‘Frozen’ recording

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As a location sound recordist specialising in capturing wildlife and natural history
audio, Chris Watson has traveled all over the world, enduring some of the most
extreme climates and harshest working conditions on Earth to get compelling sound.
For his work on Frozen Planet, the BAFTA award-winning documentary series co-
produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel, he turned to Sound Devices 744T
Recorder and MixPre Compact Field Mixer for his portable audio recording needs.

Frozen Planet, presented by Sir David Attenborough, is a seven-part series focusing
on life and the environment in the Arctic and Antarctic. In order to document how
climate change is affecting landforms such as glaciers and ice shelves, and the extent
of sea ice, the series required Watson and the production team to capture a
comprehensive record of the natural history in the polar regions.

For his work on Frozen Planet, Watson, who was based at McMurdo Station, the
National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program base on Ross Island,
located in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, flew to the South Pole and also worked on the
continent’s ice shelf and ice plateau, where it was -47.2 degrees Fahrenheit (-44
degrees Celsius) on some occasions, with a wind chill. Despite being exposed to such
extreme cold, Watson’s Sound Devices 744T unit performed flawlessly.

“The reliability of my kit is absolutely paramount, especially when working in such
remote locations,’ says Watson. “If you go to the South Pole and the equipment
doesn’t work, you have no way to fix or replace it, and you’ve wasted your time. The
construction, portability and reliability of my Sound Devices gear were fantastic. In
fact, it was so cold that on several occasions I had to stop before my 744T did.’

For his rig, Watson set up his 744T with a Sound Field ST450, an ambisonic recording
instrument. The 744T works directly with ST450, with Watson using all four-line
inputs to record the signals in B format. The 744T has a B-format decoder in the
headphone amplifiers, which proved especially handy for the Frozen Planet project.
Even though Watson was recording to this less common surround sound format, he
was able to decode it and listen to a stereo approximation of his recordings. He also
recorded in double-mid side (DMS), a surround sound format that uses three
microphones and three channels of his 744T to create four or six audio channels in
post-production.

“The ease of connectivity of the 744T is great,’ adds Watson. “When I want to record
content, I can burn the files to CompactFlash and the internal hard drive, which gives
you the confidence you need when working in these types of places, thousands of
miles from any sort of base that your data is secure. I also like the fact that with the
744T you can back up files to an external drive on location as well.’

Sound Devices 744T, a powerful four-track, file-based digital audio recorder, has
become a staple in the rigs of many feature film and episodic television sound mixers.
The super-compact 744T records and plays back audio to and from its internal hard
drive, CompactFlash cards and external FireWire drives, making field recording simple
and fast. The 744T reads uncompressed PCM audio at 16 or 24 bits with sample rates
between 32 kHz and 192 kHz. Compressed audio recording and playback from 64 kbps
to 320 kbps is also supported.
The 744T’s time code implementation makes it ready for any recording job – from
over-the-shoulder to cart-based production. The 744T employs a no-compromise audio
path that includes high-performance Sound Devices’ microphone preamplifiers.
Designed specifically for high-bandwidth, high-bit-rate digital recording applications,
these preamps set the standard for frequency-response linearity, low-distortion
performance, and low noise.

Another key component of Watsons’ rig is the Sound Devices MixPre Compact Field
Mixer. While recording pods of Orca whales and Weddell seals under the sea ice,
Watson used the preamps on the MixPre independently, feeding the audio into his
backup recorder. By using the MixPre as a stereo preamp, he was able to capture
these sounds under the sea ice, utilizing the dynamic range of the hydrophones.

“The MixPre has that rich sounding analogue quality to it, which I like,’ concludes
Watson. “It also allows me to get a clean analog front end from the hydrophones,
because the signals are so loud. I was actually out about 20 miles off shore and
stood on nearly 10 feet of sea ice, and was able to record not only pods of orcas
coming up to the sea ice, but also the sounds of the ice shifting and cracking.’

Sound Devices MixPre, like its present successor, the MixPre-D, is a studio-quality
two-channel, portable, stereo microphone mixer. Its impressive audio performance
and comprehensive features, including pan switches, built-in slate microphone, 1 kHz
tone oscillator, and headphone monitoring, make it ideal for the front end of any
studio or field production system. Film production engineers value the compact size
and ability to withstand extremes in the field. The MixPre combines rugged
mechanical and electrical construction, compact size, and high-quality components.

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