6 audio recording tips for DIY filmmakers

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The film is a visual medium; many who are starting out as visually-minded photographers or directors. For us, sometimes audio quality becomes an afterthought.

Good sound sets the mood, and it has less to do with the cool sound effects and the cinematic score than you might think. Just like in photography, you want to capture the essence of the subject in its entirety.

If you can accomplish this, the possibilities in post-production become so much greater. Here are some things to think about for your next project.

1. Choose the right person for the job

A man checking his audio levels with a boom microphone

Unless you are literally a film crew, you should always choose a dedicated sound person for your shoot. The person using the camera should generally not also be the one using the microphone (unless it is attached to the camera).

Acquiring sound doesn’t have to be an afterthought. In some cases you may be able to just throw a plant mic into the scene, but this won’t always be ideal, especially if your subjects are moving or speaking at varying volumes. You need someone to level up, listening intently as you shoot.

2. Use the right equipment

A man holding up several pieces of sound equipment

There are so many different types of microphones. The good news: Microphones for filmmaking generally fall into one of two categories, which makes things a lot simpler.

Shotgun pickups

With a shotgun mic, the conflict zone is the length protruding outward immediately from the tip. A shotgun microphone is really good at capturing ambient sound in its area, with any atmosphere and disturbances outside that area falling.

In a stereotypical setting, you’ll see shotgun microphones hanging from long pieces of equipment called poles. The boom is one of the most common ways to record sound on a movie set.

For long shots and group scenes, you’ll generally want to choose this type of microphone.

Related: Best Shotgun Mics For DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras

Lavalier pickups

These are your typical interview microphones – the tiny devices strapped to an interviewee’s lapel as they give their spiel. It’s a kind of intimate sound; a well-placed sink will capture all the efforts and all the breaths.

Ties are most useful for dialogue scenes, documentary work, and any type of conversational situation.

Related: Best Budget Lavalier Mics

Other essential audio equipment

Aside from a boom and the microphone itself, you’ll need a few other things:

  • An external audio recorder, such as a Tascam or a Zoom H5

  • XLR cable or whatever you need to connect the mic to your recording device

  • A good pair of headphones

  • So late

Yes, the Camera Slate and the Audio Slate are actually two slightly different things. What exactly is audio slate?

3. Classify your audio correctly and take good audio notes

Three crew members rushing forward before a gunshot

Unlike video, you can’t exactly scroll through your audio recorder and identify shots by thumbnail. If you can’t rate each clip, you’ll be relying on the file name, time, and date acquired.

Instead of getting lost in gravy like this, professional sound specialists plan every shot. Once you start rolling, whisper the scene, film, and take numbers into the microphone or some sort of chat host that is routed to the main stream. You can also keep a written audio diary.

The clap comes into play as soon as the image and sound are recorded; it should be labeled with the exact same information that you just planned your audio with. The clap of the clap acts as a universal audio sync point: crisp, loud, and easily identifiable in post-production.

Slate, objectively, will be the most important for whoever edits the piece. Does perfect timing improve the quality of the end product? Without question.

4. Move the microphone (and yourself too)

If you’ve been assigned a pole task, your job isn’t just to push the button when the manager calls for action.

Not only will you follow the sound as the actors ruminate and rhyme, but you also have to listen and adjust the audio levels, following the lead of your talent. If your recorder supports dual recording, you can capture the scene at two different levels at once, just in case things get loud or quiet unexpectedly.

It is also essential that boom operators avoid immersing the microphone in the frame. Your DP should turn to you frequently, each time the shot changes, for arrow control.

A black folding chair on a white cyc.  A boom microphone listens

The acronym CYA is deeply cherished in the world of cinema. The polite way of saying it: It always pays to cover your buns, just in case of an emergency.

Room tone

Part of the secret to great sound is a seamless fit. You or your editor will no doubt be slicing and dicing to within an inch the life of your footage when it comes time to edit it. Healing every break in continuity is essential if you want to keep your audience locked in.

The tone of the room helps you fill in these gaps, giving you natural transitions between edit points.

Wild lines

Even when you have a choice of multiple takes, there will be times when something is wrong with each one. A phone ringing in the background? A failed line in an otherwise flawless performance? Without a backup plan, you could end up going broke in a truly emotional moment.

“Wild” is a word used to describe any sound that does not have a picture to accompany it. The wild lines are nothing more than a recitation of the script with the mic tuned in, without the camera. You can stitch these wild clips together in your project, just like you can with native sync ripped from other clips.

Try to catch your actors right after shooting the scene, while they are still feeling it. If your actors are rehearsing on set, you might even be able to record those sessions. Sometimes you will be able to extract a really impressive part of your talent, completely unofficially.

ADR

Sometimes even the best laid wild lines just don’t cut it. What to do then?

Automated dialogue replacement, which essentially means getting your actors to dub their lines after the fact, should be considered a last resort. It’s better than nothing, but we always advise you to give your talent another dimension on the day of the shoot.

For short sentences and even individual words, a seasoned editor can do a lot with ADR. Dubbing over entire lines and shots, however, can be extremely difficult.

6. Post-production is your friend

A sound engineer editing a project on a laptop

Things like L-cuts and J-cuts move the seam between two clips. When the sound and picture “cuts” occur simultaneously, your audience is much more likely to notice it.

If you are a budding sound engineer, chances are you are already way too excited to start creating the soundscape of the room and adding sound effects (SFX). If you can see it onscreen, you should feel it in the final mix.

Equalization (EQ) is a kind of color correction for sound. You can selectively adjust different frequencies, removing hums, hums, and weird tones that might have gone unnoticed on the set. The equalizer can also be used to create the feel of different effects, such as changing an actor’s performance to sound as if they are underwater.

Besides the equalizer, there are also tons of other audio effects to use in this regard, such as reverb and panning.

Related: How To Cut Your First Assembly In Premiere

Sound solid: all the drama, none of the pain

Getting it right on the set doesn’t have to be a never-ending chore. Once you’ve gotten into the groove of what proper sound regimen entails, these habits will become second nature. Keep these audio recording tips in mind for your next project.

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