Photography / Buying Guide

Moving from Stills to Video: Audio, Audio, Audio

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Audio is extremely important. Photographers haven’t really had to worry about this, but it is something that can make or break your videos. Watch some of your favorite movies and pay close attention to the sound—you will probably pick up some audio cues or effects that amplify the scene or action. If recorded poorly, audio can make something completely unwatchable. Have you ever opened a video online to crackling and noise and decided that it just wasn’t worth enduring? Clarity in audio is one of the most important things for keeping your audience immersed in the world of a film.

The gear

Microphones  If you want to keep your audio kit minimal, you will still need a microphone. In the video world and the DSLR/mirrorless scene, there are three common options: shotgun, lavalier, and stereo.

The shotgun mic is one of the most well-known and best options for most video shooters. It has a highly directional pickup pattern, normally a super-cardioid or hyper-cardioid, which helps isolate specific audio in your scene. This is why you will often find one on a boompole. This is a much-loved mic for video, able to capture a clean recording of a person talking, or amplify a specific sound in your location without bothersome ambient noise. Multiple options exist in this category, though a great start would be the RØDE VideoMic Pro or Shure VP83 LensHopper.

Shure VP83 LensHopper Shotgun Microphone

Users will easily recognize lavaliers as the mics mounted directly on people’s collars, tucked under a shirt, or hidden in someone’s hair or hat. These miniscule options are obviously great choices for interviews and on-camera talent. Generally, the omnidirectional pickup these mics use records sound equally from all directions, allowing them to be placed discreetly and still capture clear sound. Lavs come in a variety of styles, such as the RØDE smartLav+, which plugs directly into a smartphone, or the Sony UWP-D11 and Sennheiser ew 112-p G3 wireless systems, which allow for a wireless connection to your talent for mobility.

RØDE smartLav+ Lavalier Condenser Microphone

The third useful option is the stereo microphone. These aren’t very common because they capture a wide range of sound and aren’t exceptionally useful in most situations. Similar to most in-camera mics, stereo mics record two channels of audio, one for the right and one for the left. These are beneficial in certain locations where you may want to capture distinct room tone—they can provide viewers with a feeling of where exactly they are situated. A unique option here is the Sennheiser MKE 440, which is an on-camera option that features a super-cardioid pattern to help capture everything in front of the camera. Another option is using an audio recorder like the Zoom H1 or Tascam DR-22WL, which brings us to the next section.

Sennheiser MKE 440 Compact Stereo Shotgun Microphone

The dedicated audio recorder (and XLR mics)  If you spend any time researching audio for video, you will probably come across some shooters who swear by their trusty Zoom or Tascam portable recorder—because these devices offer much cleaner sound, serious control over how the audio is recorded, and usually have XLR inputs for high-end microphones.

Tascam DR-22WL Portable Handheld Recorder with Wi-Fi

Adding a portable recorder to your kit also enables double-system recording; you are separately recording the video and the audio and, usually, you will have to sync the two files up in post-production. But, a dedicated audio device is going to deliver sound leaps and bounds better than your camera’s preamps and microphones. Beyond that, being able to hook up high-end XLR mics, like the RØDE NTG3 or the Sennheiser MKH-416, will provide even better control over sound with much improved side rejection and cleaner pickup at longer distances.

RØDE NTG3 Precision RF-Biased Shotgun Microphone

In an ideal world, you would have someone on your crew handle audio recording solely, and if you have a boom mic, it is even better to have a dedicated boom operator, as well. Otherwise, the best setups are usually on top of the camera via cold-shoe mounts or attached to the tripod in whatever way possible. Cages are lifesavers for adding an extra tool or two, as well as articulating arms, so you have better control over placement.

Monitoring

You wouldn’t record video without a monitor, so why would you record sound without some headphones? Probably the most important item on this list, and the least discussed, is a good set of cans. For these, you want something with relatively neutral response levels to get an accurate read on your audio. Some more music- or consumer-based models may color their sound to give you better bass or clearer voices, but for monitoring raw audio, something in the middle will be best. There are staples in this category for sure, such as the Sony MDR-7506 and Audio-Technica ATH-M40x, and for what you are getting they are great deals. Obviously, going up the chain will provide better sound, but don’t forget about comfort. I’ve recently found the Audio-Technica ATH-E40 In-Ear Monitors and love them—they pack well and sound great. Make sure you test them and feel good wearing them for a couple of hours at a time, because even if your shoot is short, these are indispensable in the edit suite later.

Sony MDR-7506 Headphones

Tips for recording audio

Digital audio levels bear some similarities to digital image exposure. For example, if you have a louder sound and lower gain, you have cleaner audio, which compares to how more light and a lower ISO result in cleaner photos. Hopefully, you have some form of audio levels on your camera’s screen as you record, usually some bar on the bottom or side. The numbers, represented in dB, or decibels, relate to how loud the recording is. The general rule of thumb: try and keep it between -12 and -6 dB for good clean sound without peaking. Sometimes, you have no choice but to raise your gain, which is why monitoring is so important. Though not ideal, there are some audio tools that can help reduce this in post. What you don’t want to do is clip at the high end. If you break 0 dB, which is usually shown in red on your levels, it is similar to blowing a highlight in your photo. Information is lost and it is incredibly difficult to recover.

If you are using a portable audio recorder, then you have some extra features, as well. The first will probably be the recording file format, which you should practically always set to WAV. MP3 is an option, but WAV is much higher quality and, relative to video and photo, audio takes up little space on your hard drives so record the best quality you can. Next, you will have frequency and bit depth. This is pretty simple for video—a standard has developed around 48 kHz and either 16- or 24-bit. You can record at higher settings if you have the option, but to the untrained ear, there will not likely be a difference in recording at higher frequencies.

In addition to just having your settings right, there are some other tricks that will help, in some locations. Hard surfaces around you can reflect sound that your mic may pick up. If it is out of the shot, use blankets to cover these surfaces and reduce reflected noise. Make sure that anything with a motor is turned off. In a kitchen, for example, you may not notice refrigerator noise in the background, but you don’t want to have to deal with it later in post.

Matthews Sound Blanket with Grommets

Another important thing to do is record room tone. Make sure everything is quiet and then record a couple of minutes of the sound of the room itself. Each location varies in the way it handles sound, what background noise there is, and its general audio profile. This recording gives you a consistent file that you can control and layer in the background to keep sound consistent throughout your shot, especially since, often, dialog can be cut from multiple clips.

Even the best laid plans can go awry. While finding or rerecording background noise of cars, refrigerators, and other random objects isn’t going to be that difficult, losing critical audio of conversations that need to be sync’d can ruin everything. While not a perfect solution, Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR), though not quite as automatic as we would like, can salvage some footage and time that would be spent reshooting. In as soundproof a room as you can find or create, you can roll your video as an actor tries to lip-sync their lines. This will give you a better-quality recording with which to, hopefully, use in your final product. This is also where room tone can help make something sound more realistic. ADR, while not ideal, is a great option if you can’t record clean audio on location—for example, if you were recording a wide shot in the middle of Times Square and can’t get a mic close enough.

KIWA VoiceQ 2 - Post Production ADR and Dubbing Software

To ensure the best audio possible, specific accessories are available, such as a windscreen to help minimize noise from movement and wind. A boompole will get you closer to your subject for clearer miking. Don’t forget cables, Y adapters, and other accessories you can acquire as you need them. Make sure you invest in quality cables—audio is much more susceptible to cable noise than your digital video signals.

Auray WSW-VMP-R Windbuster for RØDE VideoMic Pro

After reading Part 1, Part 2, and now, Part 3, you should have the basics for capturing video, what settings you should be using, and how to record clean audio, so you can feel confident going out and capturing great footage. It’ll take some time and practice to cement this information in your mind, but video is a great tool to have. If you have any questions, post them in the Coments section, below. Next time, we will discuss one of the more technical aspects of video: gammas, codecs, and post production, so stay tuned!

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Helpful Tools

Part 4: Log, Codecs, and Post Production

Part 5: How Video Complements Stills

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Fantastic Article, really great as an Audio Engineer with a hobby in photography looking to move to Video!

Hi Gordo,

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the article.

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