Sound Advice: 10 Tips for Better Audio Gathering

Video production can be quite complicated sometimes. Just learning and understanding all the features on your camera is a daunting task. Add to the fun all the audio tips and hints you’ve collected over the years. What if there were just a handful of things you had to remember about recording audio for your videos? While this list is by no means complete, paying attention to these 10 simple items will assure better audio in your productions.

1. Think Outside the Camcorder

The simplest way to improve your recorded audio is to invest in an external microphone. Let’s face it: the built-in microphone on virtually every camcorder is barely adequate for a simple document of an event, let alone production-quality sound. There are several types of external microphones, from simple lapel mikes and handheld models to pole-mounted shotgun mikes and even wireless versions. Start with a microphone that suits the type of video you shoot most often, then build from there. Of course, before you make a purchase, be sure your camcorder has a jack for an external microphone – not all cameras do.

2. Use the Right Tool for the Job

A carpenter would never use a saw to pound a nail or a hammer to drive a screw. In the same way, each of your microphone options are well suited for certain tasks, but perform poorly in others. For instance, if you shoot a lot of interviews, a simple lapel microphone provides an inexpensive way to get clean audio into your camera. However, in an outdoor shoot, that same lapel microphone may be swamped with background or wind noise, and your recorded audio will suffer. The addition of a shotgun and/or a handheld microphone will round out your choices, provide a great deal more flexibility and bring home the sound you intended to record.

3. Know your Equipment

You just got a new Gizmotron 2000 wireless kit in the mail and you can’t wait to try it. The shoot you have scheduled in 30 minutes is not the ideal setting to smoke test your new toy. Wireless mikes are a particular temptation, but carry the highest potential for failure during the shoot. Are you certain you have all the adapter cables necessary to attach your new equipment? What about interference? Do the batteries need charging? Some simple testing prior to a shoot will identify possible problems, and the time spent will give you a comfort level with the new equipment that will help the real shoot go smoothly.

4. Get a Handle on Background Noise

There are those rare occasions when background noise will compliment a video, however, most of the time it’s your enemy. These nasty noises come from everywhere – traffic, machinery, air conditioning and even nature all contribute to the level of background noise in your video. By scouting the location ahead of time, you may be able to spot these noisemakers before the shoot. Even if you can’t control them, knowing the source can help with your setup and even microphone choice. When using directional microphones, leverage their sound canceling characteristics and aim the sensitive side away from the noise. When using a lapel or other omni-directional microphone, try to block some of the noise with the subject’s body or simply get the microphone closer to your subject’s mouth.

5. Listen Up

A good pair of headphones will help you get the best sound possible, not only by allowing you to hear the effects of your microphone choices and placement, but also by helping spot potential audio problems before you hit the record button. A partially connected cable or a dead battery can cause a low-level hum or buzz from your audio – or maybe no audio at all. With your trusty headphones, you can identify the problem and affect the necessary repairs before it’s too late. Even a simple pair of lightweight headphones will work, but spring for the larger ones that better isolate you from distracting noises. It’s worth the extra expense.

6. Invest in Foam

No, I’m not shilling for the urethane consortium, I’m simply suggesting the purchase and use of a foam windscreen. Whether for small lapel microphones or larger handheld mikes, a simple, inexpensive foam windscreen can make the difference between clear audio and unusable garble. Wind blowing on an unprotected microphone creates a low-frequency rumble that is so loud it masks almost every other sound. By installing a basic windscreen, you minimize the amount of wind that makes it inside the microphone, instantly and dramatically improving the audio quality. Music stores often sell a rainbow of windscreen colors but, if you’ll take a look at network television, black and charcoal gray are the preferred colors for video.

7. Learn Your AGC’s

For years, camera manufacturers have installed a little circuit in the audio section of every camcorder they make. It’s called AGC (Automatic Gain Control). The idea is to have the circuit listen to the incoming audio and make volume adjustments based on how loud or soft the sound is. This is one of those things that looks great on paper, but doesn’t quite work in the real world. For sound sources that are constant, the circuit works fine, but when you have alternating loud sounds with long pauses, such as during a dialog, the AGC turns the gain way up during the pause. Then, when the dialog continues, your audience will leap out of their seats as the AGC doesn’t turn the gain back down quickly enough. Sometimes, you can compensate for these fluctuations in post-production, but simply knowing the AGC is there, and it’s effect on your audio, can be helpful. Whenever possible, have the subject answer in complete sentences or thoughts. Loud laughing will lower the AGC volume so that any dialog after the laugh will be difficult to hear. You’ll spend longer shooting around the AGC, but you’ll more than make up the time during editing.

8. Know the Talent

Walking in cold to shoot a video is often uncomfortable, for both you and those in the video. Spend some time with your subjects before the shoot. Listen to their voices and vocal inflections. Are they funny and boisterous or timid and shy? Watch as they interact with others to see how they guard their personal space. Some people don’t like to be touched. The process of hiding a lapel microphone and cable in their clothing could unnerve them for the whole shoot. Using these observations can help you make microphone selection decisions and put the subjects at ease. With comfortable talent, you’ll get better audio and video.

9. Have Plan B Waiting

Everyone knows Murphy’s Law; If anything can go wrong, it will. I believe Murphy was a videographer. To minimize the effects of his law, make sure you always have another way to get your audio recorded. This means having more than one microphone in your camera bag. Spare cables and batteries are a big help in a pinch. This practice extends to having another type of microphone available. If you’re shooting with lapel mikes, bring a shotgun too just for insurance. If anything has ever broken or quit on you in the past, bring a spare. And don’t forget the gaffer’s tape.

10. Adapt and Conquer

It is notoriously difficult to attach audio equipment to video gear – especially prosumer equipment. Often, the only way to get external audio into the camera is a fragile 1/8-inch mini-plug. From there, you have to attach balanced and unbalanced microphones, wireless receivers, audio mixers and even computers. You can fill an entire section of your camera bag with all the possible adapter combinations and still end up short on a given shoot. First, make sure you have everything necessary to attach your microphones, then consider all the other audio sources and volume levels you’ll deal with. A couple of companies make external boxes that match connectors and audio levels for you. They may seem expensive, but convenience and piece of mind are priceless.

Know Your Audience

Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost in all the technology and accessories and lose sight of the finished product. Step back for a moment and take an objective view of your project from an audio standpoint. Are you using appropriate microphones for the project? What part will your audio play in the finished product? On some projects, any expense is justified to get the best possible audio. But sometimes much of the technology we use is unnecessary. Do you really need a 32-channel audio mixer and 12 wireless microphones for the shoot or will a simple wired shotgun microphone do the job? Sometimes, less really is more.

Top Tip

Are ten tips still too many to remember? Here’s the one most important Top Tip for Good Audio:

Get the microphone close to your subject.

Traveling In Style

You’ve got all your equipment together and you’re prepared for anything audio that may come your way. But where does all this stuff go and how will you pack it? I know all my audio gear won’t fit in my camera bag, and that doesn’t even count my wireless stuff and mixer. Maybe it’s time to ditch the milk crates and invest in a separate bag strictly for audio equipment. With some adaptation, you can modify an inexpensive piece of carry-on luggage to safely store and transport your audio equipment. Don’t forget some Velcro straps for microphone cables and maybe some duct tape for emergencies. Just don’t leave tape on your cables for any amount of time – the sticky goo it leaves behind will get on everything.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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