Recording clean audio outside has its challenges. With these questions answered, however, you’ll learn there’s nothing to fear out there.
When it comes to gathering images, shooting outdoors is a different game than shooting indoors. You’ve
got the moving sun creating never-ending challenges for your lighting, wind blowing hair and reflectors
out of place, and curious onlookers appearing at the most inopportune moments. While you can control the
indoor or studio environment, the outside world is far from tame.
Thankfully, getting good audio from the great out-of-doors may be even easier than recording sound
inside. Still, outdoor audio has its own set of unique challenges that can ransack your soundtrack. What
follows are some of the most common questions asked about recording sound outside.
The last time I shot outdoors, all I could hear was wind noise. How do I get good sound in windy
As you’ve probably figured out by now, your camcorder’s electronic wind filter (if it’s got one) is not
the best solution. Because we usually hear wind noise as a low rumble, the wind filter simply reduces the
low frequencies going to tape. This only makes your sound very weak and thin, and doesn’t address the
real problem–wind hitting your microphone.
The easiest solution (and most often overlooked) is to move to a location where the wind is less severe.
Move behind the shelter of a building, or find a grove of trees to break the wind. Shooting your subject
from a different angle, so the wind is coming behind you, for example, will often reduce the wind noise
If you can’t do any of these things, you need a mechanical solution. Light, open-cell foam placed over
the camcorder’s mike can help considerably. An external mike, by nature of its design, might offer better
wind resistance. If you’re shooting a person talking, the close proximity of a handheld mike will make your
talent’s voice much louder relative to the wind noise. Add a foam windscreen or “pop filter” over the top,
and you may have a truly windproof setup.
The best solution is the one the pros use–the blimp. This football-sized foam cover completely encases
an external microphone, protecting it from even the most intense winds. If you’ve watched a reporter “on
the scene” of a severe storm and marveled at the clean audio he got, you’ve probably witnessed a blimp in
action. Though not cheap, a blimp may be a good investment if you frequently shoot in windy
Why does my audio sound thin and “sterile” when I shoot outdoors?
Indoors, sounds reflect back from walls, ceilings and floors to reinforce the original sound. This
reverberation makes the sound thicker and fuller, especially in the case of the human voice. Too much
reverb, however, and your sound becomes blurry and indistinct.
The opposite of too much reflected sound is what happens outdoors–no reflected sound whatsoever.
The original sound is all you hear, with no significant reflections to make it sound fuller. Sound is crisp and
distinct outdoors, but often lacks character.
To get some fullness back from the human voice, give your subject a handheld directional mike, or
attach a lavalier mike. With a directional mike held close to the mouth, you’ll benefit from proximity
effect, the natural tendency of a directional mike to emphasize bass frequencies as it’s moved closer to the
sound source. The lavalier mike, attached to a shirt or blouse, will pick up some of the rich, full-sounding
chest resonance of the speaker. In both cases, you’ll get a fuller sound.
For other sound sources, there’s not much you can do. Instruments recorded outside often sound
terrible, because of the lack of reflected sound and reverberation. Great conductors choose huge,
reverberant halls for a reason–they make the orchestra sound deep and rich.
Outdoor sound systems usually include digital reverb devices to add back a sense of ambience to the
sound. After you shoot, adding a touch of reverb with a digital effect may help compensate for dry, sterile
sound. With digital reverb units available for under $180 (the Alesis Nanoverb, for example, costs $179),
this is a valid solution for even the most thrifty videographer.
I like to use condenser mikes, which require phantom power from my audio mixer. How can I
use these mikes outdoors?
First, a little background on condenser mikes. Many condenser mikes will run off a self-contained battery,
making them perfect for outdoor use. Others require a DC voltage (usually 48 volts) in the mike cable itself
to power the mike’s internal electronics. Most mixers provide this DC voltage, often called “phantom
power.” No consumer camcorders offer phantom power, making these mikes unsuitable for outdoor
shooting with a camcorder alone.
The easiest way to use professional condenser mikes outdoors–and improve your audio quality to boot–
is to buy a field mixer. Available from several major manufacturers such as Shure and Audio-Technica,
these battery-powered mixers offer phantom power, level controls, simple EQ and even
compressor/limiters to smooth out your audio level. Many field mixers will power as many as four
microphones at once.
There is a less-expensive option. Though phantom power is usually 48 volts, most condenser
mikes will work well with just a few volts. With a little research, you could construct an interface box that
would power a condenser mike from the camcorder’s battery. This is the principle behind Sony’s Plug-in
Power jack, though this jack is designed solely for Sony microphones. It’s possible to tap into this jack for
power, and route it down the cable to a professional condenser mike.
Will a directional mike help pick up distant sounds when shooting outdoors?
Because you’re shooting outdoors (and because of the nature of many outdoor activities), it’s not
uncommon to find yourself a great distance from your subject. This can pose some problems, but of a
slightly different sort than when shooting at great distances indoors. Before we get into the advantages of
the directional mike, let’s discuss the problem of mike-to-subject distance.
As mentioned in the previous question, reflected sound is not a major problem to deal with when
shooting outside. Because of this, moving away from your outdoor subject doesn’t increase the ratio of
reflected to direct sound as it does indoors. And because this balance of direct and reflected sound plays a
big part in telling our ear how far away something is, distant subjects don’t necessarily sound distant when
shooting outside. They may sound “smaller,” but they won’t always sound like they’re further away. This
is in stark contrast to distant sounds indoors, where the dominant reflected sound makes the source seem as
if it’s miles away.
The real problem when shooting outdoors is with competing noises. No outdoor location is truly silent–
you may have the rustle of wind through the trees, the hum of a nearby freeway or the racket of
construction just down the street. When everything else is quiet, you still have a camcorder with motors
whirring and someone running it nearby.
Even a directional mike can’t make up for the dramatic drop in volume as your mike-to-subject distance
increases. The directional mike will offer better rejection of sounds coming from behind it, but outdoor
noises often seem to come from everywhere. If your subject is far enough away, these unwanted noises will
dominate your soundtrack. The solution is the same as for most any shooting situation–get a mike as close
to your subject as possible.
I shoot a lot of sporting events. How can I get the best sound?
For most outdoor events, there’s no way to pin a lavalier mike on every subject. Sports are a good
example–you have to cover large areas with your mike (or mikes), and try to capture as much of the
overall atmosphere as possible. With sports, audience reaction is a big part of the game. Being too
successful in capturing sounds only from the playing field or court could result in a detached,
unexciting event. Include sounds and images of the crowd into your sports videos, and the results will be
much more enjoyable to watch.
Because you don’t want to be too selective with your audio pickup, the camcorder’s built-in mike does
well for most sports shooting. Where you place your camcorder then dictates the mix of audience sounds
and game sounds. Shooting from the stands will have your viewers feeling the cold bleachers underneath
them, while shooting from closer to the action will shift the focus more to the game or match itself. For the
sake of sharp, steady images, getting close to the action is usually best. Crowd reaction will still come
through loud and clear from this vantage point.
Want to add a little aural spice to your sports videos? At professional sporting events, bring along a
portable radio or TV, and tune it to the televised coverage of the game. Mix your radio or TV’s headphone
output with your camcorder’s built in mike through a simple mike mixer (you may need an attenuator), or
just turn up the TV or radio’s speaker. One creative fan taped a small transistor radio to his camcorder,
allowing its speaker to bleed into his camcorder’s built-in mike. By carefully setting the radio’s volume, he
was able to get an effective mix of professional coverage and live reactions.
If there is an announcer’s booth with loudspeakers at the field, position yourself close to it for clean
play-by-play coverage. For even cleaner audio, place a wireless mike and transmitter near the booth or PA
speaker, and mix its output with your camcorder’s built-in mike.
For a different perspective on a son or daughter’s game, ask his or her coach to wear a lavalier mike.
Mixing the coach’s comments in with your camcorder’s mike can add some interesting color to the game
(provided the coach isn’t too passionate about winning).
How can I get good audio from an upcoming family reunion and picnic?
Like a sporting event, family get-togethers or picnics don’t allow you to mike up every key player.
Instead, go for broad coverage with your camcorder’s built-in mike. This will capture the overall mood and
natural sound of the event, which is really what you’re after.
Supplementing your camcorder’s built-in mike with a handheld mike will allow you to do some fun,
spontaneous interviews. You can mix these two signals together with a mike mixer, or switch from one to
the other. You’ll be able to cover the event effectively with this setup, and should achieve a nice blend of
“atmosphere” and up-close, focused sound.
If you’re shooting speaking subjects without a handheld mike, remember to get as close as practical to
them. Not only will this get you a more interesting, stable shot, but your audio quality will improve
dramatically. It’s no fun straining to hear Uncle Joe’s latest fishing story over the din of a heated softball
game. Getting close to your subject will shift the ratio of desired sound to noise into your favor.
I do a lot of backpacking, and want to get the best sound from the lightest possible system. Any
Thankfully, most backpacking takes place far from noisy environments. Your camcorder’s built-in mike
will work well 90% of the time, provided it doesn’t pick up lots of motor noise from your camcorder. If
motor noise is predominant when shooting in quiet locales, bring along an external mike. Even an
inexpensive mike offers the advantage of being removed from the camcorder’s chassis, and will pick up
little or no motor noise. For natural sounds, fidelity is not all that crucial.
If you’re hoping to pick up the comments (or the exhausted groans) of another backpacker, consider
packing a wireless lavalier mike. Wireless systems weigh very little, and offer the subject complete
mobility. For hiking, mountain climbing or fishing, this is a real plus. In the great outdoors, wireless
performance and range should be excellent. But since you’ll probably be a long way from any convenience
stores, bring along plenty of batteries for your wireless system.
I’ve heard that wireless mike systems work better outside. Is this true?
The two biggest enemies to wireless mike performance are radio frequency interference (RFI) and
multipath interference. The first comes from electronic devices, motors and lights in the shooting location;
the second is the result of the transmitter signal bouncing off walls and metal objects. Eliminate these, and
wireless mike performance takes a significant jump.
In most cases, neither RFI nor multipath interference are factors outside. And while you can still get hit
by a hostile radio station or a wicked multipath bounce from a metal fence, wireless performance and range
are generally better outside. Indoors, a wireless system will rarely perform anywhere near the
manufacturer’s stated range. Outside, your wireless system may perform past its stated range.