How to capture dialogue for a narrative film

Our objective as sound operators working on a film set is to record clean narrative dialogue that contributes to a professional and cinematic aesthetic. These projects typically require detailed planning to deliver specific goals. Here’s how to make sure your audio measures up.


Single Track

First, recording dialogue on a single track is a quick and easy approach. After all, as long as the environment and material are free from excessive external noise ( and fairly equal in level and close in proximity) this is a great start. The goal here is to produce a clean recording with relatively little effort.

What you don’t want to is to have to start chopping up a track and splitting into two in an effort to bring to heel unbalanced levels and unwanted sounds. This does not mean that the above isn’t possible or can’t be; just be aware of the potential limitations.

That said, a shotgun mic uses single track recording and can pick up multiple sources by slightly twisting the boom to point the capsule at each source. Likewise, some shotgun microphones are less directional than others. This allows you to split the distance and record your sound sources evenly by leaving it centered.


Multitrack recording presents a slightly higher up-front cost. However, it offers the immediate flexibility and isolation associated with multitrack recordings. These include independent levels, isolated dialogue and flexible post-processing.

Microphone choice

We are going to stay away from handheld and built-in camera microphones for recording dialogue. One essentially becomes a prop and doesn’t suit the purpose of this style of filming. The other won’t capture audio of sufficient quality for professional use.

Movement and blocking

Your focus is always on allowing the talent to work unencumbered and anticipating the freedom of movement that a scene might demand.

Your focus is always on allowing the talent to work unencumbered and anticipating the freedom of movement that a scene might demand.

With that said, tightly framed shots can be recorded using a single shotgun. More open spaces and scenes that require movement might be better served by lavaliers. Environment recordings are best served with stereo microphones.

Shotgun mic

This venerable classic comes in multiple shapes, sizes, and from several manufacturers. Additionally, shotguns are highly directional. Even their less directional variants have tighter patterns than a conventional cardioid microphone.

Multiple lavaliers?

In short, go for it! Lavaliers are discrete, provide excellent capture, and can be used in tandem on multiple people. You can check out our articles on lavalier mic placement and the best ways of keeping lavaliers out of sight.

Stereo Mics

A pair of stereo microphones are an ideal way to capture your set and environment at large. Similarly, I recommend a wired set of either full size or pencil condensers on shock mounts. Usually, these will offer a richer sound and isolation from ambient vibrations. You can use the stereo pair on a field recorder like the Zoom H6, but the resulting recording will sound thinner.

Wireless or wired?

Without wading too deep into this debate, let’s take a practical approach. As long your setup does not cross over your set or location, a portable recorder and wired shotgun microphone will work well.

Lavalier microphones by nature imply a certain amount of distance and should allow for freedom of movement. Therefore, wireless is a better option.

Wired microphones are far more long term investments that age gracefully. Wireless microphones will age quicker by virtue of how often wireless standards and regulations can and do change. Depending on your mileage you might consider leasing wireless equipment if used less frequently.

Keeping Time, Staying in Sync

A clap or slate board is the tried and tested method of synchronizing audio and video. The combination of sharp audible transient and easy to read stripes allow for a tight frame or sample level sync. There are good reasons why we still use clap boards today!

Check, test, one, two…

In brief, there is a time-honored tradition of checking, rechecking and then checking again.

Your preflight checklist will resemble something along these lines:

  • List of equipment: microphones, recorder, cables, boom, wind filters, headphones, power, storage, spares
  • Check or replace the batteries on any recorders of microphones,
  • Don’t forget to pack spares
  • Check your cables either with a cable checker or by plugging them in
  • Confirm you have enough storage, memory cards or hard drive space
  • Capture a test recording

Finally, once on location, your priority is to get set up and to start checking your levels and capturing some background sounds. Environmental sound helps create a realistic ambiance and can sometimes mask unwanted sounds.


This is the last step of your sound check. Make sure you can clearly monitor your recording in real time and that the monitoring level is appropriate to the gain level of your recording. You don’t want to end up recording at too low a gain level and later realize that your headphone levels were set too high. This is an amateur mistake, but it also shows the importance of understanding gain staging.

With that in mind, we recommend a set of higher resistance over the ear headphones. These offer a natural amount of noise reduction by virtue of their design. Plus, avoid active noise canceling headphones because of their tendency to hide or obscure unwanted sounds and give a false sense of sound quality.

Keep an ear out for pervasive ambient sounds like hissing, buzzing, and knocking. Listen for anything that cannot be worked around or chopped out.

What if it sounds bad?

Preventative measures like good monitoring and metering will stop the majority of unwanted sounds. Otherwise, planning ahead for challenging conditions by scheduling around them or arranging additional ADR during post-production helps mitigate your losses.

Blag Ivanov
Blag Ivanov
Blag Ivanov is a contributing editor at Videomaker and works at a software company.

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