Location Sound Recording: How to Cut through the Noise

When working on a tight budget web series, or a low budget film, there is no money — or time — to re-record audio. You have to get it right the first time, in the field. This article will help you overcome noisy obstacles and capture high quality audio on location.

According to Randy Thom, Sound Designer for the film Forrest Gump, essentially none of the sound recorded while film was rolling found its way into the final cut of the movie. Why? The audio quality simply was not good enough.

In Forrest Gump, the actors and actresses returned to a studio to re-read their lines. Dialogue was synchronized using a process called automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Unfortunately, ADR is beyond the capacity of most low budget productions. So what’s the solution? Read on.

One Direction

In almost all recording situations, there are unwanted sounds a filmmaker needs to minimize, or better yet, avoid all together. These situations require a mic adept at rejecting sounds that emanate from certain directions.

This is a job for the trusty unidirectional microphone. This mic is specially designed to ignore sounds that strike it from the sides, while focusing its attention on sounds directed to the front of the mic.

A handheld microphone is one type of a unidirectional mic. It works best when the sound source is very close, like the lips of a singer. Unfortunately, the handheld mic is visible to the audience — in many scripted productions, a mic cannot be seen. Why? If we see a mic while watching an episode of “Modern Family,” it reminds us we are watching TV and ruins the illusion we’re watching a family live out their lives.

A shotgun mic is another type of unidirectional microphone. Unlike the handheld mic, it excels at capturing sound from further away. This type of mic, sometimes called supercardioid or hypercardioid, is extremely directional. It gets its name from the mics heart-shaped directional pickup pattern.

Diagram showing Cardioid and Hypercardioid pickup patterns
The cardioid pick up pattern (left) of a handheld mic is fine when the mic is close, but to get the mic out of the shot, you’ll need a more directional hypercardioid (right) microphone.

A shotgun is the go-to mic for many productions because it can be far enough away from the talent to be out of the camera’s view. It is often used overhead, but can also be used low and pointed up toward the talent’s mouth. Let’s look at three challenging recording situations and explore possible solutions.

#1 Wet Noise

Let’s say you are a documentary filmmaker tasked with interviewing a city mayor about a drinking water shortage — with the backdrop of a roaring waterfall. The waterfall will show the irony of the presence of so much water, but so little that can be consumed.

The first step in this situation is to tightly frame the shot so you can place the shotgun mic as close as possible to the mayor, but out of sight of the audience. You’ll need to position the mayor so the mic can point in a direction avoiding the waterfall in its pickup pattern path. You could try using the shotgun above or below the mayor’s head.

The first step in this situation is to tightly frame the shot so you can place the shotgun mic as close as possible to the mayor, but out of sight of the audience

Another option is a unidirectional handheld mic placed very close to the mayor’s mouth. With this solution, unfortunately, the audience will see the mic. If the film has avoided visible mics so far, the sudden appearance of a mic could be jarring to the viewers.

#2 A Raucous Private Moment

In New York’s Times Square, it’s loud 24/7. Let’s say you are shooting a scene where a couple shares a private moment which includes a marriage proposal. The challenge is to capture the audio of this special moment amongst the sonic chaos of Times Square.

If your audience knows something about the location, they will understand why there is noise in the background. You could start the scene with an establishing shot of Times Square showing the noise sources: taxi horns, conversations of passersby, blaring music and the constant drone of traffic.

A busy city street with people and traffic.
An establishing shot is a good way to give context to unwanted background noise captured in your audio recording. Showing the source of potentially distracting sounds helps the viewer identify and accept them as just part of the scene’s atmosphere.

A shotgun mic will do the trick in capturing dialogue in this situation. Another solution is a mic hidden on the talent, one that is very small. A lavalier mic — the type used by a news anchor — would perfectly fit the requirements. The tiny mic could be easily hidden in a fold of clothing or a scarf.

#3 Sound Fitness

The noise in a sports club or gym presents huge audio challenges. If money’s no object, a filmmaker could rent a gym for a few hours. This solution would offer complete control of noise sources like the whir of treadmills, the banging of weights, assorted grunts, public address music, plus fans and HVAC systems. But what do you do if money is tight?

Let’s imagine you are shooting a scene for a YouTube sitcom amongst the din of the gym. It’s a short scene designed to establish the character as a person who exercises. Maybe the scene could be effective without dialogue. Possibly music and a few different shots of the talent working out would do the trick.

If dialogue simply must be recorded in the gym, a shotgun mic is again a good solution. Starting to see a pattern here? Yes, the shotgun mic saves the day in tough audio recording situations everywhere. It is a must-have tool for all filmmakers who are serious about recording high quality audio on location.

The Sound You Want

When faced with capturing clean audio in a noisy environment, don’t be afraid to think creatively and experiment until you find a setup that works for the scene. No matter which solution you go with in the end, your goal will always be to emphasize the sound you want while minimizing the sound you don’t.

David G. Welton teaches in the Radio/TV/Film Department at Butte College in northern California.

David Welton
David Weltonhttps://NanasRecipes.com
David G. Welton is a teacher in the Radio/TV/Film Department at Butte College in Northern California. He also runs a vintage recipe website called Nana's Recipes that celebrates his mom’s cooking legacy.

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