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It might seem obvious what a sound recordist does on a film set, and to an extent, it is. But as always, there are nuances.
What does a sound recordist do? Lightning round:
- Records all sounds required for a film, including dialog, atmosphere, and nonverbal audio like footsteps, paper shuffling, glasses clinking, etc.
- Places and tests mics on actors, in the environment, or just out of frame
Good sound recordists replace background noise with voices. No voice exists in a vacuum because sound doesn’t work that way, so expecting your sound person to be able to place a mic in such a way that it only records the voice is impossible. Unless you’re recording all dialog in a soundstage, there is going to be background noise- people moving around, the low buzz of the lights, traffic, you name it. A good sound recordist just makes sure that the background noise isn’t distracting, makes sure the voices are clear, and offers suggestions in editing for how to minimize the worst background noise offenders.
You don’t need a sound recordist when you location scout. Just like the director will have opinions about the feel of a set and the DP will have opinions about having enough space to place a camera, your sound recordist will have opinions about potential background noise. Unfortunately, sound people are some of the last to get hired, and therefore have very little say in locations. “Rarely are we consulted on location scouting,” explains professional sound recordist Tai Collins, “but we’re always lambasted when someone set up near a construction site…. ‘are you getting that? Will it be a problem?’ Really… REEEEALLY?”
You only need one sound person per set. On indie sets, this might have to do, but on professional sets, there’s usually a whole team. The sound recordist is at the top of the pyramid- the one who pays attention to “levels” and the overall quality of the recording. Then there’s the sound assistant, who makes sure all equipment is properly charged or has fresh batteries, and finally, there’s the boom operator, or the person physically holding that long pole with the hairy microphone at the end.
Tai Collins holding a boom mic
Depending on the needs of your production, you might need multiple boom operators, each hidden in a different part of the scene.
Forgetting equipment. This might seem like a no-brainer mistake for most film roles, but the sound recordist has a lot of smaller parts to keep track of. In particular, Tai mentions rubber bands, which can be used to hold the auxiliary cord on the boom mic in place on the boom pole, as well as the specific rubber bands used on shock mounts (the part of the boom pole that actually holds the microphone in place).
Forgetting to record room tone. Room tone is a one- to five-minute track of recording in the space the scene is filmed in, with no one talking or moving. Like we mentioned earlier, nothing is recorded in a vacuum, so there will be (and should be) background noise in every scene of your project. A lack of background noise doesn’t make your film professional- it sounds to the audience like a mistake. Plus, when cutting between different takes in the edit, there will be subtle but noticeable sound differences between them, because of a variety of factors, and having a consistent room tone underneath helps smooth those edges.
The best time to get room tone is right before filming starts or right after, when all the lights are still set up, so you get an accurate recording of the space as it exists for the scene. Many new or inexperienced sound recordists will feel uncomfortable telling everyone on set to shut up for room tone recording, but it’s a necessary process, so don’t be afraid to speak up.
Not speaking up when there’s a problem. In the vein of speaking up, if there was a sound problem on a take, let the director know as soon as they call “cut.” Maybe there was a car honk in the middle of a line, or electronic interference, or a mic rustle, or the refrigerator in the corner of the room started making noises. In any case, no matter how the director feels about a take, if you don’t feel confident in the sound quality, ask for another. It’s better than saying nothing and then getting blamed later.
Not testing the mics before the scene starts. Recording sound isn’t just a matter of making sure the record button is pressed. You also want to make sure that what you’re recording sounds good. If you’re using lavalier mics (mics hidden on actors), make sure you have them test moving around to ensure there’s no clothing rustle. If you’re using a boom, make sure it isn’t picking up electronic interference. Usually, this interference is due to cell phones (tell people to turn them off!) or being too close to the lights, so readjust accordingly.
Nothing is more awkward than working on a set for 12 hours and turning in audio files that are unusable.
Thinking expensive equipment means perfect sound. We’ve stated multiple times that there is no such thing as “perfect sound.” As such, especially when you’re starting out, it’s not the cost of your equipment, but how good you are at using it. If the sound is audible, consistent, and doesn’t have too much of a buzz, you’re going to be fine. Learn how to use basic equipment first, then start to branch out into the fancy stuff.
How can I learn to be a sound recordist?
In fairness, Tai is a professional, so his tastes, which will run you over $3k, have been refined over many years of work. If you’re just starting out, keep it simple, but pay attention, and try to learn something new every set you work on.
A fuzzy picture can be forgiven, but bad sound will haunt you and your project forever. It is one of the most temperamental parts of any production, and having a competent sound person will always, always, always be worth the money.