Recording location dialogue with an old Sony ECM-MS957 stereo microphone

Audio production is one of my personal interests and now that I've returned to doing more video production projects lately, I've been able to rekindle the interest and put to use some the skills and equipment that have been shelved for almost 10 years.  I would go so far as to say that I have a passion for sound or audio.

The trusty Sony ECM-MS-957 is a perfect match (despite it's slightly bulky size) for the Sony A7 series of cameras.

Clean audio or die trying

In the context of audio for video production, capturing clean and clear audio (dialogue or ambience) is in many ways more important than the look or quality of the image that goes with it.  It's well known that audiences also subconsciously judge the quality of a production primarily by the sound so it really can't be overlooked.  

Many professionals regard audio a tougher skill to master than the operation of video camera.  It's usually a dead giveaway as to the experience or professionalism of a videographer if their productions have poor audio.  Getting to know how to manage recording levels, maintain a low noise floor and proper gain structure, selecting the right microphone/s to match the subject and circumstances and honestly, knowing when to outsource the location recording to a dedicated sound recordist.

 

The 957 in action

This is a sample audio clip taken from a corporate production I am working on that may be a useful example of the capability of the old Sony ECM-MS957 Mid-side stereo microphone (also known as the ECM-957PRO). With its 3.5mm TRS consumer-style connector, it's ideal for connection to DSLRs offering the 3.5mm stereo connector (with or without plug-in power) for microphones.

This clip is recorded directly into the Sony A7R mirrorless camera with the microphone shock-mounted atop the camera's cold shoe as per the picture. In the scene, two female Police officers are describing features of Blackwater, a small town in Queensland Australia.

I believe this shows the versatility of the microphone as both an ambience and dialogue mic. In a pinch, it could be used on a pole as a relatively directional cardioid in place of a shotgun. Very handy if you're travelling light.

As true with any microphone, choosing the mounting options and wind protection also help a great deal.  I purchased the Rycote windjammer for the 957 from B&H.

 

M-S stereo is versatile

The cold shoe shock mount (sourced from eBay) with white neoprene spacer (just a sacrificed mouse pad trimmed to size) and a Rycote windjammer covering the original foam pop filter.

Using a mid-side stereo microphone or M-S pair technique allows for later adjustment of the width of the stereo field.  An M-S microphone consists of two elements.  The MID: a cardioid, hypercardioid, shotgun (lobar) or generally directional capsule forming the center of the sound field, and the SIDE:  a specialised figure-8 capsule that is capable of capturing sound from both sides of the capsule's diaphragm.  The '8' refers to the shape of the polar pattern with the diaphragm at the central intersection of the 8 and the lobes showing the sound pickup from both sides.  When working with an M-S signal pair, the signal from both the mid and side capsules are mixed together (known as matrixing) into the stereo signal with the width of the stereo image being adjustable depending on the ratio of mid to side on the mixer.

Consumer microphones such as the 957 do the processing of the mid and side capsules onboard for you and output a conventional stereo signal. The 957 offers a 90 or 120 degree selection. This recording is at the 120 degree setting. In the second pass of the clip, it's mixed down to mono to demonstrate the mono-compatibility of the M-S technique.

The Sony ECM-MS957's capsules.  Side capsule at the top (or end), and the cardioid mid capsule lower down shown rotated to almost 90 degrees.  Normally, it would face up, on-axis with the mic body.

 

Why the 957 when there are so many other choices?

Firstly, because I already had it.  It's a mic that I bought it on eBay years ago because I intended to record ambience tracks to go with photo slideshows - a project that never eventuated.  These days, I would probably use the Tascam DR-40 for that particular tasks, but when it comes to getting decent audio direct to the camera, I like the 957.   It's very solidly built totally from metal.  Mine has survived a hiding with only light scratches to show.  The grille is still intact and as you can hear, is sonically still pretty good.  It lasts for ages on a commonly available AA battery (not a 9v - I'm looking at you, Rode!) and it has a hidden feature of being able to convert the 5-pin XLR output into a fully balanced twin XLR for professional cameras or recorders.  Why they never offered the twin XLR option at the time of sale, I'll never know.

I did a teardown some years ago and I show the pinouts and pictures of the innards.

My tips for selling costly camera gear (and other stuff) on eBay

You gotta love the exhilaration of selling stuff on eBay.  I'm proud to say that I have had very few bad experiences on eBay, and none while selling.  Selling can be rewarding in more ways than just making money.  I like to start popular items at $1*.  Sounds crazy?

The whole idea of starting at $1 is to get the maximum number of people watching an item.

With one day to go in the auction (pictured), the number of watchers (individuals who have taken an interest and saved the auction) watching the current auctions should make the next evening very interesting.  I know that watchers all get an automatic email in the morning and later in the day just before the auctions finish reminding them to bid.  This is the key to the price boost at the end of the auction and it works well.

For added buyer convenience (and convenience matters), I stagger the ending times too.  Some people may be interested in more than 1 of the items and this helps them out.

It takes time and patience

In my opinion, starting auctions at $1 no reserve* works really well if you take the time to write all the description properly, provide many good photos of the gear and also time the auction to end when the maximum number of people will be watching.  Sunday night is my recommendation.  This 10-day auction started on a Thursday and has had the opportunity of a two weekends worth of viewers.  Maximum exposure is the key.

Yes, of course I run the risk of becoming committed to selling a costly item at a low price, but with research it's possible to see what other items have sold for over the last month and gauge what the average price should be as well as best/worst scenarios.

Oh and pre-pack all items (well) so you know the package dimensions, weight and can then setup calculated shipping options.  This makes it possible for the buyer to calculate their own shipping accurately (under most circumstances) at the time of bidding using Australia Post's current pricing.  Helps to avoid surprises or to scare people off with worst-case price shipping.

So, in a nutshell...

  1. Do your research!  Search for similar items that sold at auction (not Buy It Now).  I make an Excel sheet with all the recent prices and work out the average: =avg(range).  Then see where your item stands against the others.

  2. Set realistic expectations of price.  Refer to point 1.  People need to accept that some value is lost when the item leaves the showroom.  I laugh when I see the same items getting re-listed with a BuyItNow price that is almost RRP.  Once you list you're in for the ride.  You shouldn't end an auction prematurely (you can, but then you'd be a point 11 and in breach of eBay policies and potentially up for auction fees anyway).

  3. Write a good and accurate description for your listing.  Don't just copy-paste manufacturer website info.  Most people will do their own research for items of considerable cost.  There's no point fudging the details as I believe it'll come back to bite you either as a returned / refunded item, negative feedback or as general bad karma.  Believe it.

  4. Do the item justice with good photos.  Detail any areas that a buyer might be interested in (damage, dings, scratches etc.)

  5. Pre-pack and record measurements and weights of all items (after you take great photos of course).
  6. List your auction starting at $1 no reserve*.

  7. Schedule the auction to start on a Thursday between 7pm - 9pm (thus ending on a Sunday at the time started).
  8. List for 10 days.  7 days is ok, but 10 is better.
  9. Know your rights (and your buyers').  Ignorance is no excuse.  Ebay had a tonne of info for sellers on policy and advice just like this.  It's mostly well written and clear.  
  10. Answer all buyer questions during the auction.  Even the seemingly dumb ones.  Remember, the buyer may not be seeing your painstakingly handcrafted listing on their mobile device.  They may also be testing your attitude or whether you know what you're talking about relative to your description.
  11. Don't be a jerk.  Send good communications at each required stage and keep the various statuses in eBay up to date.  Treat buyers just as you'd expect to be treated in a reputable store.  Also, if someone just bought an item for a $1000, they ought to be treated like royalty.

I hope this helps some of my fellow eBayers.  Remember it's best to be selling when you want to, and not when you need to.  It takes a great deal of effort to sell effectively but it can be a lot of fun.

Happy eBaying and be nice to each other, especially on eBay.

(* This doesn't work with niche items of limited interest ).

A current auction.  I'm selling my main Nikon camera kit to downsize to a mirrorless kit.

Using eBay for price research.  Look at actual sell prices for previous similar items.

Don't live your life zoomed-in at 100 percent

This isn't a post about health and taking your day-to-day life to the max, it's about the process a photographer goes through when they get back from a shoot, download their cards and need to decide what stays and what goes.

I commonly stack sequences of shots in Lightroom (or Aperture previously) and then painstakingly eyeball each shot in the stack at 100% zoom and then narrow things down with the compare view to decide which ones stay.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I would later skim through the shots in grid view and find that I'd rejected some gems and sometimes missed the best shot of the bunch.  I'd missed seeing a special moment not visible at full zoom or even zoomed out at full screen.

Photography's a continual learning process and I've learn to avoid deciding the fate of pics constantly at 100% - meaning constantly zooming in to 100% (and beyond) to check focus BEFORE deciding whether the shot has that 'zing'.  Now I'm not saying to never reject photos that are slightly out of focus, but if the shot tells a story or the softness of the focus adds something (or even adds some mystery), it could well be a keeper. Some of my favourite personal photos of my daughter are the ones that aren't so perfect and look a bit more homemade (if you know what I mean).

My daughter Charlotte on her 2nd birthday.  She was grinning because she knew Grandma was having trouble chasing her.

Photography is indeed where science meets art.  It's sometimes hard to quieten down the inner nerd and reject a shot because it's not technically perfect.  Some shots demand perfection, but many don't and the perfection may be the movement, the action, the surprise and the fact it's out of focus.

Harry the mini dachshund racing around the yard with excitement.  Our friend had brought his dog around to play.

All this said, I still can't understand how I ever got away with large prints from my 6MP Nikon D70 let alone the D3 at 12.1MP.  There's so many more pixels to peep at with 36MP now.  Will someone please spare a moment to think of those poor medium format guys with the Phase One or Hasselblad digital backs.  Think of the stress and the eye strain! :-)

Written in response to Dan Bailey's great article, "Are you a photographer or a pixel peeper?"

"Thirty years of Macintosh" desktop wallpapers

I was feeling inspired by Apple featuring "Thirty years of Macintosh" today on the main website at www.apple.com/30-years and made some new wallpapers for my new 27" iMac when it arrives next week (hopefully).  My first Mac was a Macintosh Colour Classic 4/40 purchased in 1993 that came with ClarisWorks and PC Exchange.  I used that Mac everyday throughout high school.  Read more about my Mac history here.

The wallpapers are 2560x1440px in size, perfect for the 27" iMac or LED Thunderbolt display.  They were created in Adobe Illustrator and grain texture added in Adobe Photoshop.

Enjoy!
Aaron.