Scouting Locations for Production Audio

Recording clean audio on your film or video shoot is critical. Poor audio can drive a killing stake in your project’s heart regardless of how cinematically perfect your visuals are. Many environmental challenges impact a recording’s quality. While several post-production tools are available, the cleaner the audio you can record on location, the less you have to compromise on your project.


Location Scouting

You can eliminate a lot of audio production challenges right off the bat by selecting the proper locations for your shoot. Just as cinematographers will scout locations to find the right shots, the audio team should also thoroughly investigate acoustic conditions.

It should be noted that simply walking around the location for five minutes is not enough to give you a comprehensive idea of the recording experience and challenges. Many inexperienced teams will look at a site–especially interior sets–perform a few vocal tests, and leave seemingly satisfied.

When scouting a location for audio quality, a good habit would be to visit the site at the same time of day as you will be recording. This will give you a better idea of what to expect when filming. If you are filming at a restaurant patio location during the day to avoid the rush, scout potential locations at the same time of day. This will give clues to construction, traffic, and environmental noise.

If possible, try to match the same day of the week as well. Perhaps that patio location presented favorable conditions Wednesday afternoon, but you weren’t aware of the live band that plays next door every Friday.

Not every production allows this luxury of time. Still, suppose you have the opportunity to scout the area well in advance. In that case, you can better prepare for challenges or, in more complicated situations, convince the team that another location may be needed.

It would also be beneficial to bring audio recording gear and record some sound tests if you can. The location may look and sound viable during scouting, but the microphone will tell you a more accurate story or help you find the positions for optimal quality.

Environmental Considerations

Even great locations can present some recording challenges. Knowing these challenges can help you prepare for troubleshooting solutions and equipment choices.

Outdoor locations can be highly unpredictable. Are you near railroad tracks that may occasionally host a roaring locomotive? Is there a clock tower nearby? Is a school across the street that will incur a lot of traffic and civilian noise?

Equipment selection is also essential. Generally speaking, echoes and reverberations aren’t typically as much of a concern outdoors as they would indoors. They may open up some microphone choices, such as booming shotgun mics (which can be problematic indoors if the mic is too close to a ceiling or reflective surface).

But what if the camera shots are extremely wide? This would render the boom mic unusable, so wireless lavaliere mics that can be hidden may be preferable in those instances. But this illustrates why taking gear with you on location scouting is beneficial. Are there any nearby airports, cell or radio towers, or power stations nearby that could cause any interference in your signal?

Interior locations often present challenges with reverberation. Post-production software and editing options can clean up a sound recording, but removing echoes from audio is extremely difficult and, in many cases, impossible without seriously compromising your recording quality.

Rooms that are square with flat, empty walls are more likely to cause reverberation issues. Look for interiors that have a lot of angular shapes to them. Angled walls, support beams, and shelving units all help break up sound waves and disperse potential echoes. Using locations with carpets, rugs, furniture, and paneled ceilings can also help absorb sound and reduce reverberations.

Some Simple Tricks

You can employ a handful of techniques if you encounter minor challenges on set (mainly indoor locations).

Even acoustically ideal locations can still present some annoyances, particularly air conditioners and appliances. Usually, these issues can be remedied easily by simply turning the device off. Air conditioners can be turned off during rolling takes and back on during breaks and downtime. Refrigerators and freezers–which often have audible compressors–can be turned off, and the cold can last for several hours as long as the doors remain closed. However, it is very easy to forget to turn the unit back on, and it would be inconsiderate to spoil the food of someone who lets you record in their home. A simple trick is having crew members put their keys in the fridge. This ensures the unit gets turned back on (or the crew member does not get very far).

If the overall acoustics of the room are good, but there are spots with slight reverberation, hanging up sound blankets just out of frame may help improve the sound quality in a pinch. Especially if the actor is in a medium or close-up facing the camera, blanket buffering around the camera can absorb a portion of the reverberation. Sometimes something as simple as moving or changing shelves can help.

Always record room tone when you are done with a sequence before changing the setup. Sometimes air conditioners and other natural sounds are subtle but become noticeable during editing when the footage is clipped, and the sound is inconsistent. Recording a few minutes of natural room sound with every holding still can provide a track of consistent “background” sound if needed to smooth over edits.

Recording clean sound on set is a craft; it takes skill, experience, and sometimes a little creativity to get the best recording possible. In many cases, subtle hisses and hums may be successfully removed from audio tracks in post-production, but this opens the opportunity for quality loss. Putting the tips in this article into practice can significantly improve the chance of recording that perfect audio track.

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