Clear sound: Self shooting

Freelance producer/director Jonothan McLeod gives practical advice on how the right training, equipment and location can help you to record clean sound when self shooting.

Sound problems are the single most consistent issue for viewer complaints and these tips form part of the BBC’s best practice guidance for audibility.

Get trained for sound
Get some training if you’re just beginning to self shoot. Make sure you understand how to control the sound inputs on your camera and the range of microphones you might need. Get used to listening through your headphones and analysing sound.

"There's no point saving money self shooting if you come back with unusable footage." – Jonothan McLeod

Choose the right mic
Think in advance about what mics you need on a shoot. Don’t rely on your top mic – radio mics will deliver better and more controllable sound for interviews. But if you are filming more than two contributors you may need a boom. Find somebody to operate it for you and make sure they understand how to use it.

Check your location for audio problems
Assess your location on arrival and move away from any loud source of noise like traffic or music. You’re used to doing a visual recce, but it’s equally important to keep your ears open and do an audio recce. Ask contributors to turn off radios or TVs if possible. Background noise like this causes issues for copyright clearance, but will also interfere with your dialogue and will limit where you make your cuts in the edit.

It’s OK for the mic to be seen
It’s only drama that needs to hide microphones. For most factual tv it’s a matter of personal taste. There’s a danger that if you put the mic under contributor’s clothes you’ll get lots of rustling. Instead, clip the mic as close to their mouth as possible. If you’re using an omni directional mic, put it face down to avoid a popping sound when your contributors use plosive sounds.

Split your tracks
People’s voices are naturally different. If you put contributors on separate tracks you can check levels during recording and re-balance as necessary in the edit.

Be prepared to stop
If you have any doubts over whether your audio is being cleanly recorded always stop and check. This can be difficult to do when filming is in full flow, but distorted audio is unlikely to make your final programme, unless it’s something like an undercover sting which can’t be repeated. For most other programming, take control, and ask to do things again once you’ve resolved the audio issue.

Adjust your shot
Changing shot size can help you to capture better sound. If you’re vox popping softly spoken contributors in a loud environment, give yourself the best chance by tightening up your shot and getting the boom in tighter. Likewise, if you’re filming by a river or by a busy road, choose a wider shot that shows the source of the audio. If the listener can see water or cars they’re less likely to be distracted by the sound of them under the dialogue.

Know your limits
There are limits to what a self shooter can achieve. Plan ahead of your shoot how complicated your sound will be, and ask for a recordist if it’s beyond your abilities. There’s no point saving money self shooting if you come back with unusable sound.