Q Can you tell me a bit about room tone? What exactly is room tone, and how is it used typically?
A I sometimes refer to room tone as "audio Spackle®." Much like drywall Spackle® is used to patch over the uneven tape seams, nail holes and tears in sheetrock, room tone is recorded by sound mixers on set and is used by audio and video editors to smooth over audio anomalies that occur during production.
Let’s imagine that you’re shooting a dialogue scene with two actors. Visually, the script calls for the scene to be shot near a busy road. You’ve hired a professional sound mixer and boom operator, the actors have wireless lavaliers mounted on their wardrobe, and you have the boom operator with a shotgun mic overhead. During the first take, the performance of the first few lines of the scene is perfect, but then one of the actors flubs his line about a third of the way through the scene. But as the director, you love the way he delivered the first opening lines of the scene. You shot this portion of the first scene at 7:15 a.m., during the morning commute, so there’s a pretty steady stream of car, truck and motorcycle sound passing through the background. You can hear the actors because they’re correctly miked, but you also hear the traffic in the background.
An hour later, the actors finally nail the rest of the lines in the scene. You notice that the earlier rush-hour traffic has disappeared, replaced by the sound of just an occasional car passing through the background. You’re happy with the performance of the scene that you just shot, but as you review the earlier takes, you note that your lead actor had a special enthusiasm on that first take that you really like for the opening two lines. If you decide to use the first two lines of the earlier take as the opening, then switch to the later takes to complete the scene, you and your editor will notice the difference in the background traffic noise immediately. On the earlier take, there will be a lot of background sound, and on the later takes, there will be much less of it in the mix. Sure, your audio post team can try to re-create that same traffic sound in post, but just taking an extra 30 seconds to record room tone is so much easier, simpler and more effective.
When your sound mixer asks to record room tone, for everyone to be quiet for :30, be supportive of them and make sure they can record clean room tone. Sometimes crews find it an inconvenience, but the amount of time, money and effort that good room tone can save you in postproduction is very significant. If you’re doing your own audio mixing, always record room tone; it will save you untold trouble down the road in postproduction.
QUE AUDIO Q SNIPER KIT
Q I’m a one-woman band using a Nikon D800 to shoot interviews at several locations in different countries. I haven’t had a sound mixer for the shoots, and I’m having challenges in renting a boom microphone, boom pole, mount and cables in different cities. I’ve tried using just a wired lavalier, but the producer on the project likes the sound I get from a boom mic over what I record with the lavalier. Any advice on how to keep the clear sound of a boom mic without having to fly and carry around a shotgun mic, boom pole and mic mount?