Twenty Tips to make your film a re-sounding success

Why are so many low-budget and community films let down by poor attention to sound? What do we need to do to make our films a resounding success?

The obvious answer is that we live in a world where the visual takes priority. We don't really listen to the sounds around us. In fact we often - without realizing - block out sounds that may be distracting. But when we play back a recording the wrong sounds leap out and obstruct the message.

Our golden rules and tips for success with sound are

  1. Accept that manufacturers of budget camcorders often cut costs by using a poor microphone device. A small investment of $150 will make a big difference to your recordings.
  2. Practise listening to the world around you. How many sounds can you hear? Traffic? The computer's fan? Birdsong? The rustle of your clothes? Your keyboard as you type? A chair creaking? Your breathing? Your heartbeat? (Try to count twenty environmental sounds as a listening exercise with your film crew.)
  3. Some background sounds are helpful in creating an atmosphere. But if some of your sounds begin to distract from the clarity of your speaker's voice, for instance, then urgent remedial action is required. Remember than you can add a track with background or atmospheric sounds - on top of the voice interview. This approach gives you far more control over your material.
  4. With artificial amplification the effects on our listening and hearing are easier to discern. Therefore I recommend that you invest in a good external microphone and learn how to use it. Practise listening to the world around you with a good quality microphone and headphones. Learn to notice how different the recording can be from 'normal' hearing.
  5. When making your film it is good practice to have one person with responsibility for recording and monitoring the sound. Attentive listening can also be a shared activity and is very strenuous and tiring as it demands a lot of concentration.
  6. Microphone position is also important. Again trial and error is essential. A boom pole, for example, allows you to place a microphone in an ideal position just above a speaker's head. With a shotgun microphone you can point at an object to be recorded. Clip microphone can also be effective for interviews.
  7. If you are doing an interview try to avoid the urge to speak over the interviewee; also avoid fidgeting, laughing, and vocally (dis)agreeing as the person speaks - off-screen sounds cannot be deleted.
  8. A lot of time is spent thinking about locations in visual terms. But it is also essential to think about the recording as a sound environment. Set up you camcorder or microphones underneath the air-conditioning system, for instance, is not a good idea. Some large rooms may have unpleasant echo and reverb effects. Unfurnished rooms lack warmth.
  9. A wind-jammer can be effective to cut down on noise caused by wind. You will find that cheap cameras are adversely affected even by a light breeze that begins to sound like a raging hurricane.
  10. Watch the recording levels on your camera or recording equipment. Set the Gain/Volume so that the louder noises do not push the recording levels into the red zone where the recording will sound distorted. Trial and error take planning and time. Don't cut corners.
  11. Timing: Don't start recording until everyone is ready. Don't stop until everyone has finished. It is good practice to record an extra minute of sound.
  12. Do not set the volume levels too low. You can increase them on playback but you will also be increasing the unwanted background noises.
  13. Remember that there is no remedy for badly distorted recordings at the film/sound edit stage.
  14. Pay attention to sound in your editing. Reject clips with bad sound just as you would dispose of clips that are out of focus.
  15. Consider investing in recorded music as part of your soundtrack. It really lifts a film and can also add continuity by linking section of the film thematically. Or maybe you can record a community choir or local band. Think local and DIY.
  16. Experiment with fading sounds in and out in your edit.
  17. Ensure that sound levels have been balanced and equalized across your film. It is annoying if we have to keep turning the sound up and down on a DVD.
  18. If you are using music in your film comply with legal requirements.
  19. Invest in, and insist on, excellent speakers and amplification when you screen / present your film to the public.
  20. Think Disability. Are subtitles and audio description appropriate and helpful? - and in your budget?
    © Dr Ian McCormick. Please contact me if you would like to use this article
     in a newsletter or as a guest post on your blog.


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