The Balancing Act: High-Quality Production Sound On A Low Budget

Zoom H4n Handy Recorder

The reality of modern productions, especially low-to-no-budget projects, is that low funds make it impossible to hire professional sound mixers with top-notch recording gear. The good news is that the quality and capability of sound gear has increased exponentially over the past few years, while the cost to purchase medium to low-end sound gear has also decreased.

Today’s mirrorless HDSLRs, 4K cameras and other lower-end devices can record very high-quality footage, yet rarely capture high-quality audio, to boot. This is the polite way of saying that if you care about your audio quality, don’t use your camera’s sound, other than as a scratch track to sync with your high-quality audio.

We’ll take a brief look at some of the best, most convenient options for capturing high-quality sound to complement your valuable footage. Also, make sure that you pair your mixer/recorder with a high-quality set of headphones to clearly hear what’s being recorded.

Recorder/Mixers


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Low-Cost Option: Zoom H4n Handy Recorder. The Zoom H4n has been popular since the DSLR revolution kicked off years ago. While it’s not the most robustly constructed recorder on the market, it’s inexpensive, reliable and simple to use. It doesn’t feature the smoothest preamps, but the sound quality is still leagues better than most low-cost cameras are capable of recording. zoom-na.com

Key Features

  • Four-channel recording up to 24-bit, 96 kHz to an SD card
  • Built-in stereo X/Y microphones
  • Dual XLR mic inputs, up to 140 dB SPL
  • Low cost, retails for under $200

High-Tech iDevice Option: RØDE i-XY. The RØDE i-XY is a recording microphone that’s available for iPhone and iPad. The i-XY records up to 24-bit/96k using on-board A/D conversion through a ½-inch pair of cardioid condenser capsules for immersive stereo recording. This device is ideal for recording music, podcasts or interviews through an iPhone or iPad, using either like a boom mic to record sound. rode.com

Key Features

  • Stereo audio at 24-bit/96 kHz
  • Matched pair of ½-inch cardioid condenser capsules
  • Compatible with iPhone 4s and earlier, iPhone 5/5s/5c/6 and 6 Plus
  • Low cost, retails for $199

High-Cost Option: Zoom F4 Multitrack Field Recorder. The newly introduced Zoom F4 has 6-input/8-track recording, super-low-noise microphone preamps and time code. This is a pro-level recorder with high-end features. zoom-na.com


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Key Features

  • 4 locking Neutrik XLR/TRS combo input connectors, 8 tracks (6 plus stereo mix)
  • TCXO generation (with accuracy of 0.2 ppm) or jam sync to external TC, both on standard BNC connectors
  • All standard dropframe/non-drop formats supported
  • 8x AA batteries, external DC battery pack with 4-pin HIROSE connector
  • More costly, at a $650 price point, but perfect for indie productions

It would take more space than we have for this article to provide detailed recommendations in every category of sound gear to record high-quality sound, but let’s touch on some key pointers as general guidelines when selecting gear and prioritizing budgets.

The Balancing Act: High-Quality Production Sound On A Low Budget
RODE i-XY Stereo Microphone

Dropping The Boom

Besides your mixer recorder, be sure to invest most of your remaining sound gear budget into microphones. Generally, having a boom pole and a shotgun/cardioid microphone is the most important item for most productions.

You should also score a quality microphone mount. You can have your hands on the best shotgun mic on the market, but if it’s mounted to your boom pole with a sub-par microphone suspension mount, you’ll be fighting handling noise tooth and nail.

Wind protection should be considered unless, of course, you’re shooting indoors. Sensitive shotgun and cardioid microphones easily amplify rumble and wind noise, so you’ll need decent wind protection, which in most cases will be a wind cover or a full microphone zeppelin.

Close Miking

You’ll find that a boom pole and shotgun or cardioid generally will record the best-quality sound, but it takes skill and dexterity to hand-boom talent. It’s an important role on set, and often takes up two crew positions in a sound mixer and a boom operator. Some sound mixers are talented enough to do both jobs at once, but this is very difficult to do effectively.

Expect to purchase at least one or two lavalier microphones. These are tiny, sometimes hidden mics that record nice, clean audio. They can be used in various situations, such as when a shot is too wide for boom mic use. Lavalier mics are also used in conjunction with hand booms to capture two different choices in sound quality to consider later in the editing bay.

Lavalier microphones come in two flavors—hard-wired, which are comprised of the mic element and a power supply, and wireless microphone systems. My main tip here is to only use wireless microphone systems when absolutely necessary, never on a sit-down interview or with actors in a stationary scene.

Wired lavaliers sound better than even the most expensive wireless options, but clearly there are situations when only a wireless lavalier makes sense. The good news is that there are some new, inexpensive wireless systems on the marketplace that actually record decent sound.

Cables

In order to connect your microphones to your mixer/recorder, you’ll need to acquire audio cables, typically with an XLR connector at each end of the cable for professional sound gear.

It’s very important to buy high-quality cables. Lower-end cables may look the same, but they’re often noisy, plus you’ll find their connectors are of low quality and break much sooner than high-quality gear. Cheap cables are never a good investment, simple as that.

A Sound Bag

You’ll need something to carry around your recorder, mics, cables and boom, and a good-quality sound bag will make your life easier during production. Name-brand bags from Orca, K-Tek and Porta-Brace are built for specific recorders and combinations of wireless microphone receivers, as well as battery systems to power all of the gear.

Remember to buy your audio gear first before choosing the right bag that will fit all of your equipment. Good audio bags aren’t cheap, but they’re nonetheless essential in utilizing pro sound gear.

The Balancing Act: High-Quality Production Sound On A Low Budget
Zoom F4 Multitrack Field Recorder

The Deployment Drill

Every sound situation is different, but there are techniques and skills that repeatedly pop up in the most typical sound-recording situations. Here are a handful of tips to get you up to speed and out there recording high-quality sound on your picture with lower-end gear.

It sounds counterintuitive, but know your camera’s audio settings! Even if you’re the sound mixer, not the camera operator, it pays to be intimately acquainted with the sound portion of the camera with which you’re shooting.

It’s generally the sound mixer’s responsibility to run audio input to the camera, even if a separate outboard recorder is being used. You do need to know if the camera’s inputs have phantom power. If you’re sending an audio signal from your mixer/recorder, you don’t want the camera to supply phantom power out to your mixer, so know how to turn this off.

Also know where the camera’s headphone jack is located, as well as the headphone jack volume control. Sound mixers can use a cable harness that will send the camera’s headphone output back to your mixer’s monitor input. This will allow you to compare your mixer’s audio output with what the camera is actually receiving.

Obey the laws of physics. As a general rule, you can’t record high-quality sounds with the microphone placed farther than a foot or two from the talent. By placing the microphone as close as possible, you’re increasing the desired audio signal and decreasing excess noise.

In most cases, try to place the boom mic right above the talent’s head, just out of frame, with the tip of the mic pointing at the talent’s chest. With lavalier microphones, try to rig them as close as possible to the talent’s mouth, but ideally still hidden. This usually means placing the lavalier on the chest area, but a lapel or shirt collar are also valid locations.

Get Out There And Shoot!

Recording high-quality sound is an art, as well as a science. There are myriad considerations to be aware of when capturing the best-quality audio for any given situation, but the points outlined in this article are probably the most important elements to consider before heading out to shoot.

Check out YouTube videos, read magazines and various books on sound for picture and, most importantly, get out there and shoot. There’s no doubt that experience is the best teacher of all when it comes to capturing high-quality sound. When it comes to essentials, capturing high-quality sound is actually more about the skills involved than the gear itself.

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