A pilot goes down a pre-flight check list before taking off in an airplane. Since the pilot’s life is at stake, this idea is not a hard sell. However, an audio professional should do the same thing, since his professional reputation is on the line.
As we have written often, good sound is essential to any video project. One bad connector or a wrong level, can destroy a video project. Many shoots have been ruined due to what everyone later agrees was a stupid oversight. Don’t let it happen to you. Making a check list of essential parameters to check can literally save a video shoot. An audio professional always checks these items.
The first thing to check when arriving at a new location is room tone. Listen for any problems. If the sound is clean, always record at least a minute or two of uninterrupted room tone before the shoot begins. This has saved many video productions in editing when unexpected sounds are encountered.
Also, after set-up at each new video location, re-check all the audio cables and connectors. It’s when moving audio gear that connector problems are most likely to occur. Even though a cable has worked fine all day, check it again on the last take. XLR connectors are rugged for a reason, but they can break or develop problems at any time. Also, smaller 3.5mm connectors are less sturdy and even more problematic. Check these cables always and have spares nearby for when they get noisy or break.
At the same time, check the switches for line or mic level on the camera and audio recorder. These can easily be hit by accident. While line level is preferable over mic level since it yields a better signal-to-noise ratio, don’t decide which to use in the field. Just make sure the switch is in the correct position for the pre-chosen level.
Make sure your audio device is on “manual” and not “auto” level for critical recording. Auto is fine for non-critical recording of interviews, but don’t forget to re-set the switch for professional recording. Depending on the circuitry, auto can cause pumping or other artifacts in your audio. However, when on manual, be sure to constantly monitor levels with headphones. Though manual level can prevent artifacts caused by auto, it is important not to over modulate. To guarantee this always, always monitor the sound. The biggest concern is to avoid peaking while also making sure levels aren’t too low.
If a boom microphone is part of the audio recording setup, make sure the boom operator has the optimum mic placement for the scene in advance of shooting. Don’t wait until video is being recorded to determine this. Over or under booming can make a huge difference. Know which is better in advance.
Outdoor climate is always a major factor in audio recording. Wind is often the most challenging variable, since it comes out of nowhere with zero notice. Even if there is no wind, equip your microphones with adequate windshields and shock mounts. Don’t pull out the wind protection gear after a scene is ruined. Be proactive and ready for it.
When recording indoors, the same considerations are true. Take extreme heat and cold into consideration when using microphones that are susceptible to condensation. If your mic does not adjust quickly to extreme temperatures, leave a mic at the location to climatize it in advance. Also, be aware of external noises. Appliances, air conditioners and creaky floors have ruined more video shoots than anyone can imagine.
Ensure there are reliable power sources for all gear. Depending on the microphones, mixers and audio recorders used, there may be different power sources for each. Change batteries for all gear at the beginning of the shoot. Even if the batteries are half spent, replace them with new ones. (I toss the half-spent cells into a container for use at home). Then keep plenty of each kind of battery (with charger, if necessary) nearby during the shoot in case of a failure.
Finally, just as audio monitors are among the most important devices back at the studio, headphones are equally important in the field. Don’t cheap out on headphones. Whether you’re holding a boom pole yourself or monitoring at a mixer, good closed-back headphones are needed to focus on the audio channels. Use professional headphones and not low-cost ones for consumer use.
Also keep plenty of headphone adapters handy in case you need to monitor directly from odd-ball connectors, such as an XLR jack. Whenever navigating audio problems, make sure those headphones are properly connected before you go looking for other problems. This may seem elementary, but it can save essential time on a video production.
Most of these suggestions may seem like common sense, and most are. But every day, inexperienced sound operators make the same mistakes, slowing down production and costing money. Just like a pilot about fly, go over your audio check list and protect your professional reputation.
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