Sound Advice: Sounding it Out(doors)

Shooting outdoors is often a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you’ve usually got plenty of light, thanks to the sun and you usually have plenty of space in which to move. On the other hand, because you are outside, you have to contend with an unpredictable environment. Obviously, bad weather can throw a considerable wrench into your shooting situation. But there are a number of manmade audio obstacles that you might experience outdoors too.

So how do you get good sound when shooting in the great outdoors? Let’s look at a series of problems that accompany outdoor shooting and discuss solutions to neutralize them quickly and effectively so can record the best quality sound possible.


The Big Blow

Problem – Wind Noise: Sometimes you may feel as if Mother Nature is playing the Big Bad Wolf; she’ll huff and she’ll puff and she’ll try to blow your shoot down. Gusty winds can wreak havoc with your audio by introducing the sounds of turbulence to your soundtrack. As wind moves across your microphones, the turbulence that results is recorded as a loud, static-like thumping sound. Not only will it be annoying, it will drown out any other sounds you may actually be trying to record. In addition, wind noise plays games with your camcorder’s automatic gain control (AGC). AGC automatically adjusts your camcorder’s audio levels to the loudest sound in the environment. Your automatic gain system cannot distinguish between the sound of the wind and the sound of your subject’s voice: to your AGC, wind noise is simply sound. When a gust of wind hits the mike, the system will drop your levels to compensate for the loud sound of the wind. As a result, your levels will rise and fall at the whim of the wind, and your subject’s voice will be lost in the torrent.



Solution – Sock it, Block it or Move:

Fortunately, dealing with wind noise is relatively easy. First, head out to your local A/V store and buy a foam windscreen for your mike. You know, those puffy foam covers that you see on the hand-held mikes that reporters and singers use. They’re inexpensive and they eliminate a good deal of wind noise. In a pinch you can grab a sock from your dresser drawer and put it over your mike. You would be surprised at how well it works to dampen the wind’s turbulence. Of course, showing your tube-socked mike on screen could blow your reporter’s credibility.

If a windscreen doesn’t do the trick, try to rotate your setup (including mike, subject and camera) so that the wind doesn’t blow across the microphone. If you are using a handheld or lavaliere mike, turn your talent’s back to the wind. The talent’s body blocks the wind and reduces wind noise. If you are using a camera-mounted mike, turn the camera operator’s back to the wind. Re-orienting your setup may be all you need to do to deal with the problem.

In some cases turning your setup to compensate for wind direction isn’t an option. The whole point of shooting at Niagara Falls is to have the falls in the shot. Rotating would ruin your composition. In cases like this, have someone hold up a reflector, some foam core or a piece of cardboard to shield the microphone from the wind’s flow. Just make sure that you keep it out of the shot.


Quiet on the Set!

Problem – Neighborhood Noise: What if there’s a noisy racket happening in the background while you’re trying to shoot? You probably don’t have enough clout with the public to get them to stop mowing their lawns or riding their motorcycles, and you certainly can’t relocate the local fauna just to accommodate your shoot.



Solution – Include it, Elude it or Re-shoot it: You have to get clever about dealing with undesirable ambient noise. Many times, ambient sound can work in your favor. It may not be bad to hear birds chirping, or children laughing and playing in the background. A simple and clever way to solve ambient noise problems is to either include the noisemaker(s) in the shot, or shoot footage of them to add in editing later as "local color." This would give the illusion that the ambient noise on the soundtrack is intentional, and if you shoot with this in mind, who is to say that it isn’t? Once you show the source of the noise on screen, the viewer will be less distracted by its sound.

If you decide that you don’t want the ambient noise, you would be better off using an external hand-held or a lavaliere microphone. The closer the microphone is to the subject, the better it picks up the subject’s voice and the less it picks up other sounds. Getting the microphone as close to the subject as possible may be the best way to eliminate background noise and is a good rule of thumb for any shoot.

An outdoor situation like this practically begs you to think about the pick-up pattern of your microphone (see Pickup Patterns sidebar). Omnidirectional microphones pick up more ambient noise than bi-directional microphones. Highly directional mikes pick up even less ambient noise. If you own a good-quality, highly directional microphone, you can attach it to a boom pole and position it above your talent, pointing down towards the ground and pick up a minimal amount of background noise . Mount the same mike on your camera and it will pick up sounds coming from behind your subject .

If you are forced to use a camera-mounted mike and the ambient noise is coming from a specific location, like a highway or a waterfall, try rotating your setup to elude the offensive noise. In many cases, rotating your setup 180 degrees will cut down on the amount of offensive ambient sound that the mike picks up. If you want to include that highway or waterfall in your shot with your talent, you had better re-think using the camera mike.

Unfortunately, if all else fails, sometimes the easiest thing for you to do is to pack it in until your shooting environment gets a little quieter.


Across the Divide

Problem – Distance: You need to shoot your talent across a busy street or on the other side of a stream. How do you record your talent’s audio without your talent shouting to be heard?



Solution – Cut the Cord: Your only choice in this case is to use a wireless mike. In this way, the mike is close to your talent and there are no messy, potentially dangerous connecting wires.


Radio Interference

Problem – Static, Buzz or Hum: Your wireless mike picks up static, buzz or a hum that keeps cutting into your audio.



Solution – Lug it, Tug it or Plug it: One drawback to using wireless microphones is RF (radio frequency) interference. These microphones transmit back to their home station (connected to your camcorder) via radio waves. If there is a strong source of radio emissions nearby, you may find the signal from your mike to be unusable. Try changing the relationship between mike and receiver, this may be as easy as lugging your gear a few feet one way or the other. A small shift in position can reduce or even eliminate most RF interference.

Loose connections can create a buzz in your soundtrack. If you hear a buzz, check your connections. Your problem may have a bad cable or adapter. Listen through your headphones as you gently tug on your connections. If your buzz changes or disappears, you’ve found the culprit.

Sometimes the equipment that your using just isn’t shielded enough to block RF on a certain frequency in a given area. Unless your camcorder and subject are separated by a freeway or body of water, opt for a wired mike instead.



Keeping Sound in Mind

The great outdoors lures many a promising videographer with its wide-open spaces and abundance of natural light. The sounds of the outdoors, however, can come between you and your quest

for clear audio. There will always be unexpected situations when recording audio in the great outdoors. With a bit of planning and some improvisation, however, you can bypass the worst efforts of Mother Nature as she works to thwart your soundtrack. Have a variety of microphones handy and a handful of useful supplies, such as foam windscreens, cardboard, socks, etc., and your audio will always come in loud and clear.

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