How much does audio matter in a video, would you say? At least 50%? The truth is, without well-recorded audio, your video project will be dramatically worse. Fortunately, another truth is that recording quality audio is really easy, as long as you’ve got the right equipment and mic placement.
We went over a little about recording audio and different microphone types in our post on shooting high-quality video, but we’ll get into more detail here to ensure you’re at the peak (see what I did there?) of your audio game. So what is “good” audio? Good audio is uncompressed, has a good sampling rate, good bit depth, is between -20 and -12 decibels, and has ample head room.
Different setups for recording audio
On-camera or built-in microphone: Most cameras have built-in microphones, but most built-in microphones are also heavily compressed and shouldn’t be relied on for good audio. It’s a zero-budget setup, but you get what you pay for, so use this as a last resort or a scratch track.
Digital audio recorder only: Since most digital recorders also have microphones built in, all you need to do is slide one onto your hotshoe mount, turn it on, check the audio levels, and hit record. It’s very simple and cost-effective. However, be mindful that the microphones will pick up every camera click, chair squeak, and microphone adjustment. This also requires syncing in post-production. And while the microphone quality is limited, it is preferable to no mic at all. You will also need to keep the mic as close to the action as possible for a good, usable audio track. If you’re outside, you absolutely need a windscreen (a.k.a. blimp, fur, muff, fleecy, windjammer, or dead cat — yes, these are all real nicknames). And make sure you have a memory card in there to save the data if it doesn’t have built-in storage.
Single-system: This is when the audio-recording device is plugged directly into your camera. The audio is automatically synced to the video as you record. Single-system recording can be done in a couple of different iterations:
On-camera “shotgun” microphone, or a “wired” microphone: These are small, lightweight, and surprisingly great for their size and relatively low cost. Slide one into your hotshoe mount, plug it into your camera, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Wired microphones are uncommon these days, but they work the same way. Plug them in and away you go (or as far away as your cord reaches).
Best uses: Vlogging, run-and-gun, one-woman/man-band, b-roll, documentary, events, interviews in quiet settings.
Biggest downside: You have to be very close to everything for best results; long cables or wires often needed.
Tip: These microphones usually take batteries and have on-switches. Always check both before recording.
Wireless microphone kit: Larger cameras (most “prosumer” camcorders) have built-in XLR inputs, and many smaller cameras have a “mic” input, so if you’ve got a wireless microphone kit, you can plug your receiver directly into the camera, while your subject holds a stick mic or wears a lavalier transmitter. This eliminates the need for a mixer or digital audio recorder, and you don’t have to sync audio in post-production.
Best uses: Interviews, field reporting, documentary, tripod shooting.
Biggest downside: Can be awkwardly balanced and cumbersome with DSLRs; less control over levels with certain cameras.
Tip: You’ll need an adapter cable if your wireless system doesn’t match your camera’s input, like an XLR to 3.5mm or vice versa.
Double-system: This is when your audio device is plugged directly into a digital audio recorder and/or sound mixer, circumventing the camera. This audio has to be synced to the video in post-production, but gives you more freedom with the camera. This is typical with most film productions, and doesn’t have too many different setups.
External microphone and digital audio recorder: Instead of going straight into the camera, plug your wireless receiver or boom/shotgun microphone into the digital recorder and go from there. You aren’t tethered to the camera anymore, but you will have to sync the audio in editing. This setup is very difficult in run-and-gun, one-man/woman-band, and event scenarios, because you’ve got to try and manage a microphone and the recorder and still shoot coherent video.
Best uses: Interviews, films, small crew shoots, tripod shooting, other controlled environments.
Biggest downside: Very challenging for a single-person operation.
There are a couple of other things you can include in any of these setups, but they’re not required:
Field mixer: A field mixer takes all of your sources and mixes them through a pre-amp to give you or your sound operator high-quality audio with lots of control. It’s necessary if you need more inputs than your camera allows, like if you’re shooting a panel discussion, for instance. Many field mixers plug in directly to the camera, but they also add weight.
Best uses: Multiple microphone setup, small crew shoots, interviews, other controlled environments.
Biggest downside: Added weight if attached to camera, not very single-person operator-friendly.
Clapperboard/slate: Everyone has seen this. It’s the black-and-white slate that gets held up in front of the camera before each take. It will usually have the scene number, take number, and project written on it for reference. This is used to sync the audio in post, as well as organizing and recognizing the footage for editing. For smaller crews or single-operator modes, a simple clap or finger snap will similarly help you with syncing. There are also options like Red Giant’s PluralEyes and other programs. Final Cut Pro X also has built-in technology for syncing
Best uses: Interviews, films, anything requiring sound to be synced in post.
Biggest downside: Another thing to carry.
What to do when you’re ready to record
Once you’ve got your setup together and you’re ready to record, the next step is to actually do it, and do it well. Grab your gear, get your shot ready, then, most importantly, do these things:
Place your mic. You can run the cord under a person’s shirt, jacket, or shirt collar if it’s a lavalier (or clip it on the outside of a lapel if it’s unnecessary to hide it), but if it’s a boom or shotgun mic, you just need to make sure it’s as close as possible, but out of sight. Either way, make sure the mic isn’t directly against anything and that it’s not making any rustling/rubbing noises.
Turn everything on. Add fresh batteries to everything or plug it into the wall if it’s doable. Then double check to make sure everything is still on and running.
Test, adjust, and monitor the sound. If you don’t get a sound check, you’re doing it wrong. Have your subject say and spell their first and last name, ask them an open-ended question, or just tell them to name their favorite movies. While they’re talking, you can adjust the audio to the preferred level of -20 to -12 db, as mentioned above. ALWAYS monitor the sound with headphones or earbuds or whatever on-set monitors you have while you’re shooting. Headphones (a.k.a. “monitors”) that cover your ears typically work better than earbuds, but the key is to eliminate as much exterior sound as possible so you can hear only the recorded audio. You wouldn’t take your eyes off of your camera while you’re shooting the visuals, so don’t take your ears out of your headphones while you’re shooting the audio. (This is less of a problem if you have a separate sound operator because that’s their job.)
Play it back. A good habit to have is playing back your initial sound check or your first take’s audio. You may find that it wasn’t recording, or a button got bumped, or there’s interference. You may also find it sounds vastly different in the recording than it did while you were monitoring it live. Make any adjustments accordingly to get the sound you want.
Power down and stay organized. After the shoot, turn everything off and pack it up neatly, the way you found it. Keeping your audio gear and the actual audio files organized ensures that you won’t waste any time setting up on future shoots and that you know exactly where all the files are and how they’re listed on your computer. Finally, it keeps your batteries fresh; they can be expensive and annoying to replace for every shoot, otherwise.
That’s it for now. Any questions? Did we leave something out? Please let us know by commenting below. To see all the content used in this post, check out the Audio Recording collection below.