Production 101: 5 Tips For Getting Good Sound

I thought I’d write a couple of blog posts offering tips to filmmakers from the perspective of an editor.

Today I want to talk about the importance of good sound recording.

Great sound is just as important as great cinematography. Actually, I might go further and say that great sound is more important than great cinematography.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re always told film is a visual medium, but, trust me, nothing will ruin the audience’s experience faster than bad sound. If voices are muddy and conversations are hard to follow, if the sound isn’t natural and clear, the movie will seem amateurish and pull the audience out of the story.

The thing is it’s not that hard or expensive to get the sound right. Great sound recording is a lot cheaper than great cinematography, but low-budget films often skimp on even the little cost it takes to make sure the sound is done right.

1. Hire a Professional Sound Recorder

Hire someone who knows how to monitor the sound, how to set lavaliers and booms, someone who will have the confidence and experience to stop a shot if there is unwanted background noise, a plane in the distance, the beeping of a truck backing up.

2. Hire a Separate Person to Work the Boom.

Operating the boom and monitoring the recording is a two-person job. The boom operator doesn’t need to be a super-experienced professional, but does need to be someone on the ball and engaged in the work, someone who can work with your professional recorder to make sure you are getting clean dialogue recording.

It’s far more expensive to go into a studio and do ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) in post than to pay a PA to operate the boom. It’s even more expensive to have the entire budget of the film wasted because bad sound has irreparably damaged the film.

3. Always Use Lavaliers on Noisy Locations.

You’d think this would be a given, but many low-budget productions don’t follow this absolutely essential rule. It can be very difficult, even impossible, to filter out unwanted background noise in post without the actor’s voices sounding very artificial and processed. If you are recording in a noisy location, a windy day outside, a city street, indeed anyplace except a sound stage where you have absolute control over the sonic environment, make sure you use lavaliers (body mics) if at all possible, in addition to boom mics. Don’t rely on just one or the other. Use both.

4. Don’t Record MOS (Without Sound).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on projects where footage was shot without sound because the director was sure on-set sound wouldn’t be needed, maybe because it was going to be part of a montage, or there would voiceover narration over it, or it would be part of a musical sequence. But you can’t always anticipate what your needs in the edit will be, and I often find myself having to fake on-set sound with foley and sound effects. A good rule of thumb is: if the camera is running, record sound too, if at all possible.

5. Don’t Forget to Record Room Tone.

Room tone is the background, ambient noise of the location: machine hums, wind in the trees, traffic from outside, whatever is going on there. It’s very important to record this for 30-60 seconds on every location. Make sure the cast and crew are quiet when recording.

Room tone can be essential in post to patch inadvertent problems in the recording. If there is unwanted background noise during the shot or some dialogue that needs to be cut, it’s easy to do if you have room tone. I’ve been in unfortunate situations where I had to manually loop a second or two or room tone taken from brief gaps between lines of dialogue because there no one recorded room tone on set. These short loops can sound very artificial and create real problems that take time and money to work out.

Realizing the importance of good sound and taking a little care and consideration for it in production can make all the difference in both the ease of post-production and the final quality of the film.



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