In its 23rd year and 45th season, CBS’s Survivor continues to stand out among other competition reality TV shows for its outstanding production values. Though the twists and advantages may sometimes be annoying, I always appreciate the way the show is crafted.
That includes the show’s high-quality audio.
The people in charge of it capture the sounds and noises players make as they’re crawling through mud or assembling a puzzle during a challenge; strategizing as they walk through the jungle or bob in the waves; or whispering ideas to each other at Tribal Council. They also record all of Jeff Probst’s non-stop expository babble at challenges.
To get that audio, Survivor’s sound mixers use multiple methods, including having the players wear microphones—though far less than you might think.
Other shows are less subtle about their audio. The Big Brother house has visible microphones, and the players also mic themselves, and must wear those mics at all times.
This season, on BB25, Felicia has accidentally destroyed four mics so far, including dropping one in the toilet; Hamsterwatch is tracking those. You may recall that in BB11, Chima intentionally tossed her mic into the pool, and was evicted as a result.
Some reality shows have players wear matching necklaces that are actually mics, while others shows just don’t bother to conceal mics at all.
Take Love Island, for example, where the cast just wears mics around their neck, and a belt to hold the battery pack and transmitter:
Survivor, however, tries to keep the production as hidden as possible from viewers, despite the large team behind the scenes. That means the audio team combines different methods of gathering sound.
When players are talking or strategizing at camp, they do not wear microphones.
CBS just shared a video on TikTok featuring James Demer, who’s a reality audio mixer on the show. (“Reality” is the term used for the crews who are on the beaches with the cast, versus those who cover challenges or Tribal Council.)
In the brief video, Demer talks about his job, not the equipment he uses. “You don’t get a second chance at anything. So it’s super important that you learn how to anticipate what the cast is thinking or about to do,” he says. “I follow them with my microphone and I capture all the dialogue that you hear on the show. If they run through the jungle, I run through the jungle. If they decide to get in the ocean, that means that I get in the ocean too.”
However, the video shows how he captures that audio: with a massive boom mic on a long, telescoping pole. He also wears headphones and a bulky pack on his chest.
When I was visiting tribe camps during the first three days of Survivor Gabon, I was amazed to watch the audio mixers do this work, holding those massive, fuzzy mics (they have fur-like covers to minimize wind noise) against the outside of the small huts that’d been built for the players.
Those mics are directional mics, meaning they only capture what they’re pointed toward. These audio mixers direct and hold their mics while also remaining out of the view of cameras.
At challenges and Tribal Council, however, things are different.
When Survivor players walk into a challenge arena or Tribal Council, they’ve already been at the location for quite some time. That’s because they visit individually with medical staff, and are also outfitted with an individual mic and battery pack/transmitter.
These lavaliere mics—or lav mics—are very small and can capture great audio even from underneath fabric or under adhesive covers. They can even be taped directly to someone’s skin. This video shows five different ways lav mics are hidden.
The transmitter, which also holds batteries, is about the size of a deck of cards, and needs to be held in place and is often concealed.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race, when the queens get out of drag, you’ll often see these flesh-colored bands around their torso. There are all kinds of straps available to hold the transmitter under clothes.
Typically, during challenges, Survivor players wear that equipment under their shirts or under their buffs around their necks. For example:
In the same way the camera department places small GoPro cameras around the challenge arena or on props to capture amazing angles, the audio department places up to 30 mics throughout the challenge, too, to capture additional audio.
Jeff Probst and producer Brittany Crapper discussed that during an episode of their podcast. Probst offered praise for the person who runs the audio department, Ryan England, pointing out that he figured out how to get better sound in the ocean, and was the first person from the audio department to attend challenge blocking, and at his first challenge, suggested putting a mic in a puzzle to capture those puzzle sounds.
“We get killer audio,” Probst said. They do indeed.
As with so many other things they do well, Survivor’s crew does an outstanding job of hiding those mics—though once you start looking for the ones on the players, you’ll probably start seeing them all the time.
Here’s another example from Survivor 45:
All of this audio captured on location then has to be incorporated into Survior’s episodes by the editors.
However, some of what we hear is actually fake sounds added in post-production.
Re-recording mixer Terry Dwyer, whose company Mixers Sound works on Survivor, told Variety in 2015 that he receives a final cut of the episode from the editors.
Producers, he said, “want us to keep it real” but that sometimes “location audio loses the real.” He demonstrated with a scene from a reward, where the audio of people talking is very clean, and he adds the sound of wind and drinking from a glass.
While not everything we hear is recorded on location—including, of course, the musical score—what we do hear is remarkable, whether that’s the sound of a puzzle piece sliding during a challenge or crystal-clear audio of a player struggling in the water during a challenge.