how to record sound effects

The Basic Gear You Need to Record Sound Effects (Part 1) by Chris Skyes

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In this article, we are going to talk about the basic equipment you need in order to start recording your own sound effects. The gear which I will recommend will be a balance between cost and quality, thus helping you get a good start in the world of sound effects.

This will be a two part series. In the first article, we will discuss microphones, recorders, and vital accessories. In the second article, we will go more in-depth on accessories, and discuss SD cards, external hard drives, useful things to have in your recording bag, and more!

In the interest of transparency, all of the gear links which will be present in this article are Amazon affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything, it won’t cost you anything extra, but I’ll get a small commission.

Right, let’s begin! We’ll go through a few common set-ups that you might use when recording sound effects.

Quick tip: For links to all products mentioned in this article, have a look at the bottom of the page
— Chris SKYES

Hand-held recorder

Everyone starts off with one of these, mainly because they are uncomplicated, and quite affordable. You turn them on, press record, and point them at the sound source.

Sony PCM-D100

If you want a hand-held device which produces really clean recordings, it’s worth having a look at the Sony PCM-D100. The downside of it though is that it doesn’t have XLR inputs, which means that if you decide to invest in some shotgun microphones down the line, you won’t be able to plug them into it.

Here is a demo from British Suburbia, a library I recorded, and am still recording, using this device.

Zoom H6

If the sounds you’ll be recording are on the louder side, and you need a recorded which is not only built like a tank, but is also really upgradeable, have a look at the Zoom H6. It’s durable, has great battery life, loads of XLR inputs, and even a detachable microphone at the top.

If you’d like to learn more about the Zoom H6, I’ve written a more in-depth review of it here, or you can watch the YouTube video down below.

Here is a demo for Dormant Village, a library I recorded using this device.

Zoom H4n

This is the device many people start out with, including myself. It’s great for personal and student projects, though it’s not often used in a professional setting. The main reason is that the Zoom H4n isn’t well suited to record quiet sounds, is because of its level of self noise.

In other words, if you record something really quiet, and then boost the levels later, the background hiss will be noticeable.

All recording devices have some degree of hiss when you boost the signal really loud, but some have more than others.

That being said, if you want a device which is great to learn on, and is affordable, the Zoom H4n might just be right for you.

You can always sell it later down the line when you want to upgrade. If taken care of, it shouldn’t lose too much of its value.

Wind Protection

When it comes to hand-held recorders, they do tend to come with some form of wind protection, often in the form of a foam cover for the microphones. Whilst this does help to some degree indoors, if you want to do any sort of work outdoors, you will need to purchase wind protection.

Whilst the Sony PCM-D100 does provide you with a really good windshield out of the box, there are alternatives out there, and each affect your audio in different ways. Here is a YouTube video by Paul Virostek, demonstrating the difference between the Sony PCM-D100 windjammer, and the equivalent which Rycote makes.

It is important to specify that you shouldn’t try to save money on your windshields, as a cheaply made one will adversely affect the sound of your recordings. In other words, a cheap windshield will muffle the recording, which might make it unusable.

Companies like Rycote make excellent products, including the Sony PCM-D100 windjammer, Zoom H6 windjammer, and the Zoom H4n windjammer.

Shock-absorption

When handling the devices, you introduce noise into the recordings. Even if you try to stay completely still, some amount of noise will be introduced, making it a nightmare to edit out later on, or even rendering the recording useless.

To that effect, Rycote has a series of products aimed at this, and they include the windjammers mentioned above bundled with them. They make a shockmount for the Sony PCM-D100, one for the Zoom H6, and also one for the Zoom H4n.

Microphone and Recorder

Once you have decided which recorder you would like, it’s time to consider some microphones. Honestly, if you want quality for a relatively low price, Rode is probably the way to go.

Rode NTG-2

Rode makes the NTG series of shotgun microphones. I personally have and use the Rode NTG-2 all the time, and I love it. I’ve traveled with it, used it for years, and it still works. It’s hard as nails, sounds great, and it also looks really cool.

What more could you want?

Additionally, here is a demo for Shimmering Shards, a library recorded using the Rode NTG-2, and the Tascam DR-60DmkII.

Wind Protection and Shock Mounts

When handing such a microphone, you will inevitably need some kind of shock mount, in order to stop vibrations and handling noise from polluting your recordings. You will also need some sort of wind protection, as you will inevitably end up recording outside.

In addition to many types of microphones, Rode also produces a blimp, which is basically a handle, mounting system, and windshield in one. It’s called the Rode Blimp.

The blimp itself is relatively standard, which means you can fit a lot of different microphones from many companies inside of it. It is worth researching each microphone before you purchase it though, as some shotgun microphones are extra long, and require a different type of blimp.

Alternatively, if you are looking for a less expensive alternative, the PROAIM Blimp works really well. I’ve personally used it on many trips, and it has served me well.

Headphones

In order to monitor what it is that you are recording, you’re going to need a good pair of headphones. Now, everyone has a specific pair which they love and use all the time, but I personally use the Beyerdynamics DT 150.

They’re good quality headphones, very affordable, and they’re built like tanks. I’ve had the same pair for years, and it’s never given me any trouble. I’ve abused them, stuffed them in bags, and all the rest, but whenever I plug them in, they still work.

This is the end of part one. Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter down below, in order to be notified when part two comes out!

Product Links

Down below you will find all of the items I talked about in this article.


How To Record Sound Effects For Your Short Film by Chris Skyes

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.

Quick tip: For links to all products mentioned in this article, have a look at the bottom of the page
— Chris SKYES

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.

Microphone

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. A good one would be the Rode NTG-2, and you’ll be able to find links to all the products mentioned in this article down below.

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.

I’ve actually reviewed the Zoom H6. You can read all about it here, or you can watch the YouTube video below.

Handheld Recorder with Internal Mics

Naturally, if you’d like to forgo the external mic, you could just go with the Zoom H6 or a Sony PCM-D100 by itself.

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.

Additionally, regardless of which one you invest in, you’ll have to get some wind protection for them, such as the one for the Zoom H6, or the one for the Sony PCM-D100.

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.

Indoors

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.

Outdoors

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.

Product Links

Down below you will find all of the items I talked about in this article.