An Evening with the Deva

August 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

One way I keep my hands and ears in sound mixing for film and video production is to fill in for Trew Audio customers who, for one reason or another, need someone to fill in for them. So, when Kevin Smith’s usual sound mixer, Atlanta-based Whit Norris, found himself booked in San Juan, Puerto Rico for “Fast and Furious, 5” during the same week he was asked to work on the television production of “An Evening with Kevin Smith; Kevin’s 40th Birthday Party”, Whit handed it over to me. Since the only celebrity I’ve worked with over the last thirty-five years that earned me street cred with my kids is Kevin Smith, and because I became a big fan of Kevin while being the sound mixer for his film “Jersey Girl”, I was happy to take the job. The six camera video production was shot with a live audience at the Count Bassie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey (Kevin’s hometown), and recorded for television broadcast, DVD’s, and podcasts.

The outline for the Kevin Smith show is simple enough: Kevin talks to an auditorium filled with his fans. But as everyone in this line of work knows, making it look and sound simple is anything but simple. Here’s the setup:

Kevin’s primary microphone was a wireless handheld. We had a spare wireless handheld for Kevin that was also used for the MC to warm up the crowd. In addition to his hand mic, Kevin wore a wireless lavelier for whatever might come up unexpectedly. I placed four microphones (two Sanken CUB-1’s and two Shure SM-81’s) in the auditorium for audience reaction (applause, laughter, etc.) and general auditorium ambience so that the program would sound as big as it looked. A popular element of Kevin’s shows is the “Q&A” (questions and answers) between Kevin and the fans in the audience, so we had four microphones on the sides of the auditorium for people to ask questions and have a conversation with Kevin.

Except for the audience applause mics and Kevin’s lav mic, all of the microphones also went to the house sound reinforcement system (PA speakers and stage monitors). Since levels and dynamic range requirements are very different for PA systems and video recording, I didn’t want to rely on a house board feed as my source for any of the microphones. So the first order of business was to arrange for a proper splitter. The six microphone signals that needed to go to the PA system were first split with a transformer isolated splitter, with one split going to the PA mixer and the other split coming to me for the video production.

Each camera recorded to its own recorder, and, even though these video recorders could also record audio, it was, thankfully, agreed that the sound should also be recorded on a dedicated multitrack audio recorder. The show required twelve inputs–five outputs with different mixes, private communication between my assistant and me, and ten recording tracks, as outlined below:

1 Kevin Hand
2 Kevin LAV
3 Kevin Hand Spare
4 Q&A lower Left
5 Q&A lower Right
6 Q&A upper Right
7 Q&A upper Right
8 Audience CUB L
9 Audience CUB R
10 Audience SM-81 L
11 Audience SM-81 R
12 House PA board feed (music track)

Recording Tracks
1 Mono Mix
2 Kevin Hand Mic
3 Kevin Lav Mic
4 Q&A lower Left
5 Q&A lower Right
6 Q&A upper Left
7 Q&A upper Right
8 Audience SM-81 L and CUB-1 L
9 Audience SM-81 R and CUB-1 R
10 Kevin Spare

Camera Recorders (each camera recorded two audio channels)
1 Mono Mix
2 Kevin Hand Mic

1 Mono mix to camera audio DA (distribution amplifier)
2 Kevin’s hand mic to camera audio DA
3 Mono mix to Comtek wireless transmitter (to audio scratch track to SteadiCam) and general wireless monitoring
4 Program mix and private communications mic to audio assistant’s Comteks
5 Mono mix to backup audio recorder
6 Unused
7 Unused
8 Unused

The Deva series of recorders (including the Fusion) has been around for a number of years now. But its reputation as a very capable recorder still unfairly overshadows the fact that it is equally capable – if not even more capable – as a mixer. In support of that statement, I’ll say that over my career I’ve done countless live productions like this one, and they usually required a huge production truck with large audio mixing console and racks of processing gear for distribution, compressor/limiters, communications, etc. The amazing thing to me this time (and it still amazes me) is that all of these inputs and outputs and primary recording channels were mixed, EQ’d, processed, distributed, and multi-tracked by a single battery-powered box, compact enough for me to carry into the show under one arm (while carrying my coffee with the same hand)–the Zaxcom Deva 16. (The even smaller, less expensive Zaxcom Fusion could have done this show equally as well.) Skeptics will often come up with questions, so I’ve anticipated some of these and responded with, fittingly, a Kevin Smith style Q&A…

Q: “Hey, like, how do you control 12 inputs with just 8 knobs”.
A: By using our brains, Dude, and the brain of the Deva.

Since the Deva system is a digital mixer, any combination of inputs can be assigned to a single knob, all knobs, or none at all, as you like. In the case of the Kevin Smith show, I assigned all four applause mics to a single fader on the Deva. So, if more or less applause or laughter was desired, I could bring up or down all four mics with one fader (I premixed the four applause mics to get the balance I wanted with the input trims, and it was easy enough to fine tune them after the show started). Putting four inputs on a single knob freed up three knobs. Since the music track from the PA board feed was to warm up the crowd, and never intended for the video production, I decided it was not likely to be be needed for my mono mix, so I did not assign it to one of the knobs, but did assign it to one of the four virtual touchscreen faders. This eliminated the need for the fourth knob, allowing the mono mix to be done with only 8 knobs.

Q: “But those faders on the Deva are just little round knobs. To really mix and stuff like that you need cool lookin’ slide faders.”
A: Thanks for your question [laughter]. Actually, mixing with the Deva’s little round knobs was just fine. Keep in mind that, even though setting up the Deva for the show was fairly complex, the setup was done in such a way that operating and mixing during the show was very simple. The audience applause/laughter mics generally stayed at about the same level throughout the show, with only occasional minor adjustment with a single knob (all four mics were assigned to a single knob, remember?). During the audience Q&A portion of the show, only one question mic was used at any one time. So, even though I was using twelve inputs, mixing the show generally consisted of one finger on Kevin’s mic, one on the applause/laughter mics, and a couple on the Q&A mics (bringing one up while bringing another down).

Q: “What about EQ and limiters and stuff like that man? I mean, that’s why I like boards with a lot of knobs and stuff.”

A: Remember, the Deva has a brain (and remember, we do too), which gives us a lot more capability than the 8 knobs on the front suggests. I’m very careful with limiters and I avoid the audible “pumping” sound from overusing them, but good limiters can make live mixing much easier and sound better. The Deva input limiters have adjustable everything… threshold, attack time, release time, and soft knee adjustments. So the Deva limiters can be properly set to work in the background, controlling dynamics of multiple mics more smoothly than I could do manually, leaving only minimal level adjustments required by me.

Q: “What about back up recorders”
A: My philosophy is normally to roll only one recorder. But since this was very much a live show that was not going to be interrupted under any circumstances, a backup recorder made sense. Though each camera was recording a mono mix (so there were essentially 6 backup recorders already rolling), these cameras were being fed by the Deva. So, hypothetically, if a big light fell on the Deva and destroyed it, the Deva recording and the camera recordings would stop. For this reason I rolled second recorder (a Sound Devices 744T), with my mix on channel 1 and a feed from the PA board on channel 2. This way, even if the Deva failed, Kevin’s mic and the Q&A mics would still be recorded. But, as is usually the case, since I had a fail-safe in place, it was never needed.

Working on the Kevin Smith show was a good reminder of many of the reasons we choose this line of work. For me, it still all starts with the magic of turning a knob and, in this case, hearing Kevin Smith in my headphones, then pressing a button and hearing it again. I hope I never get used to that. Then, it’s the satisfaction of turning challenges into elegant solutions, like controlling 4 mics with 1 knob. As if those reasons aren’t enough, another thing that addicts us to this profession is the very reason it exists in the first place: to record interesting things for others to enjoy. We are constantly being placed in a position to witness amazing things and incredible talents while being paid for the privilege. And it happened to me again that night in Red Bank, New Jersey.

The day after the show, while driving my rental car back from Red Bank to the Newark Airport to catch a flight back to LA, and realized I would be going right past Zaxcom’s Pompton Plains, New Jersey factory. So I made the call. Hanging out with Deva inventor Glenn Sanders and his staff was a fitting surprise ending to yet another cool experience in my world of film and video production. I know there will be more. I wonder what they’ll be.

Glen Trew Signature