Sound Recording Tips for Photographers

If you know me, you’ve heard me say hundreds of times that:

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Sound is like lighting, the more you know, the less you know…. So don’t do anything with it until you’ve absolutely mastered the basics of HDSLR filmmaking.[/quote]

I know...it’s naive of me to assume that everyone will master the basics of HDSLR filmmaking before approaching sound, so I figured it would be better to give you tips than to watch you flail around hopelessly. So, if you’re going to insist on jumping into it, read on and take note of the few things here that will help you get off on the right foot. Just remember, people can often forgive bad video with great audio, but rarely do they forgive great video with horrible audio.

THE BASICS

Before we begin, lets get something straight between the concepts of sound and audio. Simply put, sound refers to waves that travel through air, which can be received by some sort of organic or artificial device. Audio, on the other hand, refers to sound that has been captured and processed digitally. In other words, we record sound, but play back audio. It seems like I’m playing with semantics here, but a lot of the time, people mistakenly interchange both terms, which can make them look inexperienced and ignorant of the fact that these roles are often the responsibilities of different people in a production and can often require a completely different set of skills and equipment.

Aside from understanding the basic differences between sound and audio, it’s also important for us to understand the different methods of how we record sound. For the purposes of HDSLR filmmaking, there are four widely used methods:

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  • Single System/Single Source Recording - Sound is captured from one microphone and is recorded directly to the camera, direct on film (DOF). The microphone used can either be an internal or an external on-camera mic and is the most basic method of recording sound.
  • Single System/ Multiple Source Recording - Sound is captured from multiple microphones and is recorded DOF after the audio is mixed and routed through a multi-channel field mixer.
  • Double System/Single Source Recording - Sound is captured from one microphone and is recorded to two sources, typically DOF and to an external hi-fidelity recorder, after it is mixed in a multi-channel field mixer. Syncing of audio tracks and video files is required in post-production.
  • Double System/Multiple Source Recording - Sound is captured from multiple microphones and is recorded to two sources, typically DOF and to an external hi-fidelity recorder, after it is mixed in a multi-channel field mixer. Syncing of audio tracks and video files is required in post-production. This is the most advanced method of recording HDSLR sound, but provides the highest audio quality.

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Each of these methods presents different benefits to an HDSLR filmmaker. With quality being the determining factor in choosing the method, a filmmaker can actively make a decision on what method to choose based upon the project or assignment he is tasked with. For example, an event filmmaker may choose to use the single system method, but use multiple sources to ensure a higher audio quality, while a narrative or documentary filmmaker may choose to use the double system method with multiple sources because they want the highest possible audio quality.

THE EQUIPMENT

When it comes to recording sound, a filmmaker can easily spend upwards of $10,000 on equipment. While I don’t particularly think a beginning filmmaker needs to spend that much money on sound equipment, it’s important to note that with sound equipment, you get what you pay for.

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  • Microphones - There are different kinds of microphones that will help you get different types of audio quality. Since it’s really important to hear the difference in the quality of the sound, make sure you put some headphones on before watching the video below: 

    (Video Courtesy of Stillmotion)
  • External Recorders - Like microphones, there are a ton of recorders out there that offer a variety of different features. If you’re looking to purchase your first recorder, make sure it has Balanced and Unbalanced Input, Phantom Power, Line Level Output, Multi-Source Recording, and Internal Stereo Microphones. I am a personal fan of the Tascam DR-40 and Tascam DR-60d because they offer a combination of great features at amazing prices. I’ll talk more about the DR-60d below, but it’s become my go to solution for external recording.
  • Field Mixers - Field mixers are probably one the most important tools you can get for recording sound, especially if you’re going to start recording from two sources. Any decent field mixer will allow you to adjust your recording levels before it reaches the recorder. More expensive units will have better pre-amps, which result in high quality recordings. You can literally spend thousands of dollars on a field mixer, which is why I love the Tascam DR-60d. It’s affordable and combines an external 4-track recorder with a 4-channel mixer. It has simplified my productions while allowing me to entirely eliminate a piece of gear!
  • Accessories - Aside from mics, recorders, and field mixers, you’re going to need to pick up a few other accessories to round out your kit. First, get an audio bag. I actually have an old Tenba Messenger Bag that I use. It’s not a bad solution and has a lot of space for cables and other accessories. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find a piece of sound equipment and having to look in fifty different cases for it. Second, buy lots of batteries. I always try to have at least 3 full sets of all the batteries I need when I go on a shoot. You will be surprised at the rate your recorders will go through batteries. If you can, get an AC adapter for longer shoots to save you some money. Third, invest in a good wind-screen for when you take a microphone outside. It’s a worthy investment and will save your butt on windy days.

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RECORDING TIPS

Once you’ve purchased some sound equipment and have had a chance to figure out how it all works, there are a few things you’re going to want to keep in mind when you jump into a project.

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  • Use Good Headphones - If you’re going to be serious about sound, you’re going to need a pair of neutrally balanced headphones that cover your ears. Try to stay away form earbuds and definitely stay away from bass heavy headphones. Having a good pair of headphones will help you determine levels. It will also help you hear nuances between different takes.
  • Listen to the Room - One of the first things you should do when you walk into a space is listen to it. Take in the surrounding environment through your ears and make sure to pay attention to things that will show up in the recording. This includes the buzz of fluorescent lights, the sound of air conditioning, the noise passing cars, and the ticking of clocks. You want to make sure to silence everything in your power to ensure that you get a clean recording.
  • Get a Room Tone - If you’re going to be recording an interview, make sure that you get at least 10-20 seconds of room tone. Just record the silent room and set the file aside for editing. Room tone will help you blend different clips together without having a drop in audio levels. It’s really important to have and can really be difficult to edit without it!
  • Adjust Your Levels - Incorrectly setting your levels will make or break your production. They can literally be the difference between having someone watch your video or just closing it altogether. Almost every sound recording device has a meter that allows you to check the audio levels of the sound being recorded. They may have different appearances, but as a general rule, you should always balance your levels between -12db and -6db on every device that has a level setting. Doing this will ensure that you have enough headroom for unexpected events, like loud pops or cars in the background, during your recording.
     
    If you’re using an HDSLR, that means you have to set your levels between -12db and -6db on the camera, the recorder, and the field mixer. Forgetting to do this in any part of the audio chain will result in less than desirable results. If you’re not sure how to set the levels in your camera, check your manual to make sure it’s possible.

    Some camera manufacturers don’t give manual audio controls to some models. If your camera doesn’t have the functionality, try setting it to the “low” or “mid” settings, do a test recording, and check the sound to make sure you’re in a good place. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get your levels set correctly. Check, double, and triple check it before you commit!

  • Isolate Your Channels - If you are recording from multiple sources and into multiple channels on a field mixer, set one source to the left channel and set the other source to the right channel. For example, if you are recording an interview and are using a boom mic on channel 1 and a lavaliere on channel 2, channel 1 should be flushed to the left and channel 2 should be flushed to the right. Doing this will ensure that one of the two sources will be clean if something touches or brushes past the mic. Since sound is very hard to replicate, especially in live situations, flushing channels a way of setting up redundancy and giving yourself a backup in the event something happens.
  • Get Everyone on the Same Page - Before you hit record, there are a few phrases you need to say to get everyone involved all on the same page. Those phrases are:

    "Roll Camera, Roll Sound” – This indicates to everyone on set that you are going to press record on the camera and the recorder.

    “Camera and Sound Speed” – This indicates to everyone on set that the cameras and recorders are live and that they need to be quiet.

    “Action” – This indicates to everyone on set that they should proceed with the take.

    “Cut” – This indicates to everyone on set that the take is over and that all cameras and recorders should be stopped and prepped for the next take.

  • Slate your Audio Files - Before you start a take, you should always indicate vocally what the scene and take are. You should also always have a sharp sound at the beginning of each take to help with syncing in post-production. Tools like a production slate can help with this.
  • Use Plural Eyes 3.0 - If you have a lot of audio clips and video clips to sync together from a project, it can be very tedious and time consuming to sync files one by one. Plural Eyes is a program that quickly and ACCURATELY syncs externally recorded audio files with the appropriate video files they belong with. I’ve done some extensive testing with the software and it’s been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it so far. It’s also saved me hours of work and lets me get to my edit a lot more quickly after a shoot. (This RODE mic has a mail-in rebate for a free copy of Plural Eyes 3.0!)

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CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, you have to realize that sound is a profession entirely in and of itself. There are lots of people out there that make a living on doing this, so don’t be discouraged if it seems difficult to understand or absorb right away. Just start simple and go on from there. Recording sound and creating great audio is an art form, just like lighting, so practice it and learn how to react to certain shooting situations. Just remember to keep it simple in the beginning and add stuff as you become comfortable with what you’re doing.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Victor's workshop here in Salt Lake City! He'll be here for an extensive two-day video bootcamp where you'll get the full rundown on how to get started with video on your DSLR. Don't miss it! Register here.

Originally appeared on HDSLR Video Shooter