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Smith Goes the Distance with U.S. Army Helo Shoots

Rob Smith may be the only location sound mixer to attempt ground-to-helicopter audio over a distance of two miles.

Rob Smith
Rob Smith

Fort Rucker, AL (January 27, 2022)—Long-range recording is old hat for Rob Smith, who may be the only location sound mixer to attempt ground-to-helicopter audio over a distance of two miles.

Smith, whose credits include Preacher, Queen of the South and Duck Dynasty, used Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless gear on Starting Strong, produced by Ricky Schroeder’s Old Post Films, which looks behind the scenes at careers in the U.S. Army. “The job of me and my colleague Bob Tiwana — who originally supplied all the Lectrosonics gear — was to capture both all the radio communications between the helicopter crew and the tower, as well as chatter inside the copters between students and instructors,” he says.

For one series of shots at Fort Rucker’s Cairns Army Airfield in Alabama during helicopter pilot training, he says, they used UCR411a receivers paired with SMV and SMQV transmitters. “[W]e strapped into the back seat with our camera operator, with a minimum of 12 of the 411s between our two kits. These fed Sound Devices 788T recorders. Some SMV and SMQV transmitters were wired into the radio comms while others picked up Sanken COS-11 mics on the students’ persons. Obviously, we got everything with no problems.”

The Period Sound of ‘Passing’

With limited space available in the helicopter, Smith was not able to use powered antennas. “So, what makes it more unbelievable is that we were getting all this crystal-clear audio using just the whips on the 411s. With many different people talking all at once, we were easily able to isolate everyone for post-production.”

On other shoots, he says, while also using R1A receivers for the producers’ and directors’ IFB monitoring, “On several occasions, we got well over 1,000 feet away from the show copter and still got all the dialogue with no issues. The producers were on the ground listening to their R1a beltpacks, and they came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Wow, how were you doing that?’ They could hear everything like it was happening right next to them.”

Yet another scene, this time with the sound department on the ground, presented even greater range demands. Smith reports his UCR411a receivers did not flinch. “After that, we still had the transmitters on the students and they had to fly a pattern around an airspace known as the practice box,” he says. “At times, I’ll bet they were two miles away from us. We had their audio. That was amazing.”