Tools of the Trade, Part 1

Did you miss article 1, Sound Perspectives 101? Check it out here! 

OK, so you want to know what sound gear and equipment makes great sound for film? Well, before we look at the various “tools of the trade”, I’d like to discuss a few key words that will give you more fundamental knowledge pertaining to capturing pristine audio for all your filmmaking needs.

As an avid filmmaker and videographer, my love for sound is equally important. In fact, I started with sound first then made the transition into filmmaking. With more comparisons of visual and audio elements, I will attempt to draw comprehensive conclusions, provide solutions and deliver an understanding of audio recording for aspiring filmmakers.

In a recent conversation, I asked an experienced and credible Australian sound recordist how he got into sound for film and TV. “By accident” he casually replied.  He continued by stating that his background was primarily broadcast and that he didn’t possess an educational background in audio engineering or sound design.

In a similar type fashion, I once again asked a reputable and “seasoned” audio engineer/producer what his thoughts were on sound for film or broadcast.   In this case, I got a rather perplexing and almost somewhat uninterested response.

Perhaps here within these general attitudes lies the problem. There seems to be a gap within various industries whereby professionals may deem aspects of their craft or art form, irrelevant. For the independent filmmaker, budgets don’t necessarily give us the luxuries of “Oh, let’s send it to the sound department” or “lets get the editor to look at that in post”, etc.

In the first article, I highlighted the growing changes in technology and how modern filmmaking now requires us to be more “intimate” with our equipment. With digital filmmaking and the DSLR boom becoming more apparent, we now need to capitalize on other factors that can help us become consummate filmmakers.



While I won’t reinvent the wheel, I’ve devised a method utilizing acronyms that will help you better understand sound and make appropriate choices in equipment selection. I encourage the use of these words as a reference for ongoing technical and artistic sound making as well as purchasing decisions. The system is separated into 3 stages:

The Nature of Acoustics Stage 1:RAD: Reflection, Absorption & Diffusion
The Recording Stage 2 (Golden Rules):PICSS: Proximity, Isolation, Consistency, Sensitivity & Separation
Captured Sounds Stage 3:STAT: Sound Transparency & Audio Translation

Let’s take these categories and apply them to some common applications and equipment such as microphone types, polar patterns, recording mediums, etc.

Stage 1  & Location, location, location:

As filmmakers, be it on set, in documentary scenarios or electronic newsgathering (ENG), we are always susceptible to acoustical elements, regardless of interior or exterior environments.

Sound also behaves differently in various spaces. This crucial factor is often overlooked in capturing sound and it generally affects your final product.
Therefore understanding basic acoustics is paramount.

In cinematography, we utilize the direction of continuous light in reflective and non-reflective instances to create a “look.”  We use reflectors to bounce light for desired results. Similarly, sound reflects off surfaces and may be utilized or minimized as necessary.  In sound, reflection refers to waves bouncing off planar (flat/even) surfaces, thus resulting in a more focused direction.
Comparatively, sound waves coming off non-planar (irregular) surfaces, results in a diffused sound.  With diffusion in cinematography, light can be spread more “evenly” or softly with Scrim Jims, Softboxes, etc. Diffusion in sound occurs when sound waves are uniformly distributed which produces a more “even” spread.

Reverberation, or reverb, is a result of the interaction between reflection and diffusion.  It is created in an enclosed space which causes a large number of echoes to build up and then slowly decay.  The result is a textural and sustaining effect that gives a sound the impression that it’s in a physical environment, thus creating space and depth. As a general rule of thumb, try recording dialogue or sounds with as little reverberation and discrete echoes as possible. This will be more conducive and useful during the sound mixing process where “dry” sounds can be altered to create the sound of different environments like up close versus far away, or in a church versus in a cellar.

Absorption refers to a proportion or majority of sound, which is absorbed or “sucked up” by porous materials that are non reflective. Sounds captured and recorded in this environment type will usually yield maximum separation and isolation (as explained further down.) In filmmaking and cinematography comparisons, absorption is utilized to similar effect with flags, barn doors, etc.

Stage 2 &The Golden Rules:

Stage 2 has direct correlation to microphone types, selection, and “behavioural” polar patterns. However, it can also be dependent on Stage 1. We will look at polar patterns in a minute, but let’s take a look at my 5 golden rules first:

Proximity – This is simply how close the mic is to the sound source.  Other than the reason for which you run the risk of overloading optimum recording levels by being too close, proximity can also be utilized to increase the bass response of a sound or voice, thus “fattening” or providing more “body” to the sound.  Proximity also picks up more direct sound amplitude, hence increasing the source signal and decreasing the noise ratio. Adjustment of your input gain structure on your field recorder or device is key to recording at a correct volume level without creating distortion.

Isolation – In audio, this can adopt various meanings. Most sound stages or recording studios try to keep out external sounds and keep in the internal sounds.  Isolation is also used to create acoustical properties required for recording sound with precision and accuracy.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that professional sound stages, sets and back lots are designed by acousticians to maximize this element. As for location recording, isolation might be as simple as utilizing shock mounts, preventing handling and extraneous noise or even eliminating a ground loop (ground loops are created by improperly designed or improperly installed equipment and are a major cause of noise and interference in audio and video systems).

Consistency – Having a multitude of mics in your audio kit can be a great thing. However, if utilized incorrectly without some planning and thought, it could spell disaster. Every mic is manufactured to different specs, thereby producing different sounds. Matching these sounds in postproduction can be cumbersome if multiple mics are used. Mics with consistent specs would make this less of a burden. So theoretically, you wouldn’t swap mindlessly between shotgun mics and wireless lavs (lavaliere/lapel mics) unless you didn’t have a choice or the shot called for it.

Even if you have 3 shotgun mics in your kit (long, medium and short), nominate one mic, preferably a versatile mic such as the medium length shotgun, as your “primary” source. Name or call all other mics (utilized simultaneously with your primary mic) as “secondary” sources.   Capture all other sounds (dialogue, foley, sfx, etc.) and then try match your secondary to your primary source in post through equalization and sound processing.

Another way to make sure you maintain consistency is to observe the use of any Lo-Cut & Hi-Pass filters across the board, whether on the mic itself, or on any portable recording medium or mixing console.  Try to maintain the same method or protocol.

Sensitivity – This facet gravely depends on a microphone’s type, anatomy, build and characteristics.  Microphones are classed into a few categories with dynamic, electret condenser and condenser being the most common in film and TV use. This will be explained in part 2 of this article.

Sensitivity can also be separated into 2 important fundamentals: the voltage and the electrical output a mic will produce at a certain sound pressure level and its frequency response.  Polar patterns are also a contributing factor to sensitivity. We will explore this in more detail when I discuss microphone comparisons.

Separation – Not be confused with isolation, separation is that clean, clear, full bodied, lush, presence and pristine audio quality.  You can hear it in dialogue you hear between two actors amongst the chaos of a noisy and polluted city street, or a scene depicting a rendezvous in a large cathedral or old church with conversation between two covert spies.

Ideal separation is where whisper quiet sounds are distinguishable from very loud ones or vice versa.

Good audio separation is the result of:
A) Observing what the acoustical environment or space does (stage1)
B) Recording a close source (stage 2-Proximity)
C) Reducing or eliminating extraneous noise (stage 2-Isolation)
D) Keeping your sounds cohesive and consistent (stage 2-Consistency)
E) Choosing the best mic anatomy (focal length) with characteristics that would fit, support, compliment and augment all of A, B, C & D.

Stage 3 & the Fat Lady Sings:

Both are somewhat subjective, but at the very least, it’s been an excellent reference for me and I’ll show you why it’s useful to think about.

In my first article, I made a brief reference to digital technology and how digital images and audio essentially utilizes data compression. Hence it is through data compression that we usually get artifacts in audio sonic clarity, images, video, etc.  If compressed or encoded digital media can produce results that are perceptually indistinguishable from uncompressed formats, then they could be considered “transparent.”

Sound Transparency Digital and solid state field recorders, recording mediums and computers are all used to capture and record video and audio. They also use AD (analogue to digital) and DA (digital to analogue –for playback) conversions.

Basically, in more expensive and higher end sound equipment, the AD chips and the conversion process are of a superior quality.

For example, the pre-amp and analog to digital conversion chips in a Zoom H4N may produce more artifacts in audio quality and have a higher signal to noise ratio when compared to a Marantz PMD 661.  Understandably, you will pay twice the amount for a Marantz. On larger or bigger budget productions, sound recordists use sound carts with digital hardware components that sport expensive stand alone mixers, pre-amps, AD converters, recording devices and computers.

Transparency can also apply to microphones, where some are more “coloured” than others. Dynamic microphones tend to be more coloured when compared to condenser mics. Condensers are subjectively more transparent, sensitive and sound accurate. More on this shortly.

So therefore, one could suggest that transparency is where compression artifacts are nonexistent or imperceptible and in audio, a pure and untarnished sound with a broad frequency response is desirable.

Audio Translation – This is a term I’ve heard used around the industry and its meaning has a “final” sort of significance.

OK.  Here is a scenario you might be familiar with before you wrap your head around audio translation. Think about this:

You’ve just shot your first scene under tungsten light with a very expensive camera.   Unfortunately, your white balance was set to daylight and the external monitor you were using wasn’t calibrated. You ingest the footage in post, prep for edit and grade and then start wondering why it doesn’t look like anything you envisioned on your $200 eBay computer monitor. Get the point?

Based on these common mistakes and general technical errors, the same thing can happen when capturing sound.  This means that sometimes what you hear isn’t really what it will sound like!!  What you hear can come from inferior mics, and through headphones and speakers. Wrong equipment operation, selection and choice can affect our final recorded product.

In film, we use a plethora of software and hardware devices to calibrate our monitors to ensure that the recorded image is “transparent”, color reproduction is accurate and picture quality is sharp.  In audio, we must utilize more than one monitoring reference device. These include multiple speaker monitors and headphones.  In audio, a sound may translate well on headphones but not necessarily well on speakers.  This means that making sure that your recorded audio is “transparent” and accurate will mean that it will translate well on any playback system.  Please invest money on some decent sound location recording headphones.

Now with a little more understanding of these 3 stages and my acronym method, we will take all this information and make educated assessments to distinguish microphone types (where & when to use them), recording mediums (what to look for) and gear selection (price vs performance) in part 2.

Stay tuned…

Check Out the Bio of Clinton Harn


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5 Responses to “Tools of the Trade, Part 1”

  1. Daniel on September 21st, 2011 12:44 pm

    great article

  2. Anonymous on October 11th, 2011 2:47 pm

    loved it , wish if you can talk next about some mics and equipmens that can be found by independant filmmakers now adays , like the ZOOM H4n ..

  3. Mandy on October 11th, 2011 2:50 pm

    That is the next article coming this month! Clinton really layed out all your options for mics. Stay tuned.. ~ Mandy

  4. Greg on April 5th, 2015 2:34 am

    This is a fantastic series of tutorials, extremely helpful for those wishing to up their filmmaking skills. I’ve found the entire series quite excellent. Keep up the great work!!

  5. Rachel Kenton on April 6th, 2015 1:55 pm
    Rachel Mahrle

    Thanks, Greg! Clinton knows what he’s talking about! – Zacuto

About the Author

A cinematographer, filmmaker, producer and audio recording engineer, Clinton’s peers & colleagues regard him as a “Renaissance” man, as his passion for creative technology has seen him delve into almost every facet of creative & artistic media content. After years of being entrenched & producing work for the music industry, 2013 will finally see Clinton shoot his first full length feature film, which is currently in production, with a 2015 scheduled release. His recent endeavors includes working as camera operator and AC to Rodney Charters ASC, known for lensing numerous TV dramas such as 24, Dallas, Shameless, Roswell, and many more.


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