Getting good audio for your videos can feel like an anomaly.
Audio is an essential part of your video; if no one can hear what someone is saying, they won’t be hearing the message you’ve worked so hard to capture. Don’t let poor audio be the downfall of telling your nonprofit’s story, mission and testimonies through video.
But don’t fear, we're here to help!
Prepare and Listen
Go on a Location Scout
If you have the opportunity, it’s important to actually go to the location where you plan to film your interview. It takes extra time, but being prepared for your shoot is going to serve you well for the following reasons.
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Find Your Shot
Identify the space where you’ll set up your interview, including positioning the lights, the cameras, the action, etc. Whether it’s the corner of an office, in a coffee shop or on a park bench down the street, get out there and see what you’re working with. This will reveal how much room you’ll have to bring equipment. For example, we’ve filmed in some pretty tight spaces, and we knew to bring less equipment than usual so we didn’t overwhelm the homeowner or intimidate the interviewee.
Listen: Assessing Noise
Adjust your ears to pick up what a microphone might hear. Tune into your ‘peripheral hearing’ and focus on the noise hiding in the background. You’ll have to be intentional at first, but you’ll quickly start hearing a variety of noises the moment you walk into a space.
Do you hear phones ringing, or a ventilation system turning on and off? How about some busy road traffic outside, or perhaps people talking in the room next door? Assess the audio situation and take notes of how you might be able to control the noise in the room.
You have to use your own judgment; even if a building manager says, “It’s a really quiet space,” in a conversation over the phone, they’re likely not hearing what you’d be listening for in terms of what “quiet” means. Remember, tune your ears to be like a microphone.
Determine whether you can control any unwanted noise in your interview location. Can you re-route the foot traffic so no one walks by your set? Or shut off the ventilation system while you’re recording the interview? Refrigerators and other appliances can also contribute to a noisier environment. We have a trick where we’ll leave our car keys in the refrigerator that we unplugged, so we don’t forget to turn it back on before we leave!
Something to keep in mind when choosing your location is if weather might cause problems — even when you’re indoors! We’ve had many shoots interrupted by rain on a metal building or nearby windows.
Make sure you watch how the weather might affect your production day (wind, snow, rain, etc.) and do whatever you have to do to adjust accordingly. Sometimes, it’s better to reschedule. It sounds obvious, but we’ve seen people work through a storm, and their audio was almost unusable. This can be a bigger waste of time than rescheduling.
Testing Equipment and Reviewing Audio Quality
When you go on your location scout, bring your equipment with you to record samples of audio in the room. When you get back to your desk, you can open the files and listen again to see if there’s anything you missed.
Unfortunately, if you can’t control the noise, or the traffic in the area is too unexpected, you might have to find a new location. It’s completely up to you. At least with a location scout, you’ll know what your options are, and that’s always better than showing up the day of a shoot and hoping for the best.
Understanding Microphones and Mic Placement
We’re going to talk about equipment in plain speak so someone with little or no video knowledge could record good audio by following these steps.
Stepping Up your Audio Game
Purchasing equipment that raises audio quality, like a good microphone, is worth the investment.
Of course, you’ll need more than equipment to get good audio. You’ll want to understand your mic, know your settings and make sure you’re keeping the mic in an optimal place during recording.
Exploring Pickup Patterns
Not all microphones are to be treated equal. In short, some pick up sounds all around and others pick up sounds within a narrow pattern in one direction of the microphone. These are called “pickup patterns” and it varies by the style of microphone you select.
Picks up sounds from all directions
Picks up sounds in a heart-shaped pattern, picking up more sound at the front of the microphone than the back
Picks up sounds directly in front of the microphone; this is helpful to avoid picking up unwanted sounds surrounding the microphone
Microphone Options and Best Placement
The On-Board Mic
The on-board mic comes built-in with most cameras and can be helpful for when you need to grab some quick footage and don’t have time to fumble around with additional equipment. Almost all on-board mics are omnidirectional, which means they pick up audio from all around the camera, in every direction, so your audio might be rough (think of the audio you’d pick up from children playing if you filmed an interview on a nearby park bench).
To get better audio with an on-board mic, you have to get in close to the action — because the camera itself needs to be closer to the audio source. If you want a shot from further away, your audio quality will decrease as you move further from the sounds you want to capture. It’s also possible you’ll get some unwanted internal camera noise, and that will reduce the quality of your interview or other audio.
On-board mics are not top-notch quality, so we’ll cover some alternatives below. Yes, these options will require you to invest time to learn how to use them, and perhaps expenses in gathering new equipment, but you’re reading this because you want better audio quality, right?
The Lapel Mic
The lapel mic (or “lavalier” mic) is what you see news anchors wearing on their, you know, lapels. We generally encourage hiding a lapel microphone, because you don’t want viewers to be distracted by what they’re seeing. We want them to focus on what they’re hearing about an organization instead!
You can get lapel mics with either an omnidirectional or cardioid pickup pattern. Either would work for interviews, but remember that omnidirectional mics pick up lots of noise around them, which isn’t necessarily the best for when you’re wanting to get good interview audio.
The pros of using a lapel microphone is that it’s right up close to the action. It’s only inches away from your interviewee’s mouth, plus you can have the camera placed anywhere you want since you’re not restrained to using only the on-board mic. Lapel mics are usually battery-powered and wireless, so our interviewee can walk around freely if need be.
The quality of audio from the lapel mic also depends on how you place it. We often place the lapel using the sticky side of tape (folded into a little triangle) on one side of the lapel mic, hiding it under lapels or blouses. This will take some practice, but it’s worth knowing how to place this mic well. Before you start filming, listen to your audio. It’s possible you’ll get some noise from fabrics rubbing on the mic, so be sure to adjust it so that your audio quality isn’t disrupted by unwanted sounds.
The Shotgun Mic
The shotgun mic is a directional mic that’s usually mounted on a boom pole. They’re placed directly over your talent or interviewee, getting in close to the action while not being attached to anything. It’s separate from your camera, so you can move it around however you’d like. Just be sure the boom pole or mic do not end up in your frame!
The shotgun mic has a directional pickup pattern, which means it needs to be pointed in the direction of your talent, so it picks up what they’re saying. This type of pickup pattern barely picks up the noise happening around the other sides of the mic, but rather only what’s right in front of it.
We recommend mounting the shotgun mic on a boom pole, then either holding it above the talent or securing its stability by using a c-stand. Be sure to weigh down the base of the stand, so it doesn’t tip over and hurt anyone!
A Few More Things to Consider Before Hitting Record
Before you hit “Record,” there are a few more things you need to consider and test. We’ll explain audio levels, two ways to save your files, the cables and memory cards you’ll need, and the last things to listen for before you start filming.
Audio levels are foundational to getting great audio; they’re the levels at which your microphone is picking up the noise around it.
You’ll want to adjust the levels based on someone’s normal speaking volume, if your equipment allows for it. Some people talk loudly, some softly. If you have a soft-spoken person and your levels are too low, you’ll find yourself wanting to raise the volume in post-production; however, if you bring it up too much in post, it also raises your noise floor (everything else the mic picked up too - ventilation systems, refrigerator humming, etc.).
If you have a digital audio recorder, set the levels so that they aren’t so high that they clip, but aren’t too low so that you can't hear them. To do this, take a few minutes to test your audio before filming. Have your talent sit or stand where they’ll be during recording. Next, have them speak to you in their normal tone, while you adjust what the microphone is picking up. Check the VU meter to make sure the levels don’t peak too high but also aren’t too quiet. This will help avoid distortion and give you the most clean audio possible.
If your audio levels can’t be adjusted, you’ll want to be aware of how much your mic is picking up. If you can get closer to the subject, do that; you don’t want your mic to pick up all the noises of the street or office space, if you can help it.
Some cameras allow you to adjust the audio levels, while others don’t. You’ll want to consider this as you determine how to best save your audio files.
Saving Audio Files
You can either save your files directly onto your camera, or you can invest in an audio recorder. Let’s explore both options!
In-camera recording means you’re saving the files directly to your camera — alongside the video you’re filming — and so both the audio and visual data is synced up and stored in the same files from the get-go, which is great! This will make things easier in post-production.
The quality of the audio saved in-camera depends on the microphone. Are you recording the audio from the built-in omnidirectional mic? If so, the quality may be rough, as we discussed in Part 2 ofGetting Quality Audio for Your Video.
However, you can hook up a better-quality microphone directly into a camera and have the audio sync up with the in-camera recording. With this option, you’ll need the right cables to make it happen. Some cameras allow for XLR cables (some even allow for two!), while most camcorders or prosumer cameras will need a way to get your mic cable to adapt to a ⅛” jack. It’s worth investigating, if you want better audio than an on-board mic.
Digital Audio Recorder
If your camera is incapable of recording audio, or iIf you have the resources to invest in more equipment, you can get the best audio quality by using a digital audio recorder. With an audio recorder, you can plug in multiple microphones, better control audio levels and adjust levels to the noise in the room.
Similar to adjusting audio levels from a mic or camera, a digital audio recorder allows you to tweak with the audio levels so that the microphone is picking up as much as possible, but that it’s not clipping too high either. You’ll want to designate someone to monitor the audio levels during the shoot — yet another step that helps control the audio quality you’re recording.
Because an audio recorder is separate from your camera, you’ll need to help your editor (or yourself) sync the audio and visual files in post-production. You can do this by filming an on-camera clap of your hands, a slate board or a dog clicker — whatever works for you! The point here is to have a distinct motion and sound that allows you to sync your audio with your video.
Note: if you’re only using sound to sync audio (such as a dog clicker), you need to be sure that both your audio recorder and your on-camera mic are picking up audio. Then you can look for the spike in the waveform of your editing program to sync up the audio (rather than relying on a visual cue, like clapping hands).
Is buying an audio recorder a good investment for you?
The decision to purchase an audio recorder depends on how much control you want over audio for your videos. If your camera doesn't give you any better options than the built-in mic (or if it doesn’t record audio at all) — and you have the resources to spend — it’d be worth considering. It's an additional piece of equipment and a jump in price, but if your organization is ready for this step up, it means you’ll have the best option to assess and control your levels.
Always make sure you test your audio levels before you hit “Record,” so you aren’t disappointed when you return to the office after a shoot. You’ll be glad you were able to make adjustments before recording.
Let’s Make it Easy: Pros & Cons
- Video AND audio synced together in one file, streamlined
Limited options: only one mic at a time, if any
Limited controls: may not be able to adjust levels very much
Special cables may be needed to hook up most microphones
DIGITAL AUDIO RECORDER
More control over everything
Multiple mics can record at once
Another piece of equipment: more gear = more expenses
Have to sync up audio to your video in post-production
Get a pair of quality headphones to keep with you on set. Ideally, your headphones should be good at blocking out sounds around you so you only hear what the microphone hears.
If you’re using a digital audio recorder, you’ll want to get a good brand of memory card (we suggest Sandisk or Kingston). Since audio files are much smaller than video files, a card that holds 4GB or more will probably be plenty.
Cables You’ll Need
If you’re hooking up an XLR microphone to a digital audio recorder, you’ll need XLR cables, which are the standard cables for connecting audio equipment. These cables run to microphones, mixers, recorders and some cameras.
If you want to plug an XLR microphone into a camera that just has an ⅛” microphone jack, you’ll need an adapter that goes from XLR to ⅛”.
Final Sound Check
While you’re testing your audio, take another good listen to ensure you’re not picking up any interference with overlapping cables or radio waves. This can easily happen once you start collecting a lot of cords during a shoot, so be sure to listen carefully! Sometimes you can fix electrical interference by making sure that your audio cables are not running parallel to any power cables.
Now, for the finale after all your hard work — it’s showtime! Don’t forget to hit the “Record” button when it’s time for your interview. Seems simple, but wouldn’t it be awful if you missed part of your interview because you forgot? We’ve seen this happen. Also, if you are using a separate audio recorder, be sure to hit “Record” on both your camera and audio recorder!
We also suggest making a simple packing list of your production equipment and a checklist for testing audio when you’re on set. It’ll give you peace of mind when you’ve got a lot of other things to think of too.
Hopefully you feel closer to getting better audio for your videos. Capturing great audio takes practice, a little research and some dedication to getting the process down, and then you’ll be ready to record almost anything!
If you’d like to learn more about equipment we use at Reliant Studios, our equipment recommendations or how we go about our video-making process, you can enroll as a student at Nonprofit Film School. Learn more about our toolkit of video tips and tricks to help nonprofits tell their stories through video.
Nonprofit Film School walks you through storytelling, pre-production, production, cameras & equipment and post-production best practices. Broken up into bite-sized modules, it’s easy to follow along. In a matter of hours, you’ll be armed with new skills that’ll make a noticeable difference in the quality of your videos you or your team makes.
This content was a three-part series originally published through TechSoup Canada: