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Video Production - Recording Clean Audio

Written by Michael W. Dean - © 2006, Thomson Course Technology PTR. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: $30 Film School, Second Edition.

One thing I knew getting into filmmaking (a thing that isn't common knowledge but should be) is that excellent sound is more important than an excellent image in terms of how people perceive the professionalism of a movie and how much they enjoy watching it.

Student films often seem like student films because of poor sound. And it's inexcusable, because it takes 15 minutes or less to teach someone how to do good sound. I've seen fourth-year film school shorts with horrible sound. These schools and teachers should be ashamed for taking people's money.

Recording Sound on Location
I do take the sound into Sound Forge and tweak it a little when the file is locked. (The project is locked after all the edits are made, and the length is not going to change. Then the sound can be exported and worked on without affecting the sync.) I applied a tiny bit of compression to the whole thing and also adjusted the levels a little bit. We show how to do this in Chapter 9, "Editing Audio."

For HUBERT SELBY JR: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow, we had a pro sound mixer, Dave Bach. Dave has done the sound for many Adam Sandler movies and the Disney film: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Dave works in Pro Tools, and our video editor, Ryan Brown, works in Avid. To do a pro sound edit, you have to export all the audio files, the mixed OMFI files from Avid, and a low-rez (but full frame) QuickTime movie for reference. Doing this is a bit complicated and beyond the scope of this book. If you're working with pros like this, they'll do it for you. I just wanted to let you know how it's done on a pro film.

Excellent sound isn't that hard to get: just stick a microphone in front of or directly above the subject. Not too close unless they're very quiet, as it will be too loud and will distort. Try different things to get the right balance. (See Figure 6.51.) But if the mike is too far away (as it is with camera sound on anything farther than a close-up), the sound will be poor.

If an external mike isn't available or the camera doesn't have an input jack for one, then you have to use camera sound (the microphone that is built into the camera). Put the camera about 15 inches (maximum) from the subject's mouth. You can go a little farther if you have a great mike and a very quiet room. But not too far. I am always amazed that people film with camcorders with no external mike from, like, 8 or 15 feet away and then wonder why they can't hear their subjects talking over the background room tone.

Have your people talk clearly, and make sure all noisy stuff in the room is off (cell phones, computers, refrigerators, fans, air conditioners, open doors, everything). (See Figures 6.52 and 6.53.)

Stuff clothing or pillows under the doors to further deaden noise. Even ask the neighbors to be quiet. Be bold but polite. You're making art for the ages. Don't be afraid to ask anyone anything, although they might, in turn, ask you to put them in your film. Be sure you have enough release forms handy at all times, and make it clear to people who beg to be in it that they will not be paid no matter how many billions of dollars the film generates.

You can also use a lavaliere (clip-on) mike, like the newscasters use. Hide it if you're doing a drama; if it's a documentary, it's not necessary to hide it. People are used to seeing mikes in docs, and you are showing reality, not imitating reality in a doc, so it's OK.

The best microphones for film sound, be they boom mikes or lavaliere mikes, are powered condenser mikes. This means they have a battery pack that you will need to remember to turn on to use and turn off when not using. You may also need a line transformer and an adapter to plug it directly into the camera. This will be covered in the manual. If it's not, ask at the store where you bought the camera.

The ATR-35S mentioned above has a small hearing aid battery built into the cable. It also has an on/off switch built in. It does not need a transformer and will plug directly into the camera.

A boom is basically a long stick you use to get the microphone near the subject. (See Figure 6.54.)

You can buy quality booms at any photo supply store, or in a pinch, just duct tape a microphone to a broom handle! (See Figure 6.55.) (You might tape a sock between the mike and the boom to cut down noise of the handler's hands that is transmitted through the wood.)

Try to keep your boom and mike out of the picture. Doing that is someone's dedicated job in a big Hollywood shoot. It's tricky. You will even occasionally see the microphone accidentally dip into view for a split second in some lower budget movies. (See Figure 6.56.)

If you're shooting outside, use a windscreen to cut down on noise. This might help indoors also if you have someone with a lot of sibilance (ssssssssss sounds) or plosives (excessive B, D, and P sounds) in his speech. You can make one using socks, mesh, or other fabrics to cover the microphone. Pantyhose work well. Again, experiment. Windscreens can cut down the high end of the audio spectrum—the place where treble lives—so only use them if you need to, and you may have to adjust the high end a bit in post.

You (or your sound person) should bring some headphones and plug them into the camera to monitor the sound. Do a check to make sure it's not too quiet or so loud that it's distorted. Adjust the microphone distance until it seems right.

On every set before you start, shoot a little test video and play it back, monitoring on headphones. The image should look and sound good. If you hear a buzz on the tape when you play it back, try running the camera from battery power. That should fix it. This is another reason to keep extra batteries on hand. Again, you should bring a battery charger and charge the spare while you shoot. Also make sure there are no fluorescent lights on. They tend to add buzz.

There is probably a switch called attenuation on your camera. This turns down the sensitivity of the microphone by a set number of decibels. You can use this when recording in very loud environments (such as rock bands). But remember to turn it back for your next normal volume scene. For more information, see $30 Film School, Second Edition.

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