Sound Track: 10 Tips for Better Sound

Easy ways to improve the sound of your next video.

Anyone can pull a camcorder out of the closet and shoot bad video. That’s
simple. It’s shooting good video that takes a bit more effort. The
fact that you’re reading this column indicates that you’d rather shoot good
video than bad video.

Audio is half of the video equation–your camcorder is both an image gatherer
and a sound gatherer. And while it’s relatively simple to imagine how the
tiny image in the viewfinder will look on your 27-inch TV, it’s not so easy
to predict what your video is going to sound like. That’s where we
can help.

This month, we’ll cover 10 tips for better sound. These are suggestions
designed to make sure your audio is clean, powerful and intelligible. You
can benefit from these tips even if you have no special knowledge or equipment–all
you need is a camcorder and a desire to make your video sound better.

1) Keep quiet when you shoot.
Behind the camcorder, you’re usually much closer to its microphone than
whatever you’re shooting. Even though the camcorder’s mike may be pointing
away from you, your proximity makes the camcorder prone to pick up any sound
you make. And the quieter your subject is, the more sensitive your camcorder’s
mike becomes.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than playing back a video to hear every
cough, sniffle and sneeze you made while taping. Even moderately heavy breathing
on your part will be painfully audible with some camcorders. If you must
make some sort of noise, try to remember to pause the camcorder first.

Some people feel compelled to blather from behind the camcorder, keeping
up a running commentary of everything that’s happening in front of the lens.
Unless off-camera commentary is necessary for explanation, this kind of
chatter quickly grows tiring for the viewer. Finally, be careful what you
mutter under your breath while taping–you may discover that your comment
is perfectly audible when you play back the tape.

2) Keep your camcorder quiet.
Ever thought of your camcorder itself as a sound source? It is–that
little technological marvel is full of motors and gears and goodies that
go whir in the night. If your camcorder is straining its mike to
pick up sound in a quiet location, it may pick up plenty of its own internal
noises instead.

The quieter the subject, the quieter you and your camcorder need to be.
When shooting in near-silence, minimize the number of motors at work in
your camcorder. Shut off autofocus (set focus manually) and avoid zooming
when the camera is recording. Pushing buttons can sound like a tap-dance
competition, so try to avoid changing camcorder functions until you pause
the tape.

3) Don’t cut off the speaker’s first word.
When you’re recording someone talking towards the lens, remember that
most camcorders take a moment to actually begin recording after you press
the pause button. If your subject begins speaking the instant you press
the button, you may cut off part of his first word. This is annoying and
there’s no way to go back and fix the problem. Your viewers may enjoy playing
"guess the first word," but it’s a better idea to begin recording
a second or two before someone starts speaking. An easy way to coordinate
the proper time to start speaking is to use hand signals between you and
your subject.


4) Don’t stop recording mid-sentence.
If you’re recording an event where people are talking near the camcorder,
it can be distracting to end the shot right in the middle of a sentence.
Even though the conversation may not be crucial to what they’re seeing,
your viewers will "tune in" to any voice they hear. Waiting for
a logical break in the conversation to stop shooting will make for a smooth
transition between shots.

5) Don’t buy into the zoom mike myth.
When you bought your camcorder, its zoom microphone may have been a
major selling point. Depending on what a salesperson or brochure told you,
you may believe that such a mike allows you to zoom in on the sound of your
subject just like a lens does. While this concept makes for a great sales
pitch, it’s a feature that’s over-marketed and under-engineered.

Because of the fundamental differences between sound and light, no microphone
can match the narrow pickup zone of a fully zoomed camcorder lens. Even
the long, weapon-like shotgun mikes you see professionals using can’t distinguish
a distant subject’s voice from the competing background noise.

To make matters worse, many zoom mikes actually change their pickup characteristics
as the lens zooms in and out. This creates an odd-sounding effect as you
use your zoom lens. If your camcorder has a zoom mike on it, don’t despair.
Instead, disable its auto mode and set the mike at its widest setting for
the best-possible stereo sound. Then, do the only thing that really "zooms
in" on your subject-physically moving closer.

6) Get close to your subject.
If there’s one golden rule of good audio, it’s get close to your
subject
. The world is noisy, with unwanted sounds popping up everywhere.
And as we just established, there’s no effective way to exclude unwanted
noises and focus in on a sound source. Your camcorder’s lens can do it–your
mike can’t.

If you’re hoping to capture crisp sound from a person talking, a musician
playing or a baby babbling, zoom your lens out and move close to the subject.
Distances of a few feet are best, though you might be OK shooting from about
10 feet away if the location isn’t too noisy.

7) Don’t put up with noise.
Knowing that your camcorder mike is going to pick-up every noise in
the area, you need to adopt a "seek and silence" attitude towards
unwanted noises. Any noise you can eliminate makes for cleaner audio. Is
your son playing his stereo loud in the next room? Have him turn it down
for a few minutes. Need to record in the backyard, where a noisy sprinkler
is watering the lawn? Turn it off until you’re done shooting.

If you’re at the mercy of noises beyond your control, you may need to retreat.
Find a location where noise isn’t such a problem, and shoot there. There’s
no disgrace in running away from a noise problem.

8) Avoid very loud sound sources.
Your camcorder has a certain range of sound levels it can handle. At
the quiet end, sounds disappear into noise. At the loud end, sounds become
distorted. One of the most common places to distort your camcorder’s mike
is at a loud music concert. Put your camcorder too close to a speaker, and
you’re virtually guaranteed useless audio.

If your ears are ringing, there’s a good chance your camcorder’s mike isn’t
too happy, either. You can’t really damage the mike with loud sounds (as
you can your ears), but you’ll probably want to move back a good distance
from the sound source.

9) Manage the wind.
Your camcorder’s electronic "solution" to wind noise is a compromise
at best. Electronic wind filters don’t actually eliminate the problem. Instead,
they reduce the mike’s ability to record low-frequency sounds. Wind noise
usually shows up as a low-frequency buffeting, so cutting out the lows will
sometimes help.

Unfortunately, low frequencies are where much of the power and warmth of
your sounds lie. Eliminate the lows, and your audio sounds thin and tinny.
Before you turn on your electronic wind filter, remember your best wind
defense is to avoid it altogether.

If possible, avoid shooting video on blustery days. If you have to shoot
on a windy day, try to move to the downwind side of a building or grove
of trees. Any shelter you can find may reduce the wind enough to capture
good audio.


10) Listen up!
This last tip is the most general–and perhaps most valuable–of the
bunch. Any time you’re shooting, keep an ear open to what the camcorder
is actually recording. Our brains can block out environmental sounds and
noises after a few minutes. Your camcorder’s audio system can’t do this,
and will document every unwanted noise from the drone of an air conditioner
to the tapping of a nervous interviewee.

Try to shut off you brain’s "noise filter" so you can hear like
a camcorder hears. If you hear a noise or other unwanted sound, you can
bet your camcorder will record it.

Sounds Good
Implementing even a few of these suggestions should make a noticeable difference
in the quality of your audio. To really benefit from these tips, type them
onto a piece of paper and tape them to the bottom of your camcorder. Anytime
you are setting up a shot, you’ll see the paper and remind yourself that
audio is half of what you are recording.

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