Production

Production Mic Technique – Which mic should you use?

Rose’s Rules:

• You can fake almost any other aspect of the track, and undo or change it if you’re not happy with the result. But bad dialog recordings are forever.

• You can write, direct, shoot, edit, create graphics, and mix the whole project all by yourself, all in your own sweet time, and create a solo tour de force. But unless you’re in a position to pay full attention to sound at the shoot, you’ll need someone else.

No part of production seems to cause more trouble for self-taught producers than dialog recording. If you don’t believe me, listen to almost any amateur video on YouTube. You’ll hear hollowness and noises that at the least, say “this is not worth your attention” . . . and at the worst, make it nearly impossible to understand.

The problem isn’t YouTube’s streaming software. Clips posted by broadcasters and other professionals sound fine. So do amateur videos set to music recordings. Besides, the problem exists beyond YouTube or even data compression: you’ll hear similarly awful tracks on public access cable channels, and on many school videos.

The problem isn’t lack of money. You can record better dialog with a $15 mic than with one built into a $3,000 camera, if you know what you’re doing. And it isn’t rocket science. Once you understand some basics about handling a boom, rigging a lavaliere, or using a wireless rig, the rest is just common sense. You don’t need a Hollywood mixer on your staff, just someone who’s willing to take the steps necessary for good sound.

First, a few definitions:

In this post (book), dialog refers to human speech. If you’re writing or producing a film the term dialog may be more specific, and not refer to spontaneous interviews, narrations, or recognizable phrases added to enrich a crowd recording. But we’ll use it to refer to all human speech captured for a soundtrack, because the basic process stays the same.

Boom, of course, is the pole holding something over the actors’ heads. It can also be an adjective (a boom mic on the pole, or a boom track in a mix) and a verb (you need someone to boom your film).

Lav or lavaliere is a tiny mic that can be mounted near a subject’s mouth, and the track that results.

Don’t confuse lav with wireless. Lavs are small mics, usually mounted on the body. Lavs can be wired to a mixer or camera, or use a wireless radio link. Similarly, boom mics can be wireless or wired.

A wired connection will always sound better than a wireless one for the same mic. Lavs should always be wired unless the cable limits the actors’ movement, or will be seen in a wide shot. Don’t use wireless just because “we’ve always done it that way,” or you don’t have convenient cables. This applies particularly to sub-$1,000 wireless rigs; they will affect your track, in ways that can’t be fixed in post.

WHICH MIC SHOULD YOU USE?

Hollywood is a boom town.

In dramatized feature films, there’s a definite hierarchy to miking methods. In order of preference:

1. Use a hypercardioid or shotgun on a boom, over the actor’s head and just out of camera range. If that’s not possible . . .

2. Use those mics on a boom, but from underneath and pointing up to the actor. If you can’t boom . . .

3. Plant a cardioid, hypercardioid, PZM, or shotgun on the set where it’ll cover dialog. First choice is wired; wireless if the cable would be seen by the camera. If there’s nowhere to hide a full-size mic . . .

4. Plant a lavaliere on the set. They’re small and easily hidden. If a plant mic will be too far or pick up unevenly when the actor moves . . .

5. Put a lav on the actor, and run the cable out the back of a jacket or down a pants leg. If that puts the cable in the shot . . .

6. Use a wireless lav, and hope that radio problems don’t ruin the take.

In feature films, boom mics are preferred because they sound better. Since they’re bigger than lavs, they can have better low-frequency and noise performance. They’re also free from clothing rustles (as are planted mics) and the wired ones don’t get radio interference.

But Hollywood’s choice of boom mics is also artistic. Because of where they’re placed, overhead mics pick up the natural ambience and perspective of a scene, much more than body mics can. These subtleties help the illusion that we’re overhearing the characters’ real life rather than a performance. Of course, most of what they do in Hollywood is narrative: scripted or directed ad-lib films, telling a story about peoples’ lives.

Documentaries, training films, and commercials can have other priorities, and lavs can be more appropriate. Because of their closeness to the mouth, they pick up the performer’s voice more than their environment. This helps create the illusion that a person is talking directly to us. For this reason, they’re often the best choice for tight shots of a spokesperson, demonstrator, or interview subject: the sound matches the visual perspective of a person talking to camera.

In Hollywood, boom mics usually sound technically better than lavs, with lower noise and better bass. That’s because feature film boom ops usually reach for a very high quality mic like the $2,000 Schoeps MK41. If you’re using a lower priced electret hypercardioid or gun, the technical differences between it and a lav won’t be as noticeable.

Please note that “use the built-in camera mic” doesn’t appear anywhere in this section. The mics supplied with most cameras are pretty poor. You can fix that by buying a better mic and mounting it on the camera, but it’ll still sound bad in most applications. That’s because the camera is usually too far from the subject to get good sound. You’ll get mostly noise, and (if you’re indoors) annoying room reverb. Professionals use camera-mounted mics only for breaking events when there is no time to rig something better, for in-your-face interviews where both camera and mic are close to the subject, or for footage where they know the track will only supply back – ground atmosphere and not dialog.

These are technical and practical realities. Your own artistic sensibilities and shooting situations may outweigh any hard-and-fast rules, and reasonable directors may disagree. However, I’ll go on record as saying the worst tracks I’ve ever had to rescue were shot with camera mics. Choosing a particular kind of mic for artistic reasons is one thing. But choosing one just to save time or money can destroy your film.

Rose’s Rules:

Professionals have a simple rule for how close a mic should be:

Unless the talent can reach out and touch the mic comfortably, it’s too far away.

Excerpt from Producing Great Sound for Film and Video: Expert Tips from Preproduction to Final Mix, 4th Edition by Jay Rose © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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