Audio: Audio gathering tips

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Hal Robertson | 
Sept. 2010


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Audio: get it right and your project has a professional feel. Get it wrong and the video sounds like every other hard-to-understand video on YouTube.

We all know that audio is an important part of any video production. We always have good intentions, but if you haven't been out for a while or if you get caught up in the heat of the shoot, audio is usually the first segment to suffer. On the plus side, good audio is easy to gather if you remember the fundamentals. This month, we've assembled a short list of best practices, just to jog your memory.





Know Your Recorder

Back in the old days (a year or two ago), the advice here would have been simple: know the ins and outs of your camcorder and how it treats the audio you record. Today, it's a little more complicated. People are shooting video with everything from DSLRs to little Flip cameras - even their phones - and audio is increasingly handled separately through laptops and portable recorders. So, our first bit of advice here is to decide how you will record the audio - whether in-camera or with a separate recorder - and learn how to squeeze the very best recording from the gear you choose. We're not talking about reading the manual here, we mean hook it all up, test the limits and be intimately familiar with all the knobs, buttons, jacks and settings.

Know Your Microphones


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In the same vein, it pays to know the strengths and weaknesses of your available microphone choices. With this information safely tucked away in your brain, it's easy to assess a shoot situation and instinctively know how your microphone will perform. It also makes it easier to choose the correct mic for the job. For instance, in a noisy factory, the noise canceling benefits of a shotgun mic could easily trump any of your other choices. However, a quiet interview might require the intimacy of a lapel mic. If you have the ability, use both. Record the shotgun on one channel and the lapel mic on the other. You can choose the best sound later in post.






Pick the Best Placement

Microphone placement can be tricky. You have to balance visual aesthetics with audio quality. If your mics must be invisible, start with a shotgun mic overhead on a boom pole. If you're new to this technique, you'll be surprised at how close the microphone can be and still stay out of the frame. Lapel mics can be hidden under clothing as long as you're aware of the potential for rubbing noises and the slightly muffled sound. If you have the time, try several different placement options and evaluate the results. Sometimes, the craziest locations work best.

Use a Windscreen

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This tip is simple - if you're shooting outdoors, use a windscreen. It doesn't matter how light the breeze is, your microphones will pick it up and it could ruin an otherwise perfect take. Foam windscreens are useful in light wind conditions but, if you suspect anything other than occasional puffs of wind, invest in one of those big, furry windscreens. They are available for virtually every type of mic and from several different manufacturers. If time or money is tight, improvise one with some fake fur. The sound will be a bit dull, but it takes some serious wind to get through a fur windscreen.






Monitor With Headphones


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In the past, many - if not most - camcorders had a headphone jack. Not so today. The advent of micro-sized tapeless camcorders has all but eliminated this option. If your camera does have one, it may do double-duty as an A/V output jack. Check your menu settings. If there is no headphone jack on the camera, it's possible to monitor using an external recorder. Failing that, several manufacturers make battery-operated mic monitoring mixers for boom operators. Regardless, the point here is that monitoring audio with headphones helps ensure a quality recording. Using headphones, you can catch bad cables, dead batteries and wireless interference before it's a permanent part of your recording.





Grab Some Room Tone

Recording room tone is so easy to do and so easy to forget. Every recording location has a unique ambient characteristic. This is referred to as Room Tone. Before or after you've shot the necessary material at a location, use the same mics and record a minute or two of room tone. You may prefer to record the room tone in stereo or surround sound. It's your choice. Back in post, your room tone recordings will cover those awkward gaps of silence between edit points. You can also use them as fill to recreate the ambience of the location.

Go Natural

When recording sound effects, the tendency is to shove a mic as close to the sound as possible, hit the record button and make some noise. This technique may work well for some projects but, often, your sound effects require a more natural approach. In addition to the close mic approach, try moving the mic away from the source. Start with a couple of feet and record several versions at different distances. Think about the onscreen action. Is the sound coming from the talent's pocket, a table across the room or another room altogether? You can mimic some of these distances in post but why not have the real thing?

Record to Edit

As you're recording, think about how the edit will go later. Leave yourself some silence before and after takes to simplify trimming and matching takes. Get multiple takes of everything - perhaps with different inflection or emphasis. This gives you options during the edit. Keep notes on odd noises that occur during the shoot and, when you hear something that's not easily extracted, do another take. Basically, make sure you record everything you could possibly need later - then record some more for safety.

The Big Picture

Your video project is built from many different elements, not just the scene you're shooting today. Keep this in mind as you record the audio. Once you've settled on a set of production techniques, stick with them throughout the entire process. Consistency between today's shoot and the one you did last week not only makes editing easier, it also adds a professional polish to everything in the production. We're not saying you should keep using techniques that didn't work but, when you identify one that does, make it the standard.

Be Prepared

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The Boy Scouts have this one right. Whether you're shooting on location or in the studio, be prepared for anything that might happen. This means having spares of just about everything. Extra microphones, cables, batteries and even a backup recording method can save the day when Murphy's Law rears it's ugly head. Keep a multi-tool in your bag and some extra gaffer tape too. A simple trash bag can quickly cover you or your gear during an unexpected rain storm. Assess everything that could possibly fail in your recording setup and have a backup plan and equipment available when it does.






Just Go For It

Experience is the best teacher. We're glad you've read this far, and there are always excellent tips and tutorials throughout Videomaker magazine. But, ultimately, you have to go out and record things under a variety of circumstances. Make mental notes as you go, weeding out things that didn't work so well and keeping those that did. Expand your techniques and equipment as you go, stretching yourself a little with every project. At the end of the day, you'll be a better producer and have the kind of knowledge no one can gain from a book or magazine.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.


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