How to get good audio in crowded public places

Today I got a Facebook message asking the following:

I recently saw your video piece about la figa and am curious about what kind of equipment (and crew, if any) you used when you were following tiberio around the market. The sound is amazing!

I’ll soon be doing a piece very similar to yours (i.e. a chef walking through a farmers market and fondling vegetables), so i’m especially curious about how you handled the situation.

I’m sharing my reply here in hopes that it answers the question for a wider audience at the same time.

First off: here’s the short piece. Watch it with your ears:

If you paid attention to the audio, you’ll have noticed that the first words out of Tiberio’s mouth are poor quality audio, which gets dramatically better in the next scene after he beckons us into the market. That’s for a simple reason: I forgot to roll my dual-system sound on the first shot, and the audio you’re hearing is reference audio recorded with the crappy internal mic on my T2i. OK, with that admission out of the way, let’s talk specifics about my setup.

The short story: use a lavalier. That’s it. Read on if you want the longer version.

Crew: Just me, and Tiberio (the chef I was filming).

Gear: Zoom H4N, Sennheiser G3 Wireless lavalier and transmitter; Canon T2i camera with built-in mic for reference audio, PluralEyes for syncing audio in post, Merlin Steadicam, Domke shoulder bag for carrying and hiding sound gear over my shoulder.

First tip for recording audio in public places: keep a low profile. If we had walked into the market with even a 3 or 4 person crew, we would almost certainly have had a much harder time getting the kind of spontaneous shots we got with just the two of us. Most people probably thought I was just taking still photographs on some kind of funny handheld camera-stabilizing device. In subsequent market shooting with a 4-person crew, we were on one occasion asked to leave a market because we didn’t have advance permission to film there. You can’t get great audio unless you’re there!

Second tip: use a lavalier. I’ve since shot in crowded markets on numerous occasions, sometimes with a handheld shotgun mic. And I’ve found that using a lavalier is the way to go in crowded spaces. Why? Because you get the mic within inches of the subject’s mouth, allowing you to separate the signal from the noise cleanly. A shotgun mic is going to pick up way, way more of the background noise, and it’s not going to reject the off-axis sound very well if you’re in an indoor situation such as this. And as you can hear in this clip, the lav is even enough to pick up the other person that Tiberio is talking to (although if the success of your piece depends on getting great audio of more than one person, the second person should be rigged with a lav as well).

Third tip: Rig the mic before you arrive. I taped the Sennheiser ME-2 lavalier mic to Tiberio’s chest, so we were ready to roll the moment we arrived and no more fussing was required. I’ve since upgraded to a Tram TR50 mic, which is far superior in audio quality, but the main thing is to get whatever mic you have close, and using a lav accomplishes this perfectly.

Fourth tip: use a small shotgun mic on your camera to record reference audio. In this video, I didn’t do that. This video’s audio (including the first shot at the beginning where I forgot to turn on the recorder for the lav) was simply recorded by the T2i’s built-in mic, which sucks, frankly. Even so, I was able to mix in some of the reference audio in one place – the scene where Tiberio is feeding tourists peaches, and you hear the vegetable stand girl’s voice saying “don’t worry, we wash our hands at least once a month” in the background.

If I were shooting this tomorrow, the main thing I’d do different is I’d record reference audio with my Rode VideoMic Pro, by far the best mic for on-camera recording with DSLRs. But be careful: in loud crowd scenes shooting with my Canon 60D, I’ve discovered it’s easy to exceed and clip the audio recorded with VideoMic Pro when it’s set to +20db, even when you set the recording level on camera to just 1. So be prepared when things get loud to slide the +20db over to 0 or even -10db as required by the environment.

13 thoughts on “How to get good audio in crowded public places

  1. Jim Dickeson

    Hey Dan,

    Stumbled across this site. OK, there was a signpost at Biznik.

    About the lavalier, video isn’t core to what I do, only a supporting facet, so I need to shortcut accordingly. I’m interested in a USB lavalier. Any recommendations?


    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Jim! Great to see you here. Re: usb lav, such an animal does exist, but it’s far from standard. I found this with a little Googling: This should get the job done for you nicely. Otherwise, I’d recommend the Rode Lavalier – it’s got the most options for you – you can use their Micon adapters to get it in and out of just about anything (not including USB) and the sound quality is pristine.

  2. Adam J

    I’m going to ask the Same question as Jim since I didn’t see an answer and your write-up said “taped to his chest”? I presume you talk about the wire under his shirt – not the mic?

    What does your setup look like when you’re using the merlin? Where do you hide/put your H4N?


    1. Dan McComb

      Hi Adam (and Jim),
      I used a wireless Sennheiser G3 transmitter on Tiberio, with the transmitter strapped around his waist under his shirt. The mic was taped to his chest, so it was also hidden under his shirt, that’s why it’s not visible.

      I hid the Sennheiser receiver, and the H4N, in a small Domke shoulder bag, which was hanging on my shoulder.

      Here’s links to all the parts I used:

      Wireless transmitter belt:
      Sennheiser G3 wireless:
      Domke bag:
      Tram TR50:

    1. Dan McComb

      Thanks Arthur. I was using a Nikon 20mm f/4 lens. It’s not the fastest lens, but I find it’s best to shoot anything on a steadicam at minimum of f/4 anyway, to maintain enough depth of field to have a chance of keeping things in focus. The location is a public market, where there is varying amounts of light coming in from big windows, mixed with mostly fluorescent light inside, along with some tungsten. Definitely a mixed bag.

  3. Aya

    Love this set up. Perfectly discrete and mobile, gives you so much flexibility in shooting, and not too conspicuous that it would make people feel on the spot. So did you have the Senny receiver in a place so that the antenna peaked out of your bag, or is it okay to have it completely covered up by the bag’s fabric? I usually use my g3 camera mounted, so I have not tried it covered up like that. Really like the idea of using it with an H4 though. Thanks for this post!

    1. Dan McComb

      I’ve never had any problems with the antenna being covered by fabric. It probably cuts the range a bit, but in practicality it isn’t an issue unless you’re more than 50 to 100 feet away from your subject.


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