Location Sound Recording

This is one of the trickier elements of quality video production. It seems so simple: You say something while the camera is rolling, and it’s recorded. The truth is, it’s much more complex than that.

Before we get into the complexities, a fun little question. Is the proper abbreviation for microphone mic or mike? Both appear on various websites and in printed literature. While no one has come up with a definitive answer (there is no grand high expert who has the final say in these things) dictionaries regularly use mike. Mic may look like the more logical abbreviation at first, but it tends to look weird if you have to conjugate it (“He was quickly miced just before the commercial break ended”). In fact, if you try to spell it “mic” in a program with spellcheck like Word, it will show an error.

When One Just Isn’t Enough

Quality video production requires more than a single microphone. While some cameras have excellent built-in mikes, a video production team will not likely rely on just that one audio source. As with anything, stuff happens, and while you might be able to tell that you’re getting audio input from the mike by looking at visual displays of audio levels, you won’t be able to determine if there are subtle problems like a background hiss from a faulty connection in the mike until you play back the video. Even then, until you get the video back to an actual edit suite and put it through the sound board, you still might not be able to detect minor problems. But you can be certain those minor problems can cause major havoc when you’re trying to edit the final video.

In simpler productions, the grapher may act as the audio operator/sound mixer, but in many cases it really pays to have a separate crew member to handle these responsibilities. If you divide the attention of one person between two crucial tasks, it increases the chance that one or both aspects won’t have the quality you deserve.

Video Production Audio Equipment

There are different sorts of audio equipment used on location to ensure the best possible audio quality. One of the more famous is the boom mike, which is simply a high-quality microphone suspended on a large arm.

The arm can be positioned to capture the best quality audio either in a general location if ambient sound is desired, or in dialogue between one or more people involved in the scene. There may be a separate crew member called a boom operator who is in charge of operating this microphone, which can be challenging. Aside from ensuring the boom microphone is placed for optimal sound recording, the boom operator also has to make sure the microphone isn’t visible in the shot. We’ve all seen comedic pieces where a boom mike slowly creeps into view during a serious dramatic scene, or an actor spins around suddenly and hits his head on the boom.

The boom operator may assist with other equipment as well, such as lavalier microphones. These are small clip-on microphones that are usually placed on a person’s lapel or high up on the neck of whatever they’re wearing. One of the challenges is to make these mikes as unobtrusive as possible in close-up shots.

Location sound recording requires strict attention to changes in ambient noise. While this is usually not a problem for studio recording, or videos shot in an interior such as an office, it can be especially problematic in outside locations. While you were in front of the camera pitching your product you may not have paid much attention to that car that drove by a block away blaring music, but you can bet it was probably picked up on at least some of the audio equipment around you. That refreshing breeze that blew by you? It may sound like a hurricane on the audio recording because of the sensitivity of the equipment (wind is a notoriously problematic issue on outside shoots). These are just a couple of examples of why it pays to have a professional sound mixer, rather than having the director of photography do double-duty. The sound mixer is constantly listening to the audio input from the shoot, and can alert the field producer or director as soon as any problems crop up.

The audio isn’t a done deal just because the location shoot has wrapped up. There are still a few processes involved in getting the final audio for your project, which we’ll deal with in the post-production section.

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