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Audio Recording

Audio is half of what we do in filmmaking. If it’s bad, then half the film experience has been ruined. Let’s all get better at recording good sound right from the beginning.

Like good lighting, good audio takes a little time and, oddly enough, time up front. Before any lights get placed, maybe even before the camera gets placed, you need to listen to where you are. If you have to, close your eyes and really listen. Microphones unfortunately don’t know what sounds interest us; they record all the ambient noise along with the dialogue. You have to decide what’s OK to record as a background sound and what’s too much to bear. You may have to unplug a motor or electronic device to reduce the background noise. Yes, you can select a shotgun mic to narrow the area that gets recorded, but that's not always a perfect solution. You may have to counsel the director that this isn’t such a great location after all, and she’ll be disappointed with the audio recording later in the edit room. Now’s the time to change something on the set or even move the location elsewhere. Afterwards may be too late, and the old “fix-it-in-post” thing is usually a lie. It’s not going to happen: you just have bad audio.

Once you sign off on the location being OK and have selected the correct mic to use, getting good levels is the next area that might give you trouble. In the old analogue days things were much more forgiving; not so in the digital world. In the past hot levels gave you loud audio. Now when digital audio levels get too hot, you get damaged audio that’s unusable, unfixable, and has to be re-recoded.

Practice reading the levels on your recording device. If you’re using a camcorder with automatic levels, you absolutely need to be wearing headphones in order to know what you’re getting. If it sounds bad, it is bad. If you’re recording dual system (into a flash/wave recorder for instance) you may need to ride the levels during the recording. Don’t forget to “slate” the takes, or at least kept track of them in a notebook so you can account for them later in the edit room. The clap or slap of the slate or even clapping your hands helps sync up the audio tracks with the picture back in the edit room.

Too often the audio recordist is left alone by the director and only later, when it's way too late to make adjustments, are the tracks heard, and you've either got good audio or a big problem. So it is very important that you know what you're doing and have a level of skill warranted by the importance of your task. If you're good at this, you've got a big in on the set, with the director and with the producer.


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