Whether you’re studying filmmaking, or you’re getting started on your own, there is an undeniable fact which you have to contend with: nowadays, more people are making more films than ever.
In fact, a lot of people might have access to better cameras, better lights, and better equipment in general.
Given all of that, what can you do to set yourself apart from your classmates, or your peers?
Sound. That’s it. Why?
Because it’s intimidating. You see, creating good visuals is a lot more intuitive than creating good audio.
Now, you can, of course, always hire a sound designer to work on the audio for your film, and that’s how I make a part of my income.
That being said, you might not have a budget for a sound designer, and you might have been considering having a go at recording your own sound effects.
This article is going to run you through how and when you can use sound effects more effectively, practical tips on how to record them, and gear recommendations, together with explanations as to which piece of gear is suitable for what.
1. Why Add Sound Effects?
Isn’t location sound enough?
Well, unfortunately no. Even if you have a super experienced audio recordist on set, using very expensive microphones, a lot of the production sound effects which happen to be picked up won’t be nearly enough. Additionally, as the sound recordist is focusing on the actors, sounds which happen in the distance will sound bad, and unprofessional.
Here is an example of what I mean. This is a short film/min-doc I made a few weeks ago. I went through pre-production, had a shot list, covered all the scenes, and then I put together the film.
In order to make my life easier, I could have placed a mic on my camera, recorded audio on set, and asked the actress to record her voice over on location as well. This would have saved a lot of time, but the final product wouldn’t have been as good, as the VO would have been noisy, and the sound would have been inconsistent from scene to scene.
Feel free to have a look at the film, and then I’ll tell you what I did for the sound.
Once the film was edited, I exported it from Davinci Resolve, and imported it into Pro Tools.
Then, using markers, I made sure to underline what each section of the film needed. Just to be clear, audio is worth thinking about well before you enter the production stage.
As I was writing the shot list, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the audio, and I could picture all the sounds that I’d need. When you then place markers in your DAW of choice, you already know what your film requires.
First of all, it needed a natural ambience, due to our location. I layered multiple natural ambiences on top of each other, and adjusted the volume of each, in order to get a mixture which felt right.
Then, using a Rode NTG-2, I recorded the cloth track. I simply pressed record, and using a shirt which I was holding, I followed the flow of her movement.
For the footsteps, I grabbed a very thin plastic bag. If you think about it, thin plastic bags sound exactly like foliage. I made it into a loose ball, placed it into my left hand, and using my right hand, I hit the plastic and imitated her footsteps.
When watching the film, you might notice that these things are relatively low in the mix. That’s fine. They’re not supposed to be the focus of the film, but, much like lighting, they’re supposed to be felt, not noticed.
the way you can think about sound design in general, is that if it’s done right, you won’t notice it, but if it’s not there, or done poorly, it will feel like something is missing.
Now that we’ve covered the why, let’s cover the how! Let’s go into some gear recommendations, for low to medium budgets, which will allow you to record quality sounds (in combination with the tips I’ll give you in section 3).
2. What Gear Should I Buy?
There are a few different set-ups which you could invest in, each with their pros and cons. I’ll describe what the benefits of each set-up is, so that you may decide which one is best for you. All the recommendations will be on the lower end of the price spectrum, in order to keep things affordable.
The selection available to you might at first be overwhelming. There’s all the different brands, like Shure, AKG, Behringer, Rode, Neumann, etc., and then all the different types, such as shotgun microphones, condensers, dynamics, large diaphragm, small diaphragm, lav, etc.
As you’re starting out, let’s keep it simple. Given the fact that you most likely don’t have a proper room set-up to record in, and the fact that you’ll often be recording in noisy places, a shotgun mic is, in my opinion, a first great mic.
This microphone will serve you well. It has very low self noise, and it’s hard as nails (almost). Rode are well known for making durable microphones, which makes them great as a first choice.
In order to better understand what a shotgun microphone is, one could easily compare it to a long lens. It helps focus on specific sounds, whilst ignoring a lot of what’s happening around it.
Audio Interface and Microphone
If you want something closer to a studio set-up, getting an audio interface, together with your mic, will allow you to do this. Some examples of affordable audio interfaces would be Focusrite Scarlett Solo, and the Behringer U-PHORIA, but you can also use a hand-held device such as the Zoom H6, when not using it in the field.
These allow you to connect directly to your DAW of choice, and a lot of them can even provide phantom power, which is needed in order to run some microphones.
Alternatively, you can purchase a studio bundle like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio, or the Rode AI-1, but they have large diaphragm condenser microphones instead, which can provide a bit more detail, but which capture a lot more unwanted noise, if present. You can think of them more like a wide lens.
Handheld Recorder and Microphone
I personally love using my Tascam DR-60d MKII, combined with my Rode NTG-2. As it is a compact set-up, you can just whack it into your bag, and take it anywhere, as long as it’s indoors, and you use a handheld shock mount to remove unwanted mic handling noise.
If you want to use it outside, you’ll need to invest in a good wind protection method, such as the Rode Blimp, as the foam windshield that comes with the Rode NTG-2, or any other microphone for that matter, isn’t nearly good enough.
This set-up is great if you want to be able to run around, and record sound effects cleanly on the go, but it wouldn’t allow you to record stereo ambiences.
Handheld Recorder with Internal Mics and Microphone
If recording both stereo ambiences, and sound effects on the go is what you’re looking for, I would recommend investing in a Zoom H6, together with the Rode NTG-2, or a similar microphone in the line-up.
The Zoom H6 not only has built-in microphones, which allows you to record stereo ambiences, but it can take up to 4 XLR-inputs, thus allowing you to plug-in your mic and record mono sound effects when needed.
The only issue with the Zoom H6 is that it doesn’t do very well when recording very quiet sounds, as quite a bit of pre-amp noise gets introduced. You can think of it as a camera with poor low-light performance, due to a small sensor.
Handheld Recorder with Internal Mics
If you go with the Sony PCM-D100, you have better stereo sound, but you don’t have XLR inputs, limiting the kinds of microphones you can plug into it.
If you choose the Zoom H6, the mics at the top are actually detachable, which allows you to purchase a Shotgun Mic module for it. You just plug it in at the top, and you have an all-in-one recorder and shotgun microphone.
That being said, the Zoom H6 isn’t stellar when it comes to recording very quiet sounds, so just bare that in mind.
3. How Do You Get the Best Out of Your Equipment
I’m going to break this down into two smaller categories, for the sake of simplicity.
When recording sounds, you’ll find yourself in one of two possible environments: outdoors, or indoors.
Each location has its advantages and disadvantages, and we’ll explore each right now, along with what to do in order to fully take advantage of the pros, and mitigate the cons.
If you choose to record indoors, the first obvious issue is reverb. When you make a sound, it will bounce off the often empty walls, and this will colour your recording. Even if the sounds are recorded for a scene which takes place in a similar room, it’s best practice to record the sounds in a neutral way, and then process them to match the environment.
As a result, you want to record your sounds in a place where reflections would be dampened, such as in a closet. Even opening up the closet, and recording in-between hanging shirts and jackets should work, as long as you leave the sound a bit of room to breathe.
Recording them in a confined space might give it a ‘boxy’ sound, which wouldn’t be great.
So, divide up your coat-hangers into two, push one half to the left, and one half to the right, thus allowing you some space in-between to record.
Whilst this will take a bit more time and effort, the effects will be noticeable, and the final result will be well worth it!
One major perk of recording indoors, whenever possible, is that you won’t have to deal with wind slamming into your microphone, and distorting the signal.
Sometimes, when recording sound effects, you have no choice but to take your set-up outside. This comes with its own challenges.
The main two are wind, and background noise, such as traffic, birds, etc. The biggest tip I can give you on this, and this is something I learned the hard way, is to never underestimate wind.
Whilst working on one of my audio libraries, I went out for a day to record ambiences, whilst visiting friends in another part of the country. I got to my location, unpacked everything, set everything up, and immediately realised that the wind was incredibly strong that day.
I could have brought more protection, but ended up only bringing some, as I figured it should be enough. Finally, after going through what I recorded over eight hours, only about an hour was useable.
Learn from my mistake, invest in good windshields, and bring more than you need.
If you want to know what kind of wind protection you can use, refer to section 2, where I link to a few different kinds. One major tip I can give you is to not cheap out on wind protection though.
At the end of the day, pricier windshields will protect your microphones from the wind, but they are also transparent, which means that they don’t muffle the audio. Using a really cheap windshield can change the sound dramatically, which is not something that you want.
This is all for today, I hope you enjoyed the article, and I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter, in order to be notified whenever I put out any new posts.