Capturing performances for television is a stressful business, especially if the programme is being filmed live. You want everything to be perfect but you are also aware that many things can go wrong, even with the best laid plans.
Reducing the list of potential disasters is therefore high on any production crew’s agenda and one area where it is possible to swing the odds is in the choice of equipment. Reliable gear that won’t let you down at a crucial moment, is instantly adaptable and can be quickly deployed without requiring days of preparation and engineering is always going to be a winner. When technicians find equipment like this it is hardly surprising that they become very attached to it.
For Sound Supervisor Daniel S. McCoy CAS, owner and operator of Los Angeles-based location and post-production audio company ToneMesa, Inc., it is Sidekick In-Ear IFB Monitors that are currently making his life a lot easier. These virtually invisible communications earpieces from Danish manufacturer, Bubblebee Industries, have proved invaluable for McCoy who used them to great effect during the most recent series of America’s Got Talent, which was filmed in a very different way because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“With today’s productions requiring an element of ‘social distance’, getting comms sorted out is absolutely critical,” McCoy explains. “You can’t expect technicians to show up and place 10 wires on people because it is just not safe. That’s probably not going to happen again for many months, if not years. What’s important now is having comms equipment that talent are comfortable with. It also needs to have a high useability factor so people don’t need technicians to fit it because they can do it themselves.”
Bubblebee’s Sidekick fits the bill perfectly because it delivers high speech intelligibility, as well as a very comfortable experience for the end user. The Sidekick features the world’s first micro driver solution where the driver fits invisibly in the ear canal, eliminating the need for acoustic tubes outside the ear. This gives it an extremely small and lightweight footprint and makes it a popular alternative to earwigs.
McCoy first heard about Sidekick in 2011 when he was working on X-Factor and was introduced to them by a Front of House engineer.
“When he pulled them out of his ears to show me, they were so small that I said ‘oh my God. What is this? This is crazy! This can’t sound good, right?’,” he says. “But when I popped them in, not only did they sound good but they were also the most comfortable thing I’ve ever had in my ear because they were so small and lightweight. I bought some and started introducing them to my shows and they changed everything. In a perfect environment a lot of things work, but there is nothing perfect about what we do; it’s mastering imperfection that makes you a good craftsperson in production. When I started working with Sidekick, everything changed. I could do run-and-gun stuff around the beach, in the mountains and in an urban environment with a good diversity IFB. I was also able to transmit between the director and any talent, anywhere, even in cars – it was really impressive.”
Daniel McCoy’s audio experience encompasses music, film and television. He has worked on numerous high profile productions, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show and films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Coffee Date, which won awards at BreckenRidge, Salem and Sedona International Film Festivals. His music recording career is equally fascinating: the cousin of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, McCoy has engineered projects for legendary music producer T Bone Burnett and live sound guru Mark Linett. This extensive experience was a key reason why Paul Whitman, A1 audio engineer on America’s Got Talent, hired him for this season’s audio remotes.
“Paul and I have worked together many times before but on this show he wanted someone who could handle remotes,” McCoy says. “He needed a mixer who could also do playback, in-ear mixes and handle live performance and audience capture. Not every technician has that many cards in their deck.”
To satisfy IATSE Covid guidelines, the judges and those auditioning couldn’t all be in the same place. However, it was important that judges saw performances live before deciding which contestants would go through to the next stage of the competition.
“Originally we were going to try and emulate what the judges normally see on stage by replicating it in each of their homes,” McCoy explains. “That would have meant driving from San Diego to Seattle and then to Las Vegas where we had talent in six different locations. It was going to involve a lot of miles and a lot of driving and be pretty gruelling.”
Thankfully that plan was cancelled and instead Las Vegas was the only West Coast venue for these remotes. The Production crew captured all performances live to tape using 8K Red cameras, DPA microphones, the Sound devices 833, Lectrosonics R1b IFB wireless and Sidekicks. McCoy used Sound Devices NoiseAssist and ran Dugan Automix so that the director and producers (who were watching via Zoom in different locations) could hear a better mix back.
“We only had crew on set but we also had 20 people on Unity, a virtual intercom system, which we accessed through out iPhones,” McCoy says. “We watched people do their rehearsals through Zoom and then we taped them. In line with the show’s rules, each artist was given a maximum of three takes to get it right. Once the number of contestants had reduced from 60 to 16, the judges were given the chance to see their performances live using Zoom.”
At this stage, McCoy and Paul Whitman decided to give each judge a Sidekick so that they could easily communicate with the director and production crew. They were shown how to fit the monitors and were quickly adept at putting them in their own ears.
“We showed them once, and for two days everything was flawless,” McCoy says. “We didn’t have a single issue or any discomfort. They could communicate in real time as they watched our playback, then they could interface directly with the talent in a face to face Zoom call.”
The discreet design of Sidekick was also useful, especially for Howie Mandel whose lack of hair means that any wires can immediately be seen.
“We used a coiled cable and we mounted it to the costume,” McCoy says, who was assisted by A2 Billy McKarge. “It was beautiful because we only had to interface with the judges once, at the beginning, and from then on they were able to pop the Sidekick monitors in and out of their ear on their own and reset it within seconds – like magic. Their comfort with the product and its useability was incredibly high, so we had Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara all with Sidekicks in their ears and all able to talk to the control room like they were right there. Their comfort makes the producers look at us as though we are miracle workers.”
McCoy adds that with other IE systems such as Phonak, it is not just quality and reliability that is a consideration – it is also ‘loseability’.
“On so many shows somebody would lose one and that would immediately be $1200-$1300 gone,” he explains. “That’s equivalent to four Sidekicks, and what’s more a Sidekick will go on forever without a battery change. I think that is a huge selling point. This is why I use Sidekicks all the time now as my In Ears.”
Since switching to Sidekick, Daniel McCoy has undertaken numerous projects where they have made life easier. He cites a shoot for a Gordon Ramsey cooking pilot which was being filmed inside a building with dense, cement walls. With people moving from one room to another, it wasn’t possible to use antennas, so instead McCoy kitted everyone out with a diversity receiver and a Sidekick and was able to transmit comms to them using just one microphone and no relays.
Another project involved shooting a series of commercial for Lyft in which celebrities play the part of a bus driver who picks up unsuspecting non-celebrity passengers. The directors, technicians and producers were all in a different car following the bus but needed to remain in contact with the driver to give instructions. On one occasion, in a mountainous area of Pasadena, McCoy got round potential interference from local AM, FM and DTV transmissions by using Sidekick with a Wisycom diversity IFB. The microphone was strapped to the talent’s ankle and the Sidekick went into her left ear so that passengers boarding the bus couldn’t see it.
“We drove up to six car lengths behind, traveling at 40-50 mph and transmitting at 250mW and the IFB picked up everything we said,” McCoy explains. “The director was cueing questions to the celebrity and even though we drove the circuit 10 times, we didn’t have a single drop-out or noise issues. Plus, the celebrity was comfortable the whole time – that’s quite a testament to professional wireless systems.”
More recently, McCoy has been using Sidekick on a new – and as yet un-named - film for Duplass Brothers Productions, which is likely to air on HBO. Inspired by the Covid-19 situation, the film is based around Zoom to Zoom telecom conferences between a student and a woman teaching him Spanish. (or is it a student and a man teaching her Spanish? We need to check this)
A complicated system of microphones and webcams captured much of the action and dialogue on and off Zoom screens, but McCoy also used Sidekicks for situations where the actors needed total clarity or needed to hear director’s cues.
“They ensured that the actors didn’t have to deal with the speaker on the laptop and also, because the Sidekicks are totally discreet and invisible, they didn’t have to wear cumbersome earbuds or headphones,” he explains. “Because of Covid, we couldn’t be in the same room as the talent so they were directed remotely and we also had to show them remotely how to put the monitors in their ears. It became second nature and it’s a fun cinematic example of how anyone can handle equipment if it is designed and built well. Talent doesn’t have to be a technician when the equipment’s good.”
As the film and TV industry evolves out of Covid, Daniel McCoy believes that some equipment – Sidekick included – will come to the fore because they offer dependability and are easy for talent to use.
“Right now, the need for discretion and keeping your distance is at an all-time high, so having equipment that talent can interface with and that you can walk them through virtually is really important,” he says. “Simplicity and dependability are key and this is why Sidekick is going to have a bigger and bigger place in a sound technician’s kit. Having three different ear tips for different situations is really useful, while the build quality is also very good. I’ve never had one break, never had one fray, never had one ‘overcook’ – things that a lot of electronics suffer from. This isn’t a problem because it is truly an analogous driver, and with the Kevlar and copper, it is just built to last.”