A Location Sound Primer for Camera Ops, Videographers And DPs

Location Sound Primer

With the increasing contraction of budgets and increased expectations of clients for high-quality sound, are you being asked to include location sound recording?

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you are a camera-oriented person who either wants to or are required, by the laws of diminishing budgets, to dip your toe into the waters of recording location sound. If you’re a pro sound mixer, no need to read further, you likely won’t learn anything here that you don’t already know. But if you’re a person in the camera department, this blog is intended to educate you on the harsh realities of location sound and some basics to get you headed in the right direction.

My Three Rules For Location Sound

#1. HIRE A PRO SOUND MIXER WHENEVER POSSIBLE!

Location Sound Primer
Location Sound Mixers are a unique combination of artist and scientist. A shot of location sound mixer Sam Vlahovich at work on the set of a reality series we recently shot.

Yes, I used bold caps because this is the single most important point of this article. I’m a firm believer that recording location is both an art and a science. If you’re a DP, you probably have some education and training around the physics of how light behaves, what it is and why it behaves in the ways it does. Sound is different but similar in many ways. This is the science part of sound.

The art in sound recording comes with experience, creativity and problem-solving ability. Great sound mixers are incredible problem solvers. Unlike lighting, which can be about problem-solving but often is the ability to create a great scene from scratch, location sound is simply an exercise in overcoming challenges and obstacles because very few environments are ideal for recording sound outside of a recording studio stage or booth. You, as a camera-oriented person, will likely never become a world-class sound mixer. You, as a camera-oriented person, though, stand a very good chance of being able to record usable, professional-quality tracks “within the limitations of your position.” More on this later.

#2. Location sound is more important than the camera, lens or lighting.

Location Sound Primer
A sound mixer’s point of view from a recent shoot for a PBS special. Notice how talent is miked with a hyper-cardioid microphone (Audix SCX1-HC) on the boom, but she was also miked with a wired lavaliere (OscarSoundTech 801).

No, I’m not trying to insult what we do as camera-oriented people, but overall, for most projects, sound is more important in communicating the story than picture. Yet, inexplicably, audio is often given short shrift in production with not enough budget and, significantly, not enough time allocated to making the location sound work.

You’ve probably “heard” variations of this before, but talk to any editor, talk to any screenwriter, talk to an average audience member and ask them what matters. Most often, it will be the ability to hear what the characters or subjects are actually saying. Audio provides the emotion for the story. Not just the dialog or interview sound you might be recording on location, but also the music, sound effects and the overall soundtrack. You can get away with a lot of sloppiness, non-linearity, “creativity” with the visuals IF the sound mix is good. But combine Deakins level visuals with badly recorded sound and the audience will simply disengage.

#3. Know your sound capabilities and limitations.

Location Sound Primer
A still from a recent interview with a client for a short documentary about their organization. I was camera operator, DP, Producer and sound mixer because of the lack of budget since this was an internal promo piece for my company.

This one ties in the rule #1. For me, I’m pretty adept at sound recording even though I’m not a pro sound mixer. I used to own an audio post facility and I saw and heard what came through our doors for years. Shooting a single camera and or subject interview, I feel that almost any camera-oriented person, with a little education and practice, can record usable and, at times, pretty good quality sound. In very simple setups, that’s the caveat. Add another subject to the scene like in a news magazine interview format and/or another camera though and the gear challenges alone begin to quickly multiply. What about crosstalk? Should you use two booms and two lavs? What about bleed? Phase cancellation?

What about sound for narrative shoots? How do you overcome location sound challenges like HVAC or exterior ambient noise? What about hiding mics on talent? What about shooting in rain? In cars? See what I mean? Sound challenges very quickly can go from what seem to be simple and straightforward procedures to incredibly complex exercises in problem-solving. It’s simply not your job to deal with all of this. Except perhaps at a very simple and basic level.

What I’ve Learned About Location Sound Gear

Location Sound Primer
Our boom operator on a recent shoot for a large chain of department stores. I shoot in many situations where I couldn’t do location sound and camera no matter what. The job simply takes two people.

As a camera-oriented person (I’m continuing with this term because I’m tired of typing out “camera operator, videographer, DP, etc.”), your skills with camera and lighting are what make you intrinsically accomplished at your job. It’s why a great DP can shoot a Netflix TV series on an iPhone or why that same person can take your outdated, old-school light kit and light a scene in a way that makes you shake your head in amazement. Location sound is the same.

Location Sound Primer
The Schoeps CMIT 5 shotgun microphone is considered a state-of-the-art, highly rated location sound microphone. But it also requires a high-quality mic mount, wind protection, boom pole, boom pole holder, stand and XLR cable.

Yes, good location sound tools are expensive. Really expensive. For you, as a camera-oriented person, ask yourself if it makes sense for you to buy a $3,000 hyper-cardioid mic and a $1,000 mic mount and windscreen? Or a $10,000 location sound mixer recorder? Sure, if you have that kind of money you can buy the best—the same stuff the location sound pros use. But those tools won’t make your location sound recording much, if any, better than what a skilled location sound mixer can do with entry-level, affordable sound tools because location sound is generally more about the skills than the gear.

My point is, I think it’s counterproductive for camera-oriented people to buy the best sound tools available because it’s practice, knowledge, skills and the ability to problem-solve that matter, not having the best gear. Audio gear, just like cameras, is a demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. Is an Arri Alexa Mini LF a “better” camera than a Blackmagic Pocket 6K Pro? Most of us would agree that in almost every measurement or parameter, the Arri is superior. And, well, it should be for the price difference. But give a top-notch DP or gaffer the Pocket 6K Pro and most of the audience and even most skilled pros would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the $2,500 Pocket 6K Pro and the $50,000 Alexa Mini LF IF the lighting is great and the scene is well shot. Audio gear is the same—the best stuff isn’t usually THAT much better than the mid-level gear, but it can cost many times more. If you’re a pro sound mixer, it makes sense to sink $50-100k into your location sound package. If you’re a camera-oriented person, not so much.

Basic Gear To Get Started

It makes sense for camera-oriented people to slowly acquire a few key pieces of location sound gear, mainly geared toward shooting single subjects in either interviews, ambient for b-roll or in a simple narrative scene.

Wired Lavaliere Microphone

Location Sound Primer
The Sanken COS 11D is an industry-standard wired lavaliere microphone. It sounds natural and open and can cut between boom microphones fairly transparently compared to many other lavalieres.

To me, one of the best investments one can make is to buy one or two decent quality wired lavaliere mics. With a wired lavaliere, you can easily record single subject interviews, standing spokespeople and simple narrative scenes with a stationary character. All scenes where the simplicity of the scene means there’s a better chance of a camera-oriented person being able to record a usable recording. All you’ll need to go with this wired lavaliere is an XLR cable to run to your camera.

Boom Mic, Microphone Mount, Wind Protection, Boom Pole, Boom Pole Holder, Stand, XLR Cable

Notice how the next item in the list jumped from just two items (the lavaliere and XLR cable), all of the way to a six-item mini shopping list? That’s how audio works—microphones need a lot of support gear and accessories to work. Generally, boom mics sound “better” than a lavaliere in many, but not all, situations. You’ll also notice that I wrote the term “boom mic” rather than shotgun, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, super-cardioid. I don’t have room here for a long lesson in microphone pickup patterns, but I will address this in an upcoming article, so stay tuned.

Headphones

Location Sound Primer
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50X headphones are considered a desirable pair of quality headphones by many location sound mixers.

No, the free earbuds that came with your phone aren’t considered good quality, accurate headphones. Yes, you’ll need to allocate about $75 to $200 to afford a set of quality headphones so can actually hear what you’re recording.

Now that we have listed three essential component groups that I think are worth it for camera-oriented people to invest in, let’s take a look at the opposite.

Gear You Probably Shouldn’t Buy

(At least until you’ve learned how to get the most out of the three-component/packages listed above.)

Wireless Microphone System

In a nutshell, wireless microphone systems in 2021, and the foreseeable near future, are a hot mess. I’m not saying never buy wireless, I’m saying that there are numerous pitfalls and limitations to camera-oriented people buying them. Here are a few factors:

In the United States, the FCC has been continually selling off UHF spectrum to broadcasters, telecommunication giants, etc. This means there is a LOT LESS open spectrum available for location sound users, while the popularity and ever-reducing cost of wireless microphone systems have exponentially INCREASED the number of wireless microphone users.

My personal opinion is that camera-oriented people can buy wireless microphone systems, but they’re exponentially increasing their chances of recording bad quality, dropout and noise-ridden location sound, especially because it’s not the camera operator’s job to always be carefully monitoring every single syllable recorded. So proceed with wireless microphones at your own risk. They will likely work. Most of the time. But you will get stung, I can guarantee it. Dealing with multiple channels of wireless mics is a full-time job.

Multi-Channel Location Sound Mixer/Recorders

We’re living in the Golden Age of the Mixer Recorder. Never at any time in the history of location sound work have so many recorders offered so much amazing technology and capability for such a low cost. Devices like the Zoom F8 and the Sound Devices Mix Pre lineup offer great capability for very reasonable prices. Unfortunately, though, we encounter the same issues that we encounter with wireless microphone systems. The routing, monitoring and recording options that make these new mixer/recorders so powerful are also their downfall for camera-oriented people.

These devices aren’t “set and forget.” These devices have many options, features and capabilities that unfortunately are going to take the camera-oriented person’s focus of camera, lighting, focusing and composition. Therefore, I don’t recommend them for most camera-oriented people. Not because they aren’t amazing products—they are. Because humans can only multitask to a certain level, by definition, the camera-oriented person’s job is to pay most of their attention to the camera, not the mixer/recorder.

Camera internal sound quality has steadily improved over the past few years. Not all cameras have good internal sound, but the majority of mid-level (Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Blackmagic Design, etc.) and even some low-level pro cameras have totally usable audio recording capability.

If you shoot with a camera that doesn’t have good quality internal audio recording (most mirrorless, DSLR cameras, ZCams, RED cameras and even most higher-end cameras like the Arris, for instance), I recommend utilizing separate single-channel recorders and just using your poor quality camera audio as a scratch track. Syncing dual system audio in all of the popular editing programs is mostly automated now and works very well.

The State Of Location Sound

Location Sound Primer
Location sound can be challenging and rewarding. The key to success in location sound is to know when you can handle it yourself and when you need to hire a pro. You have to be realistic about how much time and attention you can devote to location sound while still performing your primary job.

The key to camera-oriented people being involved in location sound is to know your limitations. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t try to location sound record a narrative project with four characters in a scene by yourself as you camera operate; it’s not going to turn out well. Start off with acquiring a lav and boom mic and put them to work, recording single camera, single subjects into the camera and monitoring with your high-quality headphones. Learn what changes in the sound when you adjust and reposition the mics. Learn how to mitigate clothing noise and rubbing on the lav. Learn to offset an audio channel so you have two audio tracks—one recorded at a lower level for when the subject screams, laughs or claps, you still have a usable audio track if the main tracks is clipped. You’ll soon discover that you can handle simple audio chores, but once location sound impinges on your ability to do your primary job, it’s time to turn it over to a location sound mixer and do your own primary job at a higher level by NOT worrying about the sound.

Some Food For Thought

Another delineation here, I’ve written this for pro users from a pro user. If you’re a hobbyist, experiment all you want. If you’re a pro, though, and are shooting for paying clients with client expectations about the end output, manage your client’s expectations. For me, anything past a single camera and/or subject, I pretty much demand that the client allocates budget to hire a pro sound mixer. Period. If they won’t, I simply turn down the job.

I’ve done some pretty ambitious shoots as a one-man band. Multiple cameras, microphones, angles, I have done all grip, lighting, camera, sound and directed. But in the end, why should we do two to four people’s jobs ourselves when the client is only willing to pay one person’s wages? It’s to the detriment of the industry that people have a tendency to begin doing multiple people’s positions for a single person’s pay. Other professions would never even consider that, so why should we? I’ve worked with so many location sound professionals, the entire end product is always elevated when you can bring a professional to the job. As a camera-oriented person, it’s good to have some location sound ability. But it’s not wise to attempt to do an entirely different position as you’re trying to do your own position at a high level.