Sound Devices travels to Antarctica with Frozen Planet

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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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.

For his work on BAFTA award-winning documentary series Frozen Planet, location sound recordist Chris Watson used a Sound Devices 744T Recorder and MixPre Compact Field Mixer for his portable audio recording needs.

Co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel, Frozen Planet is a seven-part series focusing on life in the Arctic and Antarctic presented by Sir David Attenborough. Watson was based at McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program base on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. He worked on the continent’s ice shelf and ice plateau, where it was -47.2 degrees Fahrenheit (-44 degrees Celsius) on some occasions, with wind chill.

“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.

Watson also used the Sound Devices MixPre Compact Field Mixer to record 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 using the dynamic range of the hydrophones.

“The MixPre has that rich sounding analog 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.”

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