How to Record Sound in a Short Film

You have an astonishing script for your short film. Actors you hired stayed true to their character and have beautifully portrayed them. Your cinematographer captured the visuals through amazing compositions and lighting. But, there is just one problem…

Audio. Dialogues written with so much thought and emotion are distorted, vocals are muddy because of background noise and wind, levels are all over the place.

There are many independent filmmakers for whom audio is the last thing they want to compromise on than anything else in making, it can make or break your short film. Even bad films can be passed off as “creative” when accompanied by perfect audio, but poorly recorded and mixed audio will give you the dreaded title of “unprofessional filmmaker” and make great films look bad.

Here are a few tips on how to record audio that will make your short film polished and professional, even with a micro budget.

1. Shoot with Dual System Configuration

Not all of us are privileged enough to buy expensive equipment or gear, even with a high quality DSLR which gives us high quality frames, is not able to record sound appropriately. The onboard microphone is only good for basic audio, nothing else.

Double system provides better audio quality than Single system. 

Even if you purchase an external microphone to plug into the auxiliary jack, you will not be able to get proper placement of the microphone. In other words, the mic is simply pointing in the same direction as the camera, from the same distance. This leads to no control over sound recording.

Instead, you should buy, rent, or borrow an external digital recorder. You can even add external equipment that will turn your phone or tablet into a field recorder and can be used via their respective apps. By using a field recorder, you can control microphone placement and volume.

2. Use the Proper Accessories

Depending on your recorder, you can either use internal microphones or connect an external one. It is recommended that you use a boom pole and a directional shotgun mic. By using them you can move the mic in close to your actors and focus the recording on one particular source. Now we, being Indians, are pro ‘jugaadus’ so you may just not buy an expensive pole and simply attach the mic to a standard broom pole to give you more reach.

Other accessories you need to include are headphones, XLR cables, and windscreens for your microphone. Again, if you are running low on budget you can always cheaper options available. For example, instead of buying studio headphones you can get away with using just normal earphones that we use in our daily lives.

3. Include a Sound Recordist and Boom Operator on Your Crew 

Usually when you are shooting a low-budget short film, people usually ask their friends and family to  be a part of the crew. When planning your team, make sure to have top priority for a sound recordist alongside your camera operator. Other factors like the size of your crew and the content being filmed will determine whether or not you need a separate person to hold the boom. Most of the time, an experienced audio person can both record and boom, but a second member of the team is handy even if it’s another crew member doing double duty.

4. Scout Locations for Audio

During pre-production, ask your audio team to do a tech scout at whatever locations you will be shooting so that they can find out about potential problems you may encounter while recording. This will help you even when you start editing in later stages. For shooting a film in 50 hours for India Film Project, there obviously is a time constraint but by proper management you can handle things really well. Take this for instance, when your actors are rehearsing or you are writing the script, your audio team can do the scout for you. By addressing these issues in the planning stage, you will prevent wasted hours of filming and headaches in post production.

5. Be Aware of Your Levels

To record the perfect quality of sound, the volume needs to be at the highest level possible without being distorted. Ideally, distortion tends to start at around 0 dB, and the optimum level is around -12 dB. This can vary somewhat depending on what the sound is, for example, scream is naturally going to be higher than a whisper (though keep that scream below 0 dB!).

Be aware about the volume that is recorded too low. The smallest measurement of sound is your noise floor and it’s where a lot of “garbage noise” exists, so the closer your recording is to that noise floor, the audio is going to be equally poor. Remember that any problems you have recording while on-set need to be fixed in post production, which means that if you have to raise the gain in post in order to hear the actors, you’re also going to increase the background noise.

6. Be Aware of Mic Placement 

If your microphone is attached to your camera, then the sound waves from your source takes more time to reach the mic, thereby creating an “empty room” feel. This forces you to increase the gain and mic picks up more background noise. Try to place the mic as close to the performer as possible.

You can always borrow or rent lavalier microphone. This microphone, also commonly known as lav, is an omnidirectional microphone that clips onto the costume of an actor.

7. Record Room Tone

Even if you are careful in recording proper levels on each actor for each shot, when you start editing,  you’re going to have to do clean-up work, which means you may end up with the background audio at various volumes throughout your edit. To avoid this, record a minute or two of room tone, or just the background noise with no one speaking at each of your locations. This will provide your sound editor an uninterrupted environment onto which to build the dialogue and sound effects and will make your film sound professional.

8. Reduce Echo and Reverb

Sometimes shooting locations can be unpredictable, especially when it comes to sound recording. One of the most common, and unfortunate side-effects of an indoor location is bouncy sound.

To avoid this, Professional Filmmakers have developed a number of practical solutions for beginners. By just adding soft textile items such as rugs, curtains or acoustic paneling to walls helps to reduce echoes.

Your whole audio team while setting up the location should carefully listen to the space preferably with professional headphones and make a careful determination of whether additional items are required to reduce echo.

9. Record Camera Audio

Now you must be wondering this contradicts the tip on recording dual system sound that we have been talking about. But NO, because you’re not going to actually use the camera audio in your edit. This sound will be used for syncing purposes. Softwares that are generally used by most of the people uses audio waves from various sources to automatically sync all the elements, including multiple cameras. 

However, you must have audio recorded on your footage for this to work, otherwise your editor will be cursing you for having to manually sync every shot.

The main purpose of the slate is to provide visual information to the editor and to sync sound to picture through use of the clapboard.  Even though editing programs may have the ability to match the actual audio waves from numerous files, a clap gives a distinctive sound pattern that makes it easier to sync. And if you end up having to sync manually, it will be a lifesaver as you can visually see when the stick connects with the board and match it with the beginning of the sound of the clap.

 10. Use a Slate and Proper Cadence

The main purpose of the slate is to provide visual information to the editor and to sync sound to picture through use of the clapboard.  Even though editing programs may have the ability to match the actual audio waves from numerous files, a clap gives a distinctive sound pattern that makes it easier to sync. And if you end up having to sync manually, it will be a lifesaver as you can visually see when the stick connects with the board and match it with the beginning of the sound of the clap.

11. Don’t FIX IT IN THE POST

Not all locations will provide you prime audio recording options, so there will be times when you might have to do Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR), where you bring the actors back during post production to re-record their dialogue by lip syncing to the edited shots. However, this will give you a different sound quality than in your original location. Exteriors and interiors inherently sound dissimilar. It’s not always perfect when actors try to match their lip movements and emotions and to do this for 50 hour filmmaking challenge, therefore never count on “fixing it in post,” but rather try to get the cleanest sound on location as possible during principal photography.

Whether you are registering for professional filmmaking or amateur filmmaking, pay attention to your film’s audio needs as well as the visual ones. Sound design can add a whole other dimension to your final production that complements the cinematography, and approaching it in every stage of production as an important piece of the puzzle will elevate your work. Give it the proper care and attention that you would to lighting, casting, wardrobe, and every other element. Remember that no one notices good sound-it only stands out when it’s done poorly.

Now you know about production sound, but don’t stop your education there, because great filmmakers are as much crafts people as they are artists – possibly even more so.

Check out the essential Tips For Beginners To Start With Short Filmmaking In India to learn the most crucial elements of filmmaking when have a time crunch and are on a tight budget.