TV Timecard and Sound Report Writer apps

Thursday, May 19, 2011

TEST DRIVE: Sound Devices CL-WiFi

The Sound Devices 788T is a powerful tool for shows requiring multi-track recording. The biggest pitfall with the 788T, though, is the inability to edit metadata with ease and in a hurry. The menus aren't easily navigable to someone that's not incredibly familiar with it, and even if you are, there's more scrolling than a stock market ticker. So the next step for Sound Devices was to either create an add-on or redesign the units from the ground up. The CL-WiFi was released in February 2011 as a solution for this much needed feature. Everyone and their mama has an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, so it seems like a logical decision to use what's already out there. Or is it??

I was enthused by Gotham Sound's run through with the unit and decided to pick one up. The idea of being able to just type the stuff in and remote record capabilities was too much to pass up, even if it is more of a novelty. Bear in mind that all my work right now is reality, so consider that working environment before attempting to counter anything here. You can already use a keyboard via USB or other remote roll options, but in a bag it seems silly to carry around a keyboard, and adding an extra button for something that already works fine doesn't warrant a purchase, not even from me. I've just dealt with scrolling through the alphabet one character at a time, hopefully knowing all my cast at the beginning of the day and just adding them as we go. That system has worked well so far, so I wasn't really pressured into this being a do-or-die item. the point of this review. I put this through some rigorous real world tests with the expectation that everything would work flawlessly. That was, in fact, not the case at all. I'll highlight each of the pros and cons below. For the record, I'm running version 2.14 on the 788T with a CL-8 and a 64GB iPad WiFi running version 4.3.2, and CL-WiFi app version 1.0.0. (UPDATE: v2.15 on the 788T and v1.0.1 on the CL-WiFi app is now available)

Why It's Nifty:

Remote Recording: This isn't a deal maker by any means, but how could it not be included? You can start and stop, mark a false take, and circle a take from the main Transport page, which also displays the meters. This feature came in handy most when setting the bag in the trunk of a car and waiting for the camera department to do their thing.  Once they were finally set, I just hit the big red button from my iPad and didn't have to waste any extra data than was necessary.

Editing the metadata is super easy on the Take List page. Access to 20 takes within a touch.
Metadata Editing: Ok, this is actually what sold me. My biggest problem thus far has been solved. The CL-WiFi app is laid out nicely and in an intuitive format. There are two ways to edit your data; either on the first page, called Transport or on the second page, called Take List. I tended to find myself using the Take List section most often. In this view, you're able to take a quick glance at the previous 18 takes, the current/last recorded take, and the next take. Just tap on a take in the list and all available info is there; scene name, take number, file name, notes, circle, and track names. Each can be edited before, during, or after it is recorded, with the exception being that you cannot circle the upcoming take before it's rolled. You can copy and paste, which I found especially useful in the notes section when post wants a scene description. Just copy and paste the same info for all the takes that are affected.  With all that said, it does take about anywhere from 5-10 seconds for all twenty takes to load.

Two quick refreshes updates your info.
Refreshing: All info is refreshed after you hit Save. You can edit the whole take and then save, or edit each line item and save after each edit. Either way, the info is automatically refreshed with two quick flashes of the screen (left). Just remember to save or guessed won't be saved. And when you change the upcoming scene name, the take number automatically resets to 1 (if you want it to) in the refresh.

Easily label your unit(s)
Foolproof LEDs: On the hardware side of things, the CL-WiFi is a rugged little box about the size of an engagement ring box, but a little thinner...and harder to open (for some more so than others). Two green LEDs let you know at a glance if the unit has power (driven from the C.Link connection) and if there is a connection.

Customizable IP: The configuration options in the 788T menu allow for an easily customizable IP address as well as an SSID. This works well when using multiple rigs in the same vicinity. For example, I changed the SSID from "CL-WIFI" on both rigs to "A-team" and "B-team," respectively, along with unique IPs.  UPDATE: Firmware v2.15 on the 788T changes the customizable IP address from read and write to read-only.  You can still change the SSID, and add WEP64 security, but you're at the mercy of the 788T-generated IP address, which according to SD, doesn't affect directing a CL-WiFi to a specific 788T. When using WEP64 security, you MUST have EXACTLY 10 characters.

Range: The range on this unit is stellar.  It performs as well as any wifi should.  Whether it was through walls or in a car, it was accessible in all the places it needed to be.  And if you do by chance get disconnected, the 788T keeps on chugging along with whatever the previous command was.

Car-to-Car: I had mixed results on my car-to-car usage.  On the show I've been testing it on for the past month now, we've done very few car scenes, and when we did there were always lipstick cams as well as other HDX900s with their Starlinx on (see below for more info) for exterior shots.  While using my unit mostly in our production vehicle, I did notice that the speed of the car doesn't affect the performance whatsoever.  This ability, combined with my range tests, leads me to believe it'll be just fine for car-to-car scenes.
Car-to-Car scenes worked out great!
UPDATE: I had a very successful day of car-to-car scenes. We only had one tracking camera in the lead vehicle, an H2 as the picture car, and myself and story in the follow vehicle. I had the lone camera turn off its Starlinx and I was able to go the whole scene with only one dropout, and that was when the whole caravan got separated.  I'd say we were mostly within 50 feet or so, with the bag in the floorboard of the back seat.  The only hiccup was some lagging on the meters and a slower-than-normal take load.  This works like a charm, just like I had hoped. But still, all you can do is monitor the info.  Granted, thats more than anything we've been able to do in the past.

Input Routing: I did like the convenience of having all the input routing options at my fingertips.  It's a solid, easy to understand layout that you really can't mess up.  Pre- and Post-fade buttons are accessible and intuitive, as is all the other track assignments.  This page isn't something that will get used very much, but it's useful to have when setting up for a show.  One thing I thought about doing, though never actually was brave enough to do, was to let a story producer take control of the Input Routing page to allow him/her select which tracks they'd like to hear out of the AUX1 track.  I have my track clearly labeled "IFB" and all the individual tracks have the cast members labeled as well, but I have a hard time trusting a producer with my IFBs, better yet my iPad with full control over my recorder.  I'd like a "Producer Mode" that would let you lock down all the major functions and give them limited control over certain functions.  If they want to isolate a character from an 8-person table scene with 3 different conversations, they could.  And I'd still be able to send a "correct" mix to camera.  I realize there are other ways around that, but this would just be a luxury feature.

Prepare for blackouts
What Sucks:

Inconsistent Login: You have to make sure you give the iDevice time to connect each time you wake it up, or else you get the "Please check WiFi network then restart the application" message. Essentially you just aren't going to receive the instant gratification we are all so used to.

Unusable Within Vicinity Of Starlinx: Ok, this one's a doozie. One possible oversight in this whole system is the technology being used. Truth be told, it took me nearly a full week to figure out what was going on. The biggest benefactor of this device is the reality sector, and I haven't been on many shows that don't use wireless video transmission. Have you shot shot in a house and knocked out the Internet with the Starlinx? Well guess what, the same thing happens with the CL-WiFi. The iDevice will show an established connection, but it'll be unable to communicate with the CL-WiFi. This can be a deal breaker for those with few locations where the cameras are always on. We had several company moves that allowed me to just throw the bag in the truck of our mini-van and prepare for the next scene and edit previous ones. Nevertheless, I wasn't able to use it how it was intended while rolling, so I came out very disappointed on this front. Maybe when everyone is using their iPad as a wifi video monitor, everything will be squared away.

After typing "bartender" out, I had (chose) to go back and edit it.
Limited Auto-Caps: On the opening "Transport" page, when editing scene and track names, the auto-caps feature is disabled. Nothing major, but I find the inconsistency interesting more than anything. It works just fine on the "Take List" page. This might be an issue for the OCD-types when labeling tracks.

Take Quantity: As far as I can tell, you are limited to just the 18 previous takes.  There's no option to Load More like there is on many apps containing older info.  You better make sure you edit it before you move on very far.

Take Duration Display: Of all the options available to display, I believe there's room on an iPad for the take duration in the Take List section.  It does display the duration while recording, but not in the Take List. Seldom used, but appreciated when needed.

Battery Display: it would be nice to see the battery level of the 788T within the app. Currently there is no such indication anywhere.

Playback Mode: A minor aspect that's missing is a playback mode. Currently, you can only control playback directly from the 788T. The meters will display on the CL-WiFi, but no other info will, including the scene names, take number, track names, and timecode. However, the run time is displayed. Selecting play from the "Take List" would be advantageous. I'd like to see all that info during playback, as well as a green background to indicate playback, much like the way it uses red for recording. Perhaps you could navigate through the next take and previous take as well from the "Transport" screen.

The main Transport page offers a lot, but not playback.
Output Routing: If there's gonna be input routing, I think there should be output routing.  I find myself changing up my outputs more often than my inputs.  If that's the standard with most mixers, or hell, even just some, then it's probably worth having on the board.

Sound Report: I've seen a lot of apps in my day and I know they are capable of pulling off some pretty cool things, including creating PDFs. I think the top priority for this app should be the ability to create a PDF sound report that can be e-mailed or saved to iBooks. Right now the lack of this feature means you MUST use an extra step somewhere, be it in a small spiral notebook or through Wave Agent on a laptop. Not a huge deal, but a relative inconvenience for now.

So it seems a better idea on paper than in reality. For the first version of these products, both the hardware and software are solid.  The hardware is as good as it can be, but I think there are some strides to be made on the app side of things. I'm not sure of the technological capabilities of Bluetooth, but I think it'd be something to consider in future applications. I'd gladly sacrifice a few dozen feet of range for pure functionality. This device is best suited on smaller shows, commercials, or other productions that don't use any powerful 2.4Ghz video transmitters. That, honestly, is my biggest gripe. Everything else seems like it can be fixed in a software update, so it still has a lot of value to a 788T user. You just need to know your surroundings. Hopefully either WiFi and/or Bluetooth will be built into future products to take advantage of the capabilities. A for effort, B- for execution. Now, back to work.

Find Tyler Faison on Google+

Monday, May 16, 2011

Outside The Box: Cell Phone Tap

Capturing phone conversations on-screen 10 years ago would require you to patch into the land line that's being used.  Not a big deal, but you need some setup time and a land line.  Nowadays, in reality anyways, you don't always have the luxury of setup time OR a land line.  It'll typically just be phone call from the talent's cell phone, which you obviously can't attach any device onto, unless you have a post department that really enjoys rotoscoping.  So instead of fighting speaker phones and awkward phone placement near a lav, just embrace the technology and use it to your advantage.

Stereo mini to TA5 to connect an iPhone to Lectro transmitter: $35
The solution has been in front of you all along.  Just take another person's cell phone, preferably the producer's, and take the audio feed out of their headphone jack.  From there you can either send to a transmitter or connect it directly to one of your inputs.  Chances are, you already have the cables and/or adapters to make it happen.  I got Trew Audio to make me a line level stereo mini to TA5 cable to send the feed wireless to me.  Our producer wanted to still be able to talk to the person on the other end, so she just kept her phone near her and maintained the controls.  Once you have your levels set properly, have the producer call the person that's off camera.  This connection will stay active, but the producer will mute their side of the conversation.  When the on-screen talent makes the call to the off-screen talent, it'll be just like normal.  Just merge the calls to a three-way conversation and BAM, you're in.  It works pretty much the same way for making and receiving a call.  You get the highest quality sound possible without much intrusion.  Just don't forget to put it on it's own track.  Location sound is all about problem solving on the fly.  If you have the tools and mindset at your disposal, you'll get to lunch much faster.

Find Tyler Faison on Google+

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wires Are For The Birds

Wireless audio is one of the many necessities in reality television.  A typical setup will include multiple wireless lavs for talent as well as wireless camera hops for the cameras, as well as some IFB feeds for producers to listen in on the action.  And choosing exactly the right tool for the job isn't always the simplest task either.  It's easy to go with what you're comfortable with, and typically that's not a bad idea, especially if it's top of the line gear.  Though over the past couple years or so I've seen a lot of different wireless options, transmitters and receivers alike, that have really opened my eyes to what can be done with wireless audio.  I own and use several different brands for my wireless needs.  As the Sound Supervisor on my current show, I had the opportunity to snag some of Zaxcom's RX900 Stereo Receivers for our shoot...5 of them.  When paired with their sister stereo transmitters, the TX900 (x2), beautiful things can happen.

 Five Panasonic HDX900s geared up with Zaxcom RX900 Stereo Receivers
There are several things I like about these products, with only a couple minor setbacks.  Holding the lion's share of the market, Lectrosonics' products are my standard to judge other wireless transmitters and receivers on, in terms of product quality, fidelity, wireless capabilities, and user friendliness.  Zaxcom has done a really good job with this line of camera hops.  First off, to get two channels of audio to the camera, there's only one transmitter, one receiver, and one frequency.  This makes it super easy, and more importantly super light, to carry and maintain the units.  The frequency scan functions a little differently than the Lectro 400 series in that the RX900 automatically selects a frequency rather than you choosing your own based on the graphical layout of all 256 channels.  Plus, you save a little time by only coordinating one frequency rather than two.  Having said that, the Zaxcom stereo signal eats up about 5 times the bandwidth of a single Lectrosonics channel (a little tidbit I learned firsthand from Jay Gerber, the Super Bowl Frequency Coordinator).  So the whole "one frequency" thing can be a little deceiving, especially if you're in a tight RF space.  Even though Lectro has their dual-channel SR units, you have to run them on two different frequencies.  So while the math favors Lectrosonics's technology, most applications will allow for the extra bandwidth.  Having only one unit with one frequency also makes for quick adjustments on the fly, which with two bags on our current show, can come in handy if the director wants to split a camera off to a different destination or changes the coverage dramatically.  With the RX900, we can just dial in the frequency with just the touch of a few buttons and be back up and running.  I also like how the buttons are designed on the RX900 over the SR.  They are raised, just like on a 411, which makes it easy to navigate the menu with just one hand.  I've found that with the SR's recessed button design, you have to apply a little counter force to have it recognize a depression.  When it's on a camera operator's shoulder and you're running around, that's something to consider.  And speaking of camera operators, I had 5 immediate friends when they walked in on Day One and saw that just the one unit on the back of their cameras.  Not having two 411s extended off the back or in a straddle bag makes their life easier, which makes me look like the good guy.  The biggest design flaw is the battery door on the receiver.  In order to keep it closed, you have to either have it filled with 4 AA batteries or tape it shut.  This was the same with the older, black version as well.  Even though the SR can fit in the slot of the HDX900, you still have to have the TA5 option since most HDX900s are upgraded to have the second channel activated in the slot.

I actually already own an older Zaxcom Stereo ENG set on Block 28 (shhh, don't tell), and I've found these newer ones have a few useful added features.  The transmitter is technically a transceiver, and can record the transmitted audio in its native .ZAX file format, which proves more useful when used as talent transmitters than camera hops since you're already recording a multi-track for the primary audio.  Rather than a separate transmitter for mono and stereo transmission, you just add on a stereo adapter to the mono transmitter, either the STA100 or STA150, to send a stereo signal.  I was kinda surprised at the robust connection of the adapter.  With just two small screws, it's an extremely rigid device.  The new transmitter adds numerous features over the older style.  Most notable was the lack of a need for an external filter antenna.  All the bugs seemed to have finally been worked out.  I like the fact that the input to the transmitter is a single TA5 connection, as opposed to the older version that was two mini-Lemo connectors.  There are fewer possibilities for failure with the current connections, which is extremely important in our line of work.  It also has the ability to receive timecode and a return feed from the camera with the correct compatible equipment.  All of this in a 100% digital transmission and you got yourself a winner.  At least for this job.

Find Tyler Faison on Google+

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