IT WON’T BE long after you venture into the world of video production that you’ll realise that getting good audio is something to give more than just a casual nod to. It’s a fact of life that people will notice bad audio before a bad frame or composition, yet for many of us it’s the last thing that’s considered. Spoiler alert: audio is just as important – if not more so – than the moving pictures.
The thing to always remember about audio is that it’s a powerful part of the storytelling process. You don’t have to be shooting a feature film and have multilayered sound effects all happening at once, but in pretty much any video you’ll make there will be audio of some kind. At the most basic level you might use a soundtrack, but even here picking the right tempo and the genre of music can really help to carry the pictures, while the pictures can carry the audio. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Not long into your video career you’ll have to record someone’s voice. It might be a piece to camera (PTC) or it could be yourself doing a Vlog. Either way, this is where you need to start your journey into the wonderful and critically important area of audio recording.
The most important piece of kit with any audio rig is you. Well, your ears in any case. Get used to using them: if something sounds wrong then it probably is. Invest in some decent headphones that cover your ears so that you can block out as much ambient sound as possible. Don’t rely on your phone’s headphones! The latest Sennheiser HD-25 light is a new version of an old classic, and not only are they wonderful but they also feature a design where all of the parts can be replaced if necessary. I’ve had a pair of their original ones for over 20 years now.
If you take your camera, or your smartphone, and take a close look at it, you’ll probably struggle to find the microphone. When you do it will be a massively underwhelming experience, unless you have a penchant for looking at tiny pinholes. These mics, unsurprisingly, are not great. They will pick up noise from the camera, handling noise, lens motors whirring and pretty much anything else within a few metres of the camera. They are not ideal for professional audio work, but I use them to gather ambient audio or to produce a ‘guide’ track for the other audio I record. More about this later.
WHAT SHOULD I BUY?
Usually the first microphone people buy is some kind of ‘top’ microphone, one that can sit in the hot shoe of the camera and plug into the side of your camera with a 3.5mm headphone style cable.
Whilst this will be infinitely better than a built-in mic it’s not always the most suitable arrangement: it might be able to deliver decent ambient sound but it’s not so great if you’re recording an interview. A bit like with an on-camera flash, it’s a very roughand-ready approach. Things will improve if you can get an extension cable and take the mic off the camera and put it as close to the subject as possible. The closer the mic, the better the sound will be.
When you see pictures of filmmaking teams working with boom poles the idea is that the pole will allow the sound recordist to get a mic as close to the source as possible without being in the frame. If you’re a self-shooter this can be tricky of course: you can rest the pole in a stand perhaps, while smaller mics won’t be so heavy to carry, and it is possible to work this way. Heck, I even used a broom handle and a load of gaffer-tape to get a boom pole positioned close to my interviewee on one memorable occasion, after all my audio kit got stranded somewhere between San Francisco and Heathrow.
Most ‘boom’ or shotgun mics have a directional pick-up pattern, which is the area where the mic is most sensitive to noise. With a shotgun it’s from the front and usually a little to the sides. This is why it’s used in drama – the mic can be ‘pointed’ at the source and it will largely ignore the sound coming from behind or the sides.
Consider placing the mic into some sort of cradle to dampen handling noise. The best known company for these accessories is Rycote, and their products come in a variety of flavours. Even if you’re just popping the mic on top of the camera I’d make sure it was in a suspension, because otherwise cable rattle and handling noise can really become an issue.
Entry level top mics tend to not be as directional as the more professional versions. Here you really need to think about your investment. A good shotgun mic can be expensive, but it can save your skin. The Sennheiser MKE600, for example, is a cracking mic, and it’s powered by an AA battery. Wait, power? Yes! Some mics feature a capsule that needs an electrical charge to work, hence the battery.
If you’re plugging a mic into the camera, the chances are it will be via a 3.5mm headphone socket. This is ‘ok’ but it won’t carry
the power needed for higher end models. The MKE600 has the power system built in but take the model I use – the Sennheiser 8060 – and this requires what’s called ‘phantom power,’ which involves electrical current being sent down the connection to the mic.
This is where you need to look at the cables you use. For very short connections the 3.5mm socket is ok. It’s not massively strong though and it could also pick up electrical interference and ‘noise’, especially if you’re taking the mic off the camera and are using an extension cable and boom pole. The more cable you have the more chance of crackle and noise on the line.
This is why professional audio usually revolves around XLR connections. Not only do they ‘lock’ securely in place but they also offer a balanced connection. They can be used over long distances with less chance of noise ruining the signal and they are also a lot more robust. You can get XLR to 3.5mm adapters, of course, so you might want to pop one of those into your camera. A top tip is to use the adapter cable length and to feed it through the shoulder strap lugs on your camera to create a little loop which gives you a quick connect, but this arrangement also provides some tension release should someone give the cable a tug.
When you’re using a boom mic, the direction of up or down can
be important too, so you’ll need to use your ears here. Plug in the headphones and listen to how the sound changes. Do you put the mic pointing up towards the ceiling, or do you hold it over the subject and point it downwards? This is all about acoustics and how the sound bounces off walls and floors. You will need to experiment to get the best position and sound, and remember that you don’t want the boom itself to be in shot.
WATCH OUT FOR WIND
If you’re shooting outdoors wind can become a huge issue, but it’s no match for a properly cradled mic. The classic ‘dead cat,’ so beloved of audio specialists, acts as a wind shield, the ‘fur’ trapping the wind and dissipating it to save it buffeting the microphone. An alternative if wind conditions are more moderate is a ‘blimp,’ which essentially is a plastic shield that’s acoustically transparent.
As well as a shotgun mic, another common mic to own is a Lavaliere, or tieclip mic. As with any accessory there is a remarkable variance in price for these. The really cheap ones are terrible, not much better than the camera’s built-in mic. They will often come as a wired version, with the wireless systems costing more.
Wireless mics are much more convenient for the obvious reason that there are no trailing cables to worry about but then you can face issues of interference and them not working. Wired are safer in this respect but not as versatile, and you need to decide what you’re likely to need in advance.
I always carry a wired mic with me just in case, but that said there is a wide range of wireless mics to choose from. A great entry level kit would be the Sennheiser XSWD system and these come with a transmitter -the thing the mic plugs into – and a receiver, which sits close to the camera to pick up the signal. These don’t need a radio licence to use and they’re very much plug and play, while the mic capsule offers decent quality. There’s another chance to win one of these neat systems in this month’s issue.
The pick-up pattern of most lavaliere mics is more omni-directional, so they will pick up audio from all sides. For this reason you need to make sure the mic is as close as possible to the source. If you don’t mind the mic being in shot – and they’re tiny and not intrusive at all – you can push the cable up a jacket
or shirt and clip it on high up, taking care that nothing will knock it, since this will cause annoying interference.
I’m a bit OCD with hiding mics, however, and I like them out of shot, but you don’t want to end up mounting it too low down. If the subject is talking to their left, put it on their left side, and vice versa. Another way to hide a lapel microphone is to attach it by one of Rycote’s ‘undercovers,’ which are basically little sticky pads that you can even stick to skin: I always joke with my clients that I’m taking their ECG!
As you look up the swathe of lapel mics you’ll notice that the prices reflect not only the build quality but such things as the transmission range and battery life. The Sennheiser AVX system is the next step from the XSWD kits, but essentially they all do the same thing, only better. Beyond here you’re looking at Sennheiser’s G4 system, the industry standard for radio mics, but you’ll need a licence to work with these.
There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all solution with mics, just as there isn’t a single lens that can handle every situation. I would recommend a good shotgun mic and a wireless mic kit to get started.
You can be creative too. If you take the wireless transmitter and hook it to your shotgun mic and then use some tape to stick them together you’ll have a wireless boom, which can be hidden in something out of shot or used when a cable isn’t long enough to get the mic where it needs to go.
Once you’re hooked up and have decided on your approach you need to make sure that the levels you record at are not ‘peaking’. This means turning on the audio meters on your camera and watching how high they bounce. Lots of modern cameras offer auto levels but what this does is to put up the gain (sensitivity) when it hears silence and to drop it when it hears noise, so it’s a bit like auto exposure and you can’t always control it. For most of the time it’s not much use but if it’s just the camera recording a guide track then you’ll be ok.
If you can, manually adjust the levels when the mic is in place close to the subject. Ask the person to talk and the chances are that you’ll find no matter how well you set this level as soon as the camera is rolling their voice will be louder than in rehearsal.
Ideally the level should be set so that the incoming sound is just hitting the yellow or, if you don’t have the colours on the meter, not letting it hit the very end. You’ll need to leave ‘head room’ in there for unexpected rises in level, and it is usually better to be
under recording than over because it’s almost impossible to recover the distortion that arises when sound peaks.
The ultimate professional way of recording audio is to do it separately. Again there’s a lot of tools and kit out there to do this. Olympus, for example, produces the LS-P4 recorder, which is designed to sit snugly in the hot shoe of a compatible camera such as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, from where it can record the audio to a separate file away from the camera and this can later be married to the visuals.
I use a Sound Devices Mix Pre-6 and this is a brilliant way to record from multiple sources and I can use it as a USB interface on a computer. Their newest version of this product records what is essentially ‘Raw’ audio, and even when it’s too high it’s still possible for the levels to be pulled down to a usable level. This will cost more but it’s brand new tech and can really save your work if you have a disaster.
It’s even possible to work with your phone and to use the voice recorder on this and, as long as you get it close enough to your subject, it’s still better than built in mics. There are also mics that will plug directly into your smartphone so you can use it as a portable recorder and just hide it in the pocket of your subject. There are also standalone mic-recording devices, such as the Sennheiser Memory Mic, which is specifically designed for smartphone use and this will allow you to record high quality audio from a great distance. This is a proper high quality lavaliere mic but within a recorder, and this can sync back to your phone too. Set the mic to record and, when you are done, it matches the audio to the pictures like magic through the app on the phone. However, the device doesn’t work with a mirrorless or DSLR camera.
The trade-off here is that you will have to synchronise the audio to the pictures. This is why earlier I suggested using the on-board camera mic to record an ambient audio track, so you can drop the files into your edit software and use both tracks to sync the audio and pictures together. Most editing software such as Premiere and Final Cut will have built in sync capabilities, or you could work with something specialist like PluralEyes, which will take and meticulously match all your audio files and spit them back into the edit as new files.
Back in the day this is why clapperboards were used: the ‘clap’ is a sharp sound used to sync audio and video. You can do your own clap with your hands as well, but clap in front of the camera so that it can be seen. It will also serve as a marker between takes, so you’ll know when the shot starts. Manual syncing is really not that difficult though and it’s a skill well worth learning.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with sound as you become more confident with this new medium. Use it to paint the scene. It can be superbly complicated with many layers or a simple music soundtrack that just adds to the fabric of your story. Whichever way you go, make sure it sounds professional and don’t let down your beautiful visuals with second rate audio
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