Sound Track: Location Audio Preparedness

You’ve probably heard the term "on location" before, and may have even been puzzled by it. "On location" means shooting video (and recording audio) away from the comfy confines of your studio or home. The term implies taking your equipment somewhere else to shoot, then returning to more familiar surroundings to edit.

Your shooting location can be indoors or out, two blocks down the street or 2,000 miles away. Regardless of where you go, on-location shooting often involves a once-in-a-lifetime event. Trying to re-shoot botched video or audio may be incredibly inconvenient, or even impossible. When you’re on location, you want to get things right.

This issue, we’ll look at some ways to help you get the best possible audio from a location shoot. We’ve covered the specifics of indoor and outdoor audio in past issues; these tips cover the nuts and bolts of being prepared before, during and after the shoot. Ready? We’re going on location!

  • Consider portability

    Before the shoot, consider how portable your shooting rig needs to be. If you’re sitting still for the duration of the shoot, you can bring a more elaborate and flexible audio system. This system may include multiple mikes, an audio mixer, a compressor, and even a stand-alone audio recorder.

    I’ve had great luck using a high-end VCR for recording on location. If you are willing to spend the money, an industrial VCR offers you the benefit of manual audio levels. Simply run your mike(s) or mixer into the VCR’s audio inputs, and route your camcorder’s video out to the VCR’s video in. Use an S-video cable if you can, and test your video connections thoroughly. Finally, remember to plug your headphones into the VCR and not the camcorder.

  • Arrive early

    There’s a lot to think about, and remember, on a location shoot, one slip-up can lead to a big disaster. Fighting the clock to get set up in time only makes things that much harder. If possible, arrive at least an hour before you plan to roll tape. Two hours (or more) may be appropriate if you have a very complex system to set up and test.

    A few days before your shoot make sure you can get access to the location. This may involve acquiring keys from a management office, or enlisting the help of a janitor or groundskeeper. If you don’t call in advance, you may spend your precious setup time waiting for someone to arrive and let you in. Remember–you can never be too prepared, and you can’t have too much setup time on your hands.

  • Arrive equipped

    Whole shoots have been shut down for the lack of one tiny audio adapter or cable. Avoid such a disaster by making sure you have all the adapters, connectors, cables and batteries you need. A generic packing checklist (or a more specific one created the night before) can help insure that everything you need makes it to the shoot. A good mental exercise is to follow your signal path from microphone to recorder, making sure you have each necessary cable and gadget along the way.

    Because we live in an imperfect world, having one of everything isn’t enough. You should also carry at least one backup for every key piece in your audio system. This means having a spare microphone or two, spare cables of all types, extra adapters, an extra lavalier windscreen and clip, and plenty of spare batteries. You’ll invest a little more money in this audio survival kit, but you’ll never regret it when (not if) something breaks.

  • Record some natural sound

    After you’re all set up, roll some tape and capture the natural ambience of the location. This sonic "picture" of the shooting location can be handy for smoothing out edits or adding ambience to something recorded later. It’s best to do this before too many people show up, if possible.

    A handheld microphone is probably the best choice for recording nat sound, as the on-camera mike may pick up excessive motor noises. Likewise, an inexpensive wireless mike may generate enough hiss to be objectionable. Recording a few minutes of natural sound will also allow you to test a few key components in your audio signal chain.

  • Test everything

    Though there’s no sure-fire way to avoid something dying mid-shoot, there’s no excuse for starting the shoot with defunct equipment. Plan some time to test every component in your audio setup, from microphone to recorder. The easiest way to do this is simply have somebody speak into your handheld mike, lavalier or camcorder and listen with headphones. If you have signal at the last device in your signal chain, you should end up with signal on tape. To be sure, roll a few minutes of audio and play the tape back.

    If something is not working, start down a mental troubleshooting list. Is everything turned on? Are there any meters or peak lights flickering on your audio mixer or recorder (if used)? Does wiggling a cable help? If it does, you probably have a problem with a cable or input jack connection. If you’ve got several audio components between microphone and recorder, plug your headphones into every available phone output. Soon enough, you’ll know where your audio is disappearing and you can address the problem.

  • Monitor diligently

    Assuming your pre-flight check went smoothly, you’re ready to shoot. Keep extremely close tabs on your audio. Listen to your audio with headphones constantly, making sure the signal doesn’t disappear momentarily or get ransacked by some unwanted noise.

    If you hear an objectionable sound and can redo a take, do so. If you can’t redo the problem spot, begin thinking of what else you could record (if anything) to cover the glitch. Some problems to listen for include signal dropouts, untimely coughs or sneezes, breath pops or rustling clothing on a lavalier mike, interference from a high-powered CB or other radio signal and distorted audio.

  • Watch your levels

    In addition to listening for dropouts and unwanted noises, keep close tabs on your record levels if your system offers manual level controls. Too strong a signal can make for disastrous distortion, and too weak a signal can cause noise problems down the road. Shoot for a signal that kicks the audio meters a few indicators from the top, and back your levels down if red lights begin flashing.

    Another problem is the slow, insidious change in level. A speaker may begin with a great deal of enthusiasm, only to get quieter and quieter as time goes on. It’s hard to hear slow changes like this, so you have to try to catch the difference on your meters. Doing a small, slow increase in record level every few minutes will compensate. If you don’t catch the sagging levels, you’ll run the risks of having obvious jumps in your volume when you edit different sections together.

  • Record some sound effects

    When you’re done shooting, you’re not done. Think about what you just recorded, and try to visualize any sounds that might enhance the video. Stage a little sound effects session to record some of these sounds before you leave.

    Did your hero run through a room with machinery? Record some loud, up-close machine sounds to add into that scene. Did an assistant answer the phone? Record the sound of a ringing phone. Other valuable sounds could include the clack of a keyboard, the "ding" of a hotel elevator, traffic noise, cafeteria chatter, the crunching of feet through gravel or the roar of a car motor. Tastefully used, these little audio tidbits will make your production all the more engaging.

  • Use checklists

    Finally, make up a few checklists to help you with every phase of your shoot. It’s all too easy to forget crucial steps in a location shoot, especially if there’s some pressure involved. Type a checklist, edit to suit and print it on half a sheet of standard paper. Print up a stack if you want the checklist to be disposable, or have it laminated for permanent use. Keep the checklist in your camera case, goodie bag or other key location. To stay organized, check items off your checklist along the way. This will make your location shoot go much better.

    Location, Location, Location

    Getting excellent audio and video during an on location shoot needn’t be a scary proposition. You simply have to think ahead, and make sure you’re prepared each step of the way. When problems arise (and they will), good preparation will help you handle them in stride.

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