Movie sound recording equipment

July 7, 2015
Music of Sound - obsessed with

Even with the simplest of setups, audio recording for film is no easy task — especially when the whole picture has to be shot in a day.Tom Flint

I was recently approached by aspiring director Sam Heydon to record the sound for a short film he had written. The story of The Nearness Of You was set on Valentine's Day during World War II, and most of the scenes featured a dance hall full of extras in period clothes and service uniforms. Sam had hired an old village hall that looked the part, but filming had to be done in one day, chiefly because many of the extras were war re-enactors and the limited budget meant that hiring them for longer was not possible.

Consequently the production schedule, which also included enough time for a period make-up and hair specialist to style the lead characters, was very tight indeed. My task was to capture ambient and incidental sound, which included the sound of dancers, chattering crowds, a motorbike and a live band, as well as all of the actresses' and actors' dialogue. There was to be a break for dinner in the evening, and a final outdoor queue scene needed to be filmed before utter darkness fell upon us. Then we had to vacate the hall, taking down the blackout curtains and decorations, and returning the upright piano that we'd borrowed for the live band.

A Canon DSLR, fitted with a selection of prime lenses, was being used for filming, but there was no requirement for me to sync my audio. For synchronisation purposes, we were using a simple non-digital wooden clapper to create an audio spike. Ultimately, this allowed the editor, who was also the DOP (director of photography), to line up the start of the audio with his visuals. I wasn't there for the edit, but in the past I have used handclaps to create transients that can be matched with the correct frame when lining up audio and video in Sony's Vegas for YouTube broadcast, and it is pretty easy to do. There is a possibility that non-timecoded audio might drift out over time, but providing the cues aren't ridiculously long, it won't be a problem. The fact that synchronisation was not required meant that a lightweight and portable handheld digital recorder with a reasonable specification would be adequate for the job. At the time I was in possession of a Tascam DR40, which I'd reviewed for Sound On Sound and was very familiar with, so I decided to use it for the project. Though the built-in mics on handheld recorders can be high quality, they're unlikely to be appropriate for this kind of project, especially as they can be susceptible to handling noise. Picking one with XLR inputs will allow you to connect external mics, giving you far greater control over the sounds you capture.

The DOP promised to bring along the slightly more expensive Zoom H4N, which would have done the job just as well (and in recent years has become a favourite sound-recording device for budget film-makers), but I had no prior access to the H4N to check that it was all in working order, so I ended up using the Tascam and keeping the Zoom recorder handy as a backup in case of failure.

I also had an Olympus LS5, which records audio just as well the above products, but I bought it for recording artist interviews, rather than music applications, and it lacks the all-important XLR inputs and phantom power necessary for running external capacitor mics. It has onboard mics, but even the most expensively constructed handheld recorders suffer from some degree of handling noise, rendering the mics fairly unusable in many situations. As for budget products like the DR40, their shielding is minimal and any brush of the hand on the casing will ruin a take. Using external mics eradicates this problem entirely, so it was always my plan to set up separate mics.

To give myself options, I took along as many high-quality studio mics and cables as I could fit into my gig bag, but I was relying on the production team to supply a boom mic for capturing the actors' dialogue. I also took along a set of Sony MDR7509 closed-back reference headphones, which provide plenty of level and isolation. These are desirable characteristics if the environment is a little noisy, especially when checking the quality of the last recording between takes, or when monitoring the quality of dialogue during takes.

An important thing I needed to check before filming was what sample rate and bit depth the production team required. It is very easy to forget to set such things, or to make assumptions about what's required, so I wanted to avoid any issues and set my recorder up in advance. In this case, I was asked to provide 16-bit files recorded at the industry-standard sample rate of 48kHz. I also engaged the limiter on the Tascam DR40 to take care of any random level spikes, but intended to err on the side of caution and leave plenty of headroom at all times.

The first thing I did on arrival at the venue, where various extras and actors were beginning to gather, was set up two microphone stands, each holding a phantom-powered Groove Tubes GT44 pencil mic at head height, so that I could begin capturing the noise of crowds gathering in the room. Given that the hall had a wooden floor that moved as people walked on it, it was vital that my mics had their own shockmounts. I chose mics with cardioid patterns so that they would have some directionality and, when used as a stereo pair, would give a sense of space in which the extras and actors were moving. Ideally, I'd have placed the mics equidistant from the action in each scene, but the positioning of the lighting was more critical and took precedence.

Throughout the filming the walls of the hall were 'blowing the highlights' (the light reflecting from the walls was exceeding the dynamic range of the camera), so a lot of time was spent setting up screens and moving lights, and I had to work around the Lighting Technician's activities, as well as that of the DOP.

One unexpected problem was caused by a bee, which had woken from hibernation in the rafters and seemed fascinated by the warm lights! Unfortunately, this meant that it spent a long time buzzing right above my microphones, which they picked up very clearly. Although we tried and failed to remove the bee, the scene it was affecting only involved general hubbub rather than 'lip-sync' dialogue, so there was enough audio from the various takes to work around the loud buzzes!

For the rest of the day we alternated between scenes requiring stereo room sound and those involving dialogue, so a lot of swapping back and forth between the GT44s and the mono boom mic had to be done. Fortunately for me, though, we were filming something where the look was very important, so it took longer to set up lights and camera positions than the sound equipment, which meant there was always ample time for me to switch connections and reset the DR40. My stereo mics had their own, slightly unwieldy, phantom power supplies so I had to set the DR40 to stereo and turn its phantom power off whenever I switched from dialogue to ambient sound recording. Apart from one annoying menu setting that defaulted to a preset state and had to be re-applied each time I swapped over, it was very simple to do, and I also had time to make test recordings while the camera and lights were being sorted out.

director Sam Heydon
Q&A: Should I record my own sound FX?
Q&A: Should I record my own sound FX?
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