the first time for me too. I had to look into what gear we needed to use, and then of course finding that gear in Dubai was a challenge too.”

Fortunately, Thirion was not alone in his quest, as the film had some helpful backers from among the regional industry: “We were lucky as we had sponsors,” he says.

“NMK and Melody House were right behind the project, and they’re the distributors for DPA and Sound Devices in the region. The mic you need for a 5.1 shoot is fundamentally different to what’s required for a typical stereo shoot, and certainly not something you’d get on a typical Sony camera or similar.

Recording in 5.1 gives you six channels – left, centre, right, left surround, right surround and low frequency effect (LFE). The recorder, meanwhile, is much the same as a normal one, but of course you’ll need more channels.

“We went for the DPA 5100 mobile surround microphone. It’s five microphones integrated into a single unit. It’s a bit bigger than my usual equipment, but surprisingly not too much – it’s still mobile, as the name says, and it’s fairly easy to carry around.

DPA does also offer a ‘surround tree’ around which you can set up five mics exactly how you want them. That’d be great for features where you have lots of time for sound design, but we don’t have that luxury on most documentaries.

There’s neither the time nor the budget for it. Of course we did a certain degree of sound design, but we certainly didn’t have three months to try out shooting sounds and find exactly the right one.

“Alongside that we used a Sound Devices 788 recorder. It’s a flash memory device, not a hard disc, so its much lighter and has much more storage – 256 gigs, which is plenty for audio.

Sound Devices also sent us a CL-8, which is a fader you can attach to the recorder so you have proper faders to play with – it’s much easier to play with them than without. We’ve been really spoilt by Sound Devices and DPA, who really believed in our project, and it was great to have them on board.”

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Trivian adds that when Kaabour first approached him two years ago about the new project, there wasn’t even the question of 5.1, but he maintains that sometimes things are simply meant to be: “At around the same time as I spoke to Mahmoud, I met with Ahmed from Melody House and he said ‘look at this 5.1 mic’.

It was amazing, and all integrated so there was no need to use five mics,” he explains.

“Meanwhile, Mahmoud’s previous film was doing really well, picking up a lot of awards and he would have loved to take it further, but was having trouble because there was no 5.1 mix so it was tough to get the film into cinemas. He didn’t want to face the same problem again, so I started researching 5.1.”

The first problem Trivian encountered was a fairly straightforward one. He would be expected to monitor the sound in his headphones, which are of course stereo: “It’s a totally different way of shooting,” he says.

“I had to be thinking about post-production all the time I was recording, which isn’t easy. Plus this documentary was all about a live event, so everything had to be done that night – there was no chance of a second take.

“To help with the monitoring on the headphones, there are settings on the Sound Devices 788 that can give you a mono signal from each of the five microphones, but they’re quite complicated so I ended up creating my own settings on the 788.”

The challenges didn’t stop there. Not only was the 5.1 equipment a whole new experience for Trivian, but sometimes he was shooting with two completely separate sound kits – a standard kit for an interview, as well as the 5.1 set up for background sound.

Trivian says: “It sounds great, but because of the way we had to record I couldn’t always get exactly what I wanted by setting the 5.1 kit up next to us while I recorded the interview.

I think I may have missed a lot of ambiance and atmosphere through not being able to fully focus on the 5.1 kit, so I’m going to go back and record more takes for general atmosphere and ambiance.

Obviously not for the events themselves as they’ve been and gone, but for the general background I’d like to go and get some more takes to tidy up. It’s easy enough to do this on my own as I don’t need a camera crew or new permissions.”

Of course, once the final retakes are completed, there is still the small matter of post-production. I ask Trivian whether he expects this to be significantly more complicated than a typical stereo job: “Yes, I’d say it is,” he says.

“Firstly, we always had two cameras filming, with the camera mic and an external mic too, so we’re already on eight tracks there. Then there are the six tracks from the 5.1, so we’re up to 14 tracks.

We estimate that by the time we’ve added more sounds in post we could be looking at around 30 tracks, which is a lot more than I’d usually expect, and obviously a lot more complicated to mix.

“We also need to make sure all the right tracks are in the right spot in the edit so when we give it to the rerecording mixer everything’s ok. We synched the cameras and the soundtrack at the beginning of every day, then resynched every three hours.

I was lucky too as I had John Kocanczy to help me with the stage sound for the big finale. He recorded all the stage sound, and did so very clearly, while I looked after the 5.1 side.”

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With five microphones just for the 5.1 recordings, more microphones depending on how many cameras are being used for each shot and up to 30 channels in post, it seems that, while digital camera technology may often take the spotlight in these pages, sound too has massively benefitted from the digital revolution.

Trivian concurs: “It’s a lot simpler now thanks to Pro Tools and the like. You can basically create as many tracks as your computer can handle.”

So will we now see 5.1 taking over the regional production and broadcast industries? There’s certainly a tendency in the region for new technology adoption to snowball once the first practitioner dips their toe in the water, and it’s a poorly-kept secret that most of the European football coverage that reaches regional broadcasters is already in 5.1, whether they choose to broadcast it as such or not.

Trivian is hopeful: “I’m not aware of any more 5.1 projects coming up as yet, and I don’t have any personally, but I hope there will be. Currently you can’t buy the gear here.

It came from our sponsors so we’ll have to send it back even though I’d love to keep it. I do know that NMK have meetings with some of the major regional broadcasters about it.

They seem keen, especially for major sporting events, and now the likes of Etisalat and Du have the fibre optic capacity to deliver 5.1 why not use it?

“Football actually came in really useful for my research. The football shooting is all about big crowds, which is exactly what we were working with, and that was one of the things that pushed me towards this particular mic – it gives such a nice, spatial image in those environments.”

Trivian concludes: “I hope once one film, such as this, or broadcaster uses 5.1, everyone will follow. It makes sense. 3D cameras have taken off in the region, and 3D sound has been around longer than the trend for stereoscopic 3D pictures, so I’m hopeful.”

About the DPA 5100
The DPA 5100 mobile surround mic for 5.1 recording may be new to the region, but it was originally launched at IBC 2008, where it was showcased in a sports environment, capturing all the action from a table football game on DPA’s stand! The result was unavailable at the time of going to press, but the mic began shipping the following year regardless.

The stand-alone, plug and play 5100 can be mounted on a camera or microphone stand, suspended or handheld, and requires no additional signal processing. Lightweight and portable, its compact size and ease of use come at no sacrifice to sound quality. The 5100 is also robust and resilient to inclement weather conditions.

“The DPA 5100 Mobile Surround Microphone has set a new standard for recording in surround sound, explains DPA chief executive Christian Poulson.

“It is primarily used for (HDTV) television surround sound production to add surround ambience, especially in connection with sports events, ambience recording at different venues, and documentaries. However, everyone who produces surround sound can take advantage of this unit.”

The 5100 employs five miniature pressure transducers that exhibit low sensitivity to wind and mechanical noise, low distortion, consistent low frequency response and wide dynamic range.

Optimum channel separation and directionality are achieved through a combination of DPA’s proprietary Directional Pressure Microphone technology, which mounts interference tubes on the Left/Centre/Right capsules, and the use of acoustic baffles that further preserve the accuracy of levels between the discrete analogue output channels.

The 5100’s three front microphones are time coincident to eliminate comb filtering and ensure paramount frequency consistency when downmixing to stereo or mono.

In contrast, the rear microphones, which feature standard omnidirectional patterns, are optimally spaced from both each other and the front array to simulate natural time arrival differences. The LFE channel is comprised from a L/R sum, which is then attenuated 10 dB in comparison with the signal from the main channels.

The 5.1 output of the 5100 runs through a multi-pin Lemo connector carrying all six channels electronically balanced, while an enclosed five-meter six-pair Mogami cable breaks out to six Neutrik XLR-M connectors.

The centre channel can be overridden by an external boom or lavalier microphone attached via a built-in XLR-F connector — particularly useful for interviews and documentary features.

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