Paradoxically, a particularly good sound is usually recognized by the fact that it is not perceived as particularly good. That is, the voices, the ambient sounds and, if applicable, the sound effects should sound as if you were live on location. Many emotions are transmitted through sounds, but only if they sound absolutely real. Thus, a good sound can draw the viewer deeper into the action, captivate him and make him forget that he is ‘only’ looking at a screen. Poor sound quality, on the other hand, is a constant reminder that what is being seen is not ‘real’. It thus distracts from the action or what is happening. This can frustrate and cause the viewer to tune out.
What to consider when buying a microphone has already been summarized here. This article describes the most important points to consider as a videographer when recording sound. In particular, it explains how to position and set up a microphone. At the end of the article, the basics of editing the sound and sound design are also explained.
Single system or dual system
Single-system sound recording
Single system means that you use a microphone that is connected directly to the camera. I.e. microphone and camera are one system, no additional recording device is used. This variant has the advantage that the sound is recorded directly in sync with the image and does not have to be synchronized later. In addition, one saves (e.g. on journeys) naturally the place for an additional device. Single system is therefore a simple variant that is less susceptible to interference. However, not all microphones can be connected to a DSRL or system camera without further ado. In the case of XLR microphones, this requires an adapter or pre-amp that has such a connection and, if necessary, supplies the microphone with power. Single-system audio recording is the usual choice of solo videographers.
Positioning yourself correctly in the room as a cameraman / videographer with the microphone
When recording with a directional microphone plugged in, the camera’s line of sight is also the microphone’s directional angle. So as a videographer, you have to think about your positioning not only in terms of a coherent image, but also in terms of background noise.
Thinking ahead is especially important in situations where the focus of attention can change quickly. A directional microphone on the camera (if the distance is not too great) captures the speaker’s voice well, but also additional atmospheric noises in the background. This should always be kept in mind so as not to record the background noise too loudly. If the person speaking is standing in front of a busy street, for example, you should take care not to point the camera and directional microphone towards the street if possible. If you position yourself so that you are filming away from the street, the voice will be much clearer and more intelligible.
The same is true for indoor interview situations. As a cameraman, it’s usually hard to influence the positioning of everyone being filmed in dynamic situations. However, you can always decide how to position yourself. Disturbing noise sources behind a speaking person indoors can be, for example, pets, air conditioners, refrigerators or open windows.
Positioning the microphone correctly indoors
As mentioned above, you should always consider possible interfering background noise when aligning the microphone. In indoor rooms, the possible reverberation is also an important issue. To test whether there is an echo at a certain place in the room, one should do a clapping test. A place where a clear echo is perceived in response to a clap is not suitable for positioning the interview partner. If a strong echo cannot be avoided due to the nature of the room, you can also set up a microphone stand on the left and right, for example, and spread a blanket across it to dampen it. The blankets (especially thick wool blankets) absorb the sound audibly and thus increase the sound quality.
Dual system sound recording
With dual-system recording, you use a separate recording device for the sound and therefore usually need a second person. Such a recording device offers more connection options and thus flexibility and (if it is a good recording device) better sound quality than the camera. Since the sound recorder is not tied to the camera, the sound man/woman also has more freedom of movement. However, this freedom can also mean that the person is not in position at the exact moment when the cameraman wants to capture something. Especially at events, this can quickly become a disadvantage.
It is therefore advisable to always mount an additional lapel microphone on the camera, even when using an external recording device. This way you are protected.
If you are an event videographer, you need to think carefully about which of the two solutions you choose. Depending on the event, it can be very advantageous if a second person operates a separate recording device. For example, if you want to film show elements on a stage at a sufficient distance, but record the sound at close range. In such a case, it can be very inconvenient to run a cable through the audience.
Position lavalier microphone
If the lavalier microphone is to be hidden, there are a lot of tricks – depending on the clothes. For example, you can stick it directly to your body with a patch under your clothes. In the case of a suit, it is also possible to position it inside the tie knot. In doing so, it should point downwards. This way the sound is not ‘blocked’ by the tie knot. However, when attaching a lavalier microphone to the body or clothing, it is always crucial that the outfit does not develop too much noise, even when moving. Many jackets, especially leather jackets produce creaking noises and are often very unsuitable in this case. Therefore, always be sure to test the sound in detail after fitting.
In addition, you have so also a simple wind protection during outdoor shoots. To make sure that there is no noise during movements, you should definitely perform an extensive sound check. Noise-canceling headphones are particularly suitable for this purpose in order to better detect noise and crackling.
Keeping an eye on the surroundings, recognizing possible sources of interference
In addition to checking the current ambient noise, you should also consider what future noises might occur during the shoot. For example, if you are shooting near an airport or close to railroad tracks, it is better to wait for the next landing or the next passing train. Phones and cell phones should be turned off or turned on silent if necessary. All sources of interference that are identified and eliminated before the shoot will save a lot of time and nerves later on and for everyone involved if the film or video shoot does not have to be repeated several times because of them.
Avoid wind noise when positioning the microphone
For outdoor shoots, a windbreak or the ‘dead cat’ should always be present. Here it is particularly important to ensure that its hair does not stand in the picture. If you don’t have a windbreak at hand, you can only try to move the shoot to a windless corner or at least hold the microphone in the direction of the wind, never against it.
As described at the beginning, the sound quality can only be really good if you get close to the sound source. A distance of 20 to 40 centimeters is optimal for positioning the microphone. It is essential to have headphones with you for every shoot and to listen to the recordings throughout. Just as you monitor what you are filming on your screen, you should also monitor the sound throughout. Otherwise, it’s too easy for noise to come into play, and you won’t notice it until you’re editing. This must be avoided at all costs.
Level the sound correctly
The volume level must be checked using the level indicators on the camera or recorder, as well as using headphones. It should always be between -12db and -20db. Some advisors also recommend a range between -6db and -12db, for example. However, if you level the sound to this level, you have hardly any ‘air up’. When setting the recording level, you have to keep in mind that the interviewees do not speak at the same volume all the time. When they are excited or laughing, the volume can go up quite a bit. The same applies to moving recordings. This is because it is hardly possible to position the microphone at the same distance from the sound source at all times. It is important to keep this in mind and to level the sound appropriately for such peripheral areas.
With a leveling of the “normal” sounds to a maximum of -12db, one will still record these loud outliers without directly having a strong overload. Louder recordings will cause distortion that is difficult or impossible to fix afterwards. However, if you set the audio level too low, you will get a bad, noisy sound.
Post-production sound design: immensely important not only for feature films
In feature films, usually only the dialog is recorded and the atmosphere sounds are added in post-production from sound libraries. In videography, sound libraries are used especially often when B-roll is to be dubbed. B-roll is often shot in high frame rates so that it can be slowed down in post-production. However, since some cameras cannot record sound at a frame rate of 120fps, for example, this must be completely designed later. A good compromise is also a sound design that consists of atmosphere sound recordings on location and additional sounds from a database. This makes the overall sound more natural and authentic.
However, if you don’t want to focus on a natural-sounding sound, or don’t want to give the impression that the sound was exactly as it was on location, you can let your creativity run wild. Especially if your approach to videography is more artistic than realistic, you can use sounds that don’t necessarily underline what you’re showing realistically, but still enhance its impact. For example, the sound of an object hitting something or a rapid change in speed is often accompanied by a sound that reinforces the visual impression.
In a feature film or documentary, the sound, if added after the fact, should be very natural. But in many other video clips with a lower demand for realism, it is possible to experiment. The brain is always working to associate even less authentic-sounding sounds directly with what is seen. At least when the movement of the image matches the sound. Especially if there is background music in addition to the sound effects, the lack of realism is compensated by a fuller sound image or sound carpet.
A very good explanation of the basics in sound design can be found in this video:
Synchronize the sound
If you film with several microphones, the sound must be synchronized later. To do this, it helps to clap once at the beginning of each take. It is best to clap once for the number of takes so that there is no risk of confusion between the audio tracks. However, most editing programs also offer an automatic synchronization function.
In Adobe Premiere Pro, for example, you select two audio tracks and look for the item: synchronize in the menu (which opens with the right mouse button). The program then automatically arranges the tracks in sync, which can save a lot of work. Premiere Pro also offers very good sound post-processing tools such as the Parametric Equalizer. This can be used to boost or cut certain frequencies and significantly improve the sound image. For example, if you have noise in low frequencies in the recording, you can easily remove them. Similar to adjusting the contrast and brightness of a picture with sliders, you should also use these tools to optimize the sound image.
More complex programs such as Adobe Audition offer many more possibilities in this direction for a truly optimized soundtrack. Every videographer can only be recommended to work into this as well instead of focusing ‘only’ on the image quality. Good sound may not stand out as much as great pictures, but it adds at least as much to the atmosphere of the video.About the author
Blackfish Films was founded by Oliver Strecker, who works with a close network of videographers, designers and editors to leave no cinematic wish unfulfilled.
In his Bachelor’s degree in English and Media and Communication Studies as well as his Master’s degree in Media Cultural Analysis he focused on film, psychology, media effects and language. Through stations at WDR Düsseldorf, Medienprojekt Wuppertal, Filmwerkstatt Düsseldorf and as project manager of the nationwide film festival “JugendFilmtage” he expanded his film knowledge in theory and practice, which eventually led to the foundation of Blackfish Films.
This blog is all about film, from practical tips on filming to film analysis and technical developments. It is therefore aimed at film viewers, filmmakers and those who want to become one.