As a shooter (stills and video) and content creator, I cringe at a lot of what I see on YouTube and even the TV.
It’s often amateur hour on YouTube, I reason, but why are the people who make their money in content creation, including broadcasters (and I’ve seen a marked decline in production quality in the last decade) often making the same poor choices that lead to poor content quality?
Certainly, as video production and distribution becomes more accessible, less skilled people swell the ranks. A lack of basic technical training, and certainly experience, can be overcome, but until then, you don’t know what you don’t know. But we know something’s not good with your production. This implies you should start asking questions and upping your game.
Sound is certainly the number one area where people screw up. There is an awful amount of ‘it’s good enough’ thinking that makes it harder in post-production and diminishes the quality of the finished program.
Sound is a professional responsibility that justifies a 4-person team on the set of a feature film, not to mention the multitude in post.
Everywhere else sound is “the red-headed-bastard-step-child of production that we secretly think the mailman is responsible for.”
While I can’t force you to hire a sound recordist (you should) you can at least give your camera assistant (or yourself) a fighting chance of producing reasonable (and, more importantly, consistent) audio in the field.
The first time I was handed a mic with no shock mount, on the end of a 100-foot cable plugged directly into the camera, with no audio mixer and no one (least of all me) wearing headphones, I realised all the horror stories about alien abductions and sound for picture were sadly true.
We had 4 actors, makeup, a grip, a gaffer, a DP, a director and an entire Boeing 747, 20 lines in 4 different languages and no sound recordist. I was a ‘camera assistant.’ That should be enough. Right?
The fact that I was an experienced sound recordist at that point just made it worse – I knew what to do, but had none of the tools to do it with. Oh, the shame.
From start to finish. You should know what a mic is going to do and sound like by the time the finished job is uploaded (after being mashed into the smallest file size imaginable) and played in a theatre or on a phone. Mostly a phone. Most good camera operators know their cameras and lenses this well. It’s not an extraordinary idea.
The fact is much of what I hear via Instagram has bass that sounds like turbulent bowel discomfort. Clearly, no one checked before releasing the ‘good vibrations’ into the world. Lots of people making content don’t seem to know what the audience is experiencing.
You should get training, read books, watch tutorial videos and learn audio. You should listen to your own productions.
All of that is obviously beyond the scope of one article, but here I humbly submit a handful of points to get directors, producers, shooters and Instagram auteurs thinking (intelligently) about sound.
- Sound is WAY MORE important than picture. There is actual science (lots of it paid for by Hollywood studios and broadcasters) that reveals the audience doesn’t care about image quality as much as sound quality. They will forgive images shaken, out of focus and with grain the size of golf balls (and, in most cases, assume it was a style choice) but if they can’t understand the audio for any reason, you’re toast. The burned kind, not the celebrated with champagne kind.
This includes bad mixing, distortion or bad editing. Poor location audio is almost always impossible to fix in post, and is the natural result of poor planning, underfunding and/or no one actually listening to the audio as it’s being recorded.
- The closer the mic is to a sound source, the more direct sound versus indirect sound you will record, and the ‘cleaner’ (easier to understand) your audio will be.
Therefore, we boom first, lav 2nd and putting a mic on top of the camera is almost useless. Almost.
- That one time you really did ‘fix it in post’ is as likely as a shark attack. So statistically improbable we are all shocked when it does happen. If in doubt, re-record/re-shoot. Check the audio in playback before you move on.
- Radio Mics are a universal constant proof of ‘you get what you pay for.’ Proper ones are expensive. If no one is walking around, why aren’t you hard wired? Hard wired is cheaper, more reliable and sounds better. Radio mics are specific tool built for a purpose. They should never be the default choice for main audio except for a small range of scenarios. They create many problems and will fail you. Even if it’s your best option, have a backup mic being recorded. PS – a proper boom mic has fewer issues mechanically and acoustically than a lapel mic. You can easily hard wire a boom mic on a stand to your camera/recorder.
- Sound is its own job. It’s not something for the director or camera operator to ‘keep an eye on.’ For a start, it’s about paying attention to things that require more skill and attention than anyone doing something else can provide. When George Lucas quipped ‘sound is more than 50% of the motion picture experience’ he backed it up by building one of the best sound editing and mixing facilities in the world.
- Most audio gear doesn’t go out of date. It holds its value. If treated well, it will last decades. How long does a top of the line video camera last? How many $80,000 BetacamSP cameras do you still see in service? Good mics cost less than cine lenses. They cost the same as high-end Canon L glass (consumer prices). If you’re trying to save $200 on a mic, you’re an idiot. you need to rethink where the value is to your production and clients.
There are ‘affordable’ mics and good mics. Just buy the good ones. They’re still cheaper than lenses. You have lots of lenses, right? You don’t have to buy the top end/most expensive ones. But this is not an arena to ‘save money’ in.
- You often can’t hear the difference between mics on YouTube reviews. There are lots of reasons for this. Just as you can’t see real image quality on YouTube when looking at camera reviews. But in post-production, or when trying to make it happen under adverse conditions in the field – that’s when the truth is revealed. Gear needs to be battle tested, and you need to try before you buy. If you go into a shoot with gear you don’t know, you tempt fate in ways that are best avoided.
- Just like cameras, there’s more to it than the camera alone. Mics need LOTS of accessories to work properly. They need good recorders. The 3.5mm jack on the side of your DLSR is the highway to hell. Mics need professional shock and wind protection. The plastic mic clip in the box is purely for decoration. They need proper rigs, mounts, cables and stands. You need proper headphones.
Earbuds or anything with ‘Beats by Dre’ written on them is going to lead to problems (none of which you will hear in the field). Problems that only manifest when the client is sitting in the edit suite wondering why ‘some moron didn’t hear it was clearly distorted?!’
- Some places are just not right for recording audio in.
Every year I have to answer the same question: ‘I’m shooting in a small echo laden room that sounds bad. What mic should I buy/use to solve this problem.’
It just finally dawned on me to simply ask ‘is someone holding a gun to your head and demanding you do your interview in [insert inappropriate location here]?
Change locations! Explain to them why. If it sounds bad to your natural ears, which by the way can actually filter out most of the crap in a bad audio location, it’s going to be 10 times worse for a simple microphone to deal with. And a bad recording stays bad. Our hearing can’t compensate with recorded sound over speakers the same way it can in the real world.
- Post production is not just for pretty pictures. If you can’t afford a sound mixer, find an editor who knows something/anything and cares. Teach yourself.
If you cut, learn how to use all the sound tools built into the edit application. Listen on proper studio monitors. Close your eyes and play the whole program back. Does the sound make sense? Is it easy to understand the dialog? Is that library track fighting for space in the mix? Think about the sound’s role in the edit. Don’t just cut it the same way as the picture. Audio doesn’t like hard cuts the same way pictures do.
Watch a good movie with a sheet over the screen and you’ll discover just how much the audio carries the picture.
Most of all: think about sound.