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getting started

Audio: How One-Person Can Get Professional Audio for Video

ImageIt's a cliché, but it's true. In television production, audio has long been the stepchild of video. But it doesn't have to be. In fact, audio is just as important as video, and -- if you master the techniques well -- it can give you a competitive edge over other videographers.

In a one-man-band "run and gun" video shooting situation, recording good audio is much harder than when having a professional sound operator at your side. But it can be done. You simply have to think through what you can and can't do well.

What can you do? First of all, replace the built-in microphone in the camera with a better one, preferably one that records a wide stereo sound field. And make sure it has a good windscreen. Not the foam type, but the furry "dead kitten" wind sock which really resists outdoor wind noise.

This is true whether you use a traditional camcorder or DSLR. Microphones built into a camera sound awful for just about any sound other than random ambience. Avoid using them except for scratch track audio.

A good general replacement for an on-camera mic is the Rode VideoMic Pro. It is based around a matched pair of high sensitivity, half-inch cardioid condenser capsules in a coincident XY pair and provides a wide stereo image with natural depth. From the camera operator's standpoint, it just mounts on top of the camera and plugs into the mic connector. Yet, without any attention from the operator, the sound quality is superior.

Another choice for camera mounting is a shotgun -- for longer reach situations. Shotguns today can also be stereo as well, which makes them very flexible for use mounted on a camera. Panasonic, for example, makes the DMW-MS2 stereo shotgun for its DMC-GH3 and GH4 DSLR cameras. The mic can be remotely switched between a long shotgun or stereo pattern from the camera's menu.

Of course, microphones sometimes need to be moved off the camera closer to the source. This becomes more difficult for one person to operate effectively. Modern double system sound technology was invented for these situations and it can save the day.

ImageInstead of recording the final audio track directly to the camera, the internal mic is simply used to record a scratch track. One or more small, inexpensive secondary audio recorders can be used to acquire the high-quality sound using an appropriate microphone.

Software products including Red Giants PluralEyes and Pixelynx Labs' DreamSync now allow the video operator to automatically sync the better audio from the recorder with the scratch track on the camera. The software automatically analyzes the audio from one or more cameras and audio devices and syncs them up, in seconds. No clapboards or timecode are needed.

A computer views the audio's waveforms and matches the audio of all the tracks and syncs the better quality audio track to the video. The camera operator simply places the secondary recorder and microphone near the sound source and shoots normally with the camera. It's frees him from having to do two jobs at once.

Sometimes, double system sound can be a major help with music events. Simply record music from the concert off a main audio board and link the sound together from one or more cameras recording the event with their internal microphones for the scratch track.

Another variation of double system sound is to use a recorder like Tascam's DR-60D, a four track professional quality audio recorder that sits right under the camera. Microphones with XLR and 3.5mm connectors can record up to four separate tracks that record to both flash media on the recorder and the camera's audio tracks themselves. Sound can be monitored off both the recorder and the camera, making it easy for the operator to record good sound.

ImageDouble system recording can actually be much easier than using wireless microphones for the single camera operator because it takes the risk of changing levels and monitoring sound out of the picture.

There are times though, where it will be difficult to operate as a one man band. Some jobs will sometimes demand the need of a boom mic. You might also need multiple lavalier microphones on more than one person in a scene. Those lavs might have to be hooked to wireless transmitters. Other times you might want to record surround sound for a sports or live event. In these cases, it is essential that you have a dedicated sound operator. You should demand one and be able to explain clearly why.

If you are operating alone, regardless of the simplicity of the sound set-up, use headphones and monitor your audio. You can not rely on looking at a moving audio level meter to know you are getting good sound. Sometimes sound that looks normal can be have breakup or distortion in it. You will not know it without actually hearing it. Headphones always are essential for any professional on a job.

Also, it is tempting to set level controls to "automatic." Don't do it. Always use manual level and get the best level setting possible before you begin to shoot. If you hear distortion in your headphones, stop and readjust the levels. Using manual audio control will avoid the "pumping" sound in your final audio track that some auto level systems produce. Once it's there, you can't get rid of it.

Many audio operators train their entire lives to record sound. They have extensive toolkits for every possible recording situation and have an arsenal of different microphones for the job. As a one person operator, you can't begin to match their expertise. But you can learn to do the basics well.

Use the tools available to you to get the best sound you can in a given situation. You may not always get the richest production value, but at least you will always bring home competent, well recorded sound. Learn your limitations when operating alone and don't be afraid to demand assistance when the job goes beyond those limits.