Film School 101: Audio and Location

8 minutes

By
Thomas Kim
Film School 101

Just like lighting, depending on your film location you may have an extremely easy time with audio. Or, to be blunt, it may be a nightmare. The good news is that you don't need Kanye-level sound production talent to create a good-sounding video. Because audio is one-half of the experience of watching a video, it's important to have a few  sound production basics in your quiver. Let's walk through a few things to lookout for prior to filming or recording to make sure you're sounding like a star.

Check check, one two.

Ok, I know, this is a no brainer. But, the basics will save your life time and again. I promise. Doing a simple test recording on your microphone will also save you time. So, make sure that the native microphone on whatever device you're filming with is working. I'll be honest, I've had moments where I captured great video for 10 minutes, only to find out that we weren't recording any audio.

It sounds basic, but often when you plug headphones into a device or have a bluetooth connected to a device, your audio input can be redirected. Save yourself disappointment and just record a quick 10 second video to make sure that your audio is working.

Keep your ear to the streets

If you're filming outside or you live in a metropolitan area like New York or Los Angeles (our homes) then it might feel like the sounds of the street are never far away. You might catch a moment of magic, but it's cut short, interrupted, or drowned out by honking, sirens, or your neighborhood trash collection. All this to say, find the sonic sweet spot where you're recording. Maybe it's between 2 and 4 pm before rush hour starts. Or later in the evening when people are 15 minutes into their Netflix and chill.

Alright, hitting you with the obvious stick one more time -- try not to record audio where there's a lot of external noise. Even if it seems relatively quiet to your ears, check again and do a quick sound test. Your microphone may capture more in the recording than your ear does. Oh, and always pause your audio recording for passing airplanes.

Indoor vs Outdoor

A subject of great debate. Who doesn't love the raw, unpolished, and natural feel of an outdoor scene? At the same time, there's plenty of reasons why Hollywood studios spent a lot of money building expansive film production lots.

Outdoors

If you're filming outdoors, try to scout a location with minimal wind disturbance. This means somewhere with walls or native landscape features like hedges or hills which that block gusts of wind.

Another thing to account for is the distance the speaker is from the microphone. In an outdoor recording situation, sound disperses easily. This translates into recording situations where capturing someone talking can be difficult. So, unless you have a wireless microphone, a general rule of thumb is try to be as close to the microphone as possible.

I recommend testing by filming a short snippet and hearing how you sound by playing it back. If you've got an external microphone source like a wireless lavalier or bluetooth earphones, you can pay less attention to your distance from the camera. But, I suggest doing a test anyway to see if you still pickup any unwanted noise in your sonic field.

Indoors

The height and shape of the room. Position of doors. Presence of soft textures like carpet or curtains. These are all objects within a recording space which affect the acoustics of the room and your audio. For your purposes, to create clean, natural sounding audio, all you need to focus on is one thing: echo.

If your room doesn't have a lot of echo and there's minimal external sounds, then you've found a good place to record.  However, if you detect a healthy amount of echo in your space, there's a few things you can do to minimize it.

Ceiling height

If your room has tall ceilings, you may notice that your voice is either echoing, or that your voice just sounds thin. This is because of the distance the sound has to travel before bouncing back. A few immediate solutions to test would be (1) use an external microphone or bluetooth headphones to capture sound; or (2) if your camera is capturing sound too, move closer to it.

The empty room problem

Minimal, mostly empty rooms are often aesthetically pleasing to look at. However, they're not so pleasing when it comes to recording audio in them. A room with very little in it often has too many hard surfaces that bounce or reflect sound waves instead of absorbing them. The end result is an excess of echo, which makes for less clear sound recordings. This is where rugs, carpets, and curtains can be your best friend. If you want to go all-in, you can also place a rug on the wall. These soft materials will dampen and focus the sound in an otherwise empty space, which will translate into warmer, easier to listen sound in your recordings.