12 Aug 2017

11 things filmmakers need to consider about audio

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RedShark Replay: Roland Denning, a cameraman by trade, lists 11 things that those that live behind the lens should consider when it comes to getting the audio right.

Here’s the thing: sound is often the last thing filmmakers worry about when they shoot but the first thing they notice when it’s not right - audiences can tolerate fuzzy pictures much more than they can tolerate fuzzy sound. Great sound makes good pictures better (although the sound department seldom gets the credit).

I have seen so many student films where great care is taken to achieve beautiful pictures and sound is just left to the camera mic or a mic somewhere the other side of the room.

I’ve been a cameraman most of his life, not a sound recordist, but I’m writing this partly make amends and apologise for all those sound recordist jokes. I’m fully prepared for all the sound recordists out there to point out all the mistakes I’ve made.

So here’s some basic advice - yes, some of it is very basic, so please excuse me if you think I am stating the obvious.

1. A microphone on the camera is rarely the answer

Even on high-end cameras the on-board mic is seldom decent quality but that’s not really the point - the problem is the camera mic is in the wrong place. There are exceptions - if you are shooting exterior cutaways or establishing shots the camera mic will usually be adequate and if you are shooting hand-held with a wide-angle lens you are likely to be near enough to your subjects to pick-up decent sound. But it’s never a solution for interviews.

2. Directional mics are not that directional

Perhaps because gun mics (directional mics) look a little like guns I’ve seen people stand on the other side of the room and point them at the subject, as though they are literally shooting them. Sadly, they don’t work like that and the principles that directional mics depend on tend not to work well in small rooms. You really don’t want that mic more than a metre away from the subject, preferably closer.

3. Don’t scrimp on microphones

As in most things, you get what you pay for. Get the best microphones you can afford. The essential mic in any video kit is the short gun mic - like the classic Sennheiser 416, but that will set you back at least £600. Thankfully, the Australian company Rode have some excellent substitutes for the 416 in their NTG range at less than half that cost. A mic like this is versatile - you can mount it on the camera, a boom or a stand and you will probably end up using it for 80% of your recording.

Personal mics (also known as lapel mics or lavaliers), whether they are wireless (radio mics) or wired, are an easy solution for interviews. Again, get the best you can - there are some very cheap personal mics out there and they sound cheap and nasty too - don’t expect to get a decent one for under £120.

4. Radio mics are not always the answer either

Now reliable, quality radio mics are relatively inexpensive - like the very popular Sennheiser G3 for around £500 and the new Rodelink Filmmaker for under £300 - there is a tendency to be dependent on them - but they are not always the best for drama. The problem is everyone sounds the same, whether they are close to or far from the camera (see my point 6).
There are also issues of clothing rustle (unless you are prepared for the mic to be visible) and there’s always the problem that if the subjects turn their head as they are speaking, they go off mic. So often the best solution is a mic on the end of a boom pole (see point 7).

5. Forget about stereo

Not entirely - stereo is great for ambient tracks and effects and essential for music but, for interviews and dialogue, it is generally more trouble than it’s worth. Getting the microphone in the right place for a correct stereo image as well as getting it out of shot without casting shadows is a tough call - it is much easier to pan voices left and right in post-production. On location, recording interviews or dialogue in stereo inevitably picks-up more ambient sound when what you’re after is the voice as clean as possible. If you want a stereo ambient track, record it separately.

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