Monthly Archives: May 2017

Sound Devices MixPre-3 first impressions

MixPre-3 sound bag

MixPre-3 at home in my sound bag

When the Sound Devices MixPre-3 announcement dropped at NAB 2017, I got excited. For years I’ve been dreaming about a device as small as my original MixPre, but with built-in recorders. Could this be it? I hit the pre-order button but didn’t expect to actually hold one in my hands until summer, despite Sound Devices promising delivery before the end of the month. So when this box from B&H arrived with a couple of days to spare, I was thrilled:

MixPre-3 in box

MixPre-3 in box

First impression: Sound Devices delivers on time.

Next impression: This recorder is tiny. About the size of a sandwich:

The MixPre-3 is tiny.

The MixPre-3 is tiny.

Included is a Y cable that allows you to use the MixPre-3 as an audio interface while also powering the unit when attached to two USB-A ports. You also get two stickers – one “Sound Devices” logo and one that says “Video Devices.”

battery warningPowering the MixPre-3

I had previously ordered a USB-C to USB-A cable for powering the device, so I plugged that into my Energizer XP1800A and turned on the MixPre-3. I was greeted with this screen (see right):

Huh? The battery was fully charged. My first thought was that there was some sort of incompatibility with the current supplied by the Energizer. But it had worked just fine with my first-gen MixPre, so I figured something else must be going on. I pressed the Yes button, thinking that meant it would try to use the external battery. Instead it switched to the internal batteries. So I restarted, and this time when the screen came up I hit “No.” The result was that the screen slightly dimmed, but everything seemed to work fine.

MixPre-3 powered by USB-C to USB-A

MixPre-3 powered by USB-C to USB-A

I later learned (by reading the MixPre-3 user guide) that a single USB-C to USB-A connection isn’t capable of supplying the full power requirements of the MixPre-3. When it’s powered in this way, it enters a power-conservation mode that allows it to function at the expense of a few features. It turns off the USB-A port, dims the LCD, and won’t supply phantom power to on track 3, to name a few. Otherwise, it works perfectly fine. You can tell it’s in this mode because the USB cable icon in the upper left of the screen turns orange. The icon is green when fully powered.

To fully power the unit via USB-C, you need a USB-C to USB-C cable, and a power supply that supplies 7.5 watts to the MixPre. There aren’t a ton of these on the market right now, but I’m sure there will be soon. I went with the Anker Power Core+ 20100mAh charger, which comes with the required usb-c to usb-c cable. It’s a good value at $65. However, it takes forever to charge unless you also purchase a Anker Quick Charger.

Sound Devices has posted an exhaustive list of all the MixPre powering options.

Battery life?

Don’t even think about running the MixPre-3 off the standard 4 AA batteries. If you’re using phantom power, you’ll get like 20 minutes of record time before it sucks the life out of them. You definitely will want a robust battery option like the one I’ve described above.

How does it sound?

I performed a little changing-of-the-guard ceremony in my sound bag, pulling out my venerable MixPre and my Tascam DR-70D to make room for the new sheriff in town. Then I grabbed a Rode Stereo Videomic X  and headed to the beach, where as luck had it, a thunderstorm was brewing. Here’s what it sounded like on the MixPre-3 (with no tweaks other than normalizing levels in post):

I look forward to trying this mic out with dialog in a very quiet recording environment to see if the Kashmir preamps live up to their billing. But I sure like what I hear so far.

Touchscreen size


MixPre-3 touchscreen is small, but you get used to it quickly

The touch screen at first seems way too small to be functional. But after a little getting used to it, I found it worked just fine. However, I wouldn’t want to spend any time entering metadata this way. So it’s nice that you can do that via the Wingman app, OR by attaching a USB keyboard to the USB-A port.

Setting recording levels

It takes a little getting used to setting levels on the MixPre-3. Out of the box, they seemed much lower than on the original MixPre, on which most of my mics run hot. To get the levels up to where I expected them, I had to crank up the gain on the inputs to 41db (out of a possible 76db). On the screen this shows as middle-gain (see green Gain icon below):

Gain controls

Gain controls

Then I realized that the MixPre-3 is actually using an entirely different approach to the interface than the old MixPre. The old one was entirely analog – the new one is a mix of analog and digital. On the old mixer, you turned up the gain knobs until you found your levels. Done. On the new one, you set the base recording gain level digitally, then use the fader knobs to make minor adjustments during recording.

After working with the MixPre-3 for awhile, and looking at the files it creates, it became clear how to set the levels correctly. The steps are:

  1. Set fader knob to 0 (with silver dot at top).
  2. Plug in mic.
  3. Use gain screen to set levels a little lower than you would typically set them.
  4. Use fader knob to make minor adjustments.
  5. Record.

It’s very important to note that the adjustments you make with the fader will ONLY be applied to the mix tracks, and not the iso tracks. The iso tracks are recorded PRE fader. It’s a little confusing, because on your screen, your ISOs are labeled tracks 1, 2 and 3. When you open your files in post, the first two tracks, 1 and 2, are your mix tracks. Tracks 3, 4 and 5 are the ISOs.

For me, this whole idea of a mix track takes some getting used to. I prefer to cut with iso tracks. With my Tascam DR70D, I’m used to recording each stereo pair (or dual mono pair) to it’s own two-track file, and there’s no such thing as pre- or post fader. And, I WANT to control the levels on the iso tracks. So I suspect they way I’m going to actually use the MixPre-3 for most dialog recording is to set up the lav on the left, the shotgun on the right, and then pan them so they are isolated from each other on their own track anyway.

Nice touches

tools included

Tools included

It’s abundantly clear that the engineers at Sound Devices put a lot of love into this project. As an example, check out the flexible options for attaching the recorder to a video camera. They’ve included a centering pin and a hex key required to turn the 1/4 20 screw.

But wait, there’s more! See that little round metal dot? It’s a very powerful magnet, which holds both the pin and the hex key in place, making it less likely you’ll lose them. I love that sort of attention to detail.

Wingman app

The Wingman app connects automatically to any MixPre-3 in the vicinity right out of the box. You can add a password to the MixPre if you want to secure it. The app gives you everything you need to enter basic file names and add notes, even while a clip is still recording.

It also reveals which tracks are armed (that is, which are actually being recorded) and gives you the ability to arm and disarm tracks by tapping on the left side of them (turning them red when armed and black when disarmed).

However, the UI is a little lacking. For example, the timecode displays on the screen in HUGE numbers, while the elapsed time is shown in tiny little numbers that are hard to see. I wish I could toggle between these, because I want my producer to take notes based on elapsed time of each clip. If you turn the timecode off on the MixPre-3, the big numbers just turn in to dashes, and the elapsed time remains so small that it’s hard to see by anyone over 50.

Nevertheless, the ability to see the elapsed time at all is a big step up for us. Our previous system involved my producer starting a stop watch at the same time as the sound recordist started rolling.

Working with the files in post

The MixPre creates polyphonic files. Thats a fancy way of saying that your files contain multiple tracks, and your NLE may have some issues with this. When I tried to drop the files into iZotope RX 6, for example, I get this error (see right):

FCPX interpretation of polyphonic files

FCPX interpretation of polyphonic files

Also, when I drop stereo files that I recorded with MixPre-3 into FinalCut Pro X, it interprets them as 4 mono files. It’s easy to fix this – you simply change the file type to stereo, and disable the redundant tracks.

But what if you want it clean from the start?

There are several ways to resolve this. First, you can simply disable any tracks you don’t want before recording, using Wingman, or directly by pressing the fader for that track and disarming it. If you want to control the mix levels, you want to disable tracks 1 & 2, which is a little counter intuitive, since that appears to be disabling the track you are trying to record. But that’s not the case – you will find your MIX recorded on tracks 1 and 2 when you open the file in post.

There are advantages to letting MixPre-3 do it’s default thing, however, which is to record your mix AND lay down numbered iso tracks (which are recorded PRE fader, as we discussed earlier). That way, it’s like you have a backup recorded at a slightly lower level in case things get loud. But you still need to split those tracks up before importing them. How?

Sound Devices has foreseen this dilemma, and they created a free tool called WaveAgent. It lets you split out and export just the tracks you want, all nice and tidy. It also gives you a great interface for appending metadata to your audio files, should you wish to.

You can tell at a glance how many channels your file contains, the bit depth it was recorded at, etc.

To export tracks 1 and 2 into a single (stereo) file, for example, you click under File1 in Trk1 and Trk2. Then you select the file format you wish to export, select a location to save it, and export.

Presets are awesome

It used to be that when you got your mixer all set up correctly, you didn’t want anyone to touch anything. They could easily mess it up.

With the MixPre-3, those days are over. You just set up your mixer however you like – arm some channels, disable others, set levels, pan, etc.- then store that setting as a preset.

When you’re ready to use that configuration, you simply navigate to the present menu, dial down to your setup, and load it. Done!

I’ve set mine up with two presets – one for recording sound effects and ambiences with my Rode Stereo Videomic X, and another configured with the lav for interviews. On the left channel I’ve got a lav without phantom power, on the right a shotgun mic with it.  If you label the preset by it’s function, it makes it very fast to set up your recorder to match the situation you’re working in.

A new benchmark for documentary sound?

I will be using the MixPre-3 heavily in production in the coming weeks, and I’ll post a more thorough review when I’ve had more time with it. But if initial impressions bear out, the MixPre-3 could easily become the new benchmark in documentary film audio. If you’re a stickler for sound, but you want to spend more time thinking about your story than you do about your tools, the MixPre-3 was made for you.

LiteMat SnapGrid ads new level of light spill control

I prefer LiteGear LiteMat’s over just about any other light for documentary location lighting. Why? Because they are so easy to control. With most lights, you need to deploy flags or bulky soft boxes keep the light from spilling everywhere. The LiteMat kits contain everything you need to control the light without requiring anything else – the poly skirt, the diffusion, and a poly grid. So when I heard about the LiteMat SnapGrid which promises even finer control, I investigated.

The SnapGrid is made by a company called The Rag Place (at their Georgia facility). For $200, they will custom-sew a 40-degree SnapGrid for the LiteMat1. That’s a lot of money for what you’re getting, really, but hey, it’s the film industry. I pulled the trigger on it and received email notification that my custom-sewn SnapGrid was finished and shipped within 3 days. That’s snappy!

Solidly built

The SnapGrid arrives in a nice compact hand-sewn bag that’s made out of durable, water-shedding poly material. The grid itself, as it’s name implies, snaps open with what feels like blinds used as stiffeners under the black fabric.

It’s made of material that seems well suited to day-in, day-out use. The unit velcros easily onto the poly skirt of the LiteMat 1, making a super-compact and highly controlled light source. You can also attach it directly onto the LiteMat without diffusion or the poly skirt if you want maximum light intensity.

With the grid in place, the light is very well controlled. With the light on a stand at 5 feet above the ground, you don’t see any light hitting the ground in front of it until you get to about 5.5 feet. By comparison, even with the poly grid that ships standard with the LiteMat kits, you get some spill at less than one foot.

Minimal light loss

The thing with thick black grids, however, is that they are lossy. You lose some of the light intensity. The larger the grid, the more it sucks up the photons of light. And this is a pretty thick grid, about 3 1/4″ deep. So just how much light do you lose? I set my light meter to ISO 1000 at 24p, and did a little test:

LiteMat1 S2 with 1/4 diffusion at 10′: f/2.0.4; with poly grid: f/2.0. with SnapGrid: f/2.0.1. 

So we’re looking about about a 1/3 stop light loss. Amazingly, the SnapGrid suffers slightly less light loss than the poly grid, at least in the center of the focus area. However, the focus area is much tighter, and the light intensity falls off quicker as you move away from the center.


As a bonus, the SnapGrid is small enough that you can fold it into one of the main compartments in the LiteMat1’s carrying case. And that’s great, because I am going to want to have it with me everywhere I go.  The SnapGrid really allows this light to reach its true potential as a location lighting power tool.


How we made beer beautiful for Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada today published a project that I worked on with director Mark Bashore. I was one of two DPs on the project, spending a day at the company’s beautiful brewery in Chico, where I shot the opening push-in shot on their bar. Then Mark and I returned to Seattle where he turned his living room into a studio for three evenings in a row, and we got down to the business of making beer beautiful. Here’s a few insights I learned in the process.

Probe the ingredients

To get inside the hops, we used a probe lens, which is designed for tabletop photography and special-effects shots. A probe lens was used for many of the special effects, which used models, in the original Star Wars. For our shoot, I rented one from Innovision Optics, an LA based company that helped pioneer the development of probe lenses in the 80s. They sent us their Probe II + package, which covers Super 35mm sensor cameras and comes in PL mount.

I rigged my Sony FS5 camera and probe lens on an Rhino EVO motion control sider, which allowed us to move the camera smoothly and repeatably into the bundle of dried hops which we suspended above and around the lens. To achieve the effect of sunlight shining through the hops, we used an Arri 650 fresnel, which Mark moved by hand outside the hop bundle. Our challenge was to get a bright enough light outside to simulate sunlight, but not so bright that it blew out our shot, or revealed how dried the hops really were. We shot many takes and the one we used seemed to strike the right balance.

Fill the Fish Tank

We filled a small fish tank with beer, and spent an entire evening placing the camera under it, beside it, and over it. We used a couple of Arri 650s directly without diffusion in some cases, and also bounced off foam core, to illuminate the beer. In many cases I shot at 120 and 240 frames per second to add a dreamy quality to the pouring. Basically it came down to repeated pouring and shooting from many different angles. We repeated that with the light in many different positions until Mark felt like he had enough stuff to take into the edit.

A forest of light stands

On this shoot I discovered that the smaller your subject, the more c-stands you’ll need. To properly illuminate the beer, and kill unnecessary glare, required a stand for everything: the lights, the flags, and the gobos we occasionally had to use to defeat glare or unwanted lens flares. We had two or three boom stands as well, and those were invaluable to get the lights into play where we needed them despite the room already being filled with other stands.

The perfect drop

The last shot, featuring the drop of beer that rises out of the water, is my favorite. I was shooting with a 100mm Canon macro f/2.8 lens, which doesn’t have much depth of field. So we had to really blast the Arri 650 pretty much directly from above. Mark’s wife Katrina just poured a LOT of beer until it happened. I set up the slow motion to capture with a rear trigger. This way, when we saw something that looked interesting I would press the record button. Then we’d have to wait 45 seconds or so, until the file could be written to disk from the buffer. The nice thing about using the rear trigger was that we only captured clips that had potential. Thus we avoided having to capture long sequences of slow mo that would have to be reviewed during editing. But the long write times definitely slowed us down during the shoot.

The slow-motion footage on the Sony FS5 can be pretty grainy, even when the Slog is properly overexposed. So I had to denoise the clips using Neat Video plugin. It’s pretty incredible how good the clips looked after that.


5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

Turn on your TV. What’s the first thing you see? Somebody talking to the camera. Blah blah blah.  Open a film on Netflix. What’s the first thing you see? Action. The essence of cinematic storytelling is showing, not telling. So, if you aspire to cinematic storytelling with your documentary filmmaking, why film talking heads in the first place? Why not commit to showing instead of telling?

I’m a little hesitant to share this insight, because it’s valuable to me. Big medical organizations hire me to to tell their most important stories, and it’s a financially rewarding gig. Why give away my secret? But ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters. So here’s a cheap idea that, when applied, has proven invaluable to me and my clients.

Stop shooting interviews with a camera.

Wait, what? How can you say that – aren’t you a camera guy? Yes, I am. But my first commitment is to story. And I’ve observed that:

  1. Being on camera feels like a performance to most people; being on mic feels more like a conversation. Talking heads are boring; mic’d conversations are more authentic.
  2. Cameras need lights, grip and crew. Sound needs only a mic, a recorder, and a quiet place, so audio costs less.
  3. If the audio interview doesn’t move you, you move on. It’s easy to do that because you’re less invested when you use a mic.
  4. Not having any interview footage forces you (and your client) to choose a visually interesting character who provides cinematic b-roll opportunities.
  5. Recording interviews audio-only adds a “radio edit” step to your editing workflow, building client buy-in early in the process. This translates into fewer client changes at the rough cut stage, faster delivery, and a happier client.

Let’s unpack this.

Talking heads are boring

Most people aren’t actors. So, they are uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. There are ways of minimizing this, but the simplest, most effective way is to simply nix the camera. Instead, bring only a microphone. That way, you can be sure they’re never thinking “how do I look?” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Great interviews are genuine, human conversations. And when cameras are not in the mix, everything gets easier. Not only for the subject, but also for me.  No part of my brain is thinking about the lighting, or the frame rate, or the ISO. I’m just thinking about the person I’m talking to. I’m fully present. And THAT is the foundation of an extraordinary interview.

Camera interviews are expensive

In the large-nonprofit productions I do, a typical interview involves a crew of 3-4 people and a station wagon full of equipment. If we split the equipment up between picture and sound, about three-quarters of the “stuff” we bring belongs in the picture category. By going audio-only with your interviews, you eliminate three-quarters of your stuff. This also allows you to cut your crew in half. You see where I’m going with this: Cameras are expensive; talk is cheap.

Documentaries need casting, too

Great documentary films are built from great stories. Great stories emerge from great interviews. And great interviews come from great characters. To find great characters, you have to do casting.

When you use a mic for your interviews, you turn your interviews into casting sessions. If the interview is weak, it’s easy to move on to another story candidate without incurring the high costs of camera production. It allows you to cut your losses quickly.

On the other hand, if it’s an extraordinary interview, it’s easy to get your client to buy in to the story, with a radio edit. And the only thing left to do is the b-roll. More on that below.

It forces you (and your client) to choose wisely

Too often, clients settle. They settle for a boring character and an uninspiring story that has few b-roll options. They do this because you let them. And you let them by shooting interviews.

When you shoot an interview, you can always cover your lack of good b-roll by cutting to the talking head, like they do on TV. But no matter how well you’ve lit the interview, it’s still a talking head.

When you have no talking head, you force both yourself and your client to pick a strong character, who will provide you with action to film. That is, you force yourself to show instead of tell. That’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. But trust me, it’s a good place to be.

The radio edit advantage

We’ve all been there. You work really hard on an edit, you present it to your client, and you hold your breath. Will they like it? How many changes will they make? What if they don’t like it?

I have discovered that if you take the time to introduce your client to a story with a “radio edit,”  you (and your client) will be able to breathe a lot easier when it comes time to deliver your rough cut.

A radio edit is an audio-only version of your film that would totally work if it were aired on the radio, including music and pacing. The first time I did this, the client came back to me with a surprising comment: “Wow. This sound like a This American Life piece. We can’t wait to see what it looks like with video!”

By giving them a polished radio edit first, you introducing them to your story gently. You invite them to buy in to the story, and to your approach. I find that clients have a few changes at this stage. But these few are much easier and less expensive for you to make than they would be after you’ve added b-roll.

Here’s how it works

On this project, my client needed help launching a $2 billion fundraising campaign. They wanted to find a story that would inspire their audience to believe that heart disease was beatable, and that their donations could have a direct impact. Because of the big numbers at stake, the approval chain included a lot of brass, including the CEO. Red flag!

The first person we interviewed (mic only) didn’t move us. Neither did the second person. So we kept looking. Then we found Jim. Here’s his radio edit:

The client liked the radio edit, and suggested some minor changes. Here’s the final film:

When they saw the rough cut (for this and another film we made concurrently using the same approach), they sent me this email:

Dan. I don’t think we have ever given this little feedback on videos. They’re universally loved, and we think they’re going to work really well.

Werner Herzog once said “Good footage always cuts.” The visuals don’t have to literally match the dialog (as long as you have great story as a foundation). Somehow by choosing a character who inhabits an interesting environment, who does interesting things, the footage will always cut.

So. Next time you’re faced with a high stakes interview-based project, consider how ditching your camera can help you do more with less.