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Audio Tips for DSLR Filmmakers

Noam Kroll

Treating audio as an afterthought is a huge mistake. Up your sound game with these audio tips for DSLR filmmakers!

Top image from Adventures in Video by Roger Jennings

Although many filmmakers know just how critical great audio is with regards to the success of a film project, it’s still one of the most overlooked aspects of the filmmaking process. This is unfortunate, as poor sound quality can hinder all of the other elements that we work so tirelessly on. In the end, nothing else matters if the sound quality is poor.

Whether it be distracting background noises that have been picked up (such as wind or cars passing by), or poorly recorded dialogue, these issues greatly affect the overall viewing experience and absolutely must be dealt with in order to achieve any sort of success with a film project.

So for those of you DSLR filmmakers out there that are looking to up your game with regards to audio, here are a few key tips to get you started.

Don’t rely on your DSLR

Audio Tips for DSLR: Zoom H6
Image from Gizmodo

First and foremost, you need to remember that just because the picture quality on your DSLR may be great doesn’t necessarily mean the sound quality is great too. The fact of the matter is, DSLRs are not meant designed to capture professional quality audio – no matter how many manual controls or functions they may have. The internal limitations of your DSLR can never be compensated for by using better external devices (such as a high quality shotgun mic) as the camera’s limitations will always be the bottleneck as far as sound quality goes.

Just because your DSLR has manual control over levels or a headphone jack doesn’t mean that it’s going to record great audio. It simply means that it’s somewhat competent at recording audio in a pinch or can be used to record reference audio. For professional sound quality, always use an external device (whether it be as simple as a Zoom H6, or a more complex mixer/recorder) in order to achieve professional level sound.

Scout Locations

Audio Tips for DSLR: Location Scouting

Do your field research! This is by far the cheapest method for achieving great sound available to you as a filmmaker. It costs you absolutely nothing to devote a few days during pre-production to go to your various locations and do some audio tests. You might feel that this isn’t necessary, but when you get to set and realize that you are shooting in the middle of a flight path, you’re going to wish you scouted that location properly.

The scout itself can be very simple. Just go to your location at approximately the same time of day that you are going to shoot and start looking for red flags. If you’re shooting on a rooftop, make sure the wind isn’t out of control. If you’re in a field, be aware of the background noise created by crickets, birds, and other wildlife. If possible, bring your sound recordist with you and actually do tests with your equipment to see what noises you’re picking up – if any.

Like I said, doing this costs you nothing but a bit of time upfront, and it could potentially save you a ton of time and headaches both on set and in the ProTools suite.

Always Record Room Tone

Audio Tips for DSLR: Room Tone
Image from Ellsworth Instruments

For those that aren’t familiar with the term, “room tone” is essentially the ambient sound of a room. Room tone is always recorded on professional sets so that the audio editor has scene-specific background noise to work with if he or she needs to patch over any sound issues in their ProTools session. Location audio professionals will typically record room tone for every single location they are covering in order to pick up the general hum and subtle noises that are present in every room. For example, if you were to record room tone in a ‘silent’ kitchen, you would inevitably pick up the sound of the refrigerator buzzing, maybe a door creaking in the background, a slight hum from the lights on in the room, etc.

Room tone is usually recorded at the end of every scene for 30-60 seconds while the entire cast and crew stands silently, or clears the room. Why is this important to your sound quality as whole? As I touched on above, in post-production, you typically use room tone to help blend together multiple takes of audio so that there is a consistent bed of sound that seamlessly melds together all of the dialogue and ADR tracks.

You can also use room tone to match ambient sounds when you shoot multiple takes of the same scene and there are differences in the background noise. For example, if in one take the air conditioner goes on and in another it turns off, you will want to use room tone (of the air conditioner on) to keep the sound of it present in the entire scene. Here’s a video from thesubstream that covers the ins and outs of recording room tone.

Final Thoughts

For top-tier production value when making a film, it’s vital that you pay just as close attention to your film’s audio needs as you do its visual needs. If you can be one of the few micro-budget filmmakers that actually prioritizes sound, you will certainly reap the benefits of going the extra mile.

Pristine sound adds a whole other dimension to your film and ups the production value in ways that the camera never will be able to. Understanding your cameras capabilities, doing sound tests in each of your locations, and recording room tone for every scene are three of the simplest things you can do to vastly improve your film’s sound quality.

If you’d like a few more audio tips and tricks to improve your productions, check out these articles from PremiumBeat:

What are your secrets for nailing down perfect audio? What kind of gear do you use to capture sound? Let us know in the comments below.