I have been meaning for a little while now to do a write-up of my experiences while working in the extreme cold up in northern Quebec.
Recently I was hired on a documentary that would be shooting roughly 9 hours north of Montreal. I knew that it would be cold, but rarely is one prepared to work in -40F, so I did my best to take extra precautions. Between the extreme layers that I was wearing and the weight of my mixer bag, it got pretty heavy. Although I can’t complain because I was running with a Sound Devices 633 instead of perhaps a 688. But then again, I was also running with 4 Lectrosonics UCR411a’s, a Lectrosonics UCR211, a Lectrosonics LMa for IFB transmitting, an SMA modded Sennheiser g3 TX for a camera hop, and an Audioroot BDS System with a Remote Audio 98WH Hi-Q Smart Battery. So yeah, the point is that hiking through the deep snow with all of that on your back, paired with all of the clothing layers got decently heavy. I wish that I had a picture to post here of all of the times when I just sunk through the snow up to my chest, and was frantically trying to keep the bag from getting covered.
I would imagine that first hand reviews of gear by operators out in the field are pretty invaluable for the manufactures. So I hope this can be some good feedback for the fantastic companies that allowed me to stay up and running.
First off, I’ll start with the Sound Devices 633. That little guy continues every day to earn its reputation as a true work horse and an absolute trooper when it comes to harsh environments. During the moments when I was brave enough to actually take my fingers out of my gloves to adjust the levels on the faders (thank you Dugan Automix for saving me most of the time), everything worked just as well as if I was sitting in 70F weather. Not a hiccup, nor the slightest malfunction whatsoever. And it’s important to note that at this point the camera team’s drones were literally falling out of the sky from their propellers freezing and from their batteries draining like Gatorade on a sports field. The touch screen monitors on the RED Weapon cameras were lagging and sometimes not registering finger presses because of the windchill. Bottom line, it was cold. The local kids that we were following around looked like they were wearing windbreakers. And some of them were unzipped. Yeesh.
Next, the Lectrosonics receivers. I was running only with whip antennas while out on this hike. I wanted to be as lean as I could, while still needing a boom and 5 wireless. Initially the receivers performed without issue as far as their operation on my end. Stayed powered on great and the screens stayed responsive. What I did notice however was that the longer that we were outside, the worse my range got. As all of the gear got colder and colder, I saw the range drop down to roughly 20 feet. Each of the transmitters (2 SMQV’s, 2 UM400a’s, and 1 UM200c) were hidden against the kids’ bodies, under their clothes so that they stayed decently warm. Also after about an hour of being out there, I noticed that the screen on the UCR211 began to lag and flicker. This, however, did not in any way affect its ability to maintain an uninterrupted stream of audio, so I just pressed on and kept thrashing through the brush beside the kids so that I could avoid being seen in the shot. Then after roughly 90 minutes of being out there, the screens on the UCR411a’s began to exhibit the same problem that the UCR211 did. Again, no dropouts or distortions in the audio. I tried to brainstorm about what I could do when I got a free moment to troubleshoot.
During a break while the camera team tried to see if there was any way to make their drones fly, I grabbed some hand warmers that I kept with me in case we got stuck out there.
I shook several of them up and packed them around each of the receiver bodies. After about 15 minutes when they were fully heated up, I noticed that the screens on all of the receivers stopped lagging. And I also realized that I had regained some of my range. I wouldn’t say full range, but enough so that I could stop walking through the brush and just walk behind camera. I won’t lie. That was pretty exciting. So here’s a pro tip for those going into the super cold with windchill. Pack the receiver bodies with hand warmers. It works.
Quick note on the LMA. Not much to report here. It was another instance of people saying that they wanted IFB’s and then not using them. I’m sure that this has happened to no one but me in the history of this profession.
Now on to the SMA modded Sennheiser G3 system. In short, the RF meters fluctuated wildly in the super cold before I applied the hand warmer to it. From what the Assistant Camera told me, the signal on their end had been intermittent at best. This is probably a good example of why a higher end Lectrosonics system beats a G3. I used a bongo tie to fasten a hand warmer to the G3 RX, and it did indeed improve performance. But even then it still wasn’t great. Not just in range, but also in reliability. That all being said, it was really really cold outside and the windchill is still hurting my face almost a month after being back. These G3 units have been excellent as camera hops in virtually every other circumstance, and even more so now with the SMA mod. I plan on using those for years to come.
Lastly, the Audioroot BDS system and the Remote Audio Hi-Q batteries. Just like the Sound Devices 633, the Audioroot was a real powerhouse (if you can excuse the pun). No lag on the screen and continued to distribute and meter perfectly. The remote audio batteries soldiered through as well, albeit with slightly diminished charge lifespan. This could be from the cold on the battery, the devices pulling more juice, or a combination of both. But even with less life, it still seemed to last a lot longer than the v-mount batteries hanging off of the end of the RED cameras. I say “longer” as in relative to how long both of these batteries last under ideal conditions.
So in summary, these pro tools can hold their own pretty well in extremely harsh temperatures, when the person operating them would almost certainly malfunction and collapse first. Luckily for me, I enjoy ice fishing and had some pretty warm stuff with me. The moral of the story is, buy the gear listed above for your next frighteningly cold job, keep some hand warmers with you just in case, and don’t do drugs.
Jared Elkin is a professional sound mixer located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.