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9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews

Michael Maher

Documentary work requires not only great video, but great sound too. Here are nine tricks that will help capture the best audio.

Documentary shoots often include a sit-down interview in a semi-controlled environment, but there will be plenty of times you encounter unwanted ambient noise. When you first arrive on location, start listening for any unusual sounds. Is the A/C unit rumbling, the refrigerator humming, or do you hear the annoying clink of a ceiling fan chain hitting a light bulb? These are all sounds you want to stop.

1. Freeze the Room

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Freeze the Room

Before setting up your gear, ask to put the A/C unit on full blast to freeze the room. That way when it comes time to hit record, you can turn the unit off and still have a comfortable temperature to work in for a while. A room getting hot too fast can ruin a shot when your speaker is sweating buckets and constantly wiping their face.

2. Freeze Your Keys

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Freeze Your Keys

One of the best tricks I’ve ever learned was to put my car keys in the refrigerator. If the fridge is loud, you can unplug it — as long as you keep the doors closed, the food will stay cold for a while. You just have to remember to plug the fridge back in when you’re done shooting. To keep yourself from forgetting to plug it back in, put your car keys in the fridge. That way when it’s time to load up, you can’t leave without remembering to check the fridge.

3. Avoid Recording in the Middle of the Room

When setting up the location, try not to place the subject in the middle of a room. The sound quality isn’t ideal in that spot. There can be standing audio waves that will prevent you from capturing crisp and clean audio.

4. Use Gaff Tape to Hide Lav Mics

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Tape Triangle
Image via Izzy Video

It’s better not to hide the lav mic, but there are shoots that require you to have it hidden. To hid the mic, fold some gaff tape into a small triangle – making sure that all sides are sticky. Then attach the head of the lav mic to the gaff tape triangle. Be sure not to cover the mic capsule. Finally, add another piece of tape and sandwich the mic in place.

Here’s a great example of this technique in action. In fact, Izzy Video shows you seven ways to hide lav mics, many using the triangle technique. You can easily hide lav mics behind ties, under shirts, or in collars.

5. Have Two Microphones Recording

You should never rely on only one source of audio. Backup audio is crucial if you’re serious about your craft. Not only is it necessary to have a backup just in case, it will also help tremendously when syncing audio while editing. A great setup for interviews is a lav mic attached to the speaker and a shotgun mic just out of frame capturing sound from above.

6. Use a Boom Pole Adapter Instead of Your Arms

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Boom Pole Adapter

Don’t have the budget for a boom operator? You can piece together your own boom mic and attach it to a C-stand using a boom pole holder. Then just run the microphone to your audio recorder.

7. Record Room Noise

Before your subject begins talking, be sure to record the room noise. This is a must-have when editing. You can use the room noise to remove unwanted sound, or it can be used to match ADR with the location.

8. Always Have Blankets in the Car

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Moving Blankets

I always have some heavy moving blankets in the trunk of my car. If you’re in a room with wooden floors that cause everything to echo, throw some blankets on the ground or up on the walls to help dampen the sound.

Bonus: Blankets in the car are great for impromptu picnics or stargazing with a date. Now you’re prepared for work and play.

9. Keep Emergency Headphones in the Car

9 Helpful Audio Tricks for Recording Documentary Interviews: Emergency Headphones

While on the topic of things in my car, I always have a backup pair of earbuds in the car in case I ever forget my over-the-ear headphones. While earbuds aren’t the best, they’re certainly better than nothing.

Do you have any audio tricks you use on set? Let us know in the comments below.