Getting clean audio on set is easily achievable with the right tools and knowledge, but most filmmakers, shooters, and producers, don’t focus enough on the audio component and as a result the production value of the final product suffers. Personally speaking, it took me a while to truly appreciate the importance of location audio, but when it did finally click for me I started paying just as much (if not more) attention to it than any other element on set.
Psychologically, when you watch a film, commercial, or any other video, the audio you hear has more of an impact on your overall experience than the video that you see. Horror movies are perfect examples of this. In many modern horror films, the scares come more from the sound design and score than they do from the visuals. And this notion carries over to any video format, not just movies. It’s been said that audio is 50% of your viewing experience, but I would actually put it closer to 60%, if not higher. If you create a film that has impeccable audio, but the cinematography isn’t ideal, you’re going to get a better overall response to it than a film with stunning visuals and horrible audio. Although it seems like the opposite would be true, in reality that’s just how it is, and in fact many festival programmers and distributors have said over the years that the number one reason they reject films is because of poor audio. So the point is that audio is absolutely critical to the overall success of your project, and even if you’re a visual based storyteller, you need to place a premium on getting clean location audio as a starting point so that you can elevate your visuals, rather than bring them down.
On a larger production, you can and should have a dedicated sound recordist or sound crew for the best possible result. However today a lot of us are shooting smaller scale projects as one-man-bands, meaning that we’re doing everything (directing, camera, audio, etc.) ourselves. If you’ve ever done this before, you know that it’s no easy task and working like this can often put the quality of your final product in jeopardy. More often than not, I’ve found that a one-man-band situation puts the audio at risk, so I’ve decided to make a list of my 5 tips for recording better location audio when you’re out in the field by yourself. It should also be noted that while these tips can apply to any video format, they are especially relevant for interviews, documentaries, or other shooting situations where you are likely to be out there in the field yourself.
1. Using The Right Mic
There are so many different mics out there today, that it can be a daunting task to choose the right one to purchase or rent. For this article, I’m not going to go too far into specific brands or models, but rather focus of the type that you should be using. Typically for a one-man-band situation, I would recommend using a shotgun mic, not wireless lavs. While lavs are excellent tools and can sometimes be the best possible choice (especially when shooting wide shots where you can’t show a boom), from my experience they aren’t ideal when you’re doing everything yourself. On top of all of your other gear, you’ll wind up switching the batteries, mic’ing your talent, and having to readjust the lav multiple times if it starts to rustle on your subjects clothing. There are just too many variables to think about when you’re also shooting the video, so for that reason I would recommend a shotgun mic. If you’re looking to purchase one, it will be a good long term investment as unlike camera gear, audio gear lasts a lot longer as it isn’t outdated all the time. The Rode NTG 2 is a great starter option for getting up and running, as it delivers great results and is reasonably priced. Alternatively, you could also rent a shotgun mic from your local rental house if you don’t normally need to record audio, and just need it for a one off gig.
2. Mic Placement
Many shooters will just mount a shotgun mic on top of their camera, start rolling, and hope for the best. This setup might work for a scenario where you just need ambient audio, but if you’re recording a talking head, or an actor, you really should not have the mic bolstered to your camera. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, you never want your shotgun mic to be more than three feet from your subjects mouth. This is especially true with cheaper shotgun mics, but as a general rule, try to keep it less than three feet away. Secondly, when your mic is mounted on the camera you have much less control over the direction it’s pointing it and for a shotgun mic, direction is everything. Some mics are so sensitive that if it’s pointed just a little bit in the wrong direction, you won’t be getting optimal audio, so make sure you’re careful about this. As one person you won’t be able to hold the mic yourself (since you’re likely rolling the camera), so just set it up on a stand out of frame, or in an interview situation you could even have your subject hold the mic themselves, just off camera.
3. External Recorders
You might be tempted to just plug your mic straight into your DSLR or camcorder, but you need to think twice before doing this. Some cameras that have XLR inputs can record great audio internally, but for the most part DSLR’s won’t give you great results. Not only do they lack good pre-amps and other necessary components, but many of them don’t even have a headphone jack which makes monitoring your sound impossible (more on that below). Not to mention some mics that are phantom power only (powered by the device you’re recording with), will not work with DSLR’s as they can’t power the mic through a 3.5 jack. If you do need to record straight to a DSLR, get a battery powered shotgun mic and get that mic as close to your subject as possible. Preferably though, you’ll want to use an external recorder like a Zoom H6. I use a Zoom myself and there is a drastic difference in quality as you would imagine between it and going straight to camera. It also can record more channels, and a safety track which records a version of everything at 20db lower than your main audio in case someone yells or gets loud and the main track peaks. If you’re worried about syncing audio in post – don’t be. If you use FCP X you can sync your audio with one click (without even using a slate), and there are always plugins like Plural Eyes if you use a different NLE. In the end, the few minutes you spend syncing your audio will make your life a lot easier in the end as you won’t need to spend as much time cleaning up poorly recorded audio.
4. Monitor Everything
Whether you are going straight to camera, or to an external recorder like the Zoom, make sure you are constantly monitoring your audio with headphones. You can’t simply rely on the audio meters on your camera or device as they may look fine, when in reality there are other issues at hand. Keep a good pair of headphones with you at all times and keep them on, even when things are going perfect. As soon as you take them off, something could go wrong with any part of the audio pipeline and if you aren’t listening, you’re going to be in trouble. Make sure that when you buy your next camera you look for one that has a headphone jack built in, or if you already own a DSLR without one, there is even more reason to look into getting an external recorder so that you can properly monitor you audio and make sure that you are maintaining a high quality level at all times.
5. Get Roomtone
It might be the last thing on your mind at the end of a long shoot when you just want to pack up and call it a day, but always remember to take 30 seconds to record room tone before you leave. For those of you that don’t know, room tone (as the name suggests) is the ambient sound of the room that you’re recording in. So if you’re shooting an interview in an office, you will want to record just the sound of the office without any dialogue or other sounds on top of it so that you can use it in post for a number of reasons. For starters, in post-production, room tone can help you reduce the overall noise in a scene. If there was a refrigerator buzzing in the background of an interview for instance, you can actually remove that sound to some degree using room tone to subtract the buzz of the fridge from your track. Room tone can also help with smoothing out transitions. For example you might want to cut away from an interview to some b-roll, but you have an issue with the audio edit, as the background sound just drops out when you cut away from the interview, making for a harsh transition. Room tone will allow you to patch over areas of your video that didn’t otherwise have background sound, and extend fades so that you can more seamlessly blend in and out of different cuts.
We’ve really only just scratched the surface of audio recording as it truly is an art of it’s own. That said though, if you take these few simple tips and actually apply them, you will start to get much better results than if you aren’t placing a premium on the audio at all. Like anything, the hardest part is deciding to actually put in the effort to get the result that you’re looking for. One you recognize the importance of audio and the basic rules that you need to follow to get a clean recording, your work will immediately change for the better. And when you’re working on a bigger production with a dedicated sound recordist, it still helps to understand the audio process so that you can work with your recordist more effortlessly.
For a follow up to this article, make sure you review my previous writeup on the essential camera settings to check before every shoot.