Some tips for getting the best from your audio
Many an independent film is marred by terrible audio, so here I am going to offer a few tips to help get the best sound you can, on a budget.
What to Record
The Problem with sound, is that although we hear sounds distinctly, that is not what gets recorded. Our brains are incredibly good at isolating the sound we wish to focus on and tuning out unwanted sound; however, microphones do not have the same abilities, they will record everything.
The aim of production sound is very simple: get the dialogue and nothing else. Film sound is all about layers, and the location audio should only be the first of those layers. It is very easy to add sounds to a mix, but extremely difficult to remove them later. So, if you can record only the dialogue, you will have a clean base to build on.
Have a look at the Fix it in post article for more info.
Plan Your Shoot (and even your film!)
This is of paramount importance. Make sure you know your equipment and its limitations. For more info on budget equipment equipment, go here.
The main thing is to try to get as quiet a location as possible – you need to be thinking about this when selecting locations. If you film next to a busy road, you will get traffic noise ruining your audio, there are no two ways about it. Therefore, making a compromise on your location can save you enormous amounts of time and money later (ADR is expensive).
Try to film at quiet times of the day, even indoors you will get traffic/street noise. If you are filming in the centre of a city, but filming at night (or very early) it can reduce the likelihood of that unwanted noise, immensely.
Turn everything off! Fridges, AC, the TV next door and, of course, mobile phones (even on vibrate). Our ears tune these sounds out, but it is guaranteed that you will get home and hear things you didn’t even know were there. Before filming, stop for a minute and have a listen – try and focus on as many sounds as you can hear; try it now, it can be quite a surprise. As I write this, I can hear the fridge in my kitchen, the fan in my laptop, church bells down the road and birdsong, and I am out in the country.
Make sure everyone understands what silence really means. People need to be still, and even whispering can come out clear as a bell in a quiet moment. It is amazing how much noise people can make whilst thinking they are silent.
Get the microphones as close as possible, they should ideally be only a couple of feet from the talent – this is another place where you might need to compromise. If you do not have radio mics, you can put on the talent. Sorry to say, you will not be able to record them during a nice distant shot in the middle of a park, that is a given. If you are indoors then get creative with where you can hide the mics.
There are going to be times when it is necessary to give the actors cues, such as for events happening off camera. If this is the case, then just make sure you don’t make noise over a line of dialogue. If it is a distinct sound it can be edited out, but one voice cannot be separated from another in post.
Extras and Crowds
Keep them quiet. If you are filming a restaurant scene, then make sure all of the extras are silent. This allows you to capture only the dialogue and add in background sound later.
Once the scene has been shot, then record just the sound of the extras, conversation, cutlery scrapes etc. Having this as a separate track will allow you much more flexibility in the mix later.
Whilst we are on the subject:
Capturing Non-Dialogue audio
As mentioned above, it is very useful to get other effects whilst you are on location. Nothing else will match quite as well.
Things you might want:
Car start + stop
ticking clock (turn it off during the shooting)
In fact, anything you can see happening in the scene. It is much better to have sound you don’t need, than to suddenly have to record the sound of that lovely V8 car you had, only for one day, the week after you have returned it…
Room tone is the faint and subtle mixture of sounds that you get in any place, which go largely unnoticed, but if not present make a scene feel unnatural. Examples would be things like the rustling of leaves in a park, or the distant hum of a city.
When shooting aim to get a couple of minutes of room tone, so that when you edit out unwanted sounds, you can fill the gaps with a realistic background rather than silence. Almost no-where is ever truly silent, and so this room tone needs to be a constant bed beneath the dialogue.