I worked an interview/doc type shoot today and when I got home, my wife asked me who was interviewed. I told her and she asked my if he was interesting. I told her I really didn’t know. I didn’t know because I was listening with my sound man ears, not my director or producer ears.
If I actually listened to what was being said I might be distracted by an interesting statement and not notice things I should be listening for such as background noise, conversations, cars, air handlers, airplanes, trains, etc. I wouldn’t be doing my job.
One of the most basic things a sound mixer has to do, obviously, is listen but it is very important to know HOW to listen and what to listen for. A huge part of listening correctly means NOT listening to what someone is actually saying. That’s someone else’s job.
I have been doing so many shoots on DSLR’s these days that it has been a couple of years since I recorded directly to camera. I just got back from working on a doc in Helena, MT for the Veteran’s Administration. The story followed an Army Guard member who had a hip replacement through a new VA program that allowed her to receive physical therapy through local private practitioners rather than having to drive hundreds of miles to a VA hospital. She was a fire fighter and did physical work, so the program gave her her life back. But I digress..
We shot on a Panasonic AF-100 and I got to use my remote audio breakaway cable for the first time. The AF-100 has a few quirks that could have caused some problems for sound. First, the level meter in the view finder has two markers, neither labeled, one at 0 dBfs and another one that looks like it should be -20 dBfs but upon reading the manual, I learned it was -12 dBfs.
By default, the AF-100 records to an AC3 compressed audio format. That needs to be changed to LPCM (Linear PCM, uncompressed) and the Automatic Gain Control, called ALC in the menus needs to be turned off. The input switches are self explanatory.
The headphone amplifier is pretty weak and it was very difficult to get a signal back on my breakaway cable with enough gain. I cranked my return A level as high as possible on my Sound Devices 442 and it was still pretty hard to hear.
I still recorded to second system just in case they needed iso tracks later, as I both boomed and ran a lav on the interviews. All in all, it was a fun little shoot, great people and they had the camera video and audio outputting to a device called a Nanoflash that was interesting. It actually upgrades the video and audio quality as it records everything uncompressed.
Getting good sound is not a secret. It’s simply understanding everything about your role and performing your role very well.
The sound recordist’s role:
- Placing the microphones.
- Operating the recorder.
- Making sure the recording quality is good.
That’s it, really. If you do those three things right you will get good sound. The problem is doing those things right takes a hell of a lot of knowledge, experience and skills. The other problem is what works on one shoot doesn’t necessarily work on other shoots.
1. Placing the microphones:
- In general, you need to place the microphone as close to the talent as possible. This is very important.
- Start with the mic in the frame and make your DP yell at you. Move it slowly out of frame so YOU know where the frame ends.
- When booming, boom from above with the microphone angled downward aimed at the talent’s mouth.
- Know and follow the dialog.
- Know the blocking.
- Line up the mic with some reference point so you can keep it close to the talent through whatever blocking happens in the shot.
2. Operating the recorder:
- Use balanced cables for your connections
- Bit rate set to at least 16 bits, 24 bits is better
- Sample rate at least 44.1, preferably at least 48kHz
- Set the level as high as possible without clipping. Peaks should be about -6 dbFS
- Know your recorder
If your recorder doesn’t have these capabilities, you need a new one.
3. Making sure the recording quality is good:
- LISTEN. To everything. Most important.
- Good headphones are a must. (closed ear pads)
- Play some of the clips back, verify levels.
- Communicate issues immediately.
Simple, right? Not exactly, but that’s the secret in a nutshell. Use the right mic, get the mic close, set the levels correctly, follow the dialog and communicate issues.
Upcoming posts are going to go into specific details about:
- What microphone to use and why.
- Recorders, mixers, accessories.
- Boom Technique.
- Headphone reviews.
- Acoustic properties of rooms and treatment.
- Audio theory 101.
- Synching second system audio.
- In-camera audio recording.
- Audio bags and accessories.
- Editing audio.
- Audio Software.
And, of course, anything else you want to see discussed on Production Audio Pro.