Mark Mainolfi is an M.F.A. candidate for Writing and Producing for TV at Long Island University. He has worked as an audio technician and sound designer for 13 years, in both live and film settings.
Audio is the thing that will take your show from amateur hour to something worthy of a dedicated audience. So, here’s how to be friends with your sound guy, and make your life much easier.
Is the Cost Worth It?
So you want to know how much of your budget should be allotted to sound stuff. First of all, if you’re hiring staff… get a sound guy. This really isn’t an optional task for basically any kind of narrative film. Once you do that, you need to know how much money should be spent buying or renting equipment. The short answer is, for most reputable brands, the more you pay the more you get. This isn’t true in all cases, but audio is the type of thing that’s so complicated that the more gadgets and gizmos that can be packed into pieces of equipment to improve the audio signal, the better your show is going to sound. This is of course the lay man’s explanation of audio budgeting, but luckily if you have any specific questions about the equipment, you’ve already hired a competent audio technician who can answer those questions! As a side note, if you’re buying cables, make sure you get them from respected tech websites. I swear in stores all cables are marked up 500% for some reason.
So, you may have guessed that there’s a lot of preparation that goes into audio before you start filming. The first thing to do is to show your audio tech the space you’re going to be filming in. And I can tell you, that about 95% of the time, the first thing he’ll say is that it’s a horrible space for sound. This usually means that sound is going to echo off of the bare walls you have surrounding your set, and give that oh so familiar reverberating sound that we’ve seen in an infinite number of amateur films. Let your sound guy tell you where you should hang sound blankets; it makes a huge difference. Better yet, let your sound guy see some rehearsals so he knows exactly how loud the actors are going to be and where they’re going to be speaking from.
By: Chris Lavigne on Wistia
You should also be asking your sound guy how many people he needs to help him. Only under very low budget constraints should your sound guy be holding the boom. In addition, make sure you have someone to handle the clapper if you’re recording audio separately (not sending it straight into the camera live), because it’s pretty essential if you prefer to have your characters mouths moving at the same time as their dialogue in the final product.
Another thing your audio tech should be paying attention to when touring the space is what could be making noise that will disrupt the audio signal (which, by the way, is every noise). We hate it when the producers argue with us about unplugging the fridge or turning off the A/C. It’s just not a noise you want in your film.
So, long story short-- meet with your sound guy beforehand and listen to what he has to say.
Sound guys may constantly interrupt your workflow to make sure that the audio you’re getting is the best, but we don’t like it. Unlike your camera operator who can see the shot as it’s being filmed, there’s no really good way to monitor audio while it’s being recorded. Yes there are headphones, but unless they’ve recently invented 100% soundproof headphones, your audio guy has to rely on audio playback after the take is over. So, don’t keep asking your sound guy how the take sounded immediately after yelling cut, because the answer is always "I don’t know yet."
If you’re ever on set and you say to yourself, “do we really need to get sound levels AGAIN?” The answer is yes, and make sure you didn’t accidentally ask that question out loud. If the audio in your show clips even once, it can be one of the most distracting things that your audience can ever perceive. It looks like this:
Credit: Mike Russell
Every time you’re dealing with a new sound source or mic placement, your sound guy needs to get new levels.
Be prepared to listen to your sound guy when he tells everyone to shut up. He has to listen to things, and that’s difficult when everyone is talking. Which reminds me about this thing called room tone. That’s what the sound guy is doing when he demands absolute silence, and then sits there for five minutes recording the sound of nothing. It’s actually super important for editing to have this nothing recording. If you’ve ever watched an amateur film and transitions between shots seem awkward and disjointed but you can’t tell why, it’s probably because no one recorded room tone. In case you don’t believe me, here’s an example.
Credit: Maryland Filmmakers Club
Notice how there’s a jarring jump in the sound signal every time the shot changes.
Do you remember when you set those sound blankets up ahead of time to make your sound guy happy? Well, once he hears the actual sound he needs to capture, he very well may need to move them. And then move them again when you change camera angles. Did I mention that echo is a huge thing your sound guy needs to worry about? Because it is. Oh, and get the PA’s to move them. Every minute your sound guy can work with the sound levels and listening to the previous takes, the less time everything will take in post-production.
Segue to Post-Production
That was smooth right? Anyway, I’m sure even the most inexperienced filmmakers know that editing audio is a nightmare. It can also be disheartening when you first listen to the audio recordings and they sound like crap. Don’t fret, your competent sound guy has given you the tools to make it sound great, it just needs to be edited! Or you hired an incompetent sound guy… but that’s on you.
Sound guys are credited in your work, which means they want your project to sound good. They don’t usually want you to just slap their files onto your videos and call it day. Sound guys know how audio signals work, the tricks to compile successful tracks, and what EQ is. Maybe your sound guy is ready to run and hide before you can get to him for editing, but most of the time I would think that they want to help you out. I know that personally, whenever I’m recording on set I’m constantly thinking about what I’m going to have to do in post-production to make the recordings actually good. It can be incredibly unsatisfying when I never actually get to edit the audio files the way they are supposed to be edited.
So Now What?
I hope that if you’ve gotten this far in this post, you’ve at least got a little idea about how important a sound guy is to your production. Sound can be incredibly frustrating, even for the most experienced audio engineers. Be patient, and make sure your sound guy has what he needs to put out a good product. Audio may be the most underestimated field in film making, and good sound guys are few and far between. But when you find that good sound guy, hold on to him and make him your friend. Then, you get to impress all your friends with your professional looking (sounding) film.
Step 1: Find a good sound guy.
Step 2: Make him happy.
Step 3: Profit.