The Sound Recordist

There are (very roughly) four different ways of recording sound:
  • Microphone on the camera
  • Microphone plugged into the camera
  • Microphone plugged into a small mixer which is plugged into the camera
  • Microphone plugged into a separate recorder

Amateur low-budget production

If you’re shooting on a really basic device, maybe a mobile telephone, you don’t really have much control over things. But try to make the edit easy by: Shooting in as quiet a location as possible. Obviously you can’t do much about the background roar if your story is about traffic, but try to get away from the worst. Avoid ‘live’ rooms: when you arrive at an interior, clap your hands and listen. If the clap is short and muffled, good; if it reverberates round the room, try to find an alternative. Get the camera as close to the mouth (or other sound source) as possible. If you have to shoot in a very live room, get everybody to bring a thick quilt or duvet. Strung between two stands behind and/or to the sides of the camera, they can help quite a bit. If you can, listen to the incoming sound as you rehearse and record. Now and again close your eyes and make sure the sound is clean.

With a separate microphone

Most of the above list holds true, except for rule 5. But that still applies in another way – you still want to get the microphone as close to the sound source as possible. First, if you’re recording via a mixer straight onto the camera, you’ll probably have to do some sort of set-up to make sure that the levels agree. Consult the various instruction books for details. Use a good directional microphone if you can afford it. Maybe rent one if your shoot is short. The standard workhorse on many locations is the Sennheiser 416. It’s expensive, but other makers have cheaper options. Google for recommendations. Here’s a tame Sennheiser on the left in a shockproof mount; in a jacket that cuts down on wind noise in the middle, and in a furry wrap to almost eliminate wind on the right. Useless fact number forty-two: the furry coat is called a ‘Dougal’.
If you’re doing close shots, the best place for the microphone is on the opposite side of the camera from the keylight (or sun) and just out of the bottom of shot. When the cameraman has framed the shot, stick your microphone right up into the middle of shot. The cameraman should notice! He’ll wave you lower and lower until the shot is clear. Note where your microphone is against the background, maybe dipping it slightly for safety. For anything much wider than a two-shot (two people), you’re almost certain to need a boom. A telescopic carbon fibre boom with all the bells and whistles can be very expensive, so you may want to try to make something. The difficult bit will be connecting to the microphone.
The easiest way to hold the thing is like this. And it’s wrong! You’ll almost certainly get the arm of the boom into shot.



Hold the boom like this. It’s very, very tiring. But it won’t appear in shot. And if you’re using a home-made device, try wearing a pair of thin cotton gloves; they’ll cut down on the handling noise quite a lot.

Placing is the same as before: the side of the camera opposite the key, and drop it into shot, not raise it! And as soon as you’ve noted the correct place, park the boom on the floor with the microphone upwards, ready to rush it back into position for a rehearsal.

Don’t ask for level

If you ask for level, you’ll get, “Hello, one two three, hello.” Far louder than the real performance. Adjust your recording level during rehearsal. And then reduce it a tiny bit if you’re working with amateur performers; they almost always get bigger and louder on a take.

Remember to record silence

I’m serious. Before you move on from any setup, ask for silence – you want to do a buzz track (called room tone in some countries). Place the microphone in the same place as for the master shot, and record forty seconds to a minute of ‘nothing’. You’d be surprised at how much noise there in in silence – traffic, of course, air-conditioning noises, barking dogs, church bells, telephones, etc, etc. Your ‘silence’ could be a life-saver during the edit. If you want to know how, read the edit section! There’s much more to recording sound, but that’s enough to start you off.