Audio is fifty percent of the product and yet is one of the least appreciated and most misunderstood aspects of the film and video industry. — Lucas Longacre
You may have read my previous article where I began my professional career in NYC by asking a Cinematographer how I could make money starting out in the industry and was told “there’s a millions shooters in town and they all need a good audio tech.” That was some of the best advice I ever received. Not only did working as a location sound recordist put money in my wallet, it connected me to various production managers, camera ops, grips, gaffers and HMUA’s that proved invaluable when, a few years later, I started my own production company. After the financial crisis hit in 2009, budgets were cut, and I had to adapt my approach to gathering media. No longer could I afford to hire a camera operator, sound recordist, gaffer and production assistant. Now it was all on my shoulders. Luckily, the discipline of sound gave me an enduring appreciation for good quality audio capturing that allowed me to flourish as a one-man-band. Here are the lessons I learned on the job.
First, get a decent quality digital audio recorder. There are so many affordable options these days. The trusty Zoom H6N has been a staple in the prosumer market for years for a reason; it’s reliable. And it takes a beating. I have been using a Tascam 4 channel recorder because I like the design. I can attach it to a tripod for a studio shoot or let it dangle from my hip in the field. I also prefer the dials for leveling; I have more control than a simple digital button. I’ve had on my wish list the Sound Devices MixPre-6 II Recorder/Mixer for sometime now; not only is it a top-of-the-line field recorder but it can also be used to record as a home studio, plugging with USB directly into the computer.
It may seem a pain to have an extra device just for audio when most cameras have onboard mics and lay down their own audio tracks, but this small investment can save you big headaches. Some of the higher end cameras like Sony FS9, Canon C300, URSA Mini all have XLR inputs (or shoe-mounts that allow for XLR inputs) which you should definitely take advantage of, but I still recommend either running through a digital mixer/recorder before sending to a camera or at least as a backup. Even though the audio quality on those cameras are as good as any recorder, the mixing abilities are limited and awkward to adjust on the fly and I can tell you many stories of returning from the field after a long days shoot only to discover an important clip or two where the audio failed, or worse, there was no audio recorded whatsoever. Always have a backup.
For DSLR’s like Sony A7sII, Canon 5D Mark IV, or Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, the audio quality should only be used for a reference track. Have I used on-board audio from these cameras in my work? Of course. When you work in documentary or news-gathering, all media is good media. However, the audio quality is noticeably worse. Afterall, the input is a mini connection, not XLR. I often send audio from the recorder to the input jack on the camera so the reference audio matches precisely what is being recorded. It makes syncing a lot simpler in post. Even more important, when conducting interviews or even filming broll, the best sound bytes and audio clips invariably occur when you stop rolling. Which brings me to my next tip.
ABR — Always Be Rolling. Audio files are way smaller than video. You can afford to roll audio continuously. My typical workflow when I arrive at a shoot is to setup my mics and audio recorder first. Then I press record before I even mic up the subject. You will probably never use any of that audio, but every now and again, you’ll get an incredibly honest soundbite because your subject didn’t realize the interview had started. The subject will be more relaxed and less rehearsed. I also keep the audio running even after the interview is concluded. Now and again there is a great moment.
What types of microphones should you have in your kit? If you have the money, purchase Lectrosonic Lavs. They are almost indestructible and work in some of the most extreme conditions. I have filmed in the middle of Times Square, a frozen lake in the Yukon and the Amazon jungle. Trust me, they work. But if you don’t have $5 Grand to drop on a couple of microphones, Sennheiser AVX are a great option. They auto-scan to find a clean frequency and are super simple to pair. I prefer these when I shoot one-man-band because the receiver’s are so small and the rechargeable batteries use a universal USB port and the charge lasts a long time. I don’t mind the automatic mic-level control when I am filming by myself because I don’t have to worry about audio clipping but would not recommend these for commercial or theatrical films. You just don’t have control over the mic levels which makes mixing impossible.
There are many cheaper options for lavalier microphones like Rode, Shure, Boys, etc. I have not filmed with many of them. I am sure they are better than nothing. It’s also worth noting that the microphone itself can make a huge difference in the audio quality. I use the Countryman B3 Omni because it is so tiny that it’s practically invisible. They are also affordable. Sennheiser makes great mics as well. Consider always using a windscreen when filming outside with all of these. I own three wireless lavs, one for the main subject, one for the interviewer, and a third as backup or if there is another subject. I have four audio channels on my mixer and I like to use them when I can.
One of the greatest lessons I learned as a professional sound recordist was that wireless mics will fail. No matter how high quality, you will get frequency hits or your subject may compulsively talk with his hands, constantly knocking the microphone. I also film in hazardous and often dangerous situations in the field. My subjects are in action, knocking their wireless mics loose or dropping the packs completely. That’s why I learned to love the shotgun mic. No kit is complete without a decent shotgun microphone and boom pole. For sit down interviews, I attach the shotgun mic to a boom pole and secure it on a C-stand or a lighting stand (depending on how much room I have or what gear is available). I get that shotgun as close as possible to the subject while keeping it just out of frame. There is seriously no better microphone. I also like to hear the ambience of the room which lavalier or stick mics tend to drop out in favor of an isolated voice. I can always add in room tone or ambience later but it’s never as effective or accurate. Some producers only care about voice but I think the environment also tells the story. Pro-tip: always get at least a minute of ambience (or room tone).
What about shooting in the field? I attach the shotgun mic to the camera rig and run an XLR cable directly into the audio recorder. This is the most important channel, so I put it on channel 1, mixed to the left for stereo and make sure it is also discreetly recorded (each mic gets it’s own isolated track as well as a stereo mix down). When conducting an interview in the field or focusing on a subjects voice, I still try to get the shotgun mic as close to a subject as possible. That’s why I often use a wide angle lens: 16mm, 22mm, whatever fits the story. The purpose is to get as close as possible to my subject and still have standard framing. If I had a telephoto lens, I would have to stand further back to get a head & shoulders shot. The wide lens gets me right in the subjects face. It may seem a little awkward but it’s the necessary trade-off to ensure high quality audio.
What are the best shotgun mics? If you’re just starting out, I recommend the Sennheiser MKE600. It has an internal battery so you will not need phantom power. This will allow you to record to any device or camera, even directly to a DSLR. If you want to be a little more serious, invest in Sennheiser MKH 416 or literally dozens of other great models. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a high quality shotgun microphone. The upside is they will literally last a lifetime if properly cared for.
So you recorded wonderful video and audio in the field. You are excited to get back in front of the computer to edit. Now you have to sync the external audio with the video. Luckily for you, there are many new applications and plug-ins that will assist you instead of relying on a clapboard or timecode matching. I have used Pluraleyes for years. The program keeps getting upgraded to be more powerful and now work as a plugin with Final Cut and Premiere. I usually work in the program itself. You can export out project files for whatever editing system you are using, create new video files with replaced audio, and a myriad of other options to fit your workflow. This application has saved me thousands of hours of work. Pluraleyes can sync three hours of video and audio in a few minutes. If you don’t want to spend the extra money on pluraleyes, Final Cut and Premiere also have native options for syncing clips in a timeline by their audio waveforms, which is always an option. I just don’t find them as robust as pluraleyes.
I am always interested in how other Preditors (producer, shooter, editor) approach capturing media in the field. Please let me know your rig and setup. Send me questions or comments.