The Sound Recordist

In all the excitement about pictures the sound element too often gets forgotten. I’ve actually heard a ‘director’ tell the sound recordist that she didn’t need any sound at all on a shot! What? Even if you intend to cover a shot with commentary, you still need the background noise of whatever’s in the picture – especially if it’s a person speaking. Music’s the same – in most cases the sound track is much improved by the addition of the bird twitter or whatever effect relates to the visual content.But many directors remember the sound recordist’s requirements only after they’ve thought about the shot, the performance, the costume, etc. The Sound Crew (usually these days, just one Sound Recordist) has one of the most difficult jobs on the set.In a radio studio, a post-production Foley suite or in a pop recording session, the Sound Mixer is the key figure in the operation. On a film or television set, the Recordist is only one of many important craftspeople involved. The Sound Department must do its job in harmony with all the others – camera, lighting, design, costume etc.; and must often take a back seat.So the first requirement of a sound person is thick skin. The next is three arms and four eyes. He needs to hold the fishing rod over his head with two hands while he adjust the recording level with the third. He needs to watch the performer(s) making sure his microphone is in the optimum place and at the best angle. While he’s doing that he simultaneously needs to watch the meter on his mixer and keep his fourth eye on the cameraman!

There’s one more piece of gear that needs mentioning here. A good pair of ears. I know it’s obvious, but a good sound recordist must be able to hear nuances in sound that would escape most of us. Until we see hear the thing alongside the picture and think; “Yuk”.

Ears are selective in what they hear; microphones aren’t. For all sorts of physiological reasons we’re able to distinguish the sound we need to hear from the unwanted noise. A microphone doesn’t do that. It hears all sounds just as they are. And, if you’re on location, you hear things but you don’t HEAR them. Something in your brain says, ‘Right. There’s a waterfall over there behind me, I can see it and I can hear it. All’s well with the world’. But when you see the shot on screen you’re suddenly aware of that strange splashing noise; where on earth is that coming from?

A good sound recordist develops the ability to distance himself from the actual location and hear noises that you and I would miss. While the cameraman is setting up a shot and lighting it you’ll see the sound recordist manoeuvring his microphone over the actors’ heads. He’s monitoring not only the sound quality and quantity; he’s trying to get the minimum of extraneous noise from the window, the corridor, the air-conditioning ducts.