Sound is often the underappreciated, bitter, twin of the camera during production. Despite constantly being forgotten, underappreciated and neglected, sound can lay claim to being the most important part of any movie. People will forgive shoddy camera work, but if you can’t hear what’s happening, then you don’t have a story, or a film. As such sound recording is a discipline all of its own. Of course in the days of yore, silent film was the exception to this rule, but we’ve come a long way since then… haven’t we?
There are lots of different types of microphones you can use to capture sound for your project. Listed here are the four main types you will come across in video production. Over the course of our projects, we’ve used all of these different techniques to varying success. None are better than the others, just more suited to different environments. Obviously the ideal is to have someone whose role is solely dedicated to sound, but depending on the scope and commitment to your project, it may be hard to implement.
The on-board microphone (or internal microphone on your camera) is your first step when it comes to recording audio for a video project. It’s built in. It’s right there, and the temptation to use it can be all too high. Try to refrain. For your film’s sake. The quality of the audio will be highly compromised (it’s a camera after all, not a dedicated audio recorder) and you will inadvertently record the breathing and sniffling of your camera operator, as opposed to the audio you want to record from your subject. If you have no money and the audio of your project isn’t very important (a scenario I have trouble envisioning) then by all means use your on-board microphone but when you’re interview is quiet, crackly and covered in coughing, it might be time to invest in something a little more professional.
Field recorders (or an external microphone) are any type of microphone that you take out with you to record sound. There are many different types of field recorders, loosely categorized by the direction of sounds they can record. There are Omni-directional microphones which pick up sound evenly from 360 degrees, unidirectional microphones, which take sound in form one direction only, cardioid microphones, which (relatively speaking) take more sound in from the front and sides and shotgun microphones, which more specifically record sound that is directly in front of them. Each of these different types have a different application depending on where you’re audio source is coming from. Most film-makers will use shotgun microphones as they are best at picking up intended noises and ignoring sideline or superfluous/distracting room sounds.
Where you put you’re microphone will directly impact the quality and loudness of the sound you are trying to capture. The general rule is the closer your microphone is to the source of the sound, the better quality audio you will record. This might mean that you need your microphone literally in your scene to capture the crispest audio possible. But, what with having to film the scene too, you need to ‘creatively’ hide the location of your microphone. One way to do this is by using conspicuously placed pot-plants or other obscuring items in the shot to hide the microphone. Another, and much more common method, is to use what’s known as a boom pole. A boom pole is a long stick that you put a microphone on the end of and hold the whole thing above your scene (camera and boom operators will need to work in tandem to ensure the boom stays out of shot). This will ensure you have nice crispy audio, placed near to your subjects, without the microphone being in frame. Tidy. Of course, a boom pole requires a boom pole operator to hold the boom during shooting so look at the scope for your project (and budget) and see if paying someone to stand around holding a big stick all day is on the cards.
For recording the audio from an interview (and let’s face it, an interview is 90% audio) you’re going to want the highest quality audio you can get, leveled correctly with minimal disturbance. A boom pole could be used in this situation but the most effective solution in an interview setting is to use a lapel microphone (sometimes known as a lavalier). A lavalier is a small microphone that inconspicuously clips onto someone’s lapel (or any item of clothing near to the face). As long as the microphone isn’t rubbing on clothing and the subject isn’t breathing directly into it, the lavalier microphone will pick up crispy audio from your subject at an even volume level with minimal setup. The one caveat with a lavalier is of course visibility. On a black shirt and with some creative framing your audience might not even notice, but anything else and you might run into trouble. For news or documentary, the audience is aware of a certain level of artifice so it’s fine to see a microphone here or there but for drama or feature films, they are obviously a no go. Another option is to hide these wireless and discreet microphones in the scene. Place them in a pot plant, or behind a computer. However, their reliability at variable distances, and not pointed directly at an actor or talents mouth, is not guaranteed. As such, you should probably only use this technique as a backup, or a plan B, and not as your hero microphone. You can never have enough sources of sound right?