Since the emergence of the sheer array of affordable camera recorders, the rising prevalence of mobile phones with decent video cameras and the ubiquity of social media channels such as YouTube as one of today’s major media diffusion channels, it has never been this easy to produce and subsequently sharing documentary videos. If we were to take a much closer look at the whole production process, it would be easy to assert that sound is the weakest part of many of these videos. Although it is relatively easy to shoot and record with a camera regardless of its quality, the art of placing a microphone, monitoring and taking care of volume levels still remains an ambiguous puzzle compared to the other components that take place when shooting a video documentary.

In today’s post, we going to go through a general outline of practical techniques and an end-to-end guide to the primary tools for recording, editing and mixing sound for documentary audiovisual projects. Whether you are using a mobile phone, a regular video camera, a D-SLR, prosumer or a professional camcorder for shooting your project, the sound will always be an important part of the storytelling.

There are many ways in which tremendously good results can be achieved with consumer gear in many different circumstances; nonetheless, professional gear comes with extra possibilities. Here are some fundamental concepts directors and documentary producers need to bear in mind every time they want to take one of these projects.

Sound, as a conveyor of emotions - Picture, as a conveyor of information

Documentary shooting.jpeg

Think of the scene in Psycho of a woman taking a shower in silence. Now add the famous dissonant violin notes, and you get a whole new experience. That leads to consider the emotional impact of a project, in this case of a scene in particular. Sound conveys the emotional aspects of your documentary. It’s practically the soul of the picture. Paying special attention to sound, both during shooting and afterward in the studio, can make the real difference. No matter if you’re planning on doing a simple interview with plenty of dialogue, an enhanced, or rich sounding, in this case, the human voice is the differentiating factor between an amateur and professional project.

Microphone placement and noise management are key

The main issue with the vast majority of amateur sound recordings is the excessive presence of ambient and environmental noises from all kinds of sources, and a low sound level relative to the ambient noise. As a result, we’ve all seen how difficult it is to understand the dialogues, which is ultimately detrimental to the intended emotional impact. This common situation is one of the consequences of poor microphone placement. Directors and producers need to learn to listen to the recording and experiment with different microphones and different placement options. It all boils down to getting the microphone as close as practical to the intended sound, and as far away as possible from the extra noise that interacts in a negative way with the whole recording.

Additionally, if the documentary takes place outdoors, the chances of getting unwanted wind noise are hight, which is why the use of a windjammer to control wind noise is always a good idea. Regardless of whether you’re a professional or an amateur taking on a documentary audiovisual project, with a little bit of practice and research, you can craft outstanding sound recordings, irrespective of whether you’re recording with professional gear or your mobile phone.

Monitor your recording

In order to craft a compelling and professional recording, you need to properly set recording levels first —not too soft so sound doesn’t get lost in the overall noise; not too loud so you can avoid possible distortion. When recording, always monitor the sound you’re getting with professional headphones in order to avoid possible surprises in the edition. When using digital recording devices, it’s impossible to record anything beyond full scale, so abstain yourself from crossing this limit, as otherwise, the recording will sound hideous, unless your camera or the device you’re recording with as an automatic gain control to adjust recording levels.

The shotgun myth

There seems to be a myth regarding microphones. Apparently, some people firmly believe that the shotgun microphone reaches farther than other devices. This is not true. Shotgun microphone simply does not work like a telephoto lens. Sound, unlike light, travels in all directions. Of course, shotgun microphones work; they have their place, and they really come in handy in somewhat noisy environments, especially when you cannot be as close as the individual doing the talking as you’d like in an ideal scenario. That being said, shotgun microphones are far from performing magic. What they really do is that they respond to sound differently in terms of reduced level, null point, and coloration. Although they look impressive, plenty of sound professionals and directors choose to use different types of microphones for their documentary project.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com