Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming quite well known as an immersive delivery medium for entertainment, but it is increasingly becoming a valuable tool across a broad swath of commerce and industry, from education and healthcare, to construction and retail. For a project in partnership with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a filmmaking team based in Austin, TX has been producing a series of VR videos using nine channels of Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless equipment, using SMQV dual battery belt pack transmitters and UCR411a, SRb, and SRc receivers to capture working classroom environments in 360 degrees.
(Left to Right) Tyler Mann, Lectrosonics’ Karl Winkler, and Patrick Wylie
Director and camera operator Tyler Mann of MannMade Productions was hired for the project, which documents the work of some of the best school teachers in the New Mexico public education system for TeachNM, a resource for educators and administrators in the state. Mann realized he would need a dedicated sound mixer for the VR project, hiring Patrick Wylie, owner and operator of RareFried Sound Services for the job.
“After reviewing some of the initial VR video, I realized that there were sonic challenges in being able to hear everyone,” Wylie said. “It’s not scripted, so you don’t know who’s going to talk, but anybody has the potential to. It’s easy to wire the teacher, because she’s an adult. But from a financial standpoint it’s not feasible to wire every single child, plus there are privacy issues with that. We wracked our brains and eventually settled on a wireless system solution that was easier to implement.”
Mann and Wylie typically have less than 20 minutes in which to get set up and rolling. Using a combination of transducers—a number of boundary microphones plus a mic suspended beneath the GoPro 360-degree camera, with a lavalier mic for the teacher and a wireless handheld also available—the pair can capture an accurate soundscape for subsequent post production mixing. On one recent shoot, Wylie said, “We had seven Lectrosonics SMQV transmitters going, plus one for the teacher, and I was also using a plug-on transmitter, so we had nine wireless transmitters in total, which is a lot.” Receivers included a mix of Lectrosonics 411a, SRB, and SRC models.
“I was also utilizing the Lectrosonics RM remote control app and doing preset frequency coordination with another application,” Wylie said. “Just going in and knowing that I could rely on Lectrosonics and I was going to get everything I needed—that it was going to work without worry about things like wireless transition and drop-out, made it a lot easier to do. While it’s not live television, VR is basically the same, because there are no retakes and you can’t lose any information. Lectrosonics products were very helpful in that regard.”
“Patrick and I engineered our own solution,” said Mann, whose work has been seen on TLC, The History Channel, Nat Geo, A&E, MTV, and Animal Planet, among other outlets. “We ended up building these wireless portable boundary mic rigs that are on mounting arms and can be placed wherever we need. They need to be discreet and hidden, but we had to make them versatile enough to go wherever we needed them, and in a very, very short amount of time.”
Most sound mixers would balk at getting 10 mics ready in 20 minutes, Wylie said. “But that’s what this demanded. We’re dealing with schools that are live, and when the kids get there and the teachers ready to teach, we need to be ready to go. Being able to go in there and put those boundary mics into position very quickly was an important part of it. And Lectrosonics was an important part of that, too. You need to have 100 percent confidence that you’re going to be able to capture everything without any problems.”
Mixing sound for VR imposes a steep learning curve. Wylie had hoped to be able to provide a reference mix but, he said, “There are so many mics in the room that you can’t just leave them open. It’s impossible to mix unless it’s a class size of three.” His headphone system enables confidence monitoring of the wireless channels during recording.
“Everything’s done in post, because in addition to the spatial video they wanted to do a spatial audio mixdown of the entire project,” he continued. Wylie uses a Reaper DAW synchronized to video via GoPro VR software to mix the microphone tracks, which he records to a dedicated machine. “I can turn any source material—mono, stereo, 5.1, whatever—into spatialized audio format. From there, I can position it into 360 degrees around a perspective. After editing and some EQ, I spatialize it, make a final mix, and export it to Tyler. He marries it together and in the final video you can hear different perspectives depending on where you’re looking.”
Mann reported that, two years into the project, it is set to expand beyond New Mexico and into Missouri and the East Coast. “This is very much an ongoing and expanding project that we’re really, really excited about,” he said. “As much fun as it is to be a pioneer in a field where there is no blueprint, we’re also getting to help teachers and kids. This is really satisfying work that I feel good about doing.”