Recording sound

This article is a guide for student filmmakers who want to record great sound. Although it is specifically about the equipment used at East Doncaster Secondary College use, others might find useful advice for recording sound in their own films. For a detailed discussion of the ways you can use sound in your film and general advice for recording sound, check out Sound.

At East Doncaster Secondary College, we have sound kits which are used for making short films. These sound kits include:

  • Zoom H1. The Zoom H1 is a good, all purpose field recorder. It is particularly suited to capturing ambient sound and sound effects.
  • Rode Videomic. The Rode Videomic is a shotgun microphone which means that it is highly directional. It will mainly capture what it is pointed at. This is important to remember if you subject is moving around. In all cases, it is important to get the microphone as close to the subject as you possibly can. The Rode Videomic also has a shock mount which helps to reduce accidental handling noise.
  • Pistol Grip. The pistol grip can be attached the shotgun microphone so your sound operator can get the microphone as close to the actor as possible.
  • Dead cat. The dead cats are used on the shotgun microphone to reduce wind noise. You are encouraged to use these in most situations and, normally, they will remain on the microphone.
  • 3m stereo extension cable. This extension cable is key to running the microphones back to either your camera or the Zoom H1, allowing you to get the microphones as close as you can to your subjects. The extension cable allows the sound operator to get the microphone as close as they can to the actors. You are encouraged to film all dialogue in close ups. The extension cable can be used to plug the shotgun microphone into the Zoom H1 or directly into the Nikon D3200 when you are filming.

In addition to the sound kits, there are a limited number of lavalier microphones and boom poles.

Your choice of microphone depends on what you are filming. You are strongly encouraged to enlist the help of someone you trust to operate the microphones. Before you shoot, ensure that the equipment is working and you have spare batteries. When you are on location, use action calls to ensure that everything runs smoothly, e.g. “Quiet on the set! Sound rolling! Camera rolling! Action! Cut!”

Here are some common ways that you might use the sound kits.

  • Interview. Plug the lavalier microphone directly into the Zoom H1. Position the microphone on the subject’s lapel and get them to speak continuous for at least thirty seconds so you can check the audio levels. The levels should be peaking at about -12dB to avoid clipping. When the subject is not speaking, the microphone should not be picking up any ambient noise and the levels display will be motionless. Before you start the interview, press the record button on the Zoom H1. You can sit the Zoom H1 on the table in front of the subject or they can cradle it in their lap. If you would like to monitor the sound as the interview progresses, use the extension cable to run the recorder back to where you are sitting.
  • Vox pops. When you are conducing vox pops, you need to move quickly and there isn’t a chance to mic your subjects with a lavalier. As such, it is recommended that you have a sound operator standing just out of frame with the shotgun microphone and pistol grip. Run the extension cable directly into the Zoom H1. The sound operator can plug a pair of headphones into the Zoom H1 and monitor the audio for you. When you are shooting a vox pop, it is recommended that you use a wide lens, like 18mm, which will help you position the camera, and consequently, your microphone closer to the subject. If you don’t have a sound operator, you can attach the shotgun microphone to the top of the camera using the cold shoe mount. When using a wide lens, make sure that the dead cat isn’t visible in the frame.
  • Narrative film. When you are capturing dialogue in a short film, you are encouraged to use the shotgun microphone plugged via the extension cable into the Zoom H1. Your sound operator will be able to monitor the audio as you are recording. Check your levels before you start recording. Because the pre-amp in the Zoom H1 is quite low, you will need to turn the input level up quite high. Always shoot dialogue in close up to ensure that you can get the microphone close enough to your subject.
  • Sound effects and foley. The Zoom H1’s inbuilt microphone is great for recording atmosphere tracks, location sound effects and foley. Set the recording level appropriately so you are only recording the intended sound and not any other ambient noises that might interfere with the recording.

Hints for recording sound

Recording great sound is easy with the help of PENPAL SAM!

  • Plan. Choose the best location and reliable crew to help you out. Shooting a dialogue scene near a busy road is probably not the best idea!
  • Equipment. Select appropriate microphones, booms and tripods for the job. Did you remember extra batteries and headphones?
  • Noise. Do you best to reduce all ambient noise and ensure that the recording is as clean as possible.
  • Proximity. Get your microphone as close to the actors as possible.
  • Ambience. Always capture a clean atmosphere track. This will form the basis of your sound mix.
  • Levels. Check the levels are peaking at -12dB before each take. You know you’ve done your job correctly when your actor is not talking, you shouldn’t be picking up any ambient noise.
  • Sound test. Always do a test before you start. This will avoid embarrassing mistakes like not recording audio because the microphone is switched off.
  • Action calls. Practicing action calls is a great way to ensure that you are recording, e.g. “Quiet on the set! Camera rolling! Sound rolling! Action! Cut!”
  • Marker. Using a slate can help you identify shots easily in post production but markers also perform another important function. The ‘snap’ of a clapperboard gives you a distinct sound that can be used to line up different sources of audio in post production. If you don’t have a clapperboard, a simple clap will do!

Photograph: Charles Dyer