These days competition is fierce. Your interviews and auditions have to be cleaner, more powerful and slicker than the other 100 folks vying for attention (or the role). In this article I’m going to go over both best practices and gear choices for getting that $50 million Hollywood impact into your interviews and self-shot auditions so you get everyone feeling your footage looks better than everyone else’s.
It’s the Sound
First, you know that here on Cinema Sound we believe that 80% of the audiences impact is derived from the audio in your production.
Don’t believe it’s true? Just take a look at this former article and see if we’re still wrong. You have to have better and cleaner sounding audio then the next guy in order to compete. Moreover, it has to be LOUDER or at least perceived to be louder than your competition or else no matter what your content is: how good, how well acted, how informative, how beautiful looking, they will always choose the clip that is 1 dB or more louder. Look at this article for more about on the subject of making things loud for the Internet. If you’re trying to figure out how to get your interviews to pop or get cast from your self-taped auditions, you’ve come to the right place! Also, if you haven’t become an MZed Pro Member, you’re totally missing out on over 140 hours of education which will make all of this super clear.
Tweet: Getting your audio handled isn’t something any of us really learn in film school, and I’m here to make sure this thing gets handled so we have the best results and the best consideration. What’s really hilarious is that time and again when I take the audio from the standard independent film maker fare and make it Hollywood level, no one notices. Instead they say something like,”Wow! That LOOKS so much better! What did you do?” Well this may be frustrating, but when we understand how to use sound to its maximum advantage – even in an interview – it gives us a secret edge that most filmmakers and actors have no idea about. Tweet: It’s this secret edge to making things “look better” which gives us the unfair competitive advantage that we need in order to compete and win.
There’s plenty of articles about how to light, frame with good negative space, three point lighting, and more. There is virtually nothing about how to do audio. If you’d like to learn about both the Visual elements AND how to make great audio, and I strongly suggest you enroll in the MZed Pro Membership which comes out July 1st, 2017, because not only does it cover every aspect of still photography and motion photography but it also houses my 85 hour beginners-to-masters level education on everything for sound and film. All for the same price. What?! I know. Crazy.
The Big Problem
Although sound is a major part of the impact that an audience receives, recording dialogue with inferior equipment, inferior environments, with inferior processes creates inferior results. We need to be able to have the best possible chance of being able to compete with our media, and very few of the practices required to capture and process good audio are either understood or intuitive. I go into all of this in deep and breathless detail in the Record Volume of the Pro Member education but for now, here are the basics. If you follow these five steps, it’s extremely likely you will receive 100% more positive response to your material than if you didn’t. The more of these you can do, the better the response. You’ll see.
1. Choose Your Room Wisely
Sound is highly reflective. Microphones are highly sensitive. So it stands to reason that if you are recording someone speaking in a four parallel wall, wood floor, hard ceiling or, big windowed room next to a busy street with a microphone that is embedded or attached to a camera 10 feet away, your audio is going to, well basically, suck. You are going to record far more of the reflections of your subject’s voice from the walls and ceilings then you are from their actual mouth. That sucky audio will have your viewers relegate your clip/media to being thought of us “unprofessional.” This is unacceptable. As filmmakers (yes, you actors are filmmakers if you’re recording auditions) we need to capture as much of the direct sound of our actor/interviewee as possible in order to get the nuance of their performance.
As a result, we need to consider our room. That means perhaps:
- Putting a rug down in front of our actor so that their voice doesn’t reflect off of the hardwood floor,
- Shooting in such a way that their voice is not slamming off of the very smooth and reflective wall which is right in front of them. In other words, move the camera they’re speaking to into a corner so the reflection of their voice doesn’t come slapping back into your microphone.
- Changing your location even though it may look great. If there are Harley-Davidson motorcycles going by every three minutes, it will take your audience out of your media or you’ll spend so much time trying to fix it in post that you will end up damaging the performance.
- Turn off clocks, phones, and even televisions which can emit strange high frequencies which will happily hijack your recordings. It’s tricky because your brain has probably tuned them out while you’re standing in the room, because you live there or are familiar with the room. But when you listen back to your recording and you hear all the garbage the mic picked up, you can be sure that a microphone and a recorder do not tune anything out, and they will give you a true representation of your audio environment: reflective room, noises, whines, the dogs next door and all. Make sure everything that makes noise is off.
Having a good room to record in isn’t so outlandish a requirement as one might think. If the room didn’t matter, studio owners wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars sound proofing and treating their rooms in order to get the cleanest possible sound possible with the least amount of room interference. It’s not just about isolation, it’s about how the room actually affects the sound. To sum this up: a closet is generally going to give you a better recording than the kitchen with its windows open to the street. Yes. I know. A closet won’t look that great, but hopefully you get my point.
2. Good Microphone Choice = Viewer Chooses You
In the Pro Member Education we talk about “False Economy” which is defined as “saving money now only to spend more of it later.” With
the exception of post processes, nowhere does “you get what you pay for” show up more powerfully than in your microphone choice. We would never want to shoot a scene with amazing actors with a $50 handycam with a 1/10″ sensor and a fixed 24mm lens! We wouldn’t want to shoot a closeup for our breakout film with an iPhone and a dirty $10 fisheye lens (unless you were going for that kind of look of course). So why do we think it’s cool to go to Best Buy and purchase an $85 cabled lav mic with a 3.5mm TRS jack and expect we’re going to get anything but noise, “honky” sounds and trouble? We want to have the best mic possible, and that means we’re going to spend between $200-$600. Yeah. I know. Ouch. But before we figure out what mic to get, or how big the piggy bank needs to be, let’s figure out what kind of microphone we need. If you have a great microphone, you’ll get the nuance of the performance, and your audience will connect with that performance and choose your production…instead of a production which has a cheap microphone that didn’t get the performance nuance.
And I’m saying this knowing that I’m dangerously close to angering one of our major sponsors who sells really great on camera mics. But why? Because to get a good interview you need a somewhat narrow depth of field. This means you need to be on a longer lens and the camera needs to be 6 feet or more from the subject. In audio land, unless you’re using something like an NTG 8, having a microphone that is far from the subject is unacceptable. It just returns the sound of the room instead of the subject. It’s okay and even adviseable to use the on camera mic for sync reference (explained later), but otherwise NO. Please say it with me,
I will never use an on camera mic ever again.
Second, you really have two choices when considering the kind of mic to use: shotgun or lav. The usual studio mics aren’t going to work, because they’ll be their giant phallic form that they take smack-dab in the middle of your shot. No thanks. We want microphones to be hidden or out of the shot. Consider the pros and cons of each:
Shotgun – $400-$1,000
- It’s never attached to you so you don’t have to worry about it being in the shot or being cabled to you etc.
- It’s super easy to use.
- No special hardware required. Just the mic, cable, you’re done.
- Shotguns tend to reject noises and sounds which are not directly in front of them.
- Shotguns have the most “natural” sound.
- If you’re in a really reflective room, you have to get the mic VERY close (within 2 feet) of the mouth of the subject. This means the camera will have to get closer and you’ll gain more depth of field.
- The subject cannot move. The directional nature of the shotgun mic is that it wants to reject all sound which isn’t directly on axis with the front of it.
- You’ll need a mic stand (another $30) and a good cable ($20).
- Your recorder needs XLR inputs and the capability to do phantom power.
Lavalier – $400-$1,500
For this example I’m considering wireless not wired lavs. Wired lavs are sometimes fine, but I find they’re generally consumer grade and everyone who I know that has bought one wishes they’d spent the money to get a good wireless solution of some kind.
- These days inexpensive wireless transmitter/receivers do very little damage to the sound of the microphone.
- Lavs are generally omnidirectional and suffer much less if the subject moves around in relation to the mic.
- Wireless is awesome, because the subject can walk around and have the same mouth-to-mic distance.
- Lavs can be in-shot and be hidden.
- Wireless Lav solutions can have the camera any reasonable distance away and have no drop in fidelity. In other words, you can set your shot and not worry about the mic “getting in the shot” or having the camera dictate where the mic must be.
- Seeing a lav in an interview/audition is generally considered okay these days.
- Generally lavs are good for reflective rooms – even though they are omnidirectional – because they
are (hopefully) close to the mouth.
- There are VERY FEW good wireless systems which will not be rendered illegal to use in the next months – thanks to the coming FCC regulations regarding wireless bands and cell phone companies. You buy a nice $600 system today, it’s VERY likely you won’t be able to use it legally 5 years from now.
- You’ll generally spend more money to get good quality lav/transmitter and receiver than you would to get similar quality in just a shotgun.
- Lavs are TERRIBLE if you’re in a noisy environment, because they are omnidirectional: they’ll pick up everything.
- Lavs have the least natural sound because of their proximity to the mouth
- Lavs can easily have mouth noise/plosive “p” sounds and more which ruin performances.
What’s my recommendation for an all around good solution? Lavalier. Which one? Røde Filmmaker Kit. You get a lav, a transmitter and a receiver for $400. Is it the best? Nope. Is it great value? Incredible. You can see our review of it here when we put it through it’s paces at NAB 2017. Are there other lavs you can buy? Of course, but if they’re wireless and anything other than 2.4 Ghz you’ll be unable to use them once the FCC brings down its rulings. You could go to jail. Dun Dun DUUUN! I know. Crazy.
Full disclosure? Yes. Røde is a sponsor of Cinema Sound. And, I defy anyone to find a better value which can still be used in 5 years as of the writing of this article.
3. Positions of Power
Now that we have a lavalier or shotgun, where do we put them? The general rule is as close as you can to the mouth where the air from consonants like “P” or “F” don’t create problems. Specifically? Check it out:
Obviously they need to be out of the shot…but they should be as close to the mouth as possible. This can mean moving the mic toward
the subject while crabbing it away. There’s a sweet spot of distance – which those of you with a geometry sense understand – which has the mic at a good 45º angle to the subject and as close as possible without being seen. You can get closer than this, but the angle of the mic to the mouth becomes too much, and high frequencies are lost. Keep the mic as close to the subject as possible and no more than 45º angle to the mouth. Naturally, point the microphone directly at the mouth – not just at the face. A matter of inches can make a difference. Also insure that the window to the open street or some other noisy device or reflective wall is not in front of the mic. You can have the mic pointed at the mouth of your subject AND the motorcycles outside the window and get a wonderful recording of the internal combustion engine instead of your subject.
When recording the Beach scene for the Pro Member education, we used the NTG 8 which is an ultra cardioid – HIGHLY directional mic…but when we pointed it at one of our actors who was sitting in front of the surf it didn’t matter how directional the mic was – we were pointing it toward the surf! Move your shots so that the mic is pointed in the opposite direction of the noisiest things in the room.
We spend an hour in the Pro Member education talking about how to position lavalier mics. Yes. It’s that complex. But to make it simple, imagine your subject were wearing a lapel on a jacket (even better if they actually are). Tweet: Somewhere 3 to six inches south of their chin on that “lapel line” is where the lav should go. Wrap the cable neatly so it’s not an eye sore. Always use the included wind screen to protect from plosives and other mouth noise. That’s it. Why? Well, yeah, there’s an hour of theory as to why, but for the purposes of practicality, trust me. It’s why we used to call them “lapel mics.”
Make sure the gain from the transmitter to the receiver is strong but not going over the highest level allowed. Remember that on a wireless system you’ve introduced two more “it distorted because it got too loud” devices into your audio chain: the transmitter and the receiver. Make sure you’re not overloading either. And of course, make sure it’s not too soft or you’ll just be pulling up the noise floor. I like to say your levels should be 1/2 of the way up on your transmitter/receiver. If it’s an interview/audition where the subject has a regular level, then perhaps higher.
4. Recorder or Camera?
Should you invest in a separate recorder or should you just record to the camera? If you have a pro camera – and by pro I mean a body which cost $8,000 or more, then recording to the camera is fine. If not, forget it. Buy the recorder. Tweet: DSLR cameras are NOTORIOUS for having really bad audio components. Unless you’re in the C300 range or better, your audio will be noisy and difficult to use in post.
“But Mark, I bought a C-1oo and I have the special XLR audio attachment!!”
I see you’re a gambling man. I hope you roll sevens. For me? If it’s anything other than sync reference audio, no thanks.
What to look for in a recorder? Well, honestly you could use your smart phone if you have a good adapter and software. Here’s an example from IK Multimedia, but anything will do as long as your software allows you to record at 48kHz, 24 bit uncompressed audio. DO NOT record in .mp3 or other compressed format. Ideally, the interface would be able to plug into your lightning/usb/data port, because then you’re not losing fidelity from the phone’s microphone jack and ADCs (usually sub par). But even the example above will do better than the ADCs on the Canon C-100. What’s the best way? Buy a good recorder. Look to Zoom for anything you can afford there. You’ll be happy.
Naturally, if you’re recording the audio separate from the video, you’ll need to “clap your hands” with both camera and recorder going in order to have a sync reference. You don’t need to do this if you’re recording directly to camera.
5. Four Simple Post Production Requirements
You NEVER want to just shoot something and send it to someone Raw. Right? You’ve got a lot of visual work to do in post to get it professional. You need to color correct, add titles, lower 3rds, crossfades and of course have it exported in a palatable delivery format. The same is true for the audio elements.
If you’ve recorded audio on a separate recorder, you need to sync the audio. There are a number of programs which allow you to do this, but the easiest way for a simple situation as we find ourselves in an audition/interview is to use the built in sync capabilities of the Non Linear Editor you’re editing the picture with. Editors I recommend are Premiere Pro (Mac/Win), Final Cut Pro (Mac), DaVinci Resolve (Mac/Win). In each of these is the ability to select a video clip, the audio that the camera recorded (which will sound terrible) and the separate audio file from your recorder, select some kind of “sync with audio” functionality and the audio and video tracks will jump together into sync. Once this is done you’ll want to mute or “disable” the camera audio.
Stereo vs. Mono
Sometimes, especially in Premiere, your separately recorded audio track will be placed into a “stereo” track. Since you recorded a single sound source, your microphone recording is “mono.” I’ve heard more than one audition where the actor’s presentation had their dialog on the left channel of the video only. Very disturbing to listen to, and Tweet: That kind of mistake will insure you’re not cast. To fix this, always make sure your recorded audio file is placed on a mono track. You may need to make a new audio track for this purpose. Be sure not to drag your audio out of sync when moving it up and down tracks. If you leave a mono file on a stereo track, the editor will have it play only on one channel (usually left). Boo. Make sure mono audio is on mono tracks.
Editing & Crossfades
When you add your crossfades to your picture, it’s a good time to do the same with audio. You don’t want your audio banging in at the top or bottom of your clip any more than you want picture to. Add a nice crossfade to your audio at form points. Also be sure to add very short (2-3 frames) crossfades to any edits to the audio which you might make. Otherwise, you may get “pops” or other unsightly artifacts.
As to editing for interviews and auditions, never make the mistake of taking out “dead space” in audio. If you have a long space where no one is speaking leave the audio in. Tweet: you’re actually performing one of the most detrimental acts to your ability to compete: taking the viewer out of the story. By taking the natural ambience out of the clip for any period of time, you’re snapping the viewer back into their own “reality” instead of your subject’s performance. And although its commendable to want to cut out “dead noise” it actually causes FAR more harm than good. Leave. Dead. Space. In. Now in saying this, I’m not suggesting you just leave people sitting around. I’m speaking about dead space only in the context that you have a good dramatic cut. If there’s dead space because the performance has dead space, leave the audio alone. If you have dead space because you haven’t trimmed the head and tail of your clip, recut.
As mentioned earlier, this blog and the Pro Member Education has lots of information about how to make your audio sound great in all the aspects listed below. It suffices to say that sending untreated audio out is as suicidal as sending untreated video out. Here’s my recommendations with links (where possible) to articles which explain how to do this from Cinema Sound:
- Do a denoise pass if the ambient noise of the room is too loud. Ideally, you’ve recorded with a good mic in a quiet non-reflective room, but sometimes that’s not possible. This can be done in Adobe Audition and iZotope RX. (article coming soon)
- Do a basic grade of the sound of the voice using an EQ plugin. (article coming soon)
- Increase the volume without clipping by using a limiter.
I know. It’s a lot. But so is dealing with the visual elements. But if it’s true that audio is 80% of the audience’s impact, and we want to compete, then it’s mandatory that we do all this. MAN-DA-TORY. It’ll make a HUGE difference in how people see your content, and you’ll find your viewers responding MUCH more positively. Maybe even getting more work.
What are your experiences or questions about this? Let us know or Tweet about it!