I thought it was about time that I talked a bit about my early working years and when I can, put in photos from my time in television sound. Those of us that were around in the 1960’s still remember what a primitive technological world we worked in but there are not many reminders of that around now.
I started in the summer of 1966 when Sid Denney, the Head-of-Sound at the ITV broadcaster Anglia TV, took a big gamble and let me join the Sound Department in Norwich. He didn’t have much to go on as there were no college courses at that time…I’d just showed an interest in sound and had been tinkering with tape-recorders, but Sid set me off on a really great career.
Anglia had two studios and an OB truck. We were still in the ‘black and white’ 405 lines days and all cameras were Pye MkV’s, fitted with a mixture of ‘fixed’ lenses although there were some zooms available. Sound equipment in the larger Studio 1 consisted of a Pye mixer fitted with ‘quadrant faders’ and it was still a ‘valve’ unit, with racks of valve amplifiers along one wall. A couple of large EMT turntables plus an EMI TR90 tape deck were augmented by another Ferrograph tape unit if required.
Studio 2 had an early Pye transistor mixer, that also had qudrant faders, plus an EMI BTR4 tape deck.
Our studio booms were Mole-Richardsons, which in fact were made a few miles ‘down’ from Norwich at Thetford. We had a couple of large Moles, and a mini-boom.
As a trainee Sound Assistant I was soon learning about the mics in use and how to play in the ‘grams’ on the children’s show ‘Romper Room’ or the nightly magazine programme ‘About Anglia’.
‘Grams’ in those days were from 78rpm sound effect discs played from one of the turntables or perhaps title music from the TR90 tape deck. The EMT turntables had felt mats that allowed you to ‘hold’ the disc with the turntable spinning underneath until you released the disc as you turned up the rotary fader.
The local evening news preceded the evening magazine show ‘About Anglia’and most stories were shot on 16mm Bolex cameras by ‘stringers’…..freelance film-cameramen paid ‘by the story’…and they had no sound. Therefore to accompany them we watched the films in a brief run through before the news started and tried our best to offer up ‘something suitable’ from the sound effects discs. A passing bus might be covered OK but perhaps a man on water-skis would be difficult to find.
The answer was the perennial ‘buzz-track’. A suitable nondescript 78 rpm disc of nothing more than ‘noise’ would be faded up and down to give the sound of a fast boat splashing through the water!
Did such antics work…well of course not. But somehow it was better than mute film…and there was usually a ‘studio commentary’ going over it anyway.
There were no pre-recorded commentaries of course on the ‘stringers material’, so the studio presenter read from his script to cover the films with as much detail as was required in the time. We did have a few dedicated Film Units, equipped with an 16mm Arriflex camera and ‘striped sound’, with a Sound Recordist recording onto an optical track on the 16mm film, but they were usually producing material for other programmes.
Apart from the mic rigging that a sound assistant learnt, I started operating the Mole Boom on simple duties, like covering a ‘2-handed interview’. You learnt that you needed to keep your eye on the person that wasn’t talking as much as the one that was talking. You had to anticipate anyone ‘butting in’ so as to not be ‘off mic’ at any time. And of course, boom shadows were not appreciated.
We used the large AKG D-25 in a sprung suspension in the boom. The mic cupboard had a large selection of STC mics, such as the 4021 ‘apple and biscuit’, the 4037 ‘stick mic’ and the 4038 ‘PGS’ ribbon mic. The 4038 was an old mic that carried on being used for many years, particularly on brass instruments.
The AKG D-24 cardiod hand mic was often used on singers although there were a few exotic C-12 condenser mics in the mic cupboard as well, which were sometimes fitted with discreet extensions to make tidy looking mics positioned by an interviewees chairs.
Here is a photo the’About Anglia’ weatherman, Michael Hunt and you can just see his fairly large D-109 neck mic.
As there were no radio mics in use, a presenter such as Michael would have to be connected to a long cable, possibly down his trouser leg! He walked in a few moments before he was needed, plugged himself into the XLR extension cable and took up position for the ‘weather’.
Booms were used for everyone else, except for the occasional trotting out of a hand mic or the C-12’s for seated interviews.
Sid Denney was a perfect head of department and was trusting enough that after a period doing the boom, he let me move on to the grams and then even take over the Pye mixer sometimes for the simple Romper Room. We recorded three at a time.
“Play Title music tape over opening caption, fade up the boom for the presenter, then perhaps more music played in for a game…or perhaps a song from the children”. You’d also try and tell the boom operator if it looked like he might get in a forthcoming shot.
Not difficult but great stuff for a young sound assistant only a few months into the job!
I was able to learn about keeping the dialogue in check…we had no limiters at all I think and nobody wanted the transmitter to go ‘off air’ because of a high sound mod and children can be noisy. That show was ‘syndicated’ from Talbot Television, so I guess the set and props were the same in other countries and it was introduced at Anglia by Miss Rosalyn (Rosalyn Thompson). Much loved by kids all over East Anglia.
Anglia tried their best to do a wide range of East Anglian flavoured programmes of course, like weekly current affairs and a farming programme, but Anglia recorded twelve ‘dramas’ a year for the ITV Network. Initially recorded by Redifussion in London, by the time I joined these were the high spot of work each month in Anglia Studio 1.
Shot on videotape, but in fact virtually ‘as live’ because of two limitations. The first was the fact that the Actor’s Union only allowed a 3 hour recording to take place in a day, so we rehearsed for a full day and then came in the next day, did a full ‘dress run’ and then did the recording.
The other limitation was the videotape. At that time massive ‘Quadruplex’ machines recording on 2″ tape were used and Anglia used the Ampex ‘Quad’ VTR. Editing was a major task requiring painting on a solution of ‘suspended iron-filings’, that dried showing the VT machines control track pulses. The VT editor made butt splices on the 2″ tape through a ‘surgical technique’ using a microscope device plus guillotine to keep the control track pulses intact. Since these edits going through the spinning ‘quadruplex tape head’ could possibly still cause a picture disturbance, edits were best left to occur ‘in the black’, after a ‘fade-down’ or between parts.
The Anglia dramas were produced by George More O’Ferrell and when I was there John Jacobs was the usually the Director plus others such as Alvin Rakoff.
Here’s a picture of Anglia Studio 1 with Alvin Rakoff ‘blocking’ on the floor. That’s the first stage in the studio of walking the actors and crew through the script shot by shot.
As sound assistant I ‘tracked’ the booms, marking the studio floor with little ‘camera tape’ marks to position the boom correctly as required. You then had to mark up your script to get it right throughout the play. If I was ‘lucky’ I would also have to operate a ‘mini-boom’ alongside a main boom or perhaps in a corridor set. The corridors could be painful for a new boom op as the dangerous ‘key light’ is usually just above your boom waiting to give you a nice big shadow!
Boom operators learn to match the mics position to the ‘size’ of a camera shot. So for a close-up of a seated actor on Camera 1 you would be expected to drop the mic down and pick-up close sound, then as the actor stood up perhaps you would haul the mic up for Camera 2’s wide-shot…keeping out of the frame each time. The Vision Mixer, along with the Director of course, are fretting when they see you in the forthcoming Camera 2 wide-shot….and hope…and often call out on talkback for you to clear the new shot.
Boom operators can see the ‘on air shot’ on a monitor on the studio floor, except when someone stands in front of it and they mark up their scripts to remind them of the action that they are covering. That was very necessary as it was often a few hours since you had last rehearsed a scene and we’ve started a ‘take’ without any real memory of what will happen next!
The Sound Supervisor often has to seemlessly cross fade from one boom to another as actors move so two boom ops ‘splitting’ a scene will have to at some point position there mics close to each other to allow the mixer to crossfade without ‘phasing of the mics’.
TV Lighting Directors have to cope with lighting a set that will be seen by a number of cameras at once, so can’t just light ‘one shot at a time’ like in film. The usually ploy is to have a hard ‘key light’ that is the main source of ‘light’ and then have soft ‘fill lights’ to reduce the contrast and make the look realistic. Often there are small ‘pup lights’ to highlight people or areas on the edges of the set and the boom op must stay out of any of the shadows all these lights will cast.
All camera shots are numbered with the PA calling out the shot numbers throughout, so the friend to any boom op was a simple thing…it was the sound of the Vision Mixer pressing the buttons, as heard through his talkback ‘cans’. The boom op could listen for the cut that had just happened…particularly if that meant he could now drop in for the close-up sound that matched that new shot. A great boom op is a joy to watch, matching the sound perspective to a flow of camera cuts without getting caught!
I thought I’d got to be OK as a boom op during my 3 years at Anglia, but alas I learnt the standard of operating at my next company LWT was really ‘shit hot’! I had some more practising to do……some of those guys had been working booms almost daily for many years!
A TV Sound Supervisor goes to an ‘outside rehearsal’ with the Director, Cameraman and Lighting Director to watch the actors rehearse and there he works out how how to allocate the booms and whether perhaps a little ‘fishpole’ or even a ‘slung’ mic will suffice in a hallway. The senior floor sound boom operator will attend and perhaps have some of the crew with him to suss the drama or sit-com out as well. The other important sound crew member is the ‘gram op’, who will have to source any required sound effects and title music. These TV shows were always ‘as live’ with the grams all played in as it was shot. Later we were able to add fx and music if required in a sound dub…but that was not until a few years later when videotape was more easily ‘worked with’.
Here’s a photo Sid sent me when we last talked, of some of the Anglia Sound Dept working on ‘Weavers Green’…
So next time perhaps we can go on an OB with Anglia …my first Outside Broadcasts.