5 Location Sound Recording hacks you should be doing

location Sound Recording sunshine coast

So you just finished filming your short film, advert or documentary. Video is edited, got a colourist to do their magic or most probably did it yourself because you an independent filmmaker yo’; ain’t no budget for that! It looks good. You even got some VFX or motion graphics in there to make it look more professional.

Something still isn’t right.

Looks great; it feels flat.

The audio sounds terrible.

If it is bad, you might be considering sending it off to someone like me who does audio post-production. Most likely I will be spending your hard-earned budget fixing totally avoidable mistakes.

Worse still, maybe you aren’t noticing it at all. Perhaps you are wondering why other filmmakers are creating content that seems so much more engaging.

I assure you, getting great location sound is instrumental in grabbing and keeping the audience’s attention. If you don’t have good sound to accompany your visuals, it will seem lacklustre.

So here are a couple of tips the modern filmmaker or videographer can employ to get better audio from the moment you start filming:

1. If distracting noises invade your scene, go for another take.

You might be saying ‘yes, absolutely’. If that’s you well done. Not all cinematographers are that woke. If you are unsure then this is for you.

If a person walks across your shot, the take is usually considered blown, and most cinematographers would record another. Do you do the same for Sound?

If a loud motorbike screams down the road 2 streets away, do you get another take?

I have gotten rid of some pretty random noises in location sound recordings before. Police Sirens, ensembles of flitting birds, people shouting, cars, security alarms and random conversations in the background about why Jeremy decided to drop out of school.

Sound is a lot more forgiving than the visual. I have found some pretty creative ways around things, but it is at the cost of time. There are various methods with varying degrees of success that rely on luck, skill and pure willpower. On-Location recording can be real messy at times.

Re-recording and reconstructing Sound for an entire scene is a lengthy process. You don’t want to be calling back talent because you didn’t nail it on the day. Big pictures with big budgets do it because they have the money, but it’s avoidable work when on a finite budget with finite time.

Consistent noise isn’t always bad, but it will probably distract the audience if it is distracting you while filming.

A busy area isn’t necessarily going to ruin your Dialogue. If the Sound matches the scene and the background noise is far enough away, then a good boom or lapel mic will be focused enough to keep It ambient. As long as your Dialogue is clear and any irregular loud noises happen in-between Dialogue, you can get around it with just a little bit of editing in audio post.

What will kill your location sound is a conversation in the background where you can make out the words, noises that don’t fit the setting, and if you are using lapels, rustle rubbing the microphone against clothes. Honestly, any prominent distracting noise that breaks the focus of anybody on-set could very likely be an issue in post-production. 

You already have issues if the narrative location and the actual location differ wildly in their soundscape.

Ambient noise is great if it fits the location, but if it doesn’t, you will probably be re-recording things. For example, I was a boom operator for a medieval apocalypse series set in a forest but was right alongside a road… with passing cars… right when school traffic was going past. I recorded the audio for a draft of the performance, but you bet your dead cat blimp cover that those actors would be re-recording Dialogue. The sound designer would also be working his sound design magic in post.

Irregular noise is a killer for location sound. The quieter the environment is supposed to be, the more distracting it will be. Every Location Sound Mixer knows the pain of a plane going overheard when you are shooting in a forest or the countryside.

Sound Post-Production is not always about just getting rid of distracting Sound but making it less distracting.

Ambient noise pollution will be unavoidable sometimes, but the rule of thumb is that it’s probably easier to get another take if random noises pop into your scene. An experienced Sound Mixer should be able to tell you if it’s going to be a problem in audio post or not.

In the absence of a Sound Recordist, better to play it safe and get that other take. If the ambient location sound is still interfering with your creative product, we go to the next step.

2. Get Wilds

location Sound Recording wilds sunshine coast

Ok, what are wilds you ask? It is what you need to get when you don’t have a good dialogue recording of a scene.

Let’s say you shot a visually spectacular scene, but environmental circumstances did not allow you to get spectacular location audio.

Wild tracks are a way of capturing backup Dialogue in noisy locations.

A good Production Sound Mixer will record a DIALOGUE ONLY take in a nearby quieter environment. Generally, the talent will have done the scene a few times and have a solid repeatable rhythm to their delivery. Getting them to redo the scene for Dialogue only purposes as soon as possible will have their delivery still fresh in mind. It’s kind of like on-location ADR.

I will usually get a couple of Dialogue variations to give me options in post-production.

Separate Dialogue audio is also helpful for Wide shots.

Can’t get the boom mic close enough to the actors? Record it after. Even if you can get close enough to capture draft dialogue while the camera is filming, it will provide a cue track for the wilds you record after.

Wilds are a way to give you back-ups and redundancy options for locations that aren’t aurally ideal.

Wilds may not necessarily solve all your dialogue troubles, but they can be an absolute life-saver at times. They offer your Post Production Mixer the option to insert audio into parts of the scene where the Dialogue is compromised.

That extra location sound can save a lot of hassle. Just think how annoying it will be to organize on-screen talent back again for one or two lines.
Time wasted.

Wilds are also a cheap way to grab any voiceovers you might need while you have talent onset.

As a voice-over artist, studio voiceovers sound infinitely better. It is also an extra financial and time investment. Get those voiceovers while you have the on-screen talent available.

3. Record Sound Effects as well as Dialogue

Sometimes you have a scene with no dialogue, but there are sound effects or ambient background noise.

Record it!

Sure your sound designer may not use the location sound in the end, but it does make their job easier. Location audio still contains sound cues, which is quicker to match up than relying on visual alone.

Recording rough SFX on location as a placeholder for later SFX will be a huge time saver.

You can get away with no sound for a quick cutaway, but for wide shots where you are trying to set the scene or literally any action or movement in the shot, get location sound.

A footstep, moving glass on a table or leaning back on a chair will all have aural characteristics unique to that time and place. Location Sound is influenced by many environmental factors that will create a lot of unique qualities. Sometimes we want those characteristics; other times they can be detrimental to the story’s immersion.

Having that on-location audio will determine what sound design is needed or if it is needed at all. Often, it’s a matter of blending the original audio with newer elements to give it more drama or added dimension.

Why create Sound Design from scratch when you have the option to blend it with location Sound Effects?

As a sound designer, I usually prefer to use the on-location SFX and layer other sound elements around it for more ‘flavour’. If the location sound is already strong, it means less work for your sound designer. It saves your sound designer time, you $$, and it is just a button press on the day to capture something usable.

Ambient location sound can also be blended with added ambient noise or SFX, which is why you should always record that as well.

4. Record Background Ambient Sound

5 location Sound Recording hacks sunshine coast

It is the integral ambient noise that will sell this location to the viewer; the sound of Seagulls, distant traffic and the gentle lapping of waves. 

Getting a minute of silence at each location you shoot at is generally just good practice. All Sound recordists should be doing it. Every location has its signature sound. Sometimes it’s just the ambient noise of things in the background, but even when there is nothing but silence, each place has its own tone and pitch.

We call it ‘room tone’.

Sometimes, different shots in the same location can have a different room tone.

 When you start editing those shots together, you notice how disjointed different shots can sound, especially when shifting between different locations. It is jarring to hear and you lose that fluidity of storytelling.

These days I can usually grab bits and pieces of silence/room ambience before or after takes. There are also programs that can cheat this process to an extent. However, having a minute of ‘silence’ for each specific location has many benefits.

Getting ‘ambience’ from each location can serve multiple uses in sound design and sound post.

Recorded ambience can add consistency between shots and is great for dropping behind heavily processed Dialogue or ADR. It is also helpful as a sound design element. If you don’t get the chance to record background audio, it isn’t the end of the world. However, Ambient location sound can be very useful when editing and mixing the final product.

It probably won’t matter as much for advert content that is already a tight edit. For any film or narrative though, it is a good practice that will enable a higher quality product and can save time in post production.

5. Assess Reverb when Location Scouting

When it comes to interior shots, reverb is a killer. Anyone who has shot a scene in a high-rise corridor knows my pain. It’s instantly noticeable, can muddy Dialogue and prove super distracting.

There are plugins that will reduce reverb in your audio (Izotope De-verb, SPL DeVerb, Sonible Proximity EQ+ are some popular ones). These plugins can take the edge off of echo but can come at a cost to natural-sounding Dialogue. In short, overt reverb sounds bad, it’s hard to fix and will be instantly detrimental to your final product. Watch this video of some of the recordings I have cleaned up and you will see what I mean.

Check reverb and echo on-location before the shoot, so it doesn’t come back to haunt you

Cement, Aluminum, glass, stone or tiles are highly reverberant materials. The emptier the space, the more it is going to be reverberant. I’m not going to go into the science of it, but filling the space with things will help soak up the sound. Reverb hates complex geometry. It mostly hates thick, soft, absorbent things. Couches, blankets, pillows, and clothes will eat up stray sound. Carpet soaks up sound real good.

Grabbing some super thick blankets, putting them on the ground or hanging them up over reflective surfaces will help deaden the reverb.

You can solve a lot of sound issues with strategic production design.

If you have props, you can incorporate reverb-killer materials into your set. It not only adds more interest to your scene visually but can offer practical solutions to overtly reverberant rooms.

Reverberant rooms can be tricky to record in.

The Corridor of Reverb Doom: Tiles, Glass and one massive sound funnel.

One thing to be mindful of is distance. The further away you have that microphone from the talent, the more problems you will have. A close-up will allow you to get crisp, clear Dialogue, but Mid Shots and Long Shots will have a more prominent echo.

Be mindful of how loud your Dialogue is going to be. Higher volumes are going to have more echo. Loud Dialogue in small reverberant spaces is a recipe for disaster.

Taking these things into account and minimizing the potential of annoying reverb in pre-production will save you from unwanted problems in production and post-production.

6. Get a Production Sound Mixer

Ok, I know I said 5 things, but I am going to tack on a shameless plug for all my audio engineer brethren. Getting a professional audio engineer to work their sound voodoo will save you a lot of frustration. Trusting someone else with those problems for both on-location sound recording and post production audio mixing will ensure a far higher quality product. A competent Audio Engineer will improve your visual experience in ways you may not have yet fathomed. Remember, good sound means greater immersion.

Admittedly my sound voodoo magic won’t solve every issue, but I have found solutions to problems that even I thought were unfixable. In my years of experience, I have accumulated an arsenal of possible fixes to many weird and wonderful obstacles. I have also learnt another shred of wisdom:

Sometimes fixing a problem is more about finding ways to hide a problem from the viewer.

I’m going to leave you with that tidbit of Audio Zen. Such is the way of the Sound Ninja. 

If you are a videographer or indie filmmaker recording your own location sound, these habits will offer you more freedom in the audio editing and mixing process. It will also provide that Post Sound Guru whoever they may be, a more manageable workload. 

As an audio engineer, I would prefer to spend my time creating a fluid aural experience than fixing specific preventable problems. Also, less time spent fixing sound issues means less time spent paying me for my services and thus more budget for other things.

Such is the art of the Sound Ninja.

Expand Your Vision. 

Get Good Sound.