Why Recording Natural Sound For News And Documentary Video Is Essential

In the early 1980s, when Charles Kuralt hosted CBS Sunday Morning, my video crew often shot the “Moment in Nature” segments for the end of the show. We would be on the road, sometimes in war-torn countries, always looking for the pristine natural spots that are still popular on the show today. A major component that has always made these segments so compelling is the authentic natural sound.

Natural sound is not to be confused with sound effects or music, but is the ambient auditory sensations all around. When making any video, it is important to capture this natural sound on every shot. Not only does sound drive the CBS nature footage and every other well-produced video, but capturing ambient audio can save unanticipated problems in post production.

Photo from Free-To-Use.

Photo from Free-To-Use.

As a sound recordist on a video production, always be aware of the sonic environment you are working in. In a factory, natural sounds of machinery at work are needed. On an open highway, cars whizzing by are essential. In natural surroundings, the subtle sounds of the quiet environment mean everything to authenticity.

Today, all natural sounds should be recorded two ways. First on the main camera itself, and second on a portable audio recorder as double system sound. On the double system recording, use either time code or a clapstick for syncing in post.

When recording with the camera, never depend on the camera’s internal microphone. At least mount a good shotgun mic on the camera as a backup. It could save the day in case of a disastrous loss of the primary sound.

For recording that primary sound track, it is best to use a wind-protected shotgun mic, though a cardioid can provide a wider field of sound in situations where it is needed. Also, recording M/S stereo can add sonic realism and can be matched with the picture in post.

For natural sound you also want a high-quality recorder with quiet preamps to avoid noise. The new generation of 32-bit float recorders ensure excellent recordings at any dynamic range. They are excellent for capturing the wild, explosive sounds in the field.

When working on a set with dialog, keep rolling for unexpected ad libs after the take. Don’t assume magic moments occur only within a take. Often, after a take is complete, the subject will spill out a comment that is important to the story. Don’t miss it. Valuable material can come at the most unexpected moment.

Photo by Jon Flobrant.

Photo by Jon Flobrant.

It is a good practice to record several minutes of natural background sound at each new shooting location. This audio will give your story a sense of place and becomes a source of believable background sound. Poorly recorded natural sound is bad, but no sound at all is worse.

Editors like to mix natural sound, even room noise, under dialog. Without the genuine natural sound, finding replacement sounds for a space can be tricky. It also takes a lot of time to replace this sound and make it sound natural. Adding footsteps and other artificial effects can involve very expensive foley sessions, which add dramatically to any budget.

The operator of the clapboard, if one is used, should verbalize scene and take numbers for both the camera and the double system recording. This helps find elements quickly in post. When a take is over, never cut off the recorder immediately. Speak any verbal notes that can help with a take in post. This could be the approved take by the director or a note that extraneous sounds make automatic dialog replacement (ADR) necessary.

Capturing and preserving natural sound on a video production is a key duty of the sound operator. It may take a little more time during the shoot to record this sound, but it can save time and money in post. Good audio recordists on video shoots are often defined by the natural sound they acquire.  

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