Nelson Stoll next to his audio cart on the set of Chasing Mavericks
Production sound mixer Nelson Stoll has seen a lot of changes in the world of location audio recording for motion picture and television, a high-stakes field requiring a failsafe approach to reliability and quality. One significant upgrade he has made over the past several years is the addition of Shure UHF-R as the default wireless system on his audio cart.
“I’ve been using Shure UHF-R for a few years now,” says Stoll, “most recently on Chasing Mavericks, a surfing film we shot on Monterey Bay, and on the about-to-be-released Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. I’ve also used them on episodic TV series, where there’s a high page count and multiple locations during the day, requiring us to set up quickly. The Shure systems give me that capability. They’ve earned a place on my sound cart.”
When it became clear that the old wireless systems populating his rig would be outlawed by FCC rules changes, Stoll began his search for an upgrade. “I did a lot of tests with different brands, looking at both the audio quality and the radio link,” he recounts. “The Shure system turned out to be fantastic in that regard. The UHF-R sound quality was essentially equal to or better than the other systems, even much more expensive ones, but much easier to configure and use. We work on location, often outdoors, so that ability is critical for us.”
The latency-free nature of the system was another key factor for Stoll. “I appreciate the fact that there is no digital delay in the UHF-R wireless. This makes it easier to mix elements in real time, not requiring a digital mixer to delay the overall sound to compensate for the latency found in digital and digital hybrid wireless systems,” he says.
Speed of set-up and reliability are critical factors for production sound mixers like Stoll. “In my job, you’re mixing live in real time,” he says. “That dialog mix goes to track one on the recording, with all the individual isolated microphones going to their own tracks as well. Getting a good live mix is the goal, not just because production will have a good idea of the sound quality during the initial screenings, but because it saves time and money. These days, a lot of productions, especially projects like reality shows, really rely on production sound. They don’t have the time or the money to do a lot of work in post, and quality, reliable wireless microphone systems is central to achieving this.”
Nelson Stoll’s audio cart, which includes Shure’s UHF-R wireless
Chasing Mavericks, a surfing movie filmed largely on the beach and in the water, posed a number of logistical problems. “That job really helped me appreciate the flexibility and quality of the Shure radio link,” Stoll recalls. “First, we needed excellent range. We had several scenes where we were on a bluff above the beach, with the acting taking place below, a hundred yards or more away. Then we had sequences on the water, with the actors in wetsuits, which we modified with an acoustically transparent panel just below the chin for the microphone. We also made waterproof pouches for the transmitters, and made antenna extensions so we could put them in the lower back of the actors’ wetsuits, but with the antenna at the neck. It’s pretty tricky business, because obviously you don’t want anything to show on camera.”
One feature of the Shure system that Stoll appreciates is the UA845-SWB wide-band antenna combiner, which enables him to run all four of his dual-channel U4D receivers through a single pair of antennas. “I use a pair of Shure UA870 active antennas in most situations. They have switchable RF gain, which is very important,” he explains. “When there’s a lot of RF activity in the area, you never want more gain than you need for the distances you’re working with. I’ve done tests with helical antennas, which are theoretically better with frequencies matched, but I’ve found that, in general, for the most flexible deployment in the work I do, the Shure combiner and antenna system is better in more situations.
Stoll’s audio cart is outfitted with everything he needs to capture the action without fail. Currently, his equipment list includes eight channels of UHF-R wireless, the UA845 antenna splitter, plus a small Neve mixing console recording to a Mac Mini computer. He uses Shure’s standard UR1 and UR1M micro-bodypack transmitters, as the situation requires. “My job is to be self-contained and fail-safe, so I design my set-up accordingly,” he says. “I split my wireless systems between two frequency bands, the G3 and H4, so I’ll have enough channels, regardless of location. Even shooting outdoors around L.A., I can always find enough channels. I also carry some Shure UR5 portable receivers, plus small omni antennas and low-loss cables—whatever tools will give me the reliability and sound quality the job requires.”
Having gone to a computer-based recording setup has proven to be another boon to Stoll. “We now can run software tools like Shure Wireless Workbench, allowing even more powerful capabilities,” he says. “Even though my Shure systems basically configure themselves, it’s nice to view a detailed RF graph of the entire bandwidth, just to see what’s going on. Wireless Workbench also allows me to save templates for every shooting location, which is really going to help me in the planning phases for future shoots.
“When you’re working in the open air, especially in a major city like Los Angeles, it’s not uncommon to suddenly have one of your open channels get hit with interference,” Stoll notes. “Since going to the Shure radios, I’ve always been able to find enough channels, and it’s very easy to quickly reconfigure a channel if there’s a conflict. It’s just a very well-engineered system, perfect for what I do. I’m very impressed with them.”