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Audio Tips That Every Microfilmmaker Needs, Pg. 2

Well, I've always felt that a good way to do it is with a nice top 10 list. So, without further ado, let's get to it. (Some of these points will be very obvious to some of you. If you are one of these, you can skip ahead. I would rather proceed too slow than too fast to accommodate any new filmmakers.)

The Top 10 Audio Basics Every Microfilmmaker Must Know

  1. Realize that audio is 70% of your film. I know we just went through that, but repeat it every time you step onto your set.
  2. Realize that the camera microphone comes straight from the bowels of hell. Never use the camera microphone on anything unless you are simply not going to be recording any dialogue and want mediocre nat (natural ambience) sound. Pretend it does not exist and hope that it gets the hint and goes away. If you ever record any dialogue with the on-camera microphone, you will regret it, as the on-camera microphone picks up all the camera noise of your camera operation as well as all sorts of background noise that you don't want in your film.
  3. Pick yourself up a good quality shotgun mic. While shotgun mics aren't cheap, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on them either. Sennheizer makes a great shotgun in the ME66 capsule (official site) which they charge $320 for plus the cost of the required K6 power module which is $319 for a total of $639. I bought the same capsule & power module combo off Ebay for $325 total and have had awesome results with it. (Note: The ME66 is a short shotgun mic which will require you to get closer to your talent. The comparably priced ME67 is a long shotgun mic that allows you to get a little farther away.)

    Warning: Make sure that you get the K6 power module and NOT the K6P power module. The K6P module requires the camcorder to power it via a specification called Phantom power, which is usually not available on most prosumer cameras (like Canon's XL1-S, for example.). The K6 (Official Site) uses a standard AA-battery to power the microphone.
  4. Rather than trying to purchase an expensive boom pole, a simple telescoping microphone stand can be collapsed and used. A head that will fit the mic will run less than $5 at most music stores and the actual mic stand can be purchased new for $25 or less. A shock mount is a more stable holder for the mic on the stand, as these cushion any impact from the boom pole holder, but they are extremely expensive to buy. As such, we published two how-to articles on making your own shockmounts in this issue!
  5. Invest in a good pair of earphones. While many indie filmmakers try to make do with cheapy $9 earphones, these never really allow your audio person to clearly hear the tone of what's coming through the mic. As I mentioned before, I tried to do that on my first film and ended up botching the entire audio because they simply didn't allow us to hear that we had the mic too far away from subjects to get clear audio. A pair of Sony's Pro MDR-7506 headphones will run you about $99 and are the same type many studio professionals use. If that's a bit out of your price range, you could go down to the Sony MDR-7502 Pro Stereo Headphones, which run about $49 at most retailers, and would still give you a pretty good sound.
  6. Most shotgun microphones that are not exorbitantly expensive need to be placed within two to four feet of the person speaking. If you're using a short gun mic like the Sennheizer ME66 you're looking at two feet while the 18" Sennheizer ME67 will probably give you 3-4 feet. While this isn't very far away, it can be accomplished with a little creativity. Try hiding the mic behind a computer monitor or plant that a person is talking behind. Use the mic stand as an actual stand, rather than a boom pole, in order to get great audio when you can hide it behind something. (As always, practice makes perfect. So give yourself some time to check distances with your mic and your shooting camera before you start your shoot!)
  7. Have a designated audio/boom person. As I brought up before, many times we as microfilmmakers want to try to wear too many hats. We want to direct and be the camera person and pay attention to the audio levels, but we can't. While a director can run the camera, they just can't be paying the critical attention to the audio that it requires. Make sure your boom operator is the one wearing the good headphones and that they are given access to the camera's audio controls periodically to make adjustments throughout the shoot.
  8. Make your talent memorize their lines. A lot of times, we as low budget filmmakers want to allow our talent to improv to make the dialogue more fresh so that we don't stifle the film's creativity. There's nothing wrong with a little improv from time to time, but when all of the lines in the film become improv, your storyline becomes very muddled, hard to follow, and very difficult to mic properly. In the end, everyone is just talking over one another and your boom operator is having a fit. Remember, you're making a movie, not recreating your family reunion!\
  9. Mix your dialogue to a consistent level in post. This will increase the watchability of your film because volumes won't be all over the place. A common film audio level for dialog is around -12 Db (decibels). (If you have difficulty with this, Oakwood Sound Design is offering a basic mastering service for a very low price for Microfilmmaker readers. Go to our Links & Savings page to find out more.)
  10. Lower the music volume so that all dialogue can be clearly understood. I've seen many beginning filmmakers leave their music too loud and end up eroding much of the overlaid dialogue this way. (I even ran across one or two filmmakers who actually left the audio at the level it was on the CD, which nearly blasted your brains out when you tried to watch the film!) A common level for music is -18 Db when it's underneath dialogue, and -12 Db when there is no dialogue present.

While that's not everything you need to think about in regards to audio, that's definitely a good primer and will make your films much more professional if you can it.

Oh, two last minute things in closing!

  1. Watch your dailies on a good television with good speakers. Don't make my opening mistake by not watching the dailies! No matter how tired you and your crew are, you can catch audio issues the first day of your shoot if you're meticulously watching those dailies.
  2. Do not mount your shotgun mic onto your camera! While it's marginally better than the onboard mic, mounting a shotgun on your camera still picks up the camera's vibration and, by definition, means your shotgun is as far away from the action as your camera is!

In future months, we'll have more advanced help on this as well as primers in scriptwriting, acting-coaching, and editing!

God bless,


Jeremy & John

JeremyHankePicture The director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.

John Howard has been perfecting sound as an audio engineer for over 10 years. When he's not reviewing gear and software for Microfilmmaker Magazine, he's in the studio recording vocalists and bands, as well as doing post for TV shows and films, through his audio post/recording company, Oakwood Sound Design.

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