How to Get High Quality Audio for Your Home and Travel Videos
Seven Great Tips to Maximize Sound Quality
by Mark Richards
February 22, 2008
Creating good audio is often the most difficult challenge when creating videos and home movies – especially for those of us who are using consumer grade camcorders.
It is easy to fool the eye but very difficult to fool the ear.
If you make a mistake with audio, the ear will catch it while the eye is a lot more forgiving of video problems and inconsistencies.
However, there are many ways you can make your videos sound a lot better without having to spend lot s of money, go to film school or hire a sound engineer to help you shoot your girlfriend’s BBQ and swim party.
TIP ONE – Use an External Microphone
First, if possible, use an external mike. Unfortunately, the microphones built into most camcorders are not very good. Even worse they are omni-directional will pick up sound from EVERYWHERE. To the sides and behinds as well as in front. Yes, they do have a somewhat ellipsoidal pickup pattern so that their audio pickup pattern is aimed more to what is in front, but you’ll find that most camcorder mikes will pick up your mumbling, heavy breathing, and other extraneous noises.
On many camcorders, the mike is not well located and is in the way of fingers adjusting focus, activating effects and zooming in. On some camcorders, it is quite difficult to avoid brushing the sensitive mike with your fingers as you operate the camcorder.
The good news is that digital camcorders record digital sound. This means you should be able to record high fidelity, stereo, and “CD quality” sound – assuming you can get the audio into the camcorder in the first place. This is why you need an external mike that plugs into the MIC IN jack on your camcorder. Most good camcorders will have a mic in connector as well as a shoe to mount the mike on.
Many camcorders also offer active hot shoes. They may use another term but what it really means it s that you can plug a special external mike onto the shoe and the audio is transmitted directly from the mike to the camcorder’s electronics. You don’t have to fuss with the mike cable or plugging it in.
If you are on a limited budget, the best choice for an external mike is a basic telephoto or shotgun that can be adjusted to zoom out when you want to capture the sound from a crowd or zoomed in when you want to capture sound from a source a good distance away. If you have some extra money to spend go wireless and get a wireless lavaliere system.
The Lone Videographer
Record professional sound without a dedicated sound engineer How to record audio using a boompole and a shotgun microphone with a video camera when you are working alone.
TIP 2 – USE A WIRELESS LAVALIERE FOR RECORDING TRAVEL
A wireless microphone system is a bit more expensive than a basic shotgun mike but allows you to get much better sound form a tour leader or a guide. Simple pin the wireless lavaliere and its transmitter to the guide’s label or jacket and then the sound of their voice will be transmitted back to the little receiver unit that is mounted on your camcorder.
I have found that if you offering the tour leader a small tip in advance, they are happy to participate.
Sony is offering a very cool system that works with many of their new consumer camcorders. Their new ECM-HW1 mike is a wireless mike system that uses Bluetooth wireless to connect from the wireless mike to the receiver on the camcorder. The receiver uses the Sony camcorder “active" hot show.
TIP 3 – GET CLOSE
If you don’t have a good telephoto or shotgun mike, or can’t afford a good wireless microphone system, or if your camcorder doesn’t have an audio input jack, then next best thing is to get close. The closer you can get to your subject the better they will sound. It’s simple physics.
Most camcorders have an electronic circuits built into them called AGC or Automatic Gain Control. It automatically adjusts the sound recording level so that the camcorder will hear something, no matter how faint it is. The further you are away from your sound source, the more the AGC has to magnify the sound. The more it amplifies the audio, the more it also amplifies the surrounding noise as well.
If you are a distance away and the audio source is faint, the camcorder may adjust the AGC pick-up sensitivity so high that it picks up the sound of the camcorder’s motors and gears.
Getting close will not only make your audio sound better, it will make your video look better.
TIP 4 – RECORD CONTINUOUS SOUND OF EVENTS OR PERFORMANCES
It is a lot more difficult to fool the ear than the eye. This means that if there are problems or breaks in the audio, it is almost impossible to cover them up by using creative editing. If a visual doesn’t quite match or you get a strange out of focus shot or two, it is easy to replace it with a cut-away or new angle. However, with audio, your audiences will notice every small change – every gap in the recording. This means that when you record a performance or event, make sure you record and capture the sound as a continuous event, without any breaks. While the camcorder is rolling, capturing the sound, you can be zooming in and out, getting different shots, shooting close-us, etc.
For example, when I was in Hawaii with my kids, I taped my kid’s Hula Dance lesson. Later when I got back, it was easy to edit the video by just insert shots of new video over the clean audio track. In addition to inserting shots of the class itself, I inserted visuals of the entire Hawaii trip.
TIP 5 - MONITOR YOUR AUDIO TO MAKE SURE IT SOUNDS GOOD –
If your camcorder has an earphone or headphone jack, use it! Especially when recording in tricky audio situations like concerts and performances. Even though you don’t want to be recording where the audio levels are too low, you also don’t want audio that is too loud or distorted.
Also, by using headphones or at least an earphone, you can check to make sure that the sound is actually working. This is very important when using external mikes where a dead battery or a disconnected mike plug or cable may spell disaster.
TIP 6 – PORTABLE AUDIO MIXERS
Professional video makers just don’t plug their mikes directly into the camcorder and record raw sound, especially when recording a concert performance. By using a mike mixer with level controllers, they can use several mikes to make sure they get good quality sound for recording stereo. Also, most mike mixers also provide a headphone jack for monitoring the audio quality as well as record volume dials. On many pro camcorders, this mixer and volume control system is essentially built into the camera. Some camcorders allow the operator to record, control and monitor up to four different audio tracks.
For example, Azden and Ambient provide compact audio mixers that mount on a consumer camcorder.
TIP 7 – CAPTURE ROOM TONE
If you plan on editing your videos after you shoot, a very good technique is to capture a minute or two of what is known as room tone or the ambient sound of the location when nothing is happening. It may sound a bit odd, but every location ha sit s own background buzz. It can be the sound of the surf pounding away in the distance, it can be the sound of the city outside the walls of a ballroom, and it can even be the soft buzzing of the lights and electronics in an office. By recording this background tone and using it while editing, you will be able to insert it into your video to cover any gaps in your audio recording. By cross fading from the good sound to the background tone, the loss of audio won’t be as jarring as going from voices and singing to deafening silence.
That’s my seven audio tips. If you are able to integrate these seven tips above into your daily video shooting process, you will find that your videos suddenly seem to be much better. Your friends and family might not be able to put their finger on it – they may not be able to isolate what has improved, but they will definitely better appreciate your work.