25 October 2015

E-Sign O the Times

We call it "The Industry". When we omit the modifying noun, it is assumed that we are speaking of the entertainment industry. While on occasion we make art that is entertaining, most of the time it's merely work. Work that we are passionate about, yes, but work nonetheless. A majority of us are self-employed, aka freelance, which means that in addition to our primary skill, we are also every other executive position within our company. It's up to us to negotiate and close the deal, while managing all of the residual paperwork that comes with running a business.

Often, we conduct our basic negotiations via a phone call, text, or email, with few, if any, of the pertinent terms specified as they should be. One the most reliable things you can do to simplify the process is to get a deal memo (which is the same -i.e. as legally binding - as any other contract. "Deal memo" seems to be used mainly as an entertainment industry term of art).

Verbal contracts, while seemingly convenient, and technically legally binding, have their drawbacks

"People remember things differently. People don’t remember. People lie. So ask your clients to sign some simple paperwork. This is business, after all, and anyone who balks at written contracts is likely to pull a disappearing act once the bill comes due."

"I said I would pay you? With money? That doesn't sound like me..."

Some of these issues are unintentional, but all are avoidable, so long as both parties have a common document with clearly defined terms that they can both refer to before the work is engaged, as well as after to resolve any confusion.
Email can suffice for this, but sometimes you'll get a harried client who will miss certain things, or respond with a "yes" when you needed a full agreement clause stated. I got tired of all of this (negotiations annoy me), so I've put together a deal memo that covers most of what I need to feel comfortable on set: rate, kit, OT, travel, and the like. Every time I get back from a gig and I end up kicking myself for something, it gets added to the memo. It's now a page and a half.

Whilst we live in a gilded age of instant grams and books of faces, many people still find difficulty in receiving, signing, and returning a document. Often, a production will be very ad hoc, and won't have so much as a table, let alone a printer or scanner upon said table, to handle your memo. Luckily, several businesses offer just the solution: electronic signatures.

Just make sure you're grounded when you cross the "t".

You can upload your own document (text, PDF, etc), insert initialling prompts, signature blocks or whatever you need, and then have that document sent to the client for signing. On the receiving end, this is very similar to filling out a web page on any e-commerce site, and, most importantly, that signature is legally binding. Once it is signed, both you and the client are emailed copies for your respective records. No more printing and scanning an entire document merely to add a John or Jane Hancock.

I personally use HelloSign. It's one of the first I had experience with, and its integration with Google Drive is extremely convenient, as I run my entire business side through Google's apps (note: I receive no compensation or consideration from either HelloSign or Google). There are many services available today; often they will offer a few signatures per month (usually 5) for free, and charge beyond that.

We will encounter plenty of challenges on set. The business side should be as hassle-free as possible, and e-signatures are one more tool for media professionals to make sure that their contracts are all sewn up before call time. 

30 April 2015

Pitfalls, How To Avoid

As mixers, we relentlessly fill our heads with the arcane and absurdly technical, from frequency responses of various microphones to the intermodulation products of RF signals. We do so to become efficient problem-solvers. One aspect, however, consistently proves to be vexing: the business side itself.

Let’s face it: most of us got into this because we don’t like business, at least in its traditional, executive-oriented form. We don’t like wearing suits, sitting at a desk, punching a clock. The very thought that somewhere, right now, a group of adults is having a scheduled meeting about the fact that they are collectively incapable of throwing out spoiled leftovers from the office fridge fills us with a bit of rebellious schadenfreude.

"Tim! You've been warned several times about bringing kimchee for lunch!"

That’s not to say that we don’t want any kind of job, or shy from hard work; to the contrary, we will often put in  12-plus hour days for weeks, if not months at a time. We do so willingly and with gusto. It’s not the work that we sometimes find ourselves averse to, it’s the business: the numbers, the accounting, the paperwork, virtual and otherwise.

This isn’t yet another homily about how taking a business class would be best thing you could do for your career in sound (even though that’s true). More specifically, this is about how you get the business in the first place, which is negotiations. Also, this isn’t a treatise on how to negotiate per se, this is merely a primer on how to avoid certain pitfalls. I can speak authoritatively because I’ve tumbled headfirst into them myself.

The one benefit to the challenges you’ll encounter as you navigate the business landscape is that there are no new mistakes to make. They’ve all been made already, by numerous people who have come before you. The smart play is to let someone else make that mistake for you, so that you can avoid it. Learning from others is what “standing on the shoulders of giants” means.

Not this, though it should.

Half and Half

Half days are full bullshit. Unless you’re doing a favor for a very good client who encountered something on the order of force majeure, there is no legitimate reason for doing a half day.

We are not parking lot attendants being hired to show up with a pulse. We are highly skilled specialists. We bring our experience, technical knowledge, and our professionalism to bear on each set. That is what a client books; not a warm body for two hours.

Additionally, they are booking the right of first refusal. In our context, it means that the client is paying you to say no to other potential work for that day.  This gives the client the confidence that this position has been booked (one more thing off their plate), and gives you the guarantee of full rate on that day.

Some coordinators (and, frankly, myopic mixers) have countered that since it’s only a half day, you could potentially book another half day for two short gigs. Individual anecdotes aside, the odds of this happening are laughable, but that isn’t the only issue. Consider the following:

Jane miraculously books two half days gigs on the same day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Then, her morning interview subject is delayed and has to reschedule for later in the afternoon, which conflicts with the second gig.  So, which client does Jane screw over, the morning one or the afternoon one? Sure, she could scramble and try get it covered, but is the stress and uncertainty worth 60% of her rate? What happens if she can’t? By leaving one client high and dry, she’s damaged her reputation, which is what we bank upon.

If they book you, they book a full day in your calendar, regardless if the actual time rolled is supposed to be ten minutes or ten hours. That way, if the schedule changes (within reason), you’re still available to them on that day, and you get paid for the full value that you offer as a skilled technician on set.

Discount Derp

“But our budget is really low.”  Uttered so often that we begin to hear it in our sleep. Folks, I’ve been doing this about ten years now, and I can tell you that NOT ONCE has any potential client said “Hey, we’ve got plenty of money!”

"And the twenties are perfect for exfoliating!"

Just about every gig will present itself as “low budget”. That’s just business. They’re looking to save money, so they open with a low rate, regardless of who the client is. I don’t mind them opening low; that’s how it works. But I do mind them taking it personally when I refuse to lower my rate. It’s not personal, because we aren’t friends.

Nor are we a “team”. I am a member of the production crew, and the crew must function as a team on set. That’s something quite necessary to ensure efficiency and to keep the day pleasant. But the business paying us is not part of that; it’s a vendor/client relationship. Asking you to compromise by making an emotional appeal to your sense of camaraderie isn’t negotiation, it’s manipulation. Don’t let them.

A rule of thumb: there is an inverse relationship between the rate offered and the quality of the gig. Less money = longer, harder day with more problems getting paid in the end. More money = a far more pleasant endeavor. My experiences involving 16+ hour days with no OT, long-term wrangling to collect late payments, and crappy, unsafe sets are, inevitably, all from low rate gigs. They’re trying so desperately to punch above their weight that they compromise the crew, which ultimately (and short-sightedly) compromises the production. If they’re for real, they’ll find the money. If they’re not, then you’ve dodged a bullet.

One particular adjunct to this notion is pertinent to those starting out. Mixers often feel (as I did when somewhat noobish) that since they’re new, they can’t ask for full rates. While there’s something to be said for making your bones on indies with friends and doing PSAs for non-profits, there’s no reason to accept a lower-than-usual rate simply because you consider yourself “new”. If you’re qualified for the job, then you’re qualified to be adequately compensated for it. If you feel that you can't ask for full rate, then you should pass it on to a more experienced colleague. The client gets professional results, you reinforce a valuable industry relationship, and everyone's happy.

Flat Out Wrong

Flat rates are crap. They’re a red flag. Again, if the production is for real, they won’t stoop to offer them.  But here’s a very simple test: You get offered a flat rate for a 12 hour day, but are assured six ways from Sunday that they’ll never, ever go over 12. Okay, then have them promise you OT after 12 in writing.  They balk; they say they can’t, but again, promise that it won’t go over 12.

Here’s the thing: they should have no trouble committing to OT on paper, since, if they don’t go over 12,  they won’t have to actually pay it. The fact that they won’t agree to OT means that they know that they will go over 12. They’re lying to get you to commit to the flat rate, in order to save money. Be smart and protect yourself. Any production that would outright lie to you is not looking out for your safety or comfort.

Writing On the Wall

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself is to, above all, get it in writing. That doesn’t mean cuneiform tablets or notarized paper; an email can suffice for a deal memo, which is what we should all be doing if not offered one by the client. (NOTE: this does not mean that it will necessarily hold up in court, but it’s far more solid than a handshake deal.)

Make sure it lists (at the least):

  • Your labor rate (hourly/daily as necessary)
  • Your OT rate
  • Kit requests (number of wireless, timecode, number of Comteks, camera feeds, type of deliverables required)
  • Travel (mileage, per diem, accommodations)
  • Your payment terms (if submitting a timecard, then for your kit invoice)
  • Dates booked
  • Cancellation terms (a.k.a. “kill fee”, if they cancel without adequate notice)

Many gig offers start out as phone calls. I try to transition the conversation to email as expediently as possible. Human memory is notoriously unreliable, so having everything archived as text greatly simplifies things.

This also helps with “kit creep”: all the little things that clients ask for on set that weren’t negotiated for initially (“Oh we need another Comtek.” “Oh, can you wire one more person?” etc ). Having a document that clearly spells out what a la cart items cost can help should you encounter pushback.

Ultimately, I’ve found sending a rate card as a PDF to be very convenient. It lists all the relevant terms and the client can simply check which gear package meets their needs. Once that is signed and returned to me, it becomes my deal memo. If there is a discrepancy during billing, both the client and myself have copies of that signed rate card to refer to.

You Are Not In Good Hands

Make sure your restroom family will be provided for.

Insurance. It’s the most beige thing in a taupe sea of boring, but it’s also one of the most necessary. I’m not talking about your own gear insurance (which you should already have), but proof of the client’s production insurance.

Any client worth their salt (or any other seasoning for that matter) will have an umbrella liability insurance policy, covering the production for its duration. In order to protect your kit (a major portion of your livelihood), demand a certificate of insurance (C.O.I.) listing you as an Additional Loss Payee. This is the same thing that the G & E and camera rental houses require before releasing gear; you, as the owner/operator, are the audio rental house, and should be treated as such.

Again, this is separate from your own gear insurance, which covers anything that happens to the gear while in your possession, storage, or in transit (or whatever the specific terms of your policy are). But from the instant you arrive on set to the moment that you’re tail lights, your kit should be covered by production. They are, after all, the only reason you’re risking bringing your gear off the shelf. * 

I’ve fallen into every one of the above pitfalls myself. While many of the items I discuss may feel adversarial, the process doesn’t have to be. The majority of your clients will likely be pleasant and professional. These are merely suggestions for the times when they aren’t.

Remember: you are self-employed, therefore it’s up to you to fight for your self-worth.

* (Please note that this refers to gear insurance only, not worker’s comp insurance, which is beyond the scope of this article, and most of my brain power. You will also note that I am not an insurance agent, and that you should consider the above article to be merely a guideline for your own research. Don’t just take my word for it, especially with insurance.)

22 December 2014

The Itty Bitty TC Committee


The usual iteration process with tech is more features in a smaller form factor. While the new TIG is certainly smaller and lighter, it offers the same features as the original model. This is a good thing. The primary appeal of the TIG (beyond the audio output/mix feature) was its small form factor relative to the other leading TC boxes. The Q28 is smaller still, meaning less weight on the small cameras that it can enable timecode upon.

Not quite the "Ascent of Man", but close...

The first version of the Q28 used a Lemo for TC IO. While the Lemo is a common standard, it’s used less often than the BNC. The BNC may offer less functionality per millimeter of chassis real estate in that it is unidirectional, but it has the advantage of a very affordable, commonly available cable. This means that the new Q28 can be integrated into most existing kits without having to either replace or augment a cable package.

Tucked cozily upon a Canon C300, courtesy of Koerner Camera.
As you can see (or not), it almost disappears, Predator-like, into a modern camera build. I can tell you that during this test, the rather non-compliant BNC weighed more than the TIG itself, and kept lifting it off the camera body.


As mentioned, this model offers the same feature set as the original TIG (my review of which you can read here), so I won’t bother rehashing those. This is mainly to demonstrate its new svelte design. As cameras get smaller and lighter (and ACs get bitchier...JK, LUV U!), rigs become more elaborate. Any size and weight savings will be appreciated, and the TIG Q28 is a barely-there sync solution.

There are 23 TIGs in this picture. Find them all and win a prize!*

*Management accepts no responsibility for lack of actual prizes.

Introductory price: $439

17 December 2014

L Yeah!

The Lectrosonics L Series Wireless

In March 2014, Lectrosonics announced the L Series Wireless systems, essentially a revamp of the L series for affordable wireless systems for use in feeding smaller DSLR cameras. The “L” indicates “Large Bandwidth”, one of the major facets of the revamp being a switch to a wider RF spectrum. What that means is that the tuning hardware now covers three of the existing blocks, rather than one as the current systems do. This is part of an industry wide trend, ostensibly to future-proof our wireless systems as more spectrum is auctioned off either to wireless carriers or set aside for a future “internet of things”. A wide band unit will likely not have to be either re-crystaled or replaced down the line, an attractive selling point in an industry that, like anything tech-driven, is subject to relentless change. Having three blocks available per band means that a mixer has up to 3072 available frequencies, plus a wide enough safety margin that even losing an entire block means you’ll have two more still available.

Before liposuction; after.

The new line features the LT transmitter, which is like a more rectangular SMQV. (The L Series also includes the LMb TX, but given that it tops out at 50mW, I decided to only test the LT, as it’s more comparable to the SMQV.) It similarly takes power from two AA batteries, accessible through a sliding side cover, rather than bottom. This brings back the sliding door similar to earlier models powered by 9V batteries. I feel like it saves a few seconds in batt changes, and feels more secure than the threaded latch; no more slightly uneven contact, or over/undertightening of the compartment. With the lack of rounded edges, it’s slightly larger than an SMQV, so if hiding a TX is something critical to your gigs, it’s something to consider. The wire belt clip is now a tension fit, secured in two holes on the sides of the unit. This also saves users from lost tightening screws when removing or replacing the clips.

Switch it up.
For certain applications such as sports or live events, the unit features a toggle switch on top of the unit. This can be assigned as a mute switch, power, or talkback with the appropriate RX. For standard uses you can leave it unassigned.

The side panel is home to the menu display screen and a handful of membrane buttons, similar to the SM series. Lectro has now added a dedicated power button, so firing it up is a single long press, rather than two-button affair (the switches can be locked to prevent “butt power downs”). 

The menu itself is straightforward, with top-level access to all functions, again negating the need for a two-button press. It features compatibility modes like the rest of the 400 series, enabling it to transmit to a host of receivers, whether from Lectro or other brands (though, not simultaneously. Once you switch into a certain mode, it can only transmit to a receiver that is compatible with that specific mode. This is similar to the other units in the 400 series). The TA5M mic input is the same as the SM series, on top of the unit, adjacent to the SMA antenna mount and the aforementioned function toggle. Next to this are the mic level and power LEDs...

"My eyes! The goggle do nothing!"

...which brings me to the light show. There’s a whoooole lotta lights happening on the TX, on both the sides and top of the unit, whereas with earlier models is was either the side or the top. They’re very, very bright (to the point that if they’re placed face up on a table in a dark room, you can do shadow puppets on the ceiling. No joke, I actually did this), and while indicators are very useful, they can be distracting, even in a non-narrative shoot environment like a live event. 

Not quite "Laser Floyd", but close.

I broached the subject of a “high, low, off” menu setting for the LEDs (the display screen’s settings have their own menu) to Karl Winkler of Lectro, who said he’d pass it on to the engineers. Yes, you can gaff tape the unit, but then you gunk up your gear. A menu-based adjustment would be cleaner in every sense.

The LR receiver is the more interesting beast here. Slightly taller than the LT, it’s almost half as large as as 411. It features a very similar design to the LT, insofar as its chassis, button pad, belt clip and battery compartment. One welcome addition is the blue RF link LED. If you’re in a hurry, a bright blue light confirms positive reception of the intended TX. The top of the unit differs in that it has dual SMA antenna mounts and a TA3M output. Audio output on the top of the unit means cables running up and then down in a bag setup. Perhaps not a deal breaker, but less clean than running power and audio from the bottom, as with the 411.

One sticking point: with the display screen on the side of the unit, you have no way to read your RXs at a glance without lifting them out of the bag and tilting them. With a couple, it’s not an issue, but with six or more, it becomes untenable. 

LT in the side pocket.
Lectro says the new unit is intended to serve as a camera hop, where a side display makes more sense. The smaller form factor means that it can easily be mounted on a hot shoe plate on a DSLR without becoming too unwieldy. In a bag situation, however, the top display is far more functional, even more so with multiple units packed together.

I’m assuming the primary question readers are going to have is this: given the lower street price ($2390 for an LT/LR channel versus $3105 for an SMQV/411 channel), how does it perform? I conducted a few walk tests, first with an SMQV, then the LT, both TXs set to 100mW with the same Sanken COS-11. I rigged up the LR to receive the same frequency, and panned it right on my Sound Devices 664, with my 411 panned left, and set levels to match as closely as possible, so that in addition to being able to see their respective RF levels, I could also hear any dropouts in individual ears.

I wired up my intrepid assistant (bribed with a “free lunch”) and had him walk the same route twice, first with the SMQV to establish a basic range, and then the LT. We were set up in an industrial part of town, warehouses beneath an overpass. This meant a lot of metal in the area, in the support structure for the overpass, and in the numerous cars and trucks parked on the street. I set up on the loading dock of a warehouse, and my assistant first walked straight down the block for line-of-sight, and then again to around the corner to test indirect reception.

Thiiiiiiiis close. 
I got 144 yards line of sight before appreciable dropouts, and around the corner yielded 70 yards (linear, not “as the crow flies”), with essentially equal reception in both receivers. While it’s not exactly scientific, I’m going to go ahead and say that the LR offered identical performance to the 411 in this scenario. The sound quality with all units in Digital Hybrid mode was indistinguishable as well.

Does that make the LR a 411 killer? Nope. It’s a different kind of receiver, one that offers high quality in a smaller form factor, which is not without compromise. Were I setting up a small bag (boom and two wireless), I’d consider the L series. The quality is the same, and the savings is worth having to pop them out of the bag to check the side display screens. But only for a small bag, as yanking out a handful of RXs throughout a shoot day feels impractical.

In some ways, the L series feels like a reaction to the Sennheiser G series, in form factor and intent. The G3s also offer a top function switch and IR syncing between the RX and TX. The Lectros, though, far exceed the Sennheisers in terms of quality and performance. It’s more like Sennheisers are scratch track wireless that can be pressed into service as a lav mic, whereas the L series is a full quality lav mic that is small enough to be used for a scratch track. The Digital Hybrid fidelity is entirely overkill when you’re feeding a DSLR via a minijack.

  • Digital Hybrid quality at a lower price.
  • Smaller, lighter RX now practical for mounting on smaller cams.
  • Wide band future proofing and flexibility.

  • Side-mounted display limits usefulness of RX in a bag setup.
  • Single channel: if used as a camera hop, two RXs are required for full stereo mix.
  • If sending only a mono scratch track (especially to a lo-fi input like a DSLR), the L series feels like overkill.

Street prices:
LT - $1199
LR - $1189


19 May 2014

The New Newspamphletter

Greetings, campers. It’s been a bit since the last Official Syncsound Audio Newspamphletter, so buckle up. (Not because it’s super exciting or anything, just a friendly reminder to always use your seatbelt in a moving vehicle. Safety first!)

Now, on to the newspamphling: alterations and updates have been made to the main mix cart (the missile defense shield is back-ordered). From the ground up: the power supply was recently upgraded from a lead acid to a Powerstar EuroLife Lithium Ferrite system, delivering more power with less weight (less weight = less grumpiness from sound mixer. Everyone wins!). 

Remember, kids: "green" is "power", and "red" is "eject". NEVER PRESS RED WHEN I'M WORKING, NO MATTER HOW FUNNY IT IS.

The EuroLife was intended for another cart design, but with the addition of some strategic stabilizing solutions (read: Velcro), it integrates just fine into the Rastorder Foldup cart.

At the top of the cart, you’ll notice an RF Venue Diversity Fin, a combination dipole/LDPA antenna in addition to a standard sharkfin. This may seem redundant, but is by design. Rather than use the RF Venue as a dual receiver antenna, I am employing the dipole as a transmitting antenna for the Lectro IFB system. I had been using Lectro’s own dipole antenna for the IFB, but this meant mounting three antennas on the cart, which was unwieldy at times. Now, the dipole section transmits, and the LDPA functions as a second sharkfin receiver. Having done numerous walk tests, I can confirm performance is at least as good as having three separate antennas. (RF Venue doesn’t recommend this practice per se, but the tests bear out the concept).

The Ol' Switcheroo

On the picture side, I’ve added a Monoprice A/B SDI switcher. As I only have real estate for a single monitor, I’ve had to make a choice when shooting with two camera coverage. When it’s a tight-and-wide, I monitor the wide, as this is more crucial for keeping the boom out of frame. But when we have cross coverage with two mediums or close ups, it can be limiting. The switcher allows me to check both frames while keeping the cart light and collapsible. Seeing as how my request for a Bugattii Utility Vehicle goes unheeded (thanks for nothing, Wolfgang!), I need to keep the entirety of my kit modular enough to fit into a Subaru Forester.

Tucked under the top shelf, just behind the CL-9 is a Demerbox Active Speaker. A rechargeable lithium battery powers the speaker, which can accept 3.5mm minijack or bluetooth. It's too underpowered for playback use, but has plenty of oomph for a cart speaker. The fact that it's built into a waterproof Pelican case makes it a great choice for the dry, sunny Oregon weather.

In the doodads department, I recently acquired the Mozegear TIG, a svelte timecode reader/generator that offers a very elegant way to stripe timecode as LITC, meaning you can record timecode on cameras that don’t normally accept it (like DSLRs and the Blackmagic cameras). It also has a option to output timecode on one channel of audio and allow a scratch track on the other. Check out my review here.

So, here are both the main and follow cart. The rest of the main mix cart is the same: based on a 788T bag, it comes with a CL-8, a CL-9, IFB and Comtek, and a Lectro Field Venue with VRT receiver modules.

On the follow cart you’ll see my SD 664 bag, for smaller ENG/EFP gigs, which also functions as a mobile/backup setup on bigger film/TV jobs. The lower shelf also holds a case of Comtek receivers. Two are included with the kit; up to (8) more are available a la cart (even more can be sub-rented with advance notice).

Finally, the piece of resistance: the Glacier’s Edge Mark II Collapsible Posterior Support System. Forged of not-aircraft-grade aluminum, the system is enshrouded with ballistic nylon, capable of withstanding a shock load of thousands of grams. The system comes equipped with a horizontal accessory platform (aka “tray”), as well as vulcanized high-friction stabilizing pods. It’s a real beaut, but if you want one, you’d better start saving. They can sell for literally tens of dollars.

And there you have it. Minor tweaks here and there, but the little things do add up, providing a leaner, meaner sound department. Okay, we’re not mean... unless we’re pushed too far: