Recorders, mixers get inventive in extreme conditions

Aboard a boat in bitterly cold waters with the salt water battering and corroding his transmitters, “Whale Wars” audio mixer Saul Swed knew they were going to fail if he didn’t find a way to keep them dry. He needed something thin, flexible and impermeable to protect his gear.

The solution? Unlubricated condoms.

Latex is just one part of Swed’s arsenal. He also packs as much backup equipment as he can carry onto the Bob Barker, the boat where he works on the show. He knows anything he brings along will have to withstand the painfully cold temperatures in the Southern Ocean and the corrosive powers of salt water. So, proper protection is key for his voyage.

“Anyone trying to get sound from a crew under circumstances like this is going to have to be creative and resourceful because equipment failure is a certainty,” says Swed. “Anyone doing this job well is going to have their own set of tricks to make it work. Condoms just happen to be mine.”

Not every production has a dedicated sound crew on deck. On “Deadliest Catch” the cameramen are also the sound crew. While there are some mics inside the boats and on the deck, much of the sound and dialogue that’s captured comes from built-in mics on their small HD cameras as standing on the deck of a boat as it’s tossed around in choppy seas would be a suicide mission.

This means the sound they get isn’t the best, and mixers and editors must strike a balance, making the dialogue clear while including enough ambient sound to make the audience feel like it’s on the deck of a crab-fishing boat.

“The guys who are fishing for crab on the decks of these boats have a job to do and the camera crew is getting the best sound they can,” says Bob Bronow, sound re-recording mixer for “Deadliest Catch.” “You just kind of get what you get and you have to find a way to make it work.”

Luckily, viewers tune in to get a sense of an extreme life most will never lead and at least some of the blips in the sound you capture is part of the beauty of it all.

“If anything I might roll off a little wind or something like that but I record everything as raw as I can to give the editors as much wiggle room as possible,” says Swed. “It’s also a big challenge to have equipment that holds up under the cold and with all that salt water around.”

Larry Ellis, a sound mixer on “Ice Road Truckers” also believes in preserving the grinding noises of the trucks to give viewers a sense of the world onscreen.

“You want people to feel what they’re watching and sound is a big part of that. So bringing home that sense of place has a lot to do with how carefully you balance what you take out and what you leave in,” says Ellis.

It’s similar to the challenge facing Terrance Dwyer, the Emmy-winning sound re-recording mixer who has been with “Survivor” for the show’s entire run, winning one of his Emmys along the way. Though audiences often tune in to see the gorgeous, exotic beach locales, these backdrops provide the sound mixer with two huge challenges — surf and bugs.

“You’re trying to make sure the viewers can hear whatever the contestants are saying and you’re always fighting the sound of the surf and the noises that the bugs in that part of the world are making,” says Dwyer. “And you always have to be careful that you don’t go too far with removal because then things will sound artificial, like you weren’t really there.”

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