The series on getting started in video is almost complete. Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture. Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Ear vs. the Microphone
You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.
- Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you. But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front. A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere. But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic. Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below). By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears. His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible. The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
- It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them. Your brain is involved too. Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them. And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one. These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream. Of course mics don’t do any of this. An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias. The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
- Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images? The key difference maker is the brain. Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently. The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
- Let’s take an example. It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing. If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine. But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else. Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.
Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc. But at the same time you need to factor in the above: your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias. Here are a few tips:
- Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine. The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
- But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close! Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water. Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
- Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance. Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference. You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
- If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above. For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
- For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording. Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones. These systems are often used along with headphones. They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
- You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder. You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
- Remember: all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.
That’s all for now. I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer. Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!