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ZaxNet and Me

Billy Sarokin

I’m not quite an old timer yet, though I’ve been in this business since 1975 when I started as a PA on tv commercials. My first paying gig was a test commercial for a toilet paper brand. The tag line was ‘it’s 100 sheets longer and that’s a lot of sheets.’ I never did see that spot on the air. I’ve learned a thing or two in the years since, but remarkably the key lesson wasn’t advanced knowledge of sound technique, but rather just putting what I knew in a different order. While knowledge of sound, microphones, editing, camera and lighting are vital, just as important is knowledge of logistics. All that cinematic understanding is meaningless if the company has started shooting in location two and you are still packing gear in location one. I learned that lesson my first day on episodic television on location in Manhattan. They move FAST. But they still want multiple cameras, multiple characters, simultaneous wide and tight shots and 8 pages a day. So from day one as a mixer I was looking for lighter, faster and smaller gear, and a means of moving it anywhere quickly.

Shooting in New York can mean a roof top on a five story walk up one minute and a subway scene the next (with maybe a quick insert car set up in between while the grips pre-rig the subway). Unfortunately sound is the one department with little or no pre-rigging opportunity. There are almost always two camera crews. One can be shooting scene A while the second crew puts the B camera on the insert car. Same goes for grip and electric. They have dedicated rigging crews. The vanities often get a break because every actor isn’t in every scene, and props and dressers can bring in extra people as needed to handle rough logistics. But not sound. We are expected to magically levitate from one location to the next and be ready to roll as soon as camera is ready.

This need to be a magician has led me to ask the same of my equipment. I look for gear (and by ‘gear’ I mean everything from the wheels on my cart to the digital equipment it carries) that can take abuse, is as small and lightweight as possible, does the job without compromise, and has built in redundancy. It also has to play well with others. Every piece of gear is part of a complex system. When I interface equipment I want as few adapter cables, line level interface amps, balancing transformers, etc, as possible. Every time I modify my cart or add new gear a lot of thought, trial and error goes into the process.

I just wrapped four months on “Sex and the City 2.” The last few months were on location in Morocco and part of that was deep in the Sahara, so I’m using the three week holiday hiatus to do the first total breakdown and clean out of my cart in a very long time. Anyone want some sand? I have plenty! You can make your own farolitos! The major change will be my powering structure. Over the years it had grown into a chaotic mess, so I’m replacing my ancient NRG 10 amp 12v power supply, my ham radio 12v distribution buss, and numerous individual wall warts and power supplies with the PSC Power Max Ultra. It’s bigger and heavier than I’d like but it will clean up my powering, cut back on emi and rfi and make my cart world friendly. In Morocco I needed a 240-120v transformer and still ran into trouble because some gear did not like the 50 Hz current.

The other major change has been my adoption of the Zaxnet control system. The main components of my cart are Zaxcom and the company recently introduced software that ties the recorder, the mixer and radio mics together. All three now talk to each other. It’s an amazing concept. I can now use the pots on either the Mix 12 or the Deva to control the gain or frequency of a transmitter on an actor a few hundred feet away. I can also use the radio mics as recorders and control the recording and playback with frame accuracy via the Deva.

I’d say my cart is now in full fighting trim. Fully loaded with a Deva 16, 11 radio receivers (9 digital and 2 analog), Mix 12, Mac Mini and Firebox (for playback), Comtek Base Station, IFB/Zaxnet transmitter, 2 monitors (one with touch screen), Cat 5 interface, a spectrum analyzer, all my transmitters and plant mics and most of my main mics, it packs quite a wallop and is easily carried up and down stairs. I use the Power Max Ultra to power everything so I can either use 120v, 240v, 12v DC, or any combination of the three (the Mac Mini is the only exception, I haven’t built a 12v supply for it). It’s a lot of horsepower in a small box. In order to keep it as light as possible I use an aux cart for all the gear that I need closer than the truck but doesn’t have to be on my main cart.

Each film on which I work seems to stretch the definition of what we are expected to do. Long ago I switched to fully wireless operation out of necessity. More and more I was shooting in locations where there was no way to get the cart close and often no way to even get a cable in and out. (On ‘Inside Man’ I remember a PA running over and saying “Billy, the G Camera sees you.” “G Camera? Where are they? Everyone pointed straight up to a roof top 20 stories above.) So every boom, plant and body mic on my rig is wireless. While this frees me up logistically (yup, back to logistics), it raises many issues. It seems as one problem is solved another is raised. UHF diversity led to improved range and audio quality, but the improved quality exposed weaknesses in the companding necessary in analog radios. Digital radios solved the companding (they don’t use companding) but the digital transmission exposed rfi vulnerabilities in many mics. One by one the manufacturers are redesigning their electronics to prevent rfi, but until recently there was still one issue common to all radios. The critical first stage, the microphone pre-amp, was often hundreds of feet away and often buried in someone’s underwear.

Zaxcom took the first steps towards giving us back control of the mic pre when they came up with the ingenious concept of making wireless transceivers instead of just transmitters. Once the transmitter was a two way device it could be controlled remotely using a transmitter on the sound cart. Now they have refined this concept by developing Zaxnet software to tie the remote control transmitter, the recorder and mixer together. The magical outcome is that I can use my mixer (or the Deva/Fusion) to directly control the mic input gains on all my transmitters. We seem to have come full circle. Finally I have a wireless cart with the capabilities and audio quality of a fully wired cart.

How does this play out in the real world? I find myself tweaking the transmitter gains all the time as if they were hard wired. A typical example, in Marrakech on “Sex and the City 2,” I had two booms out on a complicated scene when just before shooting I heard the director say to one of the supporting cast ‘really go over the top this time.’ This meant the actor would scream and the four girls would probably scream in response. Without Zaxnet, I would have taken a few minutes to reset all the input gains or Icould have gone ‘as is’ and hoped they would hold. With Zaxnet, I just dropped the gains a bit via the trim pots on the Mix 12. Multiply this by 20 or 100 times a day and you start to see that this returns to the mixer an essential control we surrendered when we first began to go wireless. Shooting styles have changed drastically since many of us first started in this business and they are not going back. Directors are always being squeezed by the producers, their cast, the studio, the dp, etc. The fewer times we as sound people tell them ‘no’ the happier everyone is. There are still times I’ll balk at simultaneous wide and tight shots when the dynamics of a scene beg for boom mics rather than radios. If we choose our fights carefully and have the gear to eliminate many of the common delays, we end up helping the director, improving the product and improving our reputations. Now if I could only get them to pay more for all this capability…

(from Sound and Picture)

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