As production budgets come down, people are obviously going to want to cut costs. There are some situations where you may be able to get away without using a sound recordist. A standard sit down interview is not too taxing to film for a cameraman and running a tie mic into the camera isn't going to present too many problems. However, not all shoots are as simple as this. When you choose to shoot without a sound recordist you are loosing a crew member, and this has ramifications to the shoot as a whole.
Several years ago I was asked to fly to Italy to do a few pick-ups for a CGI heavy documentary. As most of the budget had already been spent, the Production Manager asked if I would be happy going without a Sound Recordist. From an audio perspective, it was relatively simple: there was a presenter who was giving several pieces to camera around a town in Italy. The shots would take place on the move, walking around the town and in one case inside a car. All of the gear was rented from a facilities house, so the first time I even looked at the kit was at the airport - this is never a good way to start a shoot. We were midway through shooting the first piece to camera and I heard a glitch in the sound, it was just a small crack, but very audible. We did the piece a second time without a problem. Every now and again the glitch would come back ruining the take, and costing us time. We were right next to a huge port, and my first thought was that we were getting interference from the taxi or boat radios. I changed channels on the radios to see if this would help, and for a short while this seemed to work. I wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, but the director was worried about time and wanted to push on, hoping to get clean takes in between audio glitches. Sometimes a take was unusable due to the presenter fluffing his line, and sometimes the radio mic caused the problem. We were rapidly running out of time. Eventually I decided we had to stop and find the issue. I tested each bit audio kit in turn until I eventually found the problem, the cable running from the receiver to the back of the camera had a fault. Luckily, there was a spare, I replaced it and we went on without any further problems. This was a one day shoot, and we had really lost a lot of time to this audio fault. The rest of the shoot was rushed and chaotic. Enviably this quality of the footage suffered and we were lucky to make our flight back to the UK.
Any lowering in the quality of the footage reflects badly on the cameraman. It is unlikely that people will look at my footage from Italy and think: "the audio sounds good" or "that cameraman was good at repairing audio gear", they will just think the camera work could have been better.
All of this would have been avoided with a Sound Recordist. Sound Recordists check their own gear constantly, and it is much less likely to fail. Even if there was an audio issue, the Sound Recordist would be able to spend time fixing it on their own, while the cameraman is free to continue shooting scenes that don't require audio.
Sound recordist are worth their weight in gold on a shoot. It isn't just that they have good kit, it is that they know how to use it. Sound recordists can hide mics in clothing without picking up rustling noise, they can boom people who aren't on mic, they record atmos that can add something to a programme, often audio that the rest of the crew would talk all over if it wasn't for them. The list goes on and on. A part from anything else, just working with an extra crew member makes life easier. Many times Sound Recordists have helped me carry boxes around, set up light stands, stand in so I can check the lighting, and so much more, none of these things are their jobs, but they helped me out as part of the crew.
So what is the moral to the story? I guess it is: When you are asked if you can work without a Sound Recordist, think about the consequences and the effects it could have on the quality of your work, and on the quality of the production as a whole. There is no point in being pushy and refusing to work without one, but in many cases you can persuade a Production Manager that it is a good idea to hire a reliable Sound Recordist.