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Getting Better Production Audio is Easier Than You Think

05.15.12 @ 8:24PM Tags : , ,

Audio is the bane of every low-budget and independent filmmaker’s existence. It’s the one thing most filmmakers have the least amount of experience with, but also the least of amount of time to deal with properly. If you want the best possible audio on set, it takes just as much work as getting a good image. Since this is a visual medium, there’s no question the moving images should be the best they can be, but often the quality of the audio matters more than the quality of the video. For anyone starting out, here’s a quick video and then some simple tips about getting better production audio.

Production Dialogue – Microphone Placement

It’s always a good idea to get the microphone as close as humanly possible to the mouth of speaker. This may seem like common sense, but all too often the boom operator and the camera operator are not in communication and you end up with a microphone that could be much, much closer to the actors and still out of frame (this is what boom operators mean when they are asking for a frame line). Here are some tips for getting the best production audio possible:


  1. Work on the problem areas for the space you’re in. Use sound blankets (or any type of heavy cloth material) in front of surfaces that tend to reflect a lot of sound. For example, windows are usually the worst offender in terms of sound pollution, so covering them will help tremendously.
  2. Always boom away from windows and other noise pollution when you can.
  3. Unplug any unnecessary devices that could cause issues, for example, refrigerators.
  4. Develop a strategy for where you’ll stand if you’re operating the boom. Find the closest position possible to the actors, and it will limit your strain and help keep the boom steady, not to mention help get the microphone closer to the actors.
  5. Going from above is usually preferable, but if you don’t have a choice, booming from underneath the actors might help you get closer.
  6. Whenever you’re recording anything without a mixer, record the levels as high as possible before clipping. This ensures that your levels will not have to be brought up in post, which tends to increase noise greatly.

Audio is one of the few places where corners can’t be cut. Bad sound can ruin an otherwise brilliant film, so if you don’t have the experience already or the time to learn the skill properly, try to find or hire someone who does. The audience may not notice, but that’s really the goal in the end, to keep them focused on the story and not the production values.

For some other audio tips, check out the audio chapter in the DSLR Cinematography Guide, and this guide to audio post-production using Premiere.

[via Frank Glencairn & ProVideo Coalition]

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  • Luke Neumann on 05.15.12 @ 8:42PM

    Nice post. If I have a static shot (Interviews or some dialogue scenes) I will even get my shotgun mic in frame, take a reference pic of the background and then mask it out in post.

    • That’s interesting, I’ve never seen anyone do that but it’s a good idea if nothing is moving – pretty simple to remove later.

      • Luke Neumann on 05.15.12 @ 8:47PM

        Thanks. Yeah, I try to do it as often as I can. Like you said, video is first on my mind, but if I had already planned on a static shot, I will do this for sure. I said take a reference pic but video is a little better (subtle motion/noise helps the effect).

        • seth.iamfilms on 05.15.12 @ 11:15PM

          That seems a bit insane to me to go through the process of cropping out the mic. Especially when in the example above you could have had it basically touching your head and at a better angle to cut out background noise etc. Also when doing interviews it’s one of the few times you have a chance to set up well, and get great audio. Why not just do it on the front end and not have to do that in post??

          • cropping out a mic in a static shot with nothing moving in the background would take about 3 seconds, if it means getting better audio its completely worth minimal post time. Will consider trying it for an upcoming corporate, although sometimes my audio guy thinks getting too close with the mic isnt such a good thing and can sound “boomy”, his words, not mine

          • Luke Neumann on 05.16.12 @ 2:53AM

            It wasn’t so much about that example, just the concept.

            I use it a lot in medium shots when it’s hard to get the mic close. For instance, if you were shooting an interview in 4K (Scarlet let’s say), you would shoot the interview at a wider angle and use the extra resolution to crop (essentially giving you a cut away angle). When you’re working with a wider shot it’s a lot harder to get good audio without turning up the gain. So in a situation like that I would use this technique.

            Obviously if you can get the mic close enough without having to do this you would want to but I have run into several situations where it came in really handy.

          • @Peter: The “boomyness” your audio guy is referring is a result of the proximity effect that occurs with dynamic microphones (condenser mics dont exhibit this behavior). If you are using a dynamic microphone the closer you get to the mouth, or audio source, the more your are going to hear the lower frequencies of the audio spectrum giving you a boomy sound at some point, so yeah one should keep that in mind you dont want to get too close :)

          • @carlos

            All directional mics exhibit proximity effect, the electrovoice variable-d dynamics are the only directional mics I’m aware of that compensate. The only time this should be an issue with a fish pole mounted mic is the extreme close up and especially shots where framing means the mic is at the talents chest height (2 problems now since the chest area is naturally more boomy).

          • The extent to which a condenser microphone is affected by the proximity effect is extremely minimal when compared to dynamic microphones, unless the mic is in your mouth you should be fine. With a dynamic microphone, as you said the more of a uni-directional polar pattern it has, the more prevalent the effect of lower frequencies boosting will be in terms of the proximity of the mic in relation to the audio source. those being polar patterns being cardioid, super cardioid, and hyper cardioid. But all mics will exhibit it to some extent im just saying in these situations those are the ones to look out for.

      • Lliam Worthington on 05.17.12 @ 12:41AM

        Ha! Never thought of or seen that. Excellent idea where it suits. Cheers Luke.

        Joe, really enjoying your blogs.

        Cheers

        Lliam

    • Another great idea very similar to this is to make sure you have a few seconds of silence with your subject in place. This way you have a reference shot of the static room noise as well. For two reasons.

      First you can use this as environment noise should you have to cut something out of the audio such as off editing the dialog of the subject, screen noises, or generally distracting sounds.

      The second is sometimes you end up having to shoot in an environment that has some sort of sustained noise. A floro light, electrical/signal noise, an AC, rain… etc. using the moment of silence as a noise profile generally you can use this to effectively isolate the background issues and remove them all together while preserving the talent’s voice. Most high-end audio editing programs have a way to capture a noise profile and use it to remove sustained noise like this.

      Basically the same as Luke did with the reference image except with audio.

  • For anyone wanting more of the above, I just finished watching a pretty good training DVD on production sound that can be found here:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00194G1KY

    It’s a bit dated and doesn’t touch on the most recent DSLR workflows, etc, but most filmmakers know that well at this point. This covers fundamentals of mic selection, placement, boom technique, editing dialog, room tone, etc. Worthwhile stuff.

  • This is a good tip but only for a static background….

  • Rev. Benjamin on 05.16.12 @ 11:23AM

    This thread… it is a silly place.

  • john jeffreys on 05.16.12 @ 11:29AM

    It would be much easier for us to learn if cameras didin’t have such shitty built in audio. I would gladly accept a camera that is a pound or two heavier because it has a built in field recorder/zoom h4n type of thing that syncs automatically with the image

    • there are plenty of those cameras, actually every camera meant for video does that.

      • Peter kelly on 05.16.12 @ 3:17PM

        Ah, not with the quality as a zoom or something similar though,

        • john jeffreys on 05.16.12 @ 4:56PM

          Why dont they make it though? Instead of having the pain of dual system sound and dealing with elitist sound recordists who give you attitude, why cant a camera have sound quality as good as its image quality and all you do is plug in a boom mic to it? Again, I do not care about power draw, size, or weight. I might just go ahead and patent this

          • Many do. You just don’t use them.

            Sony EFP cameras have XLR inputs and record excellent sound, just like they have for the last 25+ years. No need to re-invent the wheel 8-0

          • john jeffreys on 05.16.12 @ 6:04PM

            ew, sony look
            ew, tiny sensor size
            ew, overpriced shoulder mounted old man videographer camera

            im living in a post-dslr world, and i have post-dslr expectations

          • Super 35 is a tiny sensor size ???

          • john jeffreys on 05.17.12 @ 2:58AM

            my comment went out to the majority of ENG style cameras that you references being tiny CCD sensors and are super expensive from the dinosaur age.

            super 35 is fine. but super 35 camcorders with good audio/xlr outputs are still rare. i can count them on my hand. fs100/fs700, c300, c500, f3 etc and none of those are priced in the indie range

          • @john every camera you mentioned is in the indie range, maybe not the no budget range, but definitely indie.

        • The Zoom is a low end recorder.

    • The FS100 has dual xlr inputs..plug in a wireless lav/high quality condenser mic and youve got great quality internal audio.

    • It is precisely the fact that cameras have crappy built in audio that gives filmmakers the necessity to learn good audio recording principles and technique.

      Even if good audio was built into cameras, you’d still have to use second system sound to achieve consistent quality audio. Camera placement is key to the kind of ambient and acoustic qualities you receive from your audio. The further the placement your audio recorder is from your subject, the more you allow the characteristics of your environment to affect the type of sound you receive. Thus second system sound will always be essential on set in order to allow for flexible camera movement as well as high quality production sound.

  • The big mistake rookie do is use a shotgun microphone indoors, use small cardioid microphones then you wont get echo, shotguns accept sounds from the front and back that creates echo in a small space

    • Depends on your room’s acoustic profile, but in many, you are right. I do, however, often have to use a shotgun indoors to get the proper sound. Rules are meant to be broken though – you just have to use your ears to listen to what sounds better.

      In the case of the video posted in this article, the shotgun microphone sounded better than the cardioid.

  • I feel compelled to add (in a bit of corporate blowing of one’s own horn) that the recognized deficiencies in the audio section of the Canon 5D 7D 60D series can be largely remedied by using an audio balun (balancing transformer) that has an XLR connector on one end and a 3.5mm mini plug on the other end of its 18″ cord. Users can thus directly connect a high-performance mike like a Beyer or Sennheiser directly to the DSLR camera jack with (importantly) a balanced signal facilitated by the miniature balun transformer circuitry contained within the XLR shell. The Model PA911 Audio Camera Balun is available from Energy Transformation Systems, Inc. (www.etslan.com) .

  • I’m going to invent 4K audio that records at 1 gigabyte per second to ensure maximum quality.

  • Joe, can you explain more about the PA911 and why it’s necessary.
    Is it only necessary for long cable runs between mic and camera ?

    • Yes, the practical difference between balanced and unbalanced audio tends to show in longer cable runs. Any RF interference (and it can come from standard AC wiring) will produce hum, buzz or other kind of noise that will make audio useless. A long balanced cable run will be rather immune to such interference. If the little balanced-unbalanced DI box is close enough to the camera, the quality of audio will be preserved.

  • Did anyone else notice that in the Vimeo comments that the creator lets us know which mic it is? I was wondering why a shotgun sounded so dang good indoors.

  • Whoa…that guy was one of my Directing class instructors in college. Awesome.