Mastering Documentary Sound: All The Gear You'll Need For Your FilmApr 04, 2023
Have you ever tuned in to watch a doco or show and it was hard to hear the dialogue because of noisy wind or a distracting rustling sound? Probably not, because most broadcasters and streamers won’t air a program with poor audio.
So in this blog, we are digging into production sound recording. If you missed the last post, we did a deep dive into what equipment we use to film our award-winning documentaries at Moonshine Agency; but unless you’re living by George Miller’s philosophy, that you should be able to understand a film’s story with only images, you’re going to want to record some sound!
Capturing high-quality sound is essential for creating an immersive and memorable documentary. Sound recording can make or break a film’s impact. As mentioned at the top of this post, you rarely watch a film or documentary with poor-sounding audio. Sure there are some tricks that can be done in post to improve poor audio, but sometimes it’s not possible - So you can’t assume it can be fixed later.
By way of example, I’m going to take you through the sound equipment we use at Moonshine Agency to help you better understand what you might need on your documentary production to capture the best audio possible.
A lapel mic is a must-have for any doco maker! Easy to use, small and fairly hidden - you can clip your lapel mic onto your participant’s shirt and away you go. You know the one! It’s very common and you can often see them if on interviewees in factual programs.
But be warned, they can be fidgety little things. Be careful they aren’t rustling up against clothes, or getting lost down someone’s shirt. You have to monitor the sound the whole way through recording because even though they might sound great for the first 20 minutes, someone’s hair or jewelry might move suddenly and then you get that annoying rustling sound.
Helpful hint: always have a spare lapel mic in your kit! As much as we try to control technology, sometimes it just refuses to work.
If you’re looking for a prime example of how to use a lapel microphone, check out the video of Mike and myself below!
Though the lapel microphone is perfect for recording dialogue, it’s not used for much else - which means we’re going to need a few more devices.
The Boom Microphone (That big one on the end of a pole)
Even if you didn’t know the name, you’ve seen this microphone. Normally it sits on the end of a long pole that’s being held just out of frame by a person with impressive upper-body strength (or a mic stand).
This directional microphone is another fantastic way to capture clear audio, as long as it’s positioned well. If you have a boom operator, they are very handy as you can move the mic throughout to make sure it’s pointing right where you want to capture the sound. But you can also put them on a stand and save someone's arms from the physical exertion of holding it in place. This is a good option if you're a small crew and it’s a stationary scene. Ie. Interviewee sitting on a chair.
Alongside your boom and pole, there are a few tools that you’re going to want. Firstly, a pistol grip handle (Trust me, having something you can firmly hold will be a live saver), a windshield, sometimes called a fluffy or a deadcat that can keep the wind from distorting your audio and a stand. If it’s going to be a long day, investing in a stand for your boom microphone is going to save your audio engineer a lot of sweat and tears.
Uh, no. I’m not talking about the one you speak to your grandma with. I’m talking about a fantastic little device called a portable recorder. It’s made by Zoom so we just call it the zoom. It is essentially a mini audio mixer and allows you to capture sound from your various microphones. It’s very helpful if you can’t connect the lapel or boom mic directly into your camera to record the audio. The one we use has the capacity for 4 audio inputs, so you can connect 3 lapel mics and a boom mic. You can also listen back. It has gain control knobs so you can monitor and adjust the audio. It also runs on AA batteries so it’s very portable.
They’re a great option. They record to a card and you can sync the audio to the visuals in post production.
“We’ll fix it in post”
I don’t recommend using this theory! Especially when it comes to the audio recording. Fixing audio in post-production can be incredibly intricate and time-consuming. And sometimes, simply not possible. The best audio is captured on the day so the best strategy is to just record the best possible audio on shoot day that you can.
Protect your mic’s from the wind, portion them well and monitor the sound as you go, adjusting as needed.
If someone’s mic is rustling during an interview - pause the shoot and adjust it. Do a pick-up if you need to. It’s a bit inconvenient and no one wants to stop a great conversation but remember, even the most brilliant dialogue may not be salvageable in post.
Lastly, I will leave you with one last helpful hint: invest in some high-quality noise-canceling headphones! Being able to listen and pick up any audio issues as you go means you can fix them right away.
If you’re starting out and you don’t have the latest gear or the budget to buy the best available. Don’t stress, use the best you can get your hands on. Just knowing you need good clean audio is a big step to capturing good audio. Good microphone positioning, monitoring sound as you go and avoiding windy or noisy environments are some simple and easy to employ techniques that will improve your production's value right away.
I’ve come a long way since I started working in film, and tech is always improving so there’s always a new way to make everything run as smoothly as possible.
Help me Moonshine, you’re my only hope
If you’ve come this far, you are well into production and are probably being met with new questions and challenges every day. Exciting isn’t it?
But I also know how stressful and daunting it can be at times (it’s a big job!). So, that’s why myself and everyone at Moonshine Communications Academy are aiming to support you as much as we can.
One of those daunting tasks can be working with your participants. And if you’re in production, chances are you’re already in the midst of working with participants. So, I highly encourage checking out our course ‘raising the participant voice’ which breaks down everything you need to know to get the most out of your talent.
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