Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure that I’m always able to capture the best sound possible on projects that I’m producing for clients as well as when shooting on my own projects.
But the term “best sound” is a multi-purpose term that, when you break it down, can mean several different things to different users and stakeholders on a project. To me, as a producer, videographer, cinematographer or sound mixer, it means that sound is the single most important component of most video/digital cinema projects. Period. And often “best sound” means that I also need to ask myself if I’ve done everything in my power to ensure this.
A Story About Compromised Sound
Recording good sound generally encompasses a number of factors:
- We need to scout out the environments we shoot in to make sure that we’ll have a quiet environment to work in.
- We need to take into account exterior noise as well as noise on set that could interfere with an interview or with the talent delivering their lines cleanly and clearly.
- We need to have redundancy with our gear.
But before I dive into gear redundancy, let me tell you about a recent shoot I worked on.
I met with two producers who were shooting a pitch piece for Netflix for a docu-series. It was an interesting subject, and the clients needed to shoot interviews with various stand-up comics. One of the comics was also a producer on the project, and her interview needed to be the through-line, tying the entire story together, so she needed to shoot about three or four hours of in-depth interviews in a single day.
Being in development, the project had very little budget to work with, which meant that I couldn’t hire a professional sound mixer, which, of course, is my preference for most shoots. That meant I had to not only light and shoot the interview (with two cameras) by myself, but I was also responsible for sound.
Because this was a docu-series, we all knew how important the audio was for this interview as it would be the narration track for a lot of the episodes. Also, the clients didn’t want to record it in a VO booth, and they wanted a nice-looking interview to cut back to periodically.
Where Are We Going To Shoot This?
As is typical with these types of projects, the logistics were all very last minute.
We talked about a location and looked at lots of online images. I had hoped to do a location scout with the producers to determine the locations they were considering, and I didn’t even mind not being paid for the scout day, in this case. In other words, I was willing to do it for free since one of the other producers was actually a friend who I worked with for several years at a production company, so we had a strong, already-established working relationship. And I wanted to help her and her co-producers out to get this project shot.
They booked a location in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. They sent me cell phone images of the location, which looked great for the look we were going for: An old loft, wood floors, brick wall, huge windows overlooking parts of downtown L.A.
I knew that I could make the location work visually, but I asked them about sound. A lot of old lofts in L.A. and NYC look great on camera but aren’t very quiet with traffic sound, air flight paths and other factors that conspire to compromise sound.
They reported that when they took a look at the loft space, it seemed to be fairly quiet, and they thought it would work. None of these lofts are sound stages, which are built as a room within a room, isolating sound elements. But at times, you can get away with shooting on location and recording decent sound.
I had really wanted to do a proper location scout to check out power, angle to the sun, listen to the room, etc., but unfortunately, that never happened. The shoot date was booked, and we proceeded. I arrived at the location and hauled all of our gear into the building’s loading dock.
As we rode the elevator up to the third floor of the building, the door opened and we began unloading all of my production gear into the hallway. The building supervisor walked over to the door of the loft, which was located just about 10 feet from the elevator.
The Problem With Elevators
As we unloaded, I was thinking that our loft seemed to be uncomfortably close to the elevator. Keep in mind: This was a freight elevator in a very old building. The kind with a roll-up door. The elevator was essentially a 12×16-foot steel cage.
As we piled the gear into the loft and I began setting it up, I was intently listening to the environment. I knew the location had wood floors, which all DPs love the look of, but sound mixers know that plaster walls paired with glass windows and wooden floors will usually equal a highly reverberant background with lots of nasty slap back and a harsh quality for voices.
I knew that the location would have all of this, and my plan B for mitigating some of this harsh sound was to spread out furniture pads on the wooden floor underneath where talent would be seated for their interviews.
I had brought a few spare furniture pads and C-stands so that if it was required, I could also set up a few gobos to flank the left and/or right sides of the frame by placing the furniture pads and C-stands just outside of frame.
Once I was all set up, I had shown the client and the other two producers on set the image on the client monitor, and they had signed off on the look and framing that I had created. We began the interview, and the first hour had gone well. We had to pause a few times for planes and helicopters to fly over, but, overall, the sound had been acceptable, and the interview was flowing.
As we took a brief break for me to switch CFast cards for camera, we began to shoot again. All of a sudden, we heard a LOUD boom. We had no idea what had caused the sound, but we assumed it was construction or someone in our building unloading something. We continued to roll. Boom! More loud noises.
I paused the interview and walked to the door of the loft. As I opened the door, I looked straight down the hallway that was across from the door. When we had unloaded from the elevator earlier that morning, there was a pair of metal double doors across from our loft that had been closed. They were now open. I walked out into the hallway and peered into the open doorway.
The room contained a full garment-manufacturing operation, with dozens of employees, rolling clothing hung on large racks. The sounds I had been hearing were the employees loading huge racks and bins of clothing and fabric into the freight elevator. The sounds weren’t constant but were randomly occurring about every three to eight minutes, continually interrupting our interview.
We paused dozens of times, trying to record interview reply after reply, sometimes capturing a whole paragraph in between all of the booming and crashing. We complained to the facility manager, but he told us that there was nothing he could do to mitigate the sounds.
It’s important to always, always, always do a location scout. While I hadn’t been there, the producers “took a look” but obviously hadn’t grilled the facility manager on what was actually going on outside of the location’s doors (a garment manufacturing plant and elevator shaft).
Also know that even when you have a plan B for known factors like the wooden floors and a reverberant location with hard surfaces, your plan B won’t do anything for mitigating factors beyond your control.
The most common issue in Los Angeles is air traffic: There are airports, large and small, everywhere in Southern California. In Manhattan, it’s more street traffic and sirens. In your location, it could be anything, but you need to be persistent and look, listen and do research.
Ask a LOT of questions to the location manager. Tell them that the microphones you’ll be using are sensitive and pick up everything, because they do. Also ask them what sound pollution could happen that could spoil the ability to record clean, clear sound.
On To The Gear
So, my story of a recent shoot that turned into an audio disaster is obviously a cautionary tale. But what about gear? What do I carry in my audio kit as my plan B?
My two main boom mics are a short shotgun microphone—Audio-Technica AT875R—and a hypercardioid—the Audix SCX1 HC. While the hypercardioid usually works better for interiors and the short shotgun for exteriors, if either microphone stops functioning, each can pinch-hit for the other in most scenarios.
My main wired lavalier microphone over the past few years has been the tiny Countryman B6. It’s the smallest lavalier on the market, and it sounds great. But if it stops working—say the talent accidentally rips the microphone element off the cable or somehow the B6 malfunctions—I always bring at least one of our Tram TR50B lavaliers as a backup. The Tram is larger and bulkier and a bit more challenging to hide on talent than the Countryman, but it sounds good, and it’s very reliable.
We own one wireless lavalier, a Røde Video Wireless System. But as a backup, we also own three Tascam DR-10L recorders. The Tascams aren’t wireless like the Røde, but in a pinch, they can be placed on talent like a wireless lav and will record high-quality audio.
Our favorite headphones are a pair of industry-standard Sony MDR-7506s, which we’ve used forever. They sound good, are rugged and fold up small.
But in case those headphones ever stop working on a shoot, we also carry a pair of black Skullcandy in-ear earbuds that sound surprisingly good and are tiny and inexpensive.
The Backup Kit
It’s difficult to have enough financial resources to own two of everything in your kit but try to at least have backups for the items that are most likely to break or malfunction. We only have one boom pole microphone mount; we should probably buy a spare in case ours breaks. We have piles of spare high-quality XLR cables and dozens of Lithium-Ion batteries for all of our battery driven audio gear.
Have a plan B for your audio gear. Always. Keep the back items in your car trunk if you’ve driven to the shoot. Keep it in your sound case or bag if you’ve flown to your shoot.
Recording good sound is so incredibly important to the success of your project, it makes sense to make sure that you’re prepared for contingencies should your gear malfunction.