Giving new meaning to what makes a tough audio environment, Shure has been providing discrete microphone solutions for A&E’s 60 Days In to record inmates and undercover reality show participants behind jailhouse walls.
The reality show chronicles individuals volunteering to spend 60 days in jail. Although the microphones don’t necessarily have to be completely stealth, they need to be relatively inconspicuous.
60 Days In producers have been using Shure’s Microflex Advance 910 microphones, which are not only discreet but offer steerable coverage.
I chatted with 60 Days In sound engineer Joe Leo about the unique project, including how he was able to install and service products behind jailhouse walls. Leo’s team designs, builds and runs the audio aspect of the show. I also got some input from Shure’s Bill Ostry who handles market development for the pro systems group.
CI: How stealthy do the mics have to be?
Leo: It’s eight people going in the jail that don’t belong in jail. We are following those eight people in their lives, plus following the inmates that belong in jail or, for some reason, are incarcerated. The stealth is important to us. We do give up a little of the stealth to get good audio, of course.
As we progress through the show, we’re trying to get stealthier because people tend to hide where there are mic that are seen.
This is where the MXA910 came in as a big help, getting rid of some of the feed mics and just going with something that’s not seen. As we progress through the show, we’re trying to get stealthier because people tend to hide where there are mic that are seen. They tend to hide away from them and have conversations which, when they don’t know it’s a mic, they can’t hide.
CI: Is the flip side of that also true — that people try to get under a mic in order to spout off about something?
Leo: We do have occasions where that happens. More so for us, it’s about following our participants, following what is potentially going to happen or what is happening in the scene.
We kind of spy on little groups of people. In each room or each pod of cells, we approximately put in about 30 mics. They tend to spread out, but it is a big facility where the panel, the array mic really helped us out in putting it in a central location and being able to send out eight mics at one time and then adjust them.
CI: It must be a challenge that producers can’t move or steer the mic as the inmates are moving around. How did the Shure solution allow you to capture the right audio that you needed?
Leo: Well, that’s a very interesting scenario. Like you said, for the longest time, season one, season two, we were stuck. We put a mic here and people sat over there. We had no audio. That was a big problem.
We looked into trying to figure out any way of having a steerable mic, something that could be on a remote control, something like that. No solutions.
That’s when I found out about this system and really got excited about it. It revolutionized what we were doing in the aspect of with one panel. The best scenario is, we put mics by the telephones. Normal people at a phone talk at a normal level. Our participants are not normal inmates. They’re real people. They don’t talk at a normal volume, so we have a hard time pulling off the audio.
With the array system, if they were standing or sitting, I could adjust to where they were. I could cut out the conversation, pretty relatively good, of the person next to them. I could focus in just on the person talking and no one knows I’m doing this besides me and the producer.
I used the array a lot and had presets set. There was a four-phone bank system. I had it set for phone one, phone two, phone three, phone four and then standing or sitting, depending on which one they were doing at the time. If they sat, I could then go to my preset, hit preset, boom. Mic one right to that spot, which was about, I would say, a three-foot by three-foot circle.
I had the lobe put out. It really knocked out the other people talking on, say, phone four if I was on phone two.
CI: I know it’s not necessarily what you do, but a lot of guys in our audience provide audio solutions for things like conference rooms where people are also moving around. Can you see how that Shure solution could be transferrable to a more conventional scenario like that?
Leo: I did. I actually used the first lobe. It’s what I call the mover. As people moved around the room and decided that they were going to stand in the middle of the room or stand against a window or even by the shower, I had that on a mover where I had a grid plot planned out.
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Ostry: The way that Joe’s been using this array microphone is vastly different than the intended target use, which is, as you mentioned, the conference rooms; video conferencing and teleconferencing rooms. The way that Joe is using it, he’s actually dynamically able to monitor and adapt the system per the requirements in the room. In his case, he’s actually following talent around the stage or the area.
In an installed application, the fact that you can steer the lobes into the different parts of the room will allow you to have adequate coverage. Should people walk around the conference table, the use of the MXA910, along with, say, an auto mixer for example, will allow you to turn on the appropriate lobe to capture the subject as they’re walking around the table.
In those fixed installations, it’s going to be more of a set-it-and-optimized-it application versus the way that Joe’s using it in a wide production application.
CI: During the actual installation process, were the areas completely cleared of inmates or were installers working in the same proximity?
Leo: When we go in and install all the microphones for the show and the MXA, we clear out the jail pod or group of cells. We clean them out for a week. We have total freedom to put stuff where we want it and adjust as needed.
We have one week to basically make it happen, per se, and get it in. Then periodically, we can go in and make little adjustments when they go out to, say, rec or other things like that.
CI: During those little adjustment periods …
Leo: No one’s in there.
CI: You’re confident that nobody’s in there and you’re confident that nobody can be in there when you’re making those adjustments?
Leo: Correct. I’ll add that with the MXA, I didn’t have to make adjustments once we had it set. That was the great thing about it. Once we were comfortable with where it was set, we were good.
When we go in and install all the microphones for the show and the MXA, we clear out the jail pod or group of cells. We clean them out for a week.
Other mics I did have to bring around, move in different areas of the room because of the table or just natural scenarios. That was the great thing. The lobes were being able to move. I didn’t have to go and physically move anything. Just move the lobe.
Ostry: That lobe is adjustable via the GUI that’s inherent to the device. There’s a web-hosted GUI that’s built into the MXA910. It allows Joe to dial into it and make fine adjustments on the lobes remotely.
CI: While there wasn’t a lot of need for tweaks, was there any man-made requirement for tweaks? In other words, did inmates in any way come into contact with the mics and screw them up?
Leo: With the normal mics, once we get them into a comfortable spot, they tend to touch them, hit them, tap them. With the MX910, it was up far enough where no one could get to it.
We had it set at about 14 feet off the ground. There was no way of anyone getting to it. They had no clue what it was, which was another great factor of it. To them it just looked like another ceiling panel in the room, or an air vent.
People thought it was an air vent. That was a great aspect of it. No one had a clue what it was or what it was there for so they left it alone. They saw it the first day and that was the last time I think they even noticed it.
Our other mics had to be a little more visible and they know they’re there. We would have people literally stand right underneath our mic and talk freely where they might have not done that by an exposed mic.
CI: Would you work with the MXA910s again and why?
Leo: I definitely would. In fact, if the show comes back for a fifth and sixth season, we’re already planning on putting in two per pod, one in each zone. That way, we have more control over more and getting rid of some of our other mics that we have hanging.
Another great aspect of it was, it was on a one Cat 5 cable or one Cat 6 cable, where we weren’t running eight different XLR cables to the machine and back and through walls. We’re in a jail so we’re going through walls. That was nice, where we only had to make a hole for a cat five cable. Then we got the benefit of eight mics.