What’s basic but decent?

The question I am asked the most is something like “I have $2,000 and I need a sound kit.  What can I get?” The answer is of course, nothing.  But for just under $6,000 you could get a barely adequate package

  1. a shotgun mic
  2. an interior mic
  3. a boom
  4. a mixer
  5. a recorder
  6. a wireless kit


You can’t compromise very much on mics.  No matter how expensive your mixer or recorder is or how well you know how to use it, if your mic sucks, your audio sucks.  Period.  Also, you MUST have two mics, one shotgun for almost everything and one hyper or super cardiod for the spaces that a shotgun will not work.  Basically the rule of thumb is shotguns for exteriors and a small diaphragm condenser with a hyper cardiod polar pattern for interiors.  Really, do not compromise here because you will regret it.  Microphones for audio recording systems are analogous to lenses for cameras.  They will last forever, never lose their values and are the pointy end of the spear.  They have to be good.

What I own and totally recommend:

a. Shotgun: a Sennheiser 416 (about $1,000).  THE Hollywood classic that everything is compared to.  Better yet,  Sennheiser MKH-60 (about $1,500)
b. Small diaphragm condenser:  Schoeps CMC641 with a CUT1 (about $2,500)

Lower end:

a. Shotgun: Rode NTG 3 ($700)
b. Small diaphragm condenser: AT 4053b ($600)

If you are serious about audio, please do not compromise here.  Buy the good stuff.  This is not where you want to save money because it effects everything in the audio chain. Continue reading

What Did He Say?

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 Can’t Help if You Won’t Listen

I got this email the other day:

Hi Mike,

My name is XXX. I’m close friends with ZZZ.
This coming Saturday I’ll be shooting a short interview/PSA .
They referred me to you in regards to renting or borrowing a mic for my 5D Mark II. 

Is that something you might be able to help with?

Best Regards,

I tried to explain that a 5D is not capable of recording professional quality audio and that in order to get good sound you need a second system or better yet, you need to hire a sound person:

Hi XXX, 

I believe the 5D has a 3.5 mm, tip-ring-sleeve jack that accepts mic-level signals from external sources. My mics are all XLR and require phantom power so they will not work with a 5D. With a 5D or a 7D or really any DSLR camera you need to have second system sound to get good audio. That means you need a mic and a separate recorder at a minimum.


Of course they don’t want to hear that their camera is a piece of shit when it comes to recording audio, because everyone knows that audio is simple, right? They don’t get that their camera costs less than one Lectro system or a couple of microphones and you need to know what you are doing to use it. So needless to say, my advice was not appreciated:

Hi Mike,

 Thank you for the information.
I’ll keep searching for a 5d solution. 


Ouch, that was a little bit cold.  I guess this person isn’t listening to me or just doesn’t like what I am saying. It’s true, though.  You need a second system, there is no such thing as a 5D solution. Why ask for an expert’s opinion if you aren’t going to listen to that opinion?

I actually felt bad so I looked around the Internet and found an article where someone uses a Sound Devices 302 and a Zoom to record to a 5D.

They make it work by turning off the AGC, overriding the pre-amps on the 5D and sending a line level signal from the 302. It actually does record to the 5D with the levels set to one click above off. You still can’t monitor levels and the article clearly states that you need a back up system, hence the Zoom and very clearly discusses the limitations of the 5D. I was hoping the person might actually read it and maybe they would believe it sonce another photographer wrote it and possibly realize, “hey…maybe I should think about hiring a sound person….I guess it might be more complex then I thought…”

So I get back:

Thanks Mike,

I was able to pin down another option through a friend and colleague of mine XXX. You
Might(sic) know him, he’s in XXX’s circle as well.  A great photographer too.
Turns out he has a setup for the 5D that he’s willing to loan.
Thank you for the links and information.

Warm Regards,

Probably a battery powered microphone with a 1/8th inch jack. Good luck with that, XXX, I am sure your client will be happy when the hiss from the microphone drowns out the interview dialog. I’m sure you can fix it in post.  I just can’t help you if you won’t listen. I’m glad we are at warm regards rather than cheers, though.


The Secret of Good Sound

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:

  1. Placing the microphones.
  2. Operating the recorder.
  3. 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.

Other topics:

  • 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.