Why Preproduction for Sound Matters
In part 1 we looked at the broad overview of why you should care about audio as a digital video producer. Now we’ll take a look at what you need to do before the shoot begins to set yourself up for success.
No matter how many projects you’ve done, you’ll never know everything there is to know about digital filmmaking. Preproduction is the step that allows you to iron out wrinkles in your workflow and anticipate problems before they happen. The audio portion of this step is as important as the rest of it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your project is to fix or rule out a location that is going to be unworkable before the cast and crew show up. Taking time to find and fix problems before principal photography saves time, money, performances and projects.
Many productions will have a location scouting phase. While looking for logistical and visual things like available natural light, building architecture and equipment accessibility, you should also have your location sound person involved in the scout in order to focus on what each environment sounds like. If you are doing the sound yourself then remember to use your ears as well as your eyes when picking out locations. Often problems that are not visually apparent can be very obvious just by speaking loudly and listening to what voices sound like in the proposed location. Heavy ambient noise like rushing water, insects or traffic should be discussed so that decisions can be made that factor in all of the pros and cons of a given set, not just the visual ones. I will give a detailed outline of what kinds of problems to listen for in part 3 of this series, location sound.
As an aside, I was recently working on a project where the location was in front of a beautiful and incredibly loud waterfall. The shot was gorgeous, but the sound was in pretty rough shape. Moving the shot 50 or 100 feet away from the waterfall would have still left it in the shot, but would have dramatically reduced the noise it produced from the final recordings. Remember, if you’re willing to change set decisions for lighting or background then you should be equally willing to change set decisions for sound.
A techinque that I always use when time and budget allows is to go out to the proposed location and do some test shoots with the full picture and sound rig. This verifies what’s workable and what’s not when back in the studio, and adds a high degree of confidence when things matter.
Audio Equipment Preparation
Another reason I like to do test shoots is for equipment preparation. Test shoots force you to put your whole rig together and make it work for the given project. This process will often help iron out logistical and equipment problems such as needing a separate headphone adapter or finding a faulty cable. You never want to be out on the shoot and find yourself unable to make your gear work because you forgot the one little esoteric adapter that connects the whole thing together. Be sure to bring spare versions of every component possible including batteries, mics, headphones, cables and adapters.
At a minimum you should fully assemble and record with your rig at home or the office before getting it out onto the set, especially if something in your equipment has changed since your last shoot. After recording, pull the audio and listen to it on a separate high quality system to check for problems.
Once your rig is together make a list of every component and keep it with the gear. You should also tag everything you own with you or your company’s name. All of this will be incredibly handy when it comes time to pack everything up at the end of the shoot and sort out what you own vs what you rented and what belongs to other people. The amount of gear that gets “misplaced” at the set when people are packing up can be uncomfortable, so protect yourself proactively.
The last step in equipment prep is packing. Be sure to take the time to arrange everything in as compact a space as possible while maintaining enough protection that the gear can take a bump. Travel accessories like this collapsible two wheeled cart from Magna can be very useful for getting medium sized rigs from here to there. Strap everything down and then rest easy in the knowledge that you’re ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
Continue onto the second page to find how to check your digital footage for audio quality issues by testing with the post production process.
Post Production Workflow Check
The last thing you can do with your test footage is to run it through the post production process. Audio post production relies heavily on the audio recorded from the set, and as such lines of communication between production and post production need to be opened before principal photography begins if possible. The advantage of taking actual test footage and audio into the post production workflow, even if you are doing it all yourself, is to iron out all of the problems that can happen in the exchange. Things like sync issues, noise issues, and reverb problems can all be discovered and dealt with if you allow enough time on the front end of your project.
On a project I am currently working on, we are capturing audio on a Zoom H4 and while the audio sounds great the sync has been drifting a bit when the batteries run low. This means that I’m manually resyncing the audio after every production day. It also means that we have to be very meticulous about slating and tail slating every take to make the resync process go quickly. Its a little tedious, but we went into the project with open eyes about the workflow and weren’t caught by surprise after principal photography began. In the near future we are going to upgrade our sound rig to a Sony PCM-D50, partially to address the sync issue.
Things to Consider
Preproduction becomes more important as the complexity of your project increases. You probably don’t need to spend days setting up and testing for a 5 minute shoot of one guy on screen talking in a relatively controlled environment. You probably do need to spend more time setting up and testing as you add locations, people on camera, number of cameras and mics, and as you add difficult shooting conditions. The time you spend setting up and testing will be time and takes saved on set when the magic is happening in front of the camera.
This post is part of the series: How good audio can help your digital video production
An in-depth step by step guide to audio for your digital video production. Learn about audio pre-production, location sound and post production. Learn what to listen for and what questions to ask, even if you’re not the audio guy on the set.