In part one of this double feature, we talked about designing a sound plan for your film, including music and background sound. Now let's look at how to collect and execute the various components of that sound design.
If you don't have clear, easy-to-understand dialog, you don't have much of a movie. Few things are as frustrating as trying to understand what the characters are saying because:
Ambient Noise is too high
The dialog is not well captured
Recordings have intrinsic noise, like hiss or clicks, due to cheap equipment or bad connections.
A separate but equally important consideration is the actor's enunciation, personal accent and prosody. The latter is what encodes so much information to the words. Prosody is very important in film as it concerns things like intonation, tone, stress and rhythm. Prosody conveys information about the speaker through emotionality, the structure of the words (such as a statement, question, command or reprimand), any irony or sarcasm present, type of emphasis, or other elements of language that are encoded in the dialog—but not by grammar or word choice. Be aware that body language and dialog work together to create the message.
Zak Forsman's producer holds the boom on a micro-budget production
Dealing with Ambient Noise
Whenever you record dialog in the wild, you are going to get more than you want. The best way to deal with it is through digital manipulation. Remove the parts you don't want and enhance the parts you do want. It is called “sweetening” the audio. This can be done in the deep wild without standard electrical connections using iOS and android apps or software running on laptop PCs and Macs. But it's most likely that you will do this back at your base of operations on the powerful desktop computer you will be using to edit your film.
You will need to have a sound editor or learn to be one yourself. Don't rule out the latter. With modern software, you will be able to perform like a professional sound editor of just a few years ago. I use Adobe Audition because I'm a Creative Cloud subscriber, so the software is already available to me. Audition is a powerful tool for cleaning up noisy dialog recordings.
Capturing Usable Dialog
I've said it before, and I will say it again: do not use the audio you capture with your camera in your final track. Use it to sync up the other audio streams you capture using high-quality mics and digital recorders. You'll use an electronic “clapper” beep to help with all the dialog synchronization.
On a low-budget film you'll want to stick to three types of mic. The lavalier is very useful in many circumstances, as are the boom mic and stereo digital recorders with quality integrated mics. Your stereo or multichannel tracks will be artistically assembled and refined by your sound editor from clean components.
The lavalier mic is your friend. It is a close mic that can capture presence and is easily hidden by wardrobe. Here is a rundown of inexpensive lavaliere mics.
Don't go the DIY route anymore. Until very recently, you could build a cheap, workable lapel mic by buying an inexpensive handheld mobile earphone-and-mic combo and cutting off the earphones. They cost about $10-$20 each and the sound varied greatly, with mostly soft presence. Don't do that. The best way to get excellent cheap clip-on mics, with a bit of DIY, is to buy Neewer's 3.5mm hands-free computer clip-on mini lapel mic and modify it slightly.
Here's the deal: this is an excellent microphone cartridge in a crappy plastic-clip housing with no strain relief on the cable. The wire servicing the cartridge transmits even the slightest touch directly to the mic, making it very noisy. But you can fix that.
Here is what I recommend. Get a tube of Shoe Goo. It's a glue-like plastic used to repair worn sneaker soles. But it is a great product for many other uses. In this case, you can create a strain relief where the wire enters the plastic housing by forming Shoe Goo around the cable and the housing. Smooth the Goo down along the cable, tapering it slowly for about a half inch. Place the unit on wax paper on a flat surface, with the cable straight out from the housing. Let it dry overnight.
This mic is so good that you'll want to buy two three-packs, modify them, and keep them in your kit at all times, especially in the wild. They'll come in handy. What do they cost? A little over two bucks apiece. Seriously.
You will want to plug this into your iPhone or one of the digital recorders I mentioned in my last post and tape it down to avoid any transfer noise.
The Cheapest Pro Lavaliers
With any lavalier, I recommend using a windscreen outside, especially in the wild. It makes sense to buy some high quality prosumer-level mics for your kit. They are not expensive and perform extremely well.
But you can buy some amazingly inexpensive and high-quality lavalier mics that will give you excellent sound. In fact, I find that some of these perform better, for my needs, than expensive professional mics. I discovered an excellent video by Blake (that's all I know him by), who tests and explains everything you need to know to get started with lavaliers. He also points out that a boom with an inexpensive Zoom mic might be better in many situations. Watch and learn.
BTW, neither I nor StudioDaily get commercial considerations for my recommendations. I simply recommend to the best of my knowledge. Someone complained that my blog is too commercial—bought and paid for. Well, no. That said, here is a link to what Blake and I both agree is an amazingly good microphone for the money, the JK MIC-J 044 condenser mic.
And here's a cheap but high-quality Audio Technica ATR-3550 condenser mic if you prefer.
Any of these will give you professional level sound pickup. Remarkably, so will the Neewer! So: no excuses.
Your Boom Kit
I would say you flat-out need a boom mic for most of your dialog capture. Professional models can be extremely pricey, but you can create your own boom kit for very little money. I built mine from a $25 22-foot extension boom with an angle head designed to be used to clean high windows and screw in light bulbs. It came with a cleaning and dusting kit from Costco. I attached my long shotgun mic from my younger days. It still has awesome performance. Alternately, you can get a nice RØDE boom kit for about $200.00 on eBay, a good source for decent cheap equipment. (For example, you can get a very usable pro light kit for under 100 bucks.) There are other boom kits for under $50.00, but it's hard to say how good they are. Note: boom operation is an art and science of its own. It takes practice and knowledge. If nothing else, learn to always point the shotgun mic at the actor's mouth, not at their head or simply in their general direction. It's also an art to stay out of frame. Michael Wohl explains in this video.
A Trade Secret
I found a geat scene-saving technique for capturing great boom sound in wide shots when you can lock off the camera. You know there are times when there is a lot of ambient noise in a wide shot and you just can't get the boom close enough to the actor. Zak Forsman is a director who's had to work on micro-budgets. He lets the boom show in frame. Seriously. He even lets the boom operator get into the frame, because he also shoots a clean plate which he uses to matte out the boom and operator. This is a very simple technique in After Effects, etc., and can save you a lot of heartache in difficult situations.
Digital Recording Devices
There are professional recording devices (as mentioned in part one) that I recommend, and you can commandeer iPhones and Android phones from your crew in a pinch. Plug in one of the lavaliers and you're good to go. You can even buy used smartphones cheap and have a dozen quality digital recording devices on hand with practically no budget. There are unbelievably cheap and excellent sound recording apps available at $10.00 and under that can be particularly handy in the wild.
The advantage of the digital recording devices from Tascam and Zoom is that they come with quality stereo microphones, and you can plug in your boom mic. You can hide the recorders in the scene to capture dialog. You can also employ them in your quest for perfect ambient sounds.
Using Software to Sweeten Your Sound
The that you want to get your dialog as clean as possible so that it can be properly layered in with the environment and musical soundscape of your film. You will edit your music tracks as well, cleaning out any noise so that you have exactly the components you want to mix in the end. I do not like any of the free audio editors. They simply lack the sophistication you need to create clean audio tracks for your film.
In my opinion, the best overall tool for sound work on low-budget films is Adobe Audition. But that's not where I want to start. I'll get to it. First, there is an amazing audio tool that costs about $400.00. That's not cheap, but maybe it's doable.
SpectraLayers Pro 3
It is the same software used by forensic analysis labs, the FBI and CSI and is probably the most powerful tool around for isolating and processing sound elements. It's good for many other sound-sweetening tasks, as well. You can separate sound into layers and manipulate them. There are many graphic display options to help you isolate sound you don't want, especially if it's mixed in with sound you do want. It is more powerful than the spectral analysis system in Adobe Audition—think of it as a finely honed scalpel for sound. The tools are often compared to Photoshop, of all things. It's not as intuitive as Audition, but once you learn the techniques it is really powerful at isolating sounds for enhancement or removal. Expect to spend some serious time online learning how to use it—mostly pretty exciting time, since you'll be honing your skills. Also, SoundForge Pro from Sony works very nicely with SpectraLayers Pro 3 to build a complete audio pipeline. But if you consider your budget, Audition may be the way for now because you can rent it by the month for $20.00. Better yet, for $50.00 you can rent the entire Adobe Creative Cloud suite.
We've already talked about Audition.It is a general audio work environment with excellent, finely honed tools designed especially to work well with video.
Here is an excellent tutorial on how to use notching to keep your dialog forward over the music. This technique is absolutely necessary to keep your dialog where it needs to be. By the way, nofilmschool.com is a very useful resource in general.
The Rest of the Field
Dexster Audio Editor ($45) is an inexpensive, less sophisticated audio tool that you can use for general sound mixing and editing. It has spectrum display, but not the critical tools for using it. There are others like Diamond Cut Forensics8 Audio Laboratory ($1499) and Audacity (free, open source) that you may want to check out. Each one works a little differently and you need to find one that meets your needs.
Working in Your Video Editor
Once you have your sweet tracks, it's time to combine and sync them in the video editor. Here is where you use that clapper beep to sync your high quality digital recordings with your camera sound. It's where you adjust the volume level in a method called “rubberbanding,” where you increase and decrease levels on your several audio tracks over time to blend perfectly with your action. My advice is to never work with raw audio in your video editing program—you want to clean all audio tracks before bringing them to your video editing suite.
Here is a seven-minute tutorial on Audio Editing in Media Composer from Lynda.com to give you a feel for how it's done. If you're doing your own sound editing, invest in some courses from Lynda.com and DigitalTutors.com. It's the only way I can keep up with what's happening now.
Making a Mobile Sound Studio
You say you only have your Ipad for sound editing? We can worth with that. Several outstanding apps work directly with iOS-friendly sound equipment. Here is a rundown on working with film sound on your iPad, or even your iPhone.
Using IOS or Android Apps, you can do all your sound collecting and editing in the wild with no electrical hookup. I recommend using iPhones and iPads with the microphones suggested above to creatively to record all your dialog and both ambiance clips and sound effects.
I use the iPad and iPhone for so many things, and this is one of them. I can plug a lavalier mic into the iPhone and slip it into the back of the actor's pants. I can plug my boom mic into the system also. I briefly mentioned manual mixing hardware in part one. You can learn lots more here.
Consider using the very reasonably priced (around $50.00) Behringer Q502 USB mixer, connected with your IOS device via USB adapter or your desktop, as your interface for professional mics. Here's a nine-minute intro. iRig also makes a number of mic adapters for iOS.
You will need some portable power cells, because you can't just switch out batteries. But that won't be a problem.
Now for iOS software. That's my focus, because that's what I use. There are more filmmaker apps than you can shake a stick at.
I use iMovie. It has far more depth than you might imagine, but you need to spend some time learning how to use it. You can create professional looking movies, and it is killer for trailers. Don't use the trailer templates; create some of your own.
Here's a video on editing sound effects in iMovie.
You will find MovieSlate very useful for syncing your wireless recorded audio, as it will give you that sync click that is so useful. It will also help you keep track of your shots. Note the excellent Fire Field Recorder app has just been aquired by RØDE and is now called RØDE Rec. I recommend it. For more about audio apps, check out Kenny Myers' blog.
Odds and Ends
If you don't go iOS, you should still build a neat, compact and organized sound kit. I like the one below that has been constructed in a baby stroller.
Use filmsound.org as a resource. It is a good place to learn current practices, vocabulary and more. Their Q&A section is very helpful, especially if you are new to video sound work.
If you're willing to invest $10.00 in learning to become a sound recordist, then I highly recommend Michael Wohl's Film Craft 107 – The location Sound Mixer course app for iOS. It will give what you need to know about equipment and techniques to get a good start. Michael's attitude: “If seeing is believing, then hearing is feeling.” He personally feels that two-thirds of the movie experience is auditory.
If you want to make a great movie, you'll have to either hire a great sound recordist or learn this stuff yourself.
ADR? Well, Maybe.
ADR is to be avoided when possible, but it isn't always possible. And renting an ADR studio is expensive. So, here is what I propose. It turns out that you can buy the Pyle sound shield for $99.00 and a really nice CAD Audio ADR setup from NewEgg for $109.00. The curved sound shield can be attached to the mic stand that comes with the kit, and the studio mic attached to the boom and placed within the curved shielded space with the included pop screen positioned between the speaker and the mic. Like this:
Not bad for $208.
Here's a quick video about ADR and how it's done.
Share the Wealth
I've just scratched the surface of film audio and how important it is. I didn't even mention how you can use recorded ambiance to provide continuity between shots done at different times. Things like this you will learn—and, if you're really creative, you will come up with even more creative ways to use sound to enhance your film.
Share your ideas with us. This blog gets pretty heavy readership, but most of you seem shy about sharing your wisdom with us. Take a shot. If somebody gives you a hard time for no good reason, we'll take them on. If they are right, learn from it. But please share your wisdom. Tell me where I'm wrong. I hate it when I see comments about my blog, especially negative ones, in places where I can't comment back. That's poor form.
This series on micro-budget filmmaking continues next time with a look at the latest amazing ways to shoot stunning film on the cheap. Technology is advancing so quickly that it's hard to keep up. We'll take a look at how the Sundance-favorite feature Tangerine was shot. We'll talk with Scott Cahall, developer of the iPhone anamorphic lens. And we'll look at shooting techniques that will give your production a high-end look (even using DIY equipment) and maybe even look at affordable aerial shooting platforms.
Until next time, get out there and start shooting.