Directing Production

Sound Rules To Live By

sound design

Photo by: Mr Gilles

Rule #1: Get the Mic as Close as Possible

The most basic rule for recording dialogue is to get the mic as close to the action as possible without being in the shot. The closer the mic, the better the quality of the recording. This is why boom mics so often end up creeping into scenes; the sound person was trying to get as close as possible and accidentally allowed the mic to enter the frame. The sound person should always confirm the frame line with the director of photography before shooting starts to avoid this problem.

Rule #2: Always Use Headphones… Always

There are a wide variety of things that can ruin your sound that can only be heard by listening to your sound with professional over-the-ear headphones. Simply watching sound levels on a meter or relying on your naked ear will not reveal the following: a cable clunking against the boom pole, air conditioner noise, hum from a computer, a distant plane, a loose mic in the zeppelin, excessive street noise, etc.

If using a mixer, you should monitor the sound being recorded by the camera, as opposed to monitoring the sound coming from the mixer. The sound could come out of the mixer perfectly, but still be ruined by bad levels or other settings on your camera. Many mixers have a setting to monitor sound from the camera. The bottom line is to always listen to the sound from its final recording destination, regardless of whether you run through a mixer or other sound equipment.

Rule #3: Monitor the Sound Levels from the Camera

Not even the most skilled sound technician can do anything to fix over-modulated sound in post. If you record sound that is too loud, you’ve just jumped on a one-way train to Stinktown. If you are using a mixer, remember to match levels between the camera and mixer. Once your levels are set, use the mixer controls. Be sure to monitor sound from the camera by feeding it back to your mixer through the “monitor in” jack, because that’s what’s actually being recorded to tape and that’s what counts. If you can’t feed it back, keep an eye on the sound levels on the camera LCD.

Rule #4: Scout Your Locations for Sound

It is vital to carefully observe every location, inside and out, for any source of noise or sound problems that could interfere with your shoot. Murphy’s Law—whatever can go wrong will go wrong—is always in full effect when it comes to location shooting. If you don’t take sound into full consideration when location scouting, or even worse, if you haven’t observed your location beforehand, you are personally inviting Murphy to wreak further havoc on your shoot.

Always think about sound in addition to those beautiful images in your head. Do that cool director viewfinder thing with your hands… then cup your ears and listen to your location.

Rule #5: Always Record “Wild” Sound

Recording wild sound or room tone is simply recording the natural sound of any location—all the little buzzes, hums, birds, traffic, and background noises that often go unnoticed in production. The purpose of recording wild sound is to smooth out audio inconsistencies in editing. This comes into play in two primary situations:

  • Situation A: You need to do additional dialogue recording (ADR) after a scene was already shot. The ambient sound under the dialogue that you record during ADR will not match the shots you recorded on location unless you lay in the ambient sound from location or “room tone.”
  • Situation B: During location recording, background noise elements that you have no control over or failed to notice, such as air conditioners or computers, were there for certain takes but not for others. You’ll need to restore that particular noise for certain shots for them to sound the same as the other shots when edited together in the same scene.

The procedure is simple. During a break or as soon as picture is wrapped, have everyone on location be silent and freeze where they are. No packing or adjusting equipment—no nothing for at least one full minute while the sound recordist captures the natural ambient sound of the location that will save your butt in the edit room.


Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production by Anthony Q. Artis, © 2014. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
   chip brandstetter said on March 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm

This all seems like common sense but it’s painfully obvious when someone neglects the rudiments. On a shoot this info should be scripture.

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