Preparing a Location for Recording and Ambience
By Dean Miles
Preparing a Location for Recording
You’ve probably heard the comment “We’ll fi x it in post.” If you’re on a fi lm shoot with a heavy audio postproduction budget, then almost anything is possible. But in video, what you record on location is pretty much what’s going to end up in the final product.
Preparing your location is vital to recording quality tracks. Crossing your fingers and hoping your tracks will be clean will not pay off in the long run. If there’s an extraneous sound within your mic’s range, it’s gonna get you!
To prepare a location, you need to identify and deal with any extraneous sounds, ambiences, and potential sound problems that will compete with the dialogue you’re trying to capture. It’s not necessary to void the location of all noise, shoot all things with feathers, and create a vacuum. Your goal when prepping a location is to ensure the background ambience matches what the camera is seeing and unwanted sounds don’t create distractions.
Before You Break Out Your Gear
First you want to take care of extraneous sounds that could render a location unusable. Then you want to eliminate or move away from sounds that are heavy in the frequencies of the human voice—such as AC, fans, and traffic. Sizzly, poppy, sharp high-frequency sounds like cicadas and grasshoppers, wind, rustling leaves—these all strongly compete with dialogue. You need to pay close attention when they are present in your location. Then make sure sounds that can be “On” and “Off” for long periods of time are turned off—refrigerators, computers, furnaces.
Sounds that are in the lower bass frequencies (like a low rumble in a factory) are not as troublesome since you can easily cut them out with your audio mixer’s high- pass fi lter. This ain’t rocket science, but you need to be diligent.
Most location sound troublemakers can easily be dealt with by unplugging, turning off, or removing them from the immediate location. Listen for sounds that require time to resolve or could be beyond your control. It’s usually possible to ask the neighbor across the street to put down the leaf blower for an hour, but it may require some subtle diplomatic skills. Most importantly, you need to determine if there are any major problems you can’t eliminate that will render the location useless. There’s not much you can do about a barking dog next door if you discover nobody is home.
After I’ve prepped the location, I’ll separate myself from the crew for one fi nal evaluation. This may seem a little over the top, but I take sound disruptions to the day personally! I’m not doing my job if I’m chasing a chicken down the road with all my gear on.
Nearby construction, furnaces, air conditioners, telephones, cell phones, refrigerators, freezers, computers, radios, televisions, water coolers, vending machines, door chimes, ticking clocks, squeaky chairs, pets—there’s a long list of troublemakers ready to wreak havoc with your otherwise problem- free shoot.
Sometimes the noise- makers come with the talent—jingly jewelry, or objects in their hands such as pens, paper, and gum wrapper are typical offenders. Inform the talent that rubbing their hands on their pants or shuffling their feet can also cause audio problems.
Notify all occupants of video in progress, and place a sign on exterior and bathroom doors if necessary. Close all windows and doors.
Not dealing with these issues and hoping for the best will prove to be extremely frustrating and will often bring a shoot to a standstill. It’s also very unsettling for on- camera talent or the subject of a documentary- style interview to have to constantly stop and wait for the sound to clear.
How Much Ambience Is Too Much?
Ambience is not necessarily a bad thing. It adds energy and life to a location. But knowing whether it’s going to ruin or enhance your recording takes time to learn.
Dialogue should always sit on top or be forward of the background sounds. There should be no competition from the ambience for the viewer’s attention. The saving grace with ambience is it will often take care of itself. In loud locations, people talk louder. When the camera is further away, talent will usually project more. So everything should take care of itself if you choose and prep the location properly.
But we know this isn’t always the case. It gets confusing when the ambience is at odds with your frame, or you’re trying to record as ambient- free as possible.
When you run into situations where there are sounds that seem too loud or there’s an ambience that you deem to be competing with the dialogue, you’ll need to put your gear on and get a mic in the shot. You want to do this before the crew starts setting up and readying the location to shoot.
Your headphones and microphone are going to complicate matters at this time by accentuating some sounds and losing others. You’ll find that certain sounds are louder and more distracting through your mic than they are to the naked ear, and vice versa. Microphones don’t have the ability to ignore a sound that’s unimportant to the clarity of dialogue.
To make sure you have enough separation between the dialogue and ambience, first get talent to speak at performance volume and look at your meters. Make sure that when the talent speaks there’s a noticeable increase of level. Depending on the type of shot (stand- up versus interview) and the location (boardroom versus rock concert) the minimum acceptable separation can vary from 30dB to 16dB.
If I’m concerned about separation with my gear on, I’ll record some talking if I have my own recorder or ask the camera op to record a take and listen to a playback.
“Hey . . . You can’t do that! We don’t have time for you to check audio! ”
Anyone who has been on location knows this isn’t an easy task. The general indifference by the rest of the crew towards the needs of the sound operator will result in a chorus of groans and rolling eyes about this request. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Listen to the playback and decide whether the possible offending ambience is distracting. If I’m unsure, I won’t hesitate to ask the camera operator for his or her opinion. Make your decision, and prepare the location further if needed. Do not fold like a cheap lawn chair if you are being questioned or given that disgusted look from members of your crew. Get it right—your career depends on it.
Now, here’s the scariest thing you’ll ever do in your entire location sound career. If you know the location is a bust and the tracks are unusable, get the information to the decision maker as soon as possible and request a move. Do it! If it ain’t workin, it ain’t workin! It’s not going to magically fi x itself! You’re not getting paid to record unusable tracks. Don’t wait until setup is complete and you’ve started shooting, this will just make matters worse! Be proactive and bring the sound issue to the attention of the decision maker.
A location sound op I worked with had the perfect phrase: “Love me now and hate me later, or hate me now and love me later” —it rings very true!
ASSUME THE WORST!
The commitment and technical ability of video producers towards quality audio throughout the production process is as wildly erratic as the content of their projects.
From camera operator/producers editing on their laptops, to knock- your- socks- off edit suites that George Lucas would feel comfortable in, you just never know where or how your sound will be dealt with. Assume the worst.
Excerpt from Location Audio Simplified: Capturing Your Audio… and Your Audience by Dean Miles © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.