1. Not getting mic close enough. If you audio isn’t good enough, it’s probably because the mic isn’t close enough. Are you trying to get by with an on-camera mic? Get the mic off the camera. Really. At a minimum that will mean using a radio lavaliere. And preferably a shotgun mic operated on a boom pole. Use the hand trick to find the ideal mic position, as follows:
Place your thumb in front of your mouth. Fully spread your fingers at a 45 degree angle. The tip of your little finger is where the boom mic should ideally be, about 6-8 inches away. Of course, it varies with the subject, and with the shot. Sometimes you just can’t get that close without risking getting the mic in the shot. You can get away with 1′ away, maybe even 16″ away. But if you’re regularly 2-3 feet away, background noise is going to color your audio big time. And you can’t remove that in post.
2. Hiding lav on subject produces distracting clothing rustle. I’ve worked with professional sound recordists who tell me hiding lavs is the most challenging part of their job. And it’s true: once you put a lav under clothing, you’re going to have issues. It takes a lot of trial and testing to get it dialed correctly. Sometimes, it’s just impossible. I generally use lav audio as backup, preferring the cleaner sound that comes from a boom mic. But for those times when you’re counting on a hidden lav to pay your bills, here’s how to hide a lavaliere mic.
3. Handling noise caused by changing hand position on boom or mic. OK, you’ve committed to using a boom pole. Your sound is so much better already! But watch out – a low rumble will be introduced to your recordings every time you reposition your hands on the pole. So once you roll sound, settle quickly into a position you can hold for the entire take. It doesn’t have to be like lifting weights. Follow these boom mic recording tips and your audience will thank you.
4. Distracting noise in background. The most common offenders here are refrigerators and HVAC systems. Remember that shotgun mics are directional – so point the mic away from the direction of the noise. Better yet, eliminate it entirely by turning the heat down or tripping the fridge circuit breaker (put your keys in the fridge so that you don’t accidentally leave without restoring power). That’s why getting the mic overhead on a boom pole works so well – because sound rarely comes from below. But even shifting the mic 45 degrees can make a huge difference. Listen carefully before the take begins to find the best mic angle. The more background noise, the closer the mic will need to be.
5. Room is echoey (too “bright”). Small rooms are usually worse than large rooms, and any uncarpeted room with bare walls spells trouble. Basically, you want a room that is “homey”: carpeted, drapes on the windows, plush furniture, bookshelves lining the walls–anything that will break up sound waves. If you have a slight echo, however, it is now possible for you to fix it in post. Check out the Unveil plugin by Zynaptiq. It does magic to dampen slight reverb.
6. Forgetting to record room tone. When your take is finished, the last step is to record what silence sounds like in that particular environment. If you forget, as I still sometimes do, it makes it difficult to edit the dialog. So make it a ritual, like the chant I breath to myself every time I leave the house: keys, phone, wallet. Every time you say “that’s a wrap,” first say “30 seconds of room tone, please.”
7. Audio levels become clipped because of sudden loud noise. You’re recording some dialog and your subject starts laughing. Or cheering. Or shouting. If you have a good mixer, the limiter can automatically catch brief outbursts like this. But if you’re using inexpensive recorders and can’t turn the recording level down fast enough, you’ll get clipped audio. But once the damage is done, is there any way to fix this in post? Yes, believe it or not, there is. Some of the cheering crowd scenes in my documentary Beyond Naked would have been unusable if not for iZotope RX, an incredible suite of repair tools. The iZotope Declipper can rescue even horribly distorted audio.
8. Forgetting to charge/replace the batteries. Yep, it still happens to me. On some inexpensive recorders such as the Zoom H4N, if the batteries die during a take, you will lose the entire recording. So as a way to prevent this from happening, as well as a way to stay more organized, I recommend rolling early and often. On a lengthy interview, for example, don’t just hit record and forget about it until it’s over. At strategic points such as between questions, stop and re-roll. Also, get into the habit of charging/changing the batteries immediately AFTER each shoot. That way, you’ll always be ready to go.
9. Radio interference from cell phones. Almost everyone is carrying a smart phone these days. They stay connected by sending radio bursts that can be audible by a sensitive mic. Before every recording session, pretend that you are the captain of a plane about to take off: ask everyone in the room to put their phones into airplane mode. Not only will this prevent radio interference, but it will prevent your take from being ruined the old fashioned way: when the ringer goes off.
10. Using cheap gear. The difference between a $200 mic and a $1,200 mic is pretty amazing. And since pretty much every video you make from here to eternity will have sound, it makes sense to invest in a quality mic and a recorder that has decent pre-amps. Thankfully, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to sound gear the way it does to camera sensors. You could easily be using the same mic you buy today in 10 or 15 years. So don’t scrimp on sound.