In order to ensure the quality of your audio, grab a pair of headphones and put them to good use. Better audio awaits you.
Breaking The Ice
The question of who is simple: every video producer needs at least one good pair of headphones. If you stay current with this column, you've heard us pester you to use headphones every time you shoot. While not every camcorder has a headphone jack, many do, and it's time to get used to plugging in a pair when the audio is important. This means dialog, ambient sound and special effects; pretty much everything you shoot. Why? That's simple, too. Monitoring the sound as you record it ensures a quality recording. Checking your sound with headphones allows you to catch bad audio connections, dead batteries, clothing and wind noises you'd miss otherwise. There's nothing worse than wrapping up a perfect shoot, only to find the sound you thought you captured was replaced with hum, noise or worse, missing altogether.
You've probably seen the high-dollar professional headphones that boast superior isolation, comfort and durability along with a hefty price tag. To be certain, there are many excellent headphones on the market, but even the folding pair or ear buds that came bundled with your portable MP3 player will do in a pinch. Anything is better than nothing, but you can easily find a very nice set for under $50. With your headphones in hand, lets discover when, where and how to use them.
Location, Location, Location
The most obvious time and place to use your headphones is during a remote shoot. We've already discussed what can happen when you don't use them, but there are other ways to press them into service during production. Monitoring with headphones is a great way to find the perfect microphone placement. If you're using a lapel microphone, experiment with different placements on your subject. A high microphone position is typical, usually on the shirt or jacket, but if the talent tends to turn her head, a lower placement may yield sound that is more consistent. When using a shotgun or other directional microphone, position is more critical. A few degrees off-center can radically change the character of the sound.
This is especially important when using a boom operator. If they can hear the sound, it's much easier to maintain a consistent microphone position with the highly directional shotguns often used on booms. Depending on conditions at the shoot, you may also discover that pointing the microphone up toward the subject works better than the typical overhead position. Headphones are the only way to know for sure. If you review your footage on-site, headphones offer a much better way to evaluate the audio than the nickel-sized speaker built into your camera. And if you're one of the chosen few with a camcorder that allows manual audio level control, headphones are a necessity. In addition to any level meters your camera may have, headphones offer a quick way to tell if the sound is overloading or the background noise is overwhelming what you want to record.
Home Sweet Home
Once your precious footage is safe at home in the edit suite, keep your headphones out: there are ways to use them here, too. Reviewing or logging footage over headphones works even better in the relative solitude of the great indoors. Even the highest isolation headphones can't eliminate all the background clutter on location. Add that to a tight shoot schedule and assorted mayhem and it's easy to miss low-level distractions. One time, we were shooting some relatively dramatic dialog outdoors. It wasn't until the edit that we discovered a gas-powered weed whacker in the distance during one long take. Fortunately, we had another take, but we completely missed the sound in the field. For you, maybe it's a brief gust of wind across the microphone or the boom operator bumping the pole. Depending on the content, these audio gaffes could kill an otherwise perfect take. While you may catch them with your speaker system, you'll always be able to nail them with headphones.
Headphones are indispensable when recording other content for your video, too. Directional microphones have a property called the proximity effect. In short, the closer you get to the microphone, the bigger the bass content. Voice-over artists leverage this effect to their advantage, finding the perfect distance from the microphone to make them sound larger than life. Headphones help them find the sweet spot quickly and easily. You'll also know when you're too close to the microphone by the breath noises (syllibants) or popping sounds (plosives) produced during consonants like B, P and T. Think Peter Piper and you've got the idea.
If you're recording sound effects or Foley for your production, headphones are a necessity. Sure, you could just set up a microphone, point it at the sound and hit record, but the best sounds come from experimentation. If you've ever recorded animal noises, you know they rarely sound like the stereotypes we have in our head, if they make any noise at all (most don't). The same holds true for just about everything else, too. For instance, a telephone ring, whether mechanical or electronic, sounds one way with the microphone at a six-inch distance and completely different at a more natural distance of two or three feet. When close-miking a pair of shoes for footsteps, you may actually hear the squeaking of leather as the shoes move. A distant microphone location sacrifices that intimacy, but yields more natural footstep sounds. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but how will you know what best suits your production without headphones? Put them on and try several alternatives until you find the perfect sound.
Variations on a Theme
There are a handful of other things you can do to squeeze maximum value from your headphone purchase. Back in ancient times, when a video producer needed to show a finished project to a client, they would make a VHS copy and drag a TV/VCR combo to the client's office for approval. Time' have changed and DVD is the format of choice for just about everything. It's common to find portable DVD players with seven-inch screens for around $200 on the street. The cool factor won't be lost on your client, but the sound from the tiny speakers won't be impressive at all. The fix is simple; plug in a nice pair of headphones and the client will hear all the sound you spent so long creating. As a bonus, you can use the player for field monitoring and for movies on the plane to your next job. Listening to a little music or talk radio over headphones is a great way to kill time while you're waiting for a complex sequence to render or a DVD to burn.
Headphones are a valuable tool for the video producer who cares about the audio in their productions. So, to review: Who? You, the video producer. What? Headphones. When and where? Whenever and wherever you record audio that is essential to the success of your video, in the field and in the edit suite. Why? Because you're a professional who cares. How? All it takes is simply plugging in.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson has had a serious case of headphone-hair for around 25 years.
[Sidebar: In the Mix]
Headphones are great for monitoring and detail, but they are less than ideal for mixing in the edit bay. Headphones sound vastly different from speakers. A mix mastering with headphones will not sound right for viewers who are not also using headphones, which is probably the vast majority of your audience.
[Sidebar: Headphone Manufacturer Listing]
This is a sampling of headphone manufacturers. It is not a complete list.
Gemini Sound Products