Monday, 8 September 2014

Helpful Hints for Self-Shooting Sound

Those of us who have been in this industry for a while remember when location shooting involved a two or three man crew, with plenty of equipment and the time to use it properly. Sadly, the world has changed and now this sort of thing is more often the domain of the lone researcher with a camcorder and a few sound bits.

I could rant about this and say it's a ridiculous thing to do, but sadly it seems to be the rule rather than the exception these days, so perhaps a few helpful hints might be useful? I wrote the following a while ago as part of a set of presentations for ITV production teams who might be self-shooting. Feel free to make use of any of it in your own shooting workflow.

Sound acquisition on location: A few tips for the best results

Tip #1: Hire an experienced sound recordist with appropriate equipment.

As a recordist, I have to suggest that first. It will cost you more to begin with, but your results will be immeasurably better from the start. And your editors will love you.

But you haven’t got the budget for that, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. You have to make do with what you have, and more often than not I suspect you’re on your own. So here’s a few suggestions to help both you and your workflow.

For this, I’ll assume you have a kit with at least a boom mic and pole, a radio mic and a set of headphones. Also that you have cabling to connect it all, and you’re connecting to the camera via two three-pin XLRs.

First thing: Get yourself familiar with how the bits connect together. Don’t wait until you’re about to enter battle!

Boom mic on pole, XLR cable to camera. Phantom power on if needed! Set input gain to “mic”.

Radio mic into transmitter, receiver into camera. Don’t mix the two up and wonder why it doesn’t work! Set input gain to “mic” or “line” depending on the output level of the receiver. Only one will look right; the other will either be massively loud or completely inaudible.

Headphones into headphone socket. And turn them up.

When you’ve done it a few times, it will become easier! The better you know your equipment, the better the results.

Hopefully you have now plugged it all up, and can hear something coming back on the headphones.

Second thing: If you do this, I GUARANTEE your sound will be improved.

You must LISTEN to what is coming in on your boom/radio and DECIDE if it’s good.

How do you know if it’s good? You need to get an idea of what “good” sounds like. Try recording yourself  with both the boom and the radio and then listening back. This is a good habit to develop at the start of each day to make sure your equipment is working; just because you can hear sound through your cans does NOT necessarily mean it’s being recorded ok! The boom should be no further than 18 inches from your mouth, and pointing at it. The radio should be clipped centre chest, no lower than nipple-height. Play both back , and listen how close they sound compared to the background noise. You should hear a cleaner, more direct sound on the radio mic, but the boom should sound more “natural”. THAT sound quality is what you’re aiming for when you start shooting, and you must always listen for any problems, both during recording and playback. Check particularly for a solid clean signal with no electrical noise or hums, which would normally indicate faulty hardware. There should be no excessive hiss or distortion if the recording levels are right. Which leads us to…

Third thing: Recording levels! There is an optimum level that you must record at; if you go below this you will get hiss or other noise, if you go above you will be in danger of distortion. Scales differ between cameras, but most have “0” at the top, with minus numbers below, sometimes with a mark at around “-20”. YOU DO NOT WANT TO GO ANYWHERE NEAR THE TOP OF THE SCALE! Aim for no more than around -10 for normal speech. If in doubt, err on the side of caution: a little noise is easier to fix than a distorted signal. To make the editor’s life easier, try and be as consistent as possible. Not always easy! Again, check the playback to make sure it sounds ok. If you hear anything wrong, you must mention it at the time when you’ve got a chance at fixing it. Don’t wait for the editor to find it!

Most camera have an auto level option. This seems like a useful thing, and indeed it will prevent you coming back with a distorted recording, but bear in mind that the auto level is not intelligent! If your interviewee stops talking, it will try and bring the background noise up to match his speech level, which will sound very unnatural.  This may however give you a useable sound which you might not get with manual level; it MAY for example be safer to use it if you’re on a top mic.

Nobody said sound was easy. So you have everything connected and working, and you’ve checked levels and playback. Now we move to where to stick things…

Fourth thing: Do you use the boom or the radio? You should have noticed how different they sound, so how so you decide which to use? Often the editor would like to have both available, so the safest choice is to put boom on one track and radio on the other. Seems like cheating, but it’s much safer for the editor to make the choice back in his nice calm suite where he can hear how it all fits together. Be VERY careful about committing to one or the other on location!

Booms sound more “natural” than radio mics; they match more what your ears hear. They MUST be close to the mouth (no more than 2 feet away) and pointing at it for best results. They are defeated by distance, loud background sound levels and by echoey/reverberant rooms. If outdoors they MUST have adequate wind protection, and they must be held carefully to prevent handling noise.

Radio mics sound more “focused” than booms; they reject background noise  and reverberation better, but can sound too clean on their own. They should ideally be mounted between mid-chest and neck. They are very vulnerable to wind noise outdoors, and to clothing noise at all times. Decide at the start if you really need to conceal them; this is a real black art and can be very hit and miss. If you have to do it; put them as near the surface as you can, and secure the clothing around them to prevent it moving. You CAN’T bury them under a coat and expect to get good results. Again, LISTEN very carefully to your results; if the mic sounds woolly and indistinct, or if it has severe clothing noise you MUST be in a position to hear it, and to try a different approach. Unfortunately there is no “one size fits all” approach to radio mic concealment.

Always ask yourself: Do I REALLY need to conceal them?.....

Fifth thing: LISTEN to your location!

When you go into the place where you’re planning to shoot, stop a moment and listen. What can you hear? Is it appropriate to what you will see? If not, can you control it or use it? A busy road next to your location will be noisy and you can’t stop it, but if you see it in shot your brain accepts it and it becomes more acceptable. If it’s still too loud when you listen through headphones then can you change the location? Remember as you listen the radio mic will probably sound better here.  (A good tip is to listen without looking at the lips of the talent; if you can still understand them this way then the listener who IS looking will have a reasonable chance.)

If you’re indoors, the sounds are more subtle. Listen for things like heating noise, fridges and fans. Turn them off if you can (remembering to turn them on again after!). Any noise which changes or goes across an edit will leap out later.

In either case, when you cut everything together, you’ll still have things which don’t quite sound right. Which takes us finally to…

Sixth thing: How to help your editor!

Good sound doesn’t just stop at recording the on-screen talent. If you’re recording in different locations at different times, your backgrounds will change whatever you do. To make your edits work, you need “clean” backgrounds to smooth over the edits. So, when you finish shooting in a location, take a few moments to record just the background sound. Even if it doesn’t sound like much, record 30 seconds of it with nobody speaking or moving around. The editor can then lay this over any edits which jump out at you because the background was a little different. Don’t forget to log these so they can be found easily!

All the above is just a start, but it’s a step in the right direction. It might sound a lot of hard work. Which indeed it is. But if you take the time to acquire good sound, and to understand why and how it’s done, it will improve your end product immeasurably.

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