You might have the finest actors in the world delivering lines and the most high-quality film cameras on the market capturing those lines, but none of that makes a difference if you don’t know a thing about recording dialogue – learning how to record their voices properly is an important step in the process.
Even in some of the major motion picture studios, dialogue that was not captured effectively on set – whether it was the performance or the sound quality – sometimes has to be re-recorded during post-production. But without an equipment setup that allows the actor to see himself or herself on the screen as he or she overdubs the lines, it’s very difficult to do so accurately. In fact, it’s pretty hard to get a good take even with this type of setup, and at the very least it’s incredibly time-consuming.
So you’ll save yourself lots of trouble by doing things right and getting your dialogue recording loud enough the first time around.
You might be used to seeing YouTube videos that consist of a person aiming their webcam or computer-linked camcorder at themselves and making “talking head” style videos. You’ll often notice that these people’s voices start to get a bad case of tunnel syndrome the further they get from the camera.
This is because when you record sound indoors the distance between the microphone and the audio source makes a difference in how the mic receives the sound. The farther away the source, the more the sound bounces off of walls, floors, and any other smooth, flat surface that can reflect it before getting back to the mic. It doesn’t help that the onboard mics supplied with most video cameras are of less than superior quality.
Up Close And Personal – Types of Microphones
You can use a shotgun or lavalier microphone to bring your sound source closer to the recording device. Do this by placing the mic just outside the shot or strategically hidden within it.
Lavaliers are the small mics that clip to a tie or shirt and can be either wireless or wired. These are generally suitable for interview-style filmmaking, but you’re not going to want one hanging off your talent while you film action shots or dialogue during a dramatic scene.
A shotgun mic is the standard device used to grab audio on film and television production sets. As I explain on the sound design page, the shotgun mic is suspended over the sound source and outside the frame on a long boom pole.
From its position above, a shotgun mic should pick up a certain degree of room noise and a good strong signal of your actors’ dialogue recordings. A good cheap shotgun mic to look at is the Audio Technica ATR-55. It does a great job but doesn’t cost lots of money.
Check Your Work
While on set, it’s important to have someone monitoring the audio signal to make sure it’s coming through properly. Usually this is done by the sound tech or whoever is operating the boom – they should wear headphones to keep a constant gauge on noise levels and capture quality.
If for whatever reason it’s impossible for you to monitor the audio from an external mic, at least do a quick playback before you pack up and go – even better, test your setup before you get into filming. You can avoid lots of headaches this way, like getting the perfect shot on tape only to find that the audio to go with it is scratchy or muffled. There are some tricks you can pull in post to work some wizardry on some trouble spots, but not everything can be fixed this way.
I’ll give you an example of how not testing before a shoot has caused me problems before. I had set up to do a shoot of some oral presentations for an Emerging Leaders conference, and for lack of a boom operator we decided to use a hanging mic suspended from the ceiling to grab the room noise.
To do this, we set temporary hooks in between the ceiling tiles and ran the audio cable along the ceiling from the camera to the hanging mic. We did our shot test and everything seemed okay, but the fluorescent lights in the ceiling made me nervous so we ran a second test with me holding onto the metal pieces of our tripod. Everything was still fine when we ran playback.
It wasn’t until we had recorded about two hours of footage, torn down our equipment and gotten back to the editing bays that I found out there was a horrendous buzzing in the footage. Wondering what it was from, I watched a little longer and realized that it happened only when I was touching the camera, not the tripod.
Unfortunately I had been re-framing my shots pretty often to compensate for people moving around the room. The buzzing from some unknown aspect of the room lights, whether it was the way they were grounded or the audio cable picking up pulses because it was so close to them, was so intense that even after noise reduction, notch filtering, and every other tweak I could think of, the audio signal was still unusable. The shoot was scrapped and about twenty presenters never got their products!
Don’t Screw It Up!
I don’t tell you stories like this to give you a sense of dread, but in a way I hope you get hit that way. I want you to be cognizant always of the unexpected situations that can arise. Pilots flight check before they take off, yet planes still crash; you can never possibly account for every little problem that will come up. But checking and re-checking your work can help you avoid lots of pitfalls. Recording dialogue is one of those areas where a proper setup and preparation works wonders for your final product.
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