You’ve written an incredible screenplay. Your actors brought the characters to life in unexpected ways. Your cinematographer captured the image through breathtaking compositions and lighting. There is only one hitch—
Sound. Dialogue is garbled, wind and background noise obscures the vocals, levels are all over the place—your masterpiece is ruined. Here are some tips that could help.
For many independent filmmakers audio is the last thing they want to be bothered with, but it will make or break your film. Horrible picture can be passed off as “style” when accompanied by perfect audio, but poorly recorded and mixed audio will make a great picture seem amateurish and poorly-executed.
Here are a few tips on how to record audio that will make your indy short film be polished and professional, even with a micro budget.
Shoot Dual System Sound
HDSLR cameras such as the Canon 7D are inexpensive yet provide amazing picture quality. What they don’t give you is decent sound recording. The attached microphones just are not equipped to give you anything but basic audio. Even if you purchase an external microphone to plug into the auxiliary jack, you will not be able to get proper placement of the microphone. In other words, the mic is simply pointing the same direction as the camera and from the same distance. This does not allow for control over sound recording.
Instead, you should purchase, rent, or borrow an external digital recorder such as the Zoom H4n or the Tascam DR40. You can even acquire equipment that will turn your iPhone or iPad into a field recorder, such as the RØDE iXY microphone to be used with their field recording apps. By using a field recorder, you can control microphone placement and volume.
Use the Proper Accessories
With the Tascam and Zoom field recorders, you can use their internal microphones or connect an external one. Depending on your budget, it is recommended that you use a directional shotgun mic and a boom pole. This allows you to move the mic in close to the actors and focus the recording on one particular source. If a professional boom pole is too expensive, simply affix the mic to a standard broom pole to provide you extended reach.
Other accessories you need to be aware of include headphones, XLR cables, and windscreens for your microphone. Properly assess your recording needs in pre-production and see what you can afford to buy. You can get away with certain cheaper alternatives such as using your phone ear buds in place of studio headphones, for instance. Lavaliere microphones can be a great replacement for boom mics in certain shooting situations, but they also bring about their own set of problems such as power source and inconsistent recording quality, so research the best microphone to do the job that is needed.
Include a Sound Recordist and Boom Operator on Your Crew
While shooting a low-budget film, you may have to depend on friends and family to volunteer to help on the crew. When planning the various jobs, make sure to have top priority for a sound recordist alongside your camera operator. Factors such as the size of your crew and the material being filmed will determine whether or not you need a separate person to hold the boom. Most of the time, an experienced audio person can both record and boom, but a second member of the team is handy even if it’s another crew member doing double duty.
Scout Locations for Audio
During pre-production, have the audio team do a tech scout at each of your locations to listen for any potential problems you may encounter while recording sound during the shoot. For instance, listen for traffic noise, airplanes, trains, air conditioning, nature sounds, or anything else that might be distracting or problematic in editing. By addressing these issues in the planning stage, you will prevent wasted hours of filming and headaches in post production.
Be Aware of Your Levels
In order to record the best quality of sound, the volume needs to be at the highest level possible without being distorted. Distortion tends to start at around zero decibel, and the optimum level is around -12 dB. This can vary somewhat depending on what the sound is—a scream is naturally going to be higher than a whisper (though keep that scream below 0 dB!).
You should also be wary of volume that is recorded too low. Your noise floor is the smallest measurement of sound and it’s where a lot of “garbage noise” exists, so the closer your recording is to that noise floor, the “dirtier” your audio is going to be. Remember that any problems you have recording while on-set need to be fixed in post production, which means that if you have to raise the gain in post in order to hear the actors, you’re also going to increase the background noise.
Be Aware of Mic Placement
If your microphone is too far away from your actor (such as on your camera shooting at a distance), the sound waves from your source take longer to reach the mic, thereby creating an “empty room” feel. It also forces you to increase the gain and pick up more background noise. Place the mic as close to the performer as possible just out of the frame.
Record Room Tone
No matter how careful you are in recording proper levels on each actor for each shot, when you get into the editing room, you’re going to have to do clean-up work, which means you may end up with the background audio at various volumes throughout your edit. To solve this problem, record a minute or two of room tone, or just the background noise with no one speaking at each of your locations. This will provide your sound editor an uninterrupted environment onto which to build the dialogue and sound effects and will make your film sound professional.
Record Camera Audio
Wait, what? Doesn’t this contradict the tip on recording dual system sound? No, because you’re not going to actually use the camera audio in your edit. It will be used for syncing purposes. Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere, as well as programs such as PluralEyes, use audio waves from various sources to automatically sync all the elements, including multiple cameras. However, you must have audio recorded on your footage for this to work, otherwise your editor will be cursing you for having to manually sync every shot. Which brings us to—
Use a Slate and Proper Cadence
The main purpose of the slate is to provide visual information to the editor and to sync sound to picture through use of the clapboard. Even though editing programs may have the ability to match the actual audio waves from numerous files, a clap gives a distinctive sound pattern that makes it easier to sync. And if you end up having to sync manually, it will be a lifesaver as you can visually see when the stick connects with the board and match it with the beginning of the sound of the clap.
As for audio information, you need a camera assistant (or a crew member acting in this capacity) to call out the shot and take numbers. Get in the habit of using proper on-set commands. Your assistant director, who should be running the set, handles this routine:
Be Aware of What Audio Can Be Replaced in Post
Not all locations will give you prime audio recording options, so there will be times when you might have to do Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR, or “looping”), where you bring the actors back during post production to re-record their dialogue by lip syncing to the edited shots. However, this will give you a different sound quality than in your original location. Exteriors and interiors inherently sound dissimilar. Can you get the actors to match their lip movements and emotions exactly? Will the actors be available after the picture is edited? Don’t count on always “fixing it in post,” but rather try to get the cleanest sound on location as possible during principal photography.
Treat Audio with Respect
Finally, as a filmmaker, pay attention to your film’s audio needs as well as the visual ones. Sound design can add a whole other dimension to your final production that complements the cinematography, and approaching it in every stage of production as an important piece of the puzzle will elevate your work. Give it the proper care and attention that you would to lighting, casting, wardrobe, and every other element. Remember that no one notices good sound—it only stands out when it’s done poorly.