Sound affects. 5 ways to capture better audio right now.
Sound is everywhere. And so is March Madness.
While the relationship between the two may seem stretched—especially if you've never visited us in Portland, and if you haven't, you should—here at Story & Heart they're both intimately attached to the character of our workspace.
At the back of the studio is a huge rolling garage door that leads to an improvised basketball court. Often, 1-on-1 games will make the thunk of the backboard reverberate throughout the space. There is never a game we won't hear.
When we ask our Harmonizer Jeremy about this, as a sound engineer he explains that the door creates a low pass filter roll-off of about 180hz at -12db an octave.
Translation? He hears the low rumble of buckets against the backboard but never the high frequency swishes of the net.
Whatever the math, every time we close our eyes, sitting at our desks listening to the game outside, we're reminded that the way in which the the garage door interacts with the sound of ballin’ outside is essential to defining our space.
We’ve written recently about the inherent importance of finding the perfect soundtrack for your film, and though we were talking about music, we know what audio can do for an image.
Sound sculpts, hones, and solidifies our definition of space in a way visuals can never achieve alone.
The roar of the crowd when taking the court for March Madness, as well as the same eerie stillness when a game-winning shot hangs before briskly brushing the net: this is the world of sound—a symphony of emotional melodies derived from natural ambiances, clamorous soundscapes, and anthemic cheers.
Audio assigns one more sense to a purely sensory experience. While music attends strictly to story, sound acts more empirically. It limns a space, gives it dimension, depth, and dynamism—for film, sound places the viewer even deeper within an image, at a very specific spot, at a very specific time.
Unlike, say, the sense of touch, sound is tactility experienced all at once.
Sound is all context. For a filmmaker, it can serve as the clearest, most crucial way to give any viewer a salient sense of place.
Since Story & Heart is currently working on a big, exciting project, filming March Madness and, this weekend, the Final Four (more to come about this on our Blog, because there's no way we'd keep such news under wraps for long), we've made it our priority to capture natural audio at each shoot, to place the viewer on the court, next to the players, involved intimately in the action.
Well-captured audio will make your stories resonate with depth and life—and there should be nothing keeping you from this kind of audio. Which means you can make audio an essential part of any of your productions, without buying a bunch of new equipment and without assembling a big crew. You can do this right now.
To illustrate, we brought Dom and Ryland out back for a pick-up game and a few lessons in recording better audio with Jeremy, our one-man sound crew.
Close your eyes for a moment, listen to the following. We have no footage to accompany it, and we did this on purpose. If we've captured the audio clearly, you shouldn't need a film to feel stuck in the middle of the action, running circles even around Dom and Ryland as they barely scrape together a few baskets.
Be it by packing an “emergency” audio kit or by cutting out as many distractions as possible in advance, a little planning goes a long way.
Make audio a priority. Here are 5 ways to better capture it—right away.
1. Block the wind.
We all know this: wind noise can be incredibly distracting.
Its low, distorted whoosh can instantly pull any viewer out of the story you’re telling.
Don’t fret! By simply introducing a reflector, someone’s coat, some foam core, or your own body you can set a killer pick that will reduce or block the wind. Adding a deadcat (furry cover) to your mic will also work.
Good audio is all about being patient—which isn’t about waiting around for something to happen, but being vigilant for when it does.
In fact, once the wind is gone there’s a big difference between capturing its natural sound and capturing its distortion.
2. Get closer to the source.
Sound is especially articulate when recorded at closer proximity—this means less reverb, or less “roomy”- and “boomy”-ness.
Reverb is comprised of two sonic components: initial reflections and decay. Generally, the closer you are to the source of your sound, the more direct and clear it will be, because the less reverb will be in your signal.
Much in the same way the inverse-square law applies to light, the closer your are to the source of the sound, the higher the volume.
Of course, you must always consider your story. What are you trying to motivate with a sound? A coach clapping 50 feet away, across a crowded bench, would not sound natural captured in close range. In that case we’d want more space, more ambiance in each clap.
One must approach sound on its own terms—to understand how and why it moves rather than to move it.
Overall, capturing sounds at close proximity, between 1 and 3 feet depending on the sound and source, will give you viable options to use once you are mixing in post.
3. Turn on a rumble filter while capturing natural sounds.
That skate-ramp-looking thing on the back of your mic is your high-pass/rumble filter.
Applying this high-pass filter will remove the low frequencies from the signal, zapping unwanted rumble and low frequencies from your sounds.
Using the filters on the mic treats the sound at the source. Since higher frequencies of the audio spectrum provide more sonic clarity and detail, removing low frequencies upon capturing will make your mix much less “muddy”. Which also leaves a clear space in your mix for sounds that include low frequencies.
That being said, use your best judgment with what you're capturing and determine if you want to remove low frequencies.
A crowd stomping in unison on bleachers, say: this is an image that would be greatly enhanced capturing low frequencies, or full bandwidths, of sound, and so the rumble filter wouldn’t apply.
A tool is rarely a solution, and never a crutch. By carefully listening to what your story needs, you’ll know everything that it doesn’t.
What would high-pass filters do wonders for? The squeak of a sneaker, the swish of a net, the snap of the basketball against a player's palm—most sound further than 15 feet from your source. In these cases, low frequencies will just cloud up your sound.
4. Record room tone/ambiance in any space you occupy.
Wherever you are—be sure to capture the natural ambiance of it. In flat-sounding interviews, room tone can add a sense of space and context; amidst landscapes, the particular noises of flora and fauna add depth and character.
Room tone is, essentially, the sound of the space itself.
Go ahead—close your eyes once more, right now. Turn off any music, other sounds. You’ll hear...yup: air. A faint but defined sonic rendering of the space itself. This is why when your car turns off after you arrive at home, your shoulders lower slightly: the room tone of home has set your mind at ease. A familiar hum reminds you the day is done.
To record it: first make sure the only thing you presently are hearing is the natural ambiance/sound of the space itself. This means: everybody be quiet! Anything that isn’t happening as a part of the natural sound of the scene needs to be silent.
Then, and only then, record a stereo track of the space you are in for at least 60 seconds.
Capturing clear ambiances in the field makes it possible to control the amount of ambiance in your mix in post, which in turn can add a tremendous sense of dimension and dynamism to your audio.
5. Be proactive.
Be aware of the sound around you.
Which means that you need to get a feel for compartmentalizing audio.
What’s relevant to the story in frame?
Any conversations by crew should take place before or after you’re rolling. Obvious, maybe, but when you’re juggling a cavalcade of responsibilities on any shoot, sound can sometimes take a backseat.
So, if there’s a helicopter overhead or a loud buzzer or a loud heckler who won't be quiet or a party that’s about to start or construction across the street or a cell phone that’s ringing—all of these can be sonic distractions from your story. Take action to mitigate these before they become a sure-fire time-waster.
If you can’t wait for the noise to pass, can you adjust creatively?
The key is to be proactive, to not wait for obstacles to present themselves in order to understand the limits to your control, but to anticipate as many as you can through location scouting, or brainstorming, or packing appropriately, or anything, really, that you can accomplish beforehand.
Patience, vigilance, and a little bit of luck: just as these apply to any creative endeavor they apply, of course, to capturing audio in the field.
Capturing clearer audio is not only within any filmmaker's means, it is vital to telling your story the way it must be told.
Believe that, and you will, like the Boy Scouts claim, always be prepared.
Yes, it was ice cream. Which is how we recommend you end any athletic activity.
Now it’s your turn: in the comments below, share some basic tips or tricks for getting great audio in the field. Or, if you find yourself struggling with an audio-based situation, let us know what’s going on and we’ll do our best to help.