Here’s the thing. When I started out recording audio for short documentary pieces in 2011, all my references and tutorials came from blog posts by people who live and work in cities that are not in India. I didn’t realise that it was important to take note of this fact until about Year 3 of my recording career when I finally realised that the city I live and work in is a unique beast and requires especially vigilant handling when it comes to recording sound in the field. By then I had already absorbed best practices from these very helpful blog posts which are worth repeating below:
- Don’t record too hot, leave enough headroom for unexpected spikes.
- Hold the mic correctly, a really important lesson for all recordists. It’s actually not always an intuitive thing, this mic positioning. I’ve seen people holding very expensive microphones encased in blimps with the boom poles tucked under their armpits as if they were golf clubs being rested during a break on the course. They looked so confident (doing this) and I was so intimidated by all their fancy gear, I convinced myself their technique was actually okay. Then I checked out the sound on the finished videos and…let’s just say they might as well have been holding golf clubs for the quality of audio they had acquired.
- Check for noisy spots in a location and make sure your subject is faced in such a way that the mic is not pointed directly at the noise.
- Make sure you hit record (!). Again, not obvious. In the chaos of a documentary setting it is easy to have hit stand-by when you think you’ve pressed record. Always always double check. In the five years that I’ve been doing this I’ve had this happen to me twice. The first time, I realised after we were done getting a short sound bite from the interviewee. We had to go get her and ask her to do it again. She agreed but she also said to the director “What, I thought you were all professional!” I still feel miserable when I remember that. The second time it happened we had just run up several flights of stairs to interview a movie star (Bollywood PR rushes everyone) and the interview began almost before we had a chance to set up. Because I was hypervigilant after that first time, I realised I was on standby about four words into the star’s first sentence so we didn’t lose anything. Never again.
Okay, back to the main talking point of this article. I used to spend a lot of time watching demo videos of how best to record sound and I realised that even the noisiest environments abroad are far quieter than most parts of Mumbai. I’ve built on what I’ve learned and here are the tried and tested techniques that have helped me acquire good audio in this city. I thought it would be helpful to someone else who does what I do.
- The first thing I should talk about is my approach to audio. I like to record the cleanest possible signal I can get at the lowest level I can get away with. What does this mean in the field? It means I use minimal processing on the signal I’m recording. No compressors, no limiters, minimal EQ (only to cut really low frequencies). I just don’t want to colour the signal too much while recording. I’ll take it into a DAW and work on it later. This way, I’m not stuck with audio that is coloured in a way that I can’t undo later. It helps when you have many different voices to cut together in a video, it also helps when you have to make the voices sit on a bed of music.
- The other problem we face in Mumbai is space. Or rather, the lack of it. You will find yourself shooting in cramped settings too often. My advice is to keep your rig light if you’re shooting documentary. Bare minimum mics, a portable field recorder and that’s it. Not even an assistant. I view assistants as extra humans in the field. Every extra human comes with their own set of sounds – coughing, sneezing, heck, even breathing. Not ideal if all they’re doing is lugging your gear bag around. You can carry your own.
- Here’s one that might seem odd – if you’re kept waiting before an interview, ask to wait in another room from the one assigned for the interview. Why? Your ears get used to ambient sounds and you may fail to account for them when the actual recording of the interview begins. We once waited twenty five minutes in a backstage area to interview a designer. It was loud, chaotic, business as usual but what I realised when I got home and listened to the interview clip was that there was a consistent high-pitched sound that ran throughout the interview, probably from one of the many coolers in the waiting area. Because we had been standing there for a fairly long time, my ears had gotten used to the sound which was drowned out by other louder sounds. Had I stepped into the interview area with fresh ears I’d have heard it immediately and solved for it while recording. I eventually masked it by using music with a string section underneath it – the offending frequency just melted into the music and because the designer’s voice was loud and clear it was no longer a problem. In Mumbai, there’s a lot of waiting around for people. Make sure your ears don’t get as bored as you do.
- Which microphone to use? Obviously for fiction you either use a lavalier or a boom setup. For documentary you can go a couple of ways. I’ve got the best results when interviewing people with a shotgun mic. I have a handheld mic which I don’t use very often because you have to hold it fairly close to the subject to get good audio, as a result it enters the frame and always breaks the illusion of what you’re watching on screen. Even if it is just a talking head, I find it works better if you don’t see the mic in the frame. You can get really good audio using a shotgun mic (I’m currently using a RODE NTG3 and a Sennheiser MKE600). The NTG3 is a solid mic and not prone to loud handling sounds. For the positioning, I try and aim somewhere between the mouth and the top of the breastbone. If there is noise close to where you’re standing, I’ve found that using the subject’s body as a shield helps. It’s not terribly scientific but just a dip in the angle of the mic captures the voice clearly while blocking other sounds. That’s how I recorded the audio in this video below in a very crowded outdoor setting with a drill going in a nearby building.
- Be nimble. In an environment as dynamic as ours, sounds appear suddenly and you have to adjust for them. Don’t be so engrossed in what the subject is saying that you’re not performing the job of monitoring audio. I’ve done entire interviews where I haven’t processed a word of what was being said. It’s all just sound to me.
- I record at very low levels – I’ve had people look over at the monitor and be alarmed at how low the peak is, but you know what, I can be reckless like that because I know now that as long as the signal is strong I will be able to boost it later to acceptable levels. The reason I don’t record too hot is because, one, clipping. Second, you just never know what else is going to creep in if your levels are high. I was once recording dialogue in a 4th floor apartment in Andheri. All the windows and doors were shut but I suddenly began to hear the mic pick up the sound of a bus and a car horn. We were four floors up! That’s Mumbai for you. A little adjustment later I was laser-focussed on the voice and able to not pick up the sounds of the street.
- Invest in good dialogue cleaning software. This isn’t a recording tip but what I consider a helping hand towards making your audio sound good. I’ve only recently begun to add this to my tool kit and it’s helpful in certain cases. I use Izotope’s RX Plug-in Pack which contains the excellent Dialogue De-noise plug-in. It is by no means a magic button. You should always be focused on recording the best audio you can get, but as a final step it’s a great tool to add polish to your audio. What is a how-to blog post without an analogy, right? I think of a dialogue cleaning tool as icing on a cake. If the cake is crap, no amount of icing is going to save it, but if you have a good foundation the icing can make it heavenly.
Please record good audio. I know, especially in this city, that us audio professionals are treated as an afterthought, often added last to a project because they just need “someone to hold a microphone”. It’s a real pity and most of the time, no one appreciates all the invisible work that goes into making something sound good. It will always feel like no one cares as much as you do, but when you tackle a difficult setting and come out on the other side with a crystal clear sound bite, you will feel so good, it will all be worth it.
If you have questions or want to know or hear more, leave a comment below.
Photo by Elvis D’Silva