Have you ever spent hours trying to get a perfect outdoor shot, only to find
the audio consists of nothing more than freeway noise, wind and the far off
barking of a dog? Don’t be discouraged — clear, quality outdoor audio can be
difficult to achieve. But with just a little forethought and the information
given here, you can come back with the best possible audio every time, even if
the elements conspire against you.
Equipment failure is one of the worst things that can happen on any kind of
shoot. When shooting in a studio, if something goes wrong with a piece of
equipment there is usually something else around to replace it. But in the
great outdoors you have nothing more than what you brought with you. If
something stops working, it can bring your shoot to a dead halt.
Most videomakers are under-equipped for outdoor shooting. If you’re getting
great sound from your expensive directional mike, but your mike cable gives up
and it’s the only one you have, then what? You’ll have to switch to the
camcorder mike and risk the drop in sound quality. Or what if the batteries in
your expensive directional mike give up and the closest replacements are at a
drug store twenty miles away?
You can prevent all of these problems by carrying just a little extra gear.
One or even two extra mike cables is a good idea. Consider an extra cable for
every two mikes you carry. And be sure to carry an extra mike. Some mikes,
especially dynamics, are very tough and seem to last forever. But they can
fail, and will always choose to do so when you need them most. It’s surprising
how many people think that one set of new batteries for each shoot are all
that’s required and forget that batteries can actually wear out in the middle
of the shoot. Extra batteries for condenser and wireless mikes, two sets,
provide cheap insurance for your audio.
Try to carry at least one spare of every item you’re going to use. If you’re
just shooting with a camcorder, carry at least a spare external mike, a spare
battery and a spare cable.
Choice of microphone depends on what you’re shooting. You can easily record
someone standing still or speaking at a podium with a cabled mike on a stand.
But someone walking across a football field presents a different challenge.
Probably the worst mike for shooting outdoors is the built in mike in your
camcorder. First, you can’t disconnect it from the camcorder, making it sound
distant from any outdoor sound source. Second, and more importantly, many built
in camcorder mikes have omnidirectional pickup patterns. This means they
pick up sounds equally from all directions.
Thus traffic on the road behind you may end up just as loud as the talent
you’re shooting. However, the omnidirectional has its place, especially in
quiet locations where a large group of people are exchanging dialog.
Probably the best choice of mike for use on or near the camera are those with
unidirectional or supercardioid (highly directional) pickup
patterns. By design, these mikes are more sensitive to sounds coming from
directly in front of the camcorder. In our previous example, a directional mike
would cancel out most of the sound of the traffic behind you. Or have your
talent hold a directional mike for even better noise rejection.
Commonly called shotgun mikes, these highly directional mikes can be
camcorder mounted, hand held or even mounted on a boom to get them closer to
the sound source. Shotgun mikes generally use a small internal battery, so make
sure to heed the above warnings and carry extras.
If you don’t have a shotgun mike, you might consider using a parabolic
reflector–a bowl-like plastic device which surrounds the mike. You mount your
mike in front of the reflector pointing back towards its center, and the
combination works as an extremely unidirectional mike. Sound comes into the
reflector, and is bounced directly into the microphone.
You may have seen someone holding this setup on the sidelines of a national
football game–that’s how you can hear the referee on the field when he’s not
carrying a mike. The parabolic reflector will cut out all ambient sound 2except
that directly in front of it. But there is a drawback: parabolic reflectors
often have a tinny or hollow sound.
Sometimes your speaking talent may be far off in the distance, or framed in
such a way that a sound recordist or mike stand would be clearly visible in the
shot. Or perhaps the talent’s movements will not allow good sound from a
handheld mike. In this case, the wireless lavalier mike is an excellent
choice. You can hide one completely in the talent’s clothing, or clip it
inconspicuously to a dark shirt or blouse.
One advantage of the wireless lavalier is that it stays right at the sound
source and produces full, strong audio. Because lavalier mikes are impossible
to “aim,” they use an omnidirectional pattern. Place it too far from your
talent’s mouth, and it may pick up unwanted sounds. All wireless mikes used
outdoors require batteries for the mike as well as the receiver, so once again:
carry extra batteries! Wireless mikes are available with different frequencies
if you need to use more than one at a time.
All mikes, regardless of type, pick up wind noise when used outdoors. You can
minimize this with a wind sock. A wind sock is a cover, usually made of
foam, that slips over the front of the mike. They come in all sizes to fit all
types of mikes (even tiny lavaliers) and generic ones are cheap. Professional
sound recordists use large, furry wind socks called “blimps.” While more
expensive than a normal foam wind sock, they offer the utmost in wind
protection. Either style of wind sock is good insurance on any outdoor shoot.
Mix It Up
Even with a single input on your camcorder it is often desirable to have more
than one sound source coming in for recording. Often two people walking closely
together in the distance can share one wireless mike. But what about a shot
where an announcer in the foreground is speaking into a handheld mike, and
twenty yards behind him two football players (both wearing wireless lavaliers)
are arguing the finer points of the game? You want all three sound sources on
your audio but you only have one input. The answer is the portable audio
With a portable audio mixer, you can connect multiple sound sources to your
one camcorder sound input. This means you can combine (or “mix”) the sound from
the two arguing football players with the announcer’s foreground babble.
Portable audio mixers come in many shapes and sizes. The average mixer has four
mike inputs and two outputs (for stereo, switchable to mono). They usually
offer both A/C and battery power. Need I mention extra batteries again?
One problem with sending a mixer output to a camcorder input is matching
signal levels. The camcorder input takes very weak mike level signals. The
mixer output, on the other hand, is most often a much stronger line level.
Plugging the mixer output directly into the camcorder mike input will cause
major distortion in the audio.
Some mixers have a switch which sets the output to a mike level signal, but if
yours does not do this, then you must use an attenuator. An attenuator
is a device which places a resistor in the line between the camcorder input and
the mixer output. This cuts the mixer’s output down to a level usable by the
Another problem is the built in AGC (automatic gain control) in your
camcorder. This circuit automatically sets your audio recording levels. AGC
will bring up the volume of noise in the silence between bursts of dialog. In
any event, you have to live with it unless your camcorder is top of the line
and has its own level controls.
Earphones are one of the most important items you can carry to an outdoor
shoot. The only failsafe for everything discussed so far is a good set
of earphones. A videomaker will realize this the first time he or she returns
from a seemingly good shoot (without earphones) to find no audio on the tape
because of a dead battery or bad cable. Earphones would have alerted them to
the problem instantly. But it is not enough to bring the earphones with
you; you must learn to actually listen to them! It’s surprising what the
unwary videomaker fails to hear during the excitement of the shoot.
Which brings us to the outdoor videomakers biggest nightmare: ambient sound.
Ambient sound (noise that occurs naturally in an environment) is everywhere.
Ambient sound is on the loudest sports playing fields and in the quietest
rooms, and it’s one of the audio technician’s worst enemies. While ambient
sound supplies the ear with valuable information about a locale, it can
overwhelm the desired sound if not controlled.
Some ambient sound is controllable. You can turn off air conditioners
and move vehicles. If you can’t shut off a very loud sound source, there is
usually little you can do about it short of relocating your shoot. This is what
most people do if the source of the ambience can’t (or won’t) move.
Sometimes you will overlook ambience until it’s too late. Once you set a good
level for your talent in the earphones, the purr of an airplane passing
overhead may not be easily detectable. But you will surely hear it on playback,
so you must learn to listen for it on the shoot.
The supercardioid and unidirectional mikes already mentioned help you fight
ambient sound due to their cancellation effect. Careful miking and level
setting will help, too. It’s important to note that some ambient sound helps
your recording by maintaining a natural audio continuity. You don’t want your
talent to speak in an atmosphere of complete silence unless the situation calls
for it. For example: if a couple were chatting beside a creek, you would expect
to hear the sound of flowing water, and perhaps birds chirping in the trees.
It’s your ability to control the volume of these sounds that is important.
Rainwater and audio gear don’t mix well. Permanent damage can result from even
the smallest amount of water, especially to the more delicate condenser mikes.
Rain or shine, bring along a good case for your gear. Call the weather station
to see what the weather will be like during your shoot. And even if the
forecast is fair, don’t forget that it’s never more likely to rain that when
you decide it’s time to fix your roof, wash your car or shoot some video. It
Sometimes your script or event will call for you to shoot in the rain. In such
situations, your best bet is to make sure the rain stays off of every
piece of equipment. Plastic camcorder weather covers work well and have few
negative effects on the camcorder’s operation. But any kind of cover on a mike
does effect its operation by cutting out sounds and muffling the
resulting audio. Instead of wrapping their mikes in plastic, Hollywood sound
engineers place a bent plastic “roof” on booms to keep direct rainfall off the
mikes. Placing a good mike directly in the rain is a poor gamble at best.
Finally, rain makes a lot of ambient sound, and when shooting outdoors
it’s nearly impossible to get away from. It will beat noisily on anything you
place above your microphone or camcorder. If you can do so without trouble,
change your script to shoot in dry weather.
Outdoor audio may sometimes be difficult to record, but clean audio is always
worth the effort. Armed with the right knowledge and the right equipment, you
can overcome most problems discussed in this article.
Just don’t forget those extra batteries!