The Sounds of the Holidays

From festive feasts to memorable moments, sound matters on holiday videos! These audio tips can help you make the most of the magic of your cherished celebrations.

Your camcorder’s built-in microphone is fine for some things — a day at the beach, birthday parties and the dog’s newest trick — but it stinks for anything you’d like to see your name on. If you’ve read this column at all, you know of my crusade to convince all shooters to include audio alternatives in their bag of tricks. This is especially important around the holidays. Whether it’s little Jimmy’s first piano recital or a job to document the community symphony’s holiday concert, you need options for getting good sound. Let’s take a look at three different setups and how you can squeeze the most audio quality into your recordings.

Going Solo

For whatever reasons — setup time, space restrictions or aesthetics —
sometimes your only audio option is a single or double microphone setup. This could be as simple as a camera-mounted shotgun mic pointed toward the performance. Shotgun microphones are highly directional and will minimize any sound coming from the sides or rear of your camera. But it’s not quite as easy as simply pointing the mic where the camera is aimed to get a quality recording. You’ll find the recorded audio will vary in quality, based on the caliber of your microphone and distance from the performance area. If you’re stuck in the back row of the auditorium, consider running a long microphone cable from your camera to an area closer to the stage (a balanced XLR cable is best even if you have to use an 1/8″ stereo adapter to make it fit your camcorder; you shouldn’t run an unbalanced cable for more than 25 feet). This should improve your recording while keeping the setup simple. If the entire performance is reinforced by a sound system, try pointing your microphone at the speakers rather than the stage. If you have time, try both options during rehearsal, and choose the one that sounds best.

If you’re shooting a choir, orchestra or play, a better option is a stereo setup. In it’s simplest form, this is a pair of identical microphones, mounted side-by-side on a stand, each facing 45 degrees away from the center of the stage. Often called X/Y Stereo or a Coincident Pair, this technique picks up a broad stereo image of the performance and does a nice job of anchoring performers and instruments across the video sound stage. If possible, these mics should be high above the platform and out in front a couple of rows. There may be objections to a large microphone stand in the middle of the seating area. If so, a lower, closer position will provide better than average sound quality.

Hooking Up

An elaborate performance may require tapping into the sound system for the event. If you don’t know the person running the audio system, contact the person in charge of the facility beforehand and ask if it’s possible to attach your equipment to theirs. Some venues have specific rules for these things and you’ll have to meet their terms for the privilege. If possible, visit the location a day or two in advance to introduce yourself and get familiar with the equipment. You can explain what you’d like to do and ask them the best way to get a mix for your recording.

On the day of the shoot, make sure you have all your adapters on hand. Nothing irritates a sound person more than some unknown (and possibly unwelcome) video geek asking to borrow everything in sight. Mixing consoles may have anything from simple RCA connectors to professional balanced XLRs to feed audio to your camera. You must be prepared for any contingency. Don’t forget, the mixer will output line-level audio and most cameras only accept microphone-level signals. An audio adapter from Studio 1 Productions or BeachTek will quickly solve this problem and many others. Don’t forget a power cord and outlet strip if you need electricity. One last caution: once your gear is hooked up, you may notice some hum in your headphones, or worse, coming from the system speakers. This hum is called a ground-loop and happens when two electrically powered sound devices have different electrical paths. Some audio devices have a ground-lift switch to eliminate this problem. If shooting with a camera power supply, try moving the box away from the audio equipment or plugging into a different outlet. Another option is to shoot the video with your camera on battery power. If you can’t resolve the hum before the event, make sure you have your microphones handy.

The Wireless Maneuver

If all these wires and adapters sound like messy business, perhaps you’d like to try a wireless alternative. First, think about the content of the video. If it’s a solo performer, wireless is a no-brainer. If there are multiple performers — and you only have one mic — consider placing the transmitter pack on the stage. A quick taping of the mic element to the floor turns it into a makeshift boundary mic with a huge pickup pattern. Second, consider the venue. Will they use wireless mics in the performance? If so, you’ll need the ability to change the frequency of your system if it duplicates any of their frequencies. Finally, some wireless packages come with a transmitter that plugs into the XLR connector on standard mics — making any mic a wireless mic. In some situations, you may be able to attach this type of transmitter to the house sound system, allowing you to setup your equipment in a better location, free of ground loops.

Wireless microphones can be a huge help during a video shoot, but they bring their own set of rules and challenges. Fresh batteries are a must for both the transmitter and receiver. Interference is another potential problem, and it’s unlikely you’ll have time to track down the offending device. This is another situation where adjustable frequencies can save your bacon.

Regardless of how you record the audio, holiday videos can turn into priceless mementos. The time and trouble you spend acquiring the best possible sound will pay for itself.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media
producer and technology consultant.

SIDE BAR: Adding A Mixer

A small production mixer can be a real lifesaver when shooting any type of live event. Obviously, it's great for combining several microphones and other sources. You can also use it as an interface between a house sound system and your camera, balancing levels and adjusting tone, if necessary. You can combine this house feed with an audience mic or two to enhance the feel of the video sound. Behringer, Mackie, Yamaha and a dozen other manufacturers offer several alternatives, ranging in price from $100 to $500. There are even a couple of models that run on batteries if you need ultimate portability.

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