Sennheiser AVX is a great wireless system – but not with DPA lavs

Tip: power AVX receiver with a cellphone backup battery

Tip: power AVX receiver all day with a cellphone backup battery

I recently took advantage of Sennheiser’s trade-in program for wireless mics in the 600Mhz range. I was able to get $100 bucks from Sennheiser for trading in my soon-to-be illegal G3 wireless package for a fancy new Sennheiser AVX system, lured by its simplicity. I figured it would be a real beast paired with my DPA D:screet 4061 mic. And I was right. But not in a good way.

Turns out the the DPA 4061 turns the AVX into a virtual theremin. If you move the cable anywhere near the antenna, you get humming and buzzing interference. That would be fine if you were creating sound effects for Gravity, but not so great if you just want clean dialog.

It appears the culprit is the thinly shielded cable on the DPA 4061, which is no match for the transmitter on the AVX. The problem disappears when you plug in the OEM mic from Sennheiser, which sports a thicker rubber coating.

Another gotcha with the AVX is that the receiver only lasts 3 hours before needing a recharge. So unless you plug in while recording, you’re likely to need extra of those $50 Sennheiser proprietary batteries. I thought I’d found a clever solution by powering the receiver from the same battery that powers my Sound Devices MixPre-3 mixer/recorder. But turns out that causes interference too. So my solution is to use a portable cellphone battery recharging stick to power the AVX receiver while I’m working. Luckily, the AVX receiver can take a charge in this way at the same time that it is operating, so this works great, even if it is a little unwieldily with all the cables.

If I’d known all of this when I bought the mic, I probably would have waited for the forthcoming Sennheiser G4 wireless. Because you can’t beat the sound of the DPA D:Screet mics.

 

Sony FS5 shooting tip: toggle auto ND on and off

Sony’s variable ND filter on the Sony FS5 is a killer feature. It gives you precise control over exposure levels by allowing you to dial ND levels up or down, in steps that are fractions a stop. Virtually all other cameras on the market today engage ND in 2-stop increments, which is like using a sledge hammer to set a thumbtack. And yet…

Sony’s variable ND isn’t truly stepless until you engage the auto ND

So if you want stepless exposure control, I definitely recommend turning it on, at least for brightly lit scenes that require ND.

But wait, isn’t cinematography all about control? Isn’t auto-anything giving up control to the camera instead of keeping it for yourself? Well, if you’re shooting outside, you’re likely going to be using ND anyway. And using auto-ND simply let’s you get into the ballpark of where you’d get manually, only much, much faster – and with the ability to seamlessly adjust to the light if you want it to. I view this as the camera giving me MORE control, not less.

Here’s an example of scene in which using auto ND gives a perfect result. Notice that I’ve set up auto exposure to +1.5 because I’m shooting log (which should routinely be overexposed to reduce noise):

Auto ND on Sony FS5

Auto ND enabled

As I pan my camera around through a door frame, leaving auto-nd engaged would result in overexposure. So I simply toggle the auto-ND off, and it freezes our auto-levels and gives us full manual control of everything.

Auto ND toggled off

Auto ND toggled off. Exposure is frozen at last auto setting, preventing our exposure from changing as we pan through dark foreground area.

I set up my #6 button (located on the inside of the grip) to toggle auto ND on and off. So as soon as I get my ballpark exposure, I turn it off. That way the exposure isn’t riding all over the place if I pan the lens behind a dark wall that I want to keep dark.

#6 custom button is located under the Sony FS5's rotating grip.

#6 custom button is located under the Sony FS5’s rotating grip.

My (wicked fast) auto-ND workflow

  1. Set aperture.
  2. Toggle auto ND on (boom – exposure is now perfect)
  3. Toggle auto ND off (freezes settings without changing them)
  4. Adjust exposure up or down as needed with variable ND wheel or other means.
  5. Repeat as needed.

Using this approach, I can be up and rolling almost instantly, and adjust to just about any lighting condition in real time. I don’t have to think about anything other than whether that auto  button is on or off. Sometimes I want it on (if panning through a scene that has different brightness levels or traveling from one room to another, for example). Sometimes I want it off (when dark object momentarily passes through the frame, for example, like panning through doorway above).

Do you use auto Nd to control exposure on your Sony FS5? Got any tips to share about how you use it?

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Sony FS5 Tip: Keep your internal battery in when rocking an external battery

Sony FS5 with Vmount battery and most importantly, its internal battery on deck

Sony FS5 with Vmount battery and most importantly, an internal battery on deck

I got all fancy and started using a v-mount battery with my Sony FS5 recently. I had to jump through some hoops to get it working, but with the help of a Wooden Camera V-Mount Battery Plate for Sony FS5, everything worked as if it were designed by Jesus.  I didn’t even need to put in the camera’s internal battery, and it saved weight to skip it. But this morning, I was shooting this timelapse…

It was a long timelapse, and the v-mount battery died during the shoot. No biggie, right? We know from experience that when an FS5’s internal batteries dies, it saves the clip before it shuts down. But when I opened the SD card on my laptop, woe and behold, I see the clip size is zero KB. Oh Shit.

File sizes of zero bytes are big trouble

Yep, it turns out that Sony FS5 likes having its external power cut when rolling about as much as a DJ likes it when a raver trips over the cord to his mixer.  It’s a train wreck, full stop.

So I thought, hmmm. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could insert the camera’s internal battery, and just have it automatically know, when you plug in that external power, that it should defer to that, while providing instant backup if the power is cut?

So I said like, a little prayer (to Sony engineering), rolled the camera with both batteries in place, put my finger on the vmount eject button, and pressed it. Off came the battery with a clunk, and… the LCD screen dimmed slightly, and… the camera kept right on rolling!

Bless you Sony engineering

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. So maybe I was the last camera person in the world ignorant enough to make this mistake.  I’m just grateful I was able to learn this lesson on my own dime, rather than at the end of a long client interview.

It’s good to know that, with the camera’s internal battery in place, I can hot swap in and out as many vmount batteries as I like, and all my files will be recorded safely to the SD card.

Did you know to keep your internal battery loaded when powering your FS5 externally? Have you ever experienced a power-related data loss?

 

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Plugging the Sony FS5 ND filter gap

Before I say anything bad about the built-in ND filter on the Sony FS5, let me begin by saying that it doesn’t suck. In fact, the Sony FS5 ND filter is so good, it’s part of the reason I switched from Canon to Sony a couple years ago. I’m still amazed by how easy it is to dial in precisely the level of ND you need every time. Well, almost every time.

When you need just a little bit of ND, there’s a gap.  It’s not a huge gap, a tad more than 2 stops of light when you go from no ND to the lightest 1/4 setting. But it’s one that I’ve encountered again and again when, for example, shooting an interview wide open.

A common situation

I often want to shoot interviews wide open to separate the subject from her background. So with an f/2.8 lens, I’m as wide as I can go. And what I often find is that the room is just a little too hot, about a stop over. When I engage the variable ND, at its lowest setting, it takes the room down 2 1/3rd stops. So now let’s say I’m a good stop under exposed.

A common workaround

The only in-camera solution that won’t degrade the image (apart from increasing the shutter speed, which I don’t want to do for aesthetic reasons) is to stop down to f/4. Note, if you’re shooting glass faster than f/2.8 (and you don’t mind really throwing your background out of focus) all you have to do open to f/2.0, and engage the ND. Boom, done. But a lot of my glass is f/2.8, and that’s where I find this gap.

What the gap looks like on a monitor

F2.8 wide open without any ND. I’m looking at those highlights and saying we’re 1 stop too hot.

But when I engage the ND at lowest 1/4 setting, now we’re 2 1/3 stops under exposed. Too dark.

Turning off ND and closing the aperture to f/4 gives me the exposure I want – but I want to set f/2.8.

Finally, here’s the shot at f/2.8 with a Tiffen .3 Water White ND filter to bring us down one stop. Just right!

Closing the gap

I’ve found the right tool for plugging this gap is a .3 neutral density filter. The .3 gives you just one stop of light reduction, the least powerful ND filter that you can readily buy.

The one I prefer is the Tiffen 77mm Water White Neutral Density 0.3 Filter. The quality of the glass is superb.

I’ve also got a 4×4″ Neutral Density 0.3 Resin Filter made by Lee, which is also excellent. But I like the 77mm screw in best, because, with appropriate step ring, I can screw it on to the front of most of my lenses very quickly without rocking a matte box.

Have you encountered this situation with your Sony FS5? How do you “mind the gap”?

 

Can I power my Sony FS5 with V-mount battery? Yes, but it’s tricky or expensive

Sony FS5 with V-mount power solution

Sony FS5 with V-mount power solution

The best thing about the Sony FS5 is its small, ergonomically balanced design. It’s a lightweight camera that begs to be hand held. So why would you want to screw that up by adding a big battery?

Well, actually, there are some good reasons. I’ve recently discovered the magic of using a Teradek ServPro so clients can follow along during a shoot. And, I almost always use an external monitor. If you’re powering those things independently, you begin to spend a lot of time changing batteries instead of making pictures.

So I picked up an adapter cable on ebay for $26, bought a Redrock micro cheese plate, and started cobbling building a solution that could give me three or four hours between battery changes.

FS5 v-mount battery error

FS5 v-mount battery error

But when I plugged in one of my four v-lock batteries, the camera gave me an error (right):

Hmm. So what the heck? I tried another (also fully charged) battery. Same error. Then I tried a bunch of other more expensive things, like buying a battery plate from Wooden Camera. Same problem! Then I accidentally grabbed a battery that was partially discharged already, and boom! It fired up just fine.

After a little testing, it turns out that you have to discharge your battery for just a couple minutes, for the FS5 to recognize it. Don’t ask me why this is a thing, but it is.

To power your FS5 with an v-mount battery, buy an adapter, and a battery plate. And then, prime your batteries by discharging them for a few minutes by firing up the monitor and other devices, before turning the camera on. Good to go!

A better (albeit more expensive) solution

Wooden Camera battery plate for Sony FS5

Wooden Camera battery plate for Sony FS5

I purchased a Wooden Camera V-Mount Battery Plate for Sony PXW-FS5/FS7, to see if that would fix the battery priming issue. It costs $195. The first one I purchased didn’t work at all. The helpful staff at Wooden Camera arranged a quick return. After the repair, the unit works flawlessly – without requiring battery priming. But you do have to purchase a Wooden Camera battery slide, for $193.03. So by the time you get done paying the bill, this proper solution adds up to $388.03. The Wooden Camera battery slide is also a pound lighter than the Redrock Micro cheese plate.

Wooden Camera battery plate for Sony FS5, reverse side

Wooden Camera battery plate for Sony FS5, reverse side. The Teradek ServePro is attached to the back of the battery slide with two strips of velcro.

Footnote: It turns out that the way I’ve powered the camera in these photos is actually quite dangerous. As I discovered later, if the brick battery dies while you are rolling, your clips won’t be saved to disk, and you’ll lose the shot. Luckily, there’s a simple solution.

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Two filmmaking tools I’m excited about right now

Maybe it’s because I’m over 50. I don’t know. But I haven’t been very excited about new gear lately. Nevertheless, I’ve recently made a couple of discoveries that I think are pretty special. Here’s what and here’s why:

  1. Kupo Medium Baby Kit Stand with square legs
  2. Aputure COB300D led light

I shot a project last week where I needed to light a two-person studio setup (similar to the “I’m a Mac” campaign) in front of a white background. For this I needed to rent a fair bit of light – two lights to evenly light the background, and two bright key sources that I could bounce into 4×4 sheets of foam core to give me a nice, even key illumination on both subjects with a little room for them to move around. Here’s a couple frames from the shoot:

I went with two Zylight F8s for the background lights – tough to beat the 8″ fresnel with wi-fi control that allows both lights to be wirelessly linked. When you adjust the dimmer on one light, it automatically dims the other light identically. A real timesaver for evenly illuminating backgrounds.

When the key lights I initially asked for weren’t available at my rental house (I think I had asked for Kino Tegras), the helpful tech at Glazers suggested I try the new Aputure COB 300Ds. I’d heard of them after they won Best Lighting Product at NAB last year. But this was my first opportunity to try them. So I jumped on it.

Wow. The 300Ds are *$# BRIGHT!

I went from expecting to be at f/2.8 to f/5.6. I’m serious, it’s like a Joker 800-watt light, but it’s LED-easy to work with. You can throw two or three into your car and roll out with minimal crew or grip. And by minimal grip, I mean you don’t even need c-stands to rock these bad boys. You DO need to soften these lights, though – so hence, the extra stands needed for holding bounce/modifiers.

Kupo: a bad-ass baby stand

Two Kupo Baby Kit Stands will fit perfectly in a Sachtler Flowtech 75 tripod bag, with room for short grip arms.

Two Kupo Baby Kit Stands will fit perfectly in a Sachtler Flowtech 75 tripod bag, with room for short grip arms.

That’s where the Kupo Medium Kit Stands come in. Sporting a 5/8″ spud, the aluminum stands are so light that you can fit 4 of them into the same space that you would carry 2 c-stands – and a lot less weight. They reach to 9.5 feet tall, which is plenty for just about everything I do. And they have beefy, square legs that will support up to 23 pounds.

By chance, it turns out that the tripod case that comes with the Sachtler Flowtech 75 is precisely the length and girth to fit two of these stands, along with room to carry a short grip arm for each.

Each bag containing two stands with grip heads weighs 23 pounds. I pack four of these stands in two Sachtler bags, which is plenty of stands for most of the jobs I roll out on.

The Kupo medium baby stands are perfect for supporting the Aputure lights, and much more. Adding 20″ grip heads, these stands accomplish 90 percent of what a traditional c-stand can do, while weighing about half as much. They even have a leveling leg – something none of my c-stands has. All for a price of about $100 each. Kudos to Kupo.

Bright but loud…

One thing to note about the Aputure COB 300D: the fans are loud. You really need to get the power supply away from the lamp head if you’re going to be rolling sound. They come in the kit with a 6-foot 4-pin xlr power cable, which is very high quality, but it’s just not long enough. I don’t plan to purchase these lights – they are super cheap to rent and readily available. And six months from now, there’s apt to be something brighter and better, the way led lighting is changing these days. But because I will be renting them so much, I do require a longer cable to power them, to allow placing that noisy power supply in a corner away from the filming area.

…So make your own cable

I found a custom cable maker, Show Me Cables, where I was able to built custom 30′ cables for $61 a pop. I purchased two of them, with the following specs:

Connector A

  • XLR 4 Pin Male

Connector A Label

  • 4-pin XLR male

Cable Type

  • 4 Conductor Cable

Cable Length

  • 30 ft

Connector B

  • XLR 4 Pin Male

Connector B Label

  • 4-pin XLR male
    In the comments field, you should specify “straight pinout.”

 

 

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Behind the scenes on “a lifeline to mental health”

I just finished another film using my never shoot interviews approach.

You’ll notice there are no talking heads in this story. There IS an interview, of course, but it was recorded with a microphone, not a camera. This allowed me to break production into two parts – story development, and video production. 

I interviewed the subject first, using just a microphone. This keeps production costs low, and allows the interview to double as casting, to be sure that the subject is the right one to pull off the story. In this case, she nailed it, so we moved on to the next step, the radio edit.

In this step, I cut a story, complete with music, with the goal of making something that could air on the radio, complete with music and pacing. We haven’t even shot video yet. I submit this to client for approval.

By eliminating video, the client is forced to focus exclusively on the story, not how somebody’s hair looks. Changes they make at this stage are very easy to make, because there’s no video to screw up – you haven’t shot any yet.

Once you get approval, you schedule the shoot. At this point, you have the story in your head, and you know exactly what you need to shoot. This makes your shoot go much smoother and more quickly than if you are covering your butt because you don’t know what the story is going to be.

When you’ve wrapped, you move to rough cut. And now, the rough cut comes together really quickly. You’re already more than half done when you start, with the spine of your story already in your timeline.

If your client is an organization that has a lot of brass in the approval chain, this two-stage approach to story development has major benefits. By introducing the stakeholders to your story gently, first with the radio edit and then with the video, it removes the shock that clients always have when a rough cut lands on their desk. Because they’ve already approved the radio edit, when they see the rough cut, it’s like seeing an old friend wearing a different outfit. They will have some comments about the pants or the shirt, but they like what’s underneath it.

This approach paves the way for an easy approval process, makes the job easier every step of the way, and ultimately, makes clients happier.

Metabones Cine adapters bring iron grip to EF glass

Metabones Cine Adapter

Metabones Cine Adapter on Sony FS5

When I heard about the new Metabones cine adapters, I got a little excited. I bought the original Metabones adapters for the same reasons many cinematographers do: they allow me to use Canon EF lenses on a Sony video camera. And they have worked well, except for one thing: they are wiggly. I’m too poor to shoot regularly with PL glass, so until now I’ve had to just deal with this limitation. So when I heard about the new Metabones cine adapters, I was eager to find out whether the new adapter was a PL mount for the rest of us.

But first, let’s understand the problem. The original Metabones adapters always added some play between the Sony lens mount and the EF lens. So when you grab the lens to focus or zoom it, this causes a bit of movement caused by rotation of the lens in the adapter, and potentially, from the adapter itself rotating on the other end, in the Sony mount.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it means that the beginning of each focus pull or zoom isn’t solid in the frame. If you’re trying to focus while shooting – a common scenario – this means a few frames at the beginning of the focus pull aren’t usable, because of this unwanted lens movement. Image stabilization helps, but doesn’t completely eliminate the problem.

Medium shot of metabones cine adapter

PL-mount style lens support

Enter the Metabones Canon EF/EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T CINE Smart Adapter (Fifth Generation).  This is a much beefier device that holds your still lenses in the same iron grip as a PL mount adapter holds a cine lens. And after using them for a few weeks, I can cut to the chase and say, without reservation, that they are amazing. They truly represent a massive improvement. But they take a little getting used to. 

Lenses are mounted by rotating the ring around the lens, without rotating the lens

Lenses are mounted by rotating the ring around the lens, without rotating the lens

Lens changes are different with Metabones Cine adapters

Cine Speedbooster

Cine-style Speedbooster

Instead of twisting the the lens into place, you simply place the lens into the collar, check to be sure it’s seated properly, and then rotate the ring of the adapter to lock it into place. This is a little strange at first, because twisting a lens into it’s mount is basically muscle memory for most camera people who come from a still photography background, like me.

You also have to be a little careful how far you rotate the collar. On newer Canon glass, I’ve found you can rotate all the way, just twist until it stops, and you’re good. But with older lenses such as my Zeiss CY glass with Leitax adapters, it’s important to just rotate until it feels secure, and stop before it’s too tight. Otherwise you can over tighten them and could possibly damage the electronic contacts on the cine adapter.

Metabones also makes a Speedbooster version of the cine adapter, the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T CINE Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x (Fifth Generation). After renting it on one shoot, I plan to sell my existing Speedbooster and upgrade to the Cine version.

The rod support eliminates all wiggle between the adapter and the camera mount for longer lenses

The Metabones rod support eliminates all wiggle between the adapter and the camera mount for longer lenses

Metabones rod support for longer lenses

If you’re pulling focus with anything longer than 100mm, the weak link in terms of lens wiggle becomes the Sony mount itself. To solve for this, Metabones has developed a clever solution, the 15mm Rod Lens Adapter Support. This thing is amazing. It is designed specifically to grip the bottom of Metabones adapters, and will work with both Cine and older adapter versions. It locks shit down, completely eliminating any lens movement between the camera and the adapter. Further, you can swap adapters relatively quickly, using several knobs. 

There are two minor downsides to using the Metabones adapter support.  First, it’s quite heavy. This is great for dampening vibration and for grip, but not so great if you want to have a light run-n-gun rig. Although personally, I’ll trade the bit of extra weight for the extra support in a heartbeat. Secondly, clamping the support to the rods squeezes the rods apart a little, making it tougher to fit another rod-mounted accessory, in my case a follow focus unit, to the same rods. You can do it, but you have to muscle it.

Size comparison of Metabones adapter and support cases

Size comparison of Metabones adapter and support cases

Larger adapters = larger cases

Metabones adapters come with nice plastic cases. The Cine adapters are substantially larger than the previous versions, and come with larger cases as a result. The adapter support comes with an even bigger plastic case, too big to transport easily in my camera case. But the adapter support is made out of solid metal, so I don’t find it needs to be transported in a case anyway. 

Now that I’ve gotten used to the Metabones Cine adapters, I can’t imagine using Canon EF lenses on my Sony FS5 without them. The Metabones Cine-style adapters bring all of the advantages of PL mount lenses to EF lens owners. For that, they’ve earned a permanent place on the front of my Sony camera. And I’m glad to see that both Canon and Sony appear to be moving toward making cameras with positive locking mounts built in, like the Sony FS5 mkII. Until all cameras are built that way, the Metabones Cine adapters are a brilliant solution.

Lumu Power: simple, elegant, shipping

Lumu Power light meter

Lumu Power light meter

When Lumu Power launched their Kickstarter campaign for a light meter of the future in late 2015, the idea of a hardware-based iPhone color meter was pretty revolutionary. Sure, there are plenty of “ballpark” software based meters for iPhone, but a serious light meter that accurately measure color temperature? For that you need hardware that’s a little beyond of my pay grade. And even if I could afford it, do I really need one more gadget?

But the promise of a fully loaded color meter in a tiny hemisphere, for a couple hundred bucks, felt like a breakthrough. A total of 1,705 backers pledged $318,877 to make it happen, and I was one of them. A year and a half later, the Lumu Power is a reality. That’s a long wait, for sure. Was it worth it?

open screenTurn it on

To turn on the Lumi Power, plug it into your iPhone. A second later, a screen automatically comes up announcing that it’s connected. Swipe right on that, and the app opens. Rotate the phone so that the Lumu Power is on top, and you’re good to go.

The interface is simple as can be – a list of text options that give you just about everything you could want to know about the light you are working with.

  1. lumu power menuIlluminance. How bright is the light hitting the flat side of the hemisphere? Options are foot candles or Lux. You can also optionally display how far under or over the result is from the correct EV.
  2. Photo Ambient. Traditional ambient light meter mode. Using hemisphere side, displays aperture, shutter and ISO values. You can enter aperture and ISO values. You can also change the default 1/3 stop increments to 1/2 or 1 EV values, change the max. lens aperture, and the ISO values.
  3. Photo Spot Metering. Using the iPhone’s camera, you can set a spot point in the image from which the reflectance exposure is metered. Results are displayed below the frame in real time.
  4. Cine/Video. Using the dome side, the Cine mode allows you to set FPS or shutter angle, and exposure in whatever increments you desire (1/48th or 1/50th of a second, for example).
  5. Photo/Flash. Using the dome side, you can measure flash just as you would with a traditional flash meter. Press the Start button to arm, and Stop to disarm. Once armed, you trigger the strobe to take a reading.
  6. Color Temperature. The flat side of the dome measures color temperature in degrees Kelvin, and also displays any green or magenta shift present.
  7. Chromacity: The flat side gives you a CIE1931 color space map, with the location of your reading on the map, as well as Due, CCT and Lux values.

Lumu color mode

Raise your lighting IQ

I don’t know about you, but I’m always location scouting. I collect scenes in my head. If I’m in a restaurant, for example, I wonder how bright it is, what the color temp is, and what it might be like to shoot there. But until now, this work was entirely mental, and subjective. I could snap a photo of a scene, but I could only guess at how bright it was or the color temperature. With the Lumu Power, it becomes possible to do both. And Lumu Power has a killer tool to keep track of your settings, called Notes.

Notes screen

If you are connected to the net, you have the ability to store a lat-long location, which can be displayed as a map.

Notes save your readings

There is a pencil icon in the lower right corner of the screen in all modes. Click it to unlock one of the most powerful features of the Lumu Power: the ability to store meter readings along with a still photo. For location scouting, this is incredibly useful. Now, along with location snaps, you can save color-accurate meter readings. This is huge.

Notes saves your readings

chromacity

Annoyances

The Lumu Power occasionally appears to forget what mode it’s in. Instead of the full option menu appearing, only the mode you are currently in will appear. To get the menu back requires unplugging the Lumi Power.

Also, it’s a good idea to set your phone to not go to sleep as frequently as usual when using the Lumu Power. Otherwise, you’ll constantly have to dismiss the open screen.

These are minor annoyances if you’re only using the Lumu Power for occasional readings, but if you’re a light meter power user, you may find them frustrating enough to send you back to your traditional meter.

Carrying tip

Zak low-profile keychainIncluded with your purchase is a small leather case for carrying the Lumu Power. However, the slots are too small to accommodate a typical belt. They are, however, a perfect fit for a Zak Tools Low Profile Key Ring Holder which costs less than $6. This makes it easy to adapt the case to any belt up to 2.5″ wide. I typically wear an AC pouch when I’m shooting, and the Zak holder clips perfectly into my AC pouch, putting Lumu Power within easy reach whenever I need it on a shoot.

What could be improved

There’s currently no way to calculate CRI or TLCI, which is something I would love to have for appraising the quality of LED lighting. Is that something that could be added with a software update to the iPhone app? That’s an update I’d be willing to pay for.

Ergonomically, I find it awkward to hold the phone straight up and down to take readings. So the ability to tilt the Lumu Power up to 45 degrees on it’s lightning connector would be sweet. Further, I find myself frequently having to unplug and rotate the Lumu to switch between Cine and Color Temp mode. If the hemisphere could rotate, it would be a real timesaver.  However, adding that might mess up the elegant simplicity of the design. And I’d hate to see that happen.

Conclusion

The essence of Lumu Power is its ability to instantly become the color meter you always have with you. It’s like having a tiny bionic eye for your iPhone. And it’s a great tool to open your own eyes to see and understand the light falling all around you, every day.

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

touchscreen

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.