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Avoiding Mistakes as a Novice Documentary Sound Operator

So you’re hanging out the shingle as a sound operator for video documentaries. You’ve spent some time on crews learning the craft and perhaps even studied audio production at a film school. You feel you are now ready to take the dive and become a sound operator for hire.

Good luck! You’ll certainly need it. Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, more people are discovering and shooting video today than ever before. Anyone trying to do a professional level production will need sound support. Not only is it essential to avoid amateur mistakes, but the job must be done extraordinarily well to turn it into a successful business. Nobody said it would be easy.

Being aggressive — yet savvy and personable — is part of what each individual brings to the table. We’ll leave the high level personal skills to each individual since they are what you and no one else has. Here we’ll deal with the small, but very important, technical stuff that everyone who makes it in the sound business must remember.

First, when working on any location, remember to listen to the background sounds being recorded. Is there any background noise that will be a problem for editors later on? Air conditioners and refrigerators, either indoors or out, are regular challenges. Always try to mute these kind of devices before the shoot begins. If it’s not possible to turn them off, try to kill the circuit breaker that runs them.

If that doesn’t work, at least point your shotgun microphone away from these noise generators. Play around with mic placement to reduce overall background noise. If the noise level remains too high, work closer to the subject with the mic. Do anything possible to avoid objectionable sound before the shoot starts. Don’t wait and try to explain it later. And be sure to let the director know up front if you are having a nagging problem that’s not solvable.

Recording room tone.

Recording room tone.

Also, pay attention to room tone. Is the room where you are recording too live or bright sounding for optimal sound? A lack of carpeting, furnishings or books can be a sign of trouble. The worst is a space with all hard surfaces, which can reflect the sound. It’s important to listen to every space and assess the situation before recording.

Also, don’t forget to record the room tone. When your take is finished, the last step is to record what silence sounds like in the room. This is essential to properly edit the dialog later. Before you leave any set, record at least 30 seconds of silent room tone.

Be aware of any extraneous audio that can over-modulate and clip your digital recording level. Sudden loud noise can come out of nowhere and totally destroy the level on digital recorders, especially lower cost ones without a good limiter. If this happens during a take, audibly check it on the spot.

When recording a scene, it is usually a goal to hide the microphone from the camera and keep it out of the scene. That’s all well and good, as long as you are getting good, consistent sound levels. Many newcomers to sound recording tend to place the mic too far away. You have various tools — like shotguns, lavs, wireless and other devices — to get the sound right. Use them and be sure you are getting good levels from scene to scene.

One old trick is to place your thumb in front of your mouth and spread your fingers at a 45-degree angle. The tip of your little finger is where the boom mic should ideally be. That’s an average of between six and eight inches away. This may need to be adjusted for each shot. But if the mic is two to three feet from the subject, you are too far away and asking for trouble.

Remember, dialog must match from shot to shot. Because of the unique framing of a certain shot, that doesn’t give you a license to change the audio. It still must match other dialog from other scenes. Do what is required to get the sound to match.

Recording with a lav.

Recording with a lav.

If you need to use a lavalier, remember to prevent clothes from rustling during the scene. This can easily happen if your subject is moving about. Clothing noise can be a difficult issue for everyone, even top pros. It takes experimentation to get it to work. Sometimes you may need to use both a lavalier and a boom mic to cover all the bases. At the end of the day, hiding a lavalier and keeping the sound clean is a difficult task that every sound operator must master. It is part of the job and excuses mean nothing.

When using a boom mic on a pole during a long day, your hands and arms will get tired. You’ll want to change hand positions while recording. Don’t. When hand positions are changed, a low rumble is introduced into the audio. So get comfortable before recording. Once rolling, hold your position until the recording is finished.

Be aware that mics can pick up interference from mobile phones. Many newer model mics are protected from such interference, but not all. Assume virtually everyone has a mobile phone on the set where you’re working. Before recording a take, ask everyone on the set to put their phone in the airplane mode. This can prevent mic interference and save a take in case a phone rings during the shoot.

Finally, if you’ve gone professional, don’t use inferior gear that you once bought on the cheap. There is a reason some mics cost five times more than others. If you are going to make a living doing audio, use top quality professional level gear across the board. Your job can depend on it. This includes cables as well. The lowest cost part in the chain can torpedo any production, so make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

When you begin each days production, do it with a fresh set of batteries in all your gear. When the shoot is finished, replace those batteries. Never take a chance you will get caught short of power. Also use high-quality, name brand flash cards for recording from reputable dealers. No one can tell anymore what is counterfeit or not — except the client who loses their sound due to your problem.

So much of professional audio is about detail, detail, detail. Pay attention to the little things and then double check and check once again. This way you might keep working and have a long and successful career.

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