Sound Track: Seven Studies in Superlative Sound

Simple tips for better sound from common shooting situations.

For every dramatic epic, sci-fi thriller or clay animation masterpiece shot by the video zealot, the rest of us turn out countless thousands of videos of more standard fare. You know the stuff: sales presentations, weddings, reunions, sporting events and the like. Whether grizzled veteran or camcorder newbie, you’ve probably shot your fair share of such videos.

Luckily, there are a few simple principles and techniques you can lean on the next time you’re shooting one of these "stock" video events. None of them require a college degree, scientific calculator or fancy microphone.

  1. Meeting of the Minds

    When people need to learn something or sell something, they’re often compelled to assemble in a cramped room and sit on really uncomfortable chairs. If the lecture, seminar or sales meeting is dull enough, they will inevitably record the event onto video for later enjoyment.

    As documentarians of events both great and small, our job is to capture an accurate record of the presentation. In the case of lectures, seminars and meetings, intelligible audio is of the utmost importance. When taping these events, you need to be using your ears as much as your eyes.

    The golden rule of sound recording applies in these instances: get close. The closer you can get to the speaker (or a speaker), the better the resulting sound. In small rooms with no sound system, this may mean putting up a tripod at the outer edge of one of the first rows. Another option is to hand-hold the camcorder from the first or second row. If there’s a sound system, try to position your camcorder near one of the public address speakers

    Regardless of the size of the room or presence of a sound system, you’ll want to stay as far as possible from unwanted noises. If there’s a coffee table near the back of the room, get as far from it as possible (as people sometimes camp out there and talk). Doors, water coolers, heating/AC vents and literature tables are other noisy spots worth avoiding.

  2. Music to Your Mike

    Musical performances and concerts are great events for capturing with a camcorder. And like many other events we’ll cover here, what your camcorder’s mike picks up at a concert is as important as what the lens records (if not more important).

    Most concerts are amplified by a sound system of some kind, often quite large and very loud. When recording an especially loud concert, bear in mind your camcorder may not be able to record the sound without distortion. The solution is to stay a safe distance from the speakers–the louder they are, the further you should hang back.

    Many sound companies amplify concerts in stereo, which can make for a broad, spacious sound when captured with a stereo camcorder. Try to stay near the middle of the audience when recording in stereo. You’ll often find the best balance of sound near where the soundperson is mixing the concert, since he’s adjusting things based on what he hears from that position.

  3. They Do

    Is there any event more frequently recorded than the wedding? Is there anything more maddening than a "silent" wedding video? Unfortunately, the hushed vows and intimate whispers of the wedding celebration make it extremely hard to videotape well.

    The "get close" audio rule is your only hope for capturing the event. Ask for special graces from the bride or groom, and sit in the front row. If you can perch your camcorder on a tripod near the couple, you’ll get even better sound. If the bride and groom are miked and amplified by a sound system, you may be better off positioning your camcorder near a speaker.

    Your camcorder will fare better at the reception, where there’s generally plenty of volume to work with. If there’s a band or DJ at the reception, try to record at least one song in its entirety. This avoids abrupt (and awkward) stops and starts in the music. You can roam the floor while the song is playing to capture shots of several dancers and other guests.

  4. Basket, Blanket, Bugs

    Outdoor picnics and reunions are fun to videotape. Capturing good-sounding video usually requires little more than a keen ear for unwanted noises and a commitment to shoot close to your subjects.

    If you’re trying to capture a conversation or someone talking to the camcorder, listen for unwanted noises. Point your camcorder away from any ruckus, or move to a different location. The same goes for loud AC units on the sides of buildings, hissing fountains and kids’ playgrounds.

    Wind can cause problems when shooting outdoors, and your camcorder’s wind switch (if it has one) is a compromise at best. If you must shoot in windy conditions, move to the downwind side of a building or grove of trees. Any large structure that will block the wind will make a big difference in your audio.

  5. Batter Up!

    The fast action, enthusiasm and competition of sporting events make them a popular subject for videotaping. Clean audio is rarely a problem at such events, as the camcorder’s mike easily picks up everything from the roar of the crowd to the voice of the announcer.

    The first thing to consider is to avoid any noises that would ruin your enjoyment of the tape. This may be a chatty couple sitting directly behind you, a noisy tailgate party nearby or an overly enthusiastic fan three rows away.

    Keep in mind that every location will give you a different aural perspective on the game. If fan reaction is important to you, stay in the stands. Want to pick up the energetic voice of a football or baseball coach, or the comments of the players? Find a way to get down on the field or near the dugout. If capturing clean commentary from an announcer is crucial, position your camcorder near a public address speaker.

  6. The Great Outdoors

    Camping videos are great for reliving the relaxed wonder of a wilderness excursion. Instead of running from noisemakers, you can concentrate your energies on recording sounds that really capture the camping experience.

    Consider the sounds that make camping so special, and go out of your way to record them. Set up your camcorder by a babbling brook, and shoot a few minutes worth of water sounds. Recording a pounding waterfall will give you a dramatic soundtrack of nature’s power, while the sound of a crackling fire will evoke memories of warm toes and hot food. Capture the sounds of birds and animals whenever you hear them. Even the sound of hiking boots crunching through fall leaves will bring back vivid memories of your trip.

  7. Social Hour

    Social events and parties offer unique opportunities to capture people at their jovial best. Though waltzing through the crowd and shooting at will may seem like the obvious approach, there are a few other things to consider to insure the best sounding video.

    Because there’s often a lot of noise bouncing around at social events, you’ll need to get close to your subject for clean sound. Distant shots are fine for capturing the overall ambience of the event, but you’ll want to be within a few feet of anyone talking directly to the camcorder. This also applies for people making toasts or announcements–you’ll generally want to position yourself quite close to them.

    A big part of capturing a good social event video is being in the right place at the right time. Even if there’s no set schedule, someone can probably give you a rough idea of what will be happening when. Armed with this information, you can position yourself close to where the action is for the cleanest possible audio.

Listen Up

By now, you’ve probably identified a few key concepts that appear in almost every situation listed above. They are: get close, avoid distracting noises and try to hear what your camcorder hears. Put these principle in action the next time you shoot an event, and your video will sound as good as it looks.

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