Top 3 audio tips for a greater sounding production

Top 3 audio tips for a greater sounding production

It is a known secret that audio almost always get's overlooked in the filmmaking hierarchy. Film critics zero in on the visuals before the audio. Good audio or sound mixing doesn't get acknowledged, but as soon as the audio is bad, it gets pin pointed. Fingers point in one direction, the audio recordist, when earlier on in production, all his audio concerns get ignored on-set. Audio gets ignored so that it doesn't compromise the visuals. Good luck.

Filmmakers complain about the audio quality at an unsalvageable stage like when they come into post production with bad sound. Try as they might, it will still sound crappy. Editing will only make a beautifully recorded audio, better, but if the principle audio is bad to start with, no amount of tweaking can save it. 

I know, I know. You've all heard this before but the mistakes, sadly carry on from generation to generation. Indie filmmakers, I'm talking about you. And yes, I know it's lack of budget that keeps you from getting good audio, so here's my solution:

I scoured around for good audio advice for people on budget. From professional audio recordists on the field to the world wide web and to the small group of indie filmmakers that actually do care about sound. Without further ado, let's get on to point 1;

1:. Filmmakers need to adopt a new mentality

What I've been hearing from the audio guys is that filmmakers need to turn filmmaking on it's head and put audio as priority before visual. Let's face it, crappy audio does tend to make the WHOLE film look low-budget. (Noticed I mention look not sound?). The whole filmmaking philosophy needs to be rethink.

Instead of focusing on the intricate details in the visuals, like (example) " the stairs at the back of the subject to the far left of frame" or "...using an external recorder so that the footage can bypass the camera's in-built compression", why not also consider this for audio; "...placing a mic at specific areas of the set so that it can capture ambient noise, subject A dialogue, subject B dialogue etc" or "...Limiting, as far as possible, the compression of the audio being captured".

A good practice would be to;

  • Be aware of the surroundings of the scene,in audio sense. Plan and spend more time on recording ambient sound, dialogue and other miscellaneous sounds that contribute to the story moving forward. Know what can be done in a foley in post and what needs to be captured on-set. Record the different elements separately.

  • Acknowledge what your device limitations are. Chances are, your onboard mic records more room noise than actual dialogue and the auto gain control on-board the camera includes unwanted noise in the dialogue. Most cameras don't allow full manual control over audio.

  • Record audio in it's most pristine state. Means you should beware of compression. Must record in a tonal range that leaves you a lot of space to tweak in post. Most audio compresses signal frequencies to 44kHz/16 bit when the ideal is 96kHz/24 bit. For tonal range, be wary that your signal provides depth in mid tones etc. The human high range is 6kHz, midrange is around 2.5kHz and remember, you'd want a good signal to noise ratio with the dialogue so if you apply gain to the audio, the noise won't be brought in if you "ramp up" the audio.

  • Rehearse and prepare. Most times, the audio signal ranges, especially for emotional scenes. Make sure the audio recorded doesn't peak. Actors tend to raise their voices higher than rehearsals when it comes to the real recording. Do take note. Go through the flow of the scene and be aware of any part of the dialogue you think will peak. If there are, either you manually control the levels or you communicate to the actor about keeping their dialogue within peak limits. A good parameter would be to set your 0dB to -6dB. This will prevent accidental clipping of audio as well as lessen the noise recorded.
2:. Be creative and experiment with things you have

The second small step forward would be to improvise and explore what available material you have. Personally, as long as I have my Zoom h4N portable recorder, I'm well equipped to try out different possibilities. When I was during my film student days, I'd use my home kareoke microphones plugged into my Zoom h4N to record sound. It's not cardioid I know, but in tight shots, I can just barely sneak it off camera. Or in other instances, i'd attach it to the props, like for example;

Jack enters his house, he is fuming angry at Jill's reluctance to reveal her divorce plans. He hasn't found out up until now. When Jack comes in, Jill immediately shys away from him and heads to the direction of her potted plants in the balcony.

Why haven't you told me about your intentions for a divorce?!


I didn't feel it was necessary...

Nowadays though, I do have, at my disposal, the Sennheiser evolution wireless g3 and a Rode NTG1. Which makes me a happy shooter. These items though, are not mine, but I know a few great friends who do. Off course, favors they do for me, don't go unreturned by me. We keep swapping equipments between each other. Kind souls they are.

Next, If so happens that your budget wouldn't allow portable sound recorders the likes of the Zoom h4N, JuicedLink or Tascam series, then here's what I used to do. Either record in the on-board mic(with a Magic Lantern on it) or through Apple's very own garageband. 

If your budget doesn't allow it, maybe you can try hooking up your iPhone with the iTalk app by Griffin, to your subject. Or if you're like me, perhaps you can hook up one actor with the sennheiser lav and another actor with the iPhone app recorder. Try not to hook up audio straight from the mic unless you really, really need to. Anything's better than the audio capability of your camera.

This video by the F-stoppers, highlights how indie filmmakers can exploit this very great sound recording 'equipment', and they even state the post production side of using this great app. Gee, no one would have guessed an iPhone is capable of this.

"Use an iPhone to Record High Quality Audio For Your Videos"
Video gotten off youtube:

And off course...other videos about make-shift audio's another phone recording solution.

"Cheap wireless mic solution!"
Video gotten off youtube:

Oh and..don't forget to get a good headphone that;

1. Isolates you from outside noise

2. Covers your ears completely

3. Is neutral in it's sound reproduction. (Some headphones tend to amplify the bass so that consumers can have a jolly good time listening music)

4. And has good tonal range.

 3:. Post production; Creating an audio universe

Now that most of the technical stuff is out of the way. Let's focus on the audio like how a critic would focus on the visuals in the movie. After everyone's done with the piece-ing together of the whole visual puzzle and creating a beautiful story, they usually just run through the audio. The very best indiefilmmakers though, spend just as much time in post creating the sound and noise, music and dialogue as they do with the beautiful moving pictures. 

In the silver screen audio world, there are only two variants of sounds;

a) Subjective sounds
These are sounds that are perceived by the sound designer in a way that aids in the film world's emotional content. In simple terms, it is sound in emotional terms. Like for example, a phone ring could swell up from a tiny ring to a loud screaming ring to show the character's perceived dislike for that particular phone or perhaps the time at which the call was made.

b) Objective sounds
These are sounds that are coming directly from the source found in the film world. Objective sounds are heard exactly as how it's supposed to be in real life. An example would be that if a phone rings,it sounds exactly how it is. There wouldn't be any manipulation into the sound effect.

In the silver screen world, there's also two types of audio elements present;

Definition of diegetic audio in the narrative film world:
It is a piece of sound or dialogue or music that is implied by the action on the screen. An example would be the dialogue of characters, symphony playing music or sounds coming from the elements in the movie that make sense with the visual.

Definition of non-diegetic audio in the narrative film world:
It is a piece of sound or dialogue or music that doesn't exist in the visual world of the film in subject. An example would be the voice overs, music that aids emotion but doesn't come from any visual source or sound effects. 

With all that in mind, you'd now have a clearer view as to how you'd want to construct the audio space of your film. You'd want to keep your sounds lively and complement the mood of the scene. Emotional content holds 60% while the importance of informational content falls at 40%. Prioritize.

Also, you'd want to create an ecosystem or an environment, so that your sounds and music are not static. Remember that, diegetic and non-diegetic elements aid in your audio storytelling. Try this. Closing your eyes and let your ears see the movie instead.

Once you find that your audio doesn't quite sound "there yet?", there might only be a two explanations I can think of:

1) Check to see if the audio editing has been pieced together seamlessly(e.g L-cut, J-cut etc). Sometimes sound designers insert a lot of audio tracks in their sound editing software 'timeline' and as a result they may get 'phantom' dialogue or silence where an ambient room tone should be.

2) Maybe you should refine your creative audio world further. Perhaps you've built a garden with your existing 'sound world' instead of building an ecosystem of sound, music and noise. Criticize your choice of music and sound. Be mindful of placement, duration, effects(e.g. echoey, bassy etc),purpose and texture

© 2012 Fadly.M.H.Wychowvski

1 comment:

  1. Hi Fadly,

    How's life? Have you shot any video with iPhone before? I curious on its video & sound quality. I didn't search the internet. Answers should be quite predictable, haha.



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