Not that long ago, DIY videos were pretty much the domain of proud parents capturing the highlights of a family vacation or birthday party. Technology and social media changed all that and today, over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day.
Let’s say you’re ready to join the revolution. You already have a smartphone. Maybe you even have a camcorder or a DSLR camera. The question is this: is it possible to improve the sound quality of your videos using basic gear? Internet video expert Mark Shapiro shares his thoughts and tips.
“Creating good audio is the most difficult challenge when creating Internet videos – especially if you’re using consumer-type camcorders. It’s easy to fool the eye, but it’s a lot harder to fool the ear.”
If you make a mistake with audio, the ear will catch it while the eye is a lot more forgiving of video problems and inconsistencies. And if you spend a lot of time on YouTube and other user-generated video sites, you’ll notice that the sound on many of the videos is garbled, muddy and often unintelligible.
Take heart. There are many ways you can make your videos sound a lot better without having to spend lots of money, go to film school or hire a sound engineer to help you shoot your video short. Here are seven.
1. Use an External Microphone
If possible, use an external mic. Unfortunately, the microphones built into most camcorders are not very good. Even worse, they’re omni-directional and will pick up sound from everywhere.
Even though most of these mics have a somewhat ellipsoidal pickup pattern (aimed more toward what is in front), most camcorder mics will pick up mumbling, heavy breathing and other extraneous noises. A few camcorder mics will allow you to slightly focus their mics from wide angle to narrow.
And here’s another issue: on many camcorders, the mic is not well located and can easily get in the way of fingers adjusting focus, activating effects and zooming in.
The good news is that digital camcorders record digital sound. This means you should be able to record high fidelity, stereo, and CD-quality sound assuming you can get the audio into the camcorder in the first place. This is why you need an external mic that plugs into the MIC IN jack on your camcorder. Most good camcorders will have a MIC IN connector as well as a shoe to mount the mic on.
Unfortunately, many of the more affordable camcorders – especially those tiny “pocket size” camcorders, do not offer an external mike connection at all and you need to rely on other tricks to improve the audio.
Some camcorders and all DSLR cameras feature hot shoes. These allow you to mount an external mic onto the shoe and transmit the audio directly from the mic to the camera’s electronics.
If you’re on a limited budget, the best choice for an external mic is a basic telephoto or shotgun that can be adjusted to zoom out when you want to capture the sound from a crowd or zoomed in when you want to capture sound from a source a good distance away. And if you can afford to upgrade, go wireless and get a wireless lavaliere system. Even better, get a wireless kit with a receiver that mounts on the camcorder and includes both handheld and lav wireless mics.
2. Use Lavalier Microphones
A wireless microphone system is usually a bit more expensive than a basic shotgun mic, but allows you to get much better sound.
I prefer using these for shooting interviews. Instead of using a handheld mic or a shotgun mic, simply pin the wireless lavalier and its transmitter to the interviewee’s lapel or jacket and then the sound of their voice will be transmitted back to the receiver unit that is mounted on your camcorder.
In most interview situations, you don’t really need to hear the questions except for in the editing process. Of course, if the interviewer’s voice is important, then use another lav mic or have them hold a mic. Feed both mics through an audio mixer and then into the camcorder.
FYI – In many video interview situations, one camera is used to capture video and sound of the interviewer and a second camera is used to capture video and sound of the person being interviewed.
3. Close Mic
If you don’t have a shotgun mic or good wireless microphone system, or if your camcorder doesn’t have an audio input jack, then the next best thing is to get close.
If you need a long shot for artistic reasons, you might want to shoot the scene again – just for audio. Have your actors do their lines a second time so that you can get good quality audio and then dub it in later to replace the bad audio. If the shot is far enough away, the audience will never notice that the actors’ mouth movements don’t exactly match the audio.
During the editing process, you can also have your actors re-record the audio, duplicating the original dialog so that it matches. You might want to use the same camcorder to record the audio so that the audio quality matches. Also, this is where room tone can be very important.
Most camcorders have an electronic circuits built into them called AGC or Automatic Gain Control. It automatically adjusts the sound recording level so that the camcorder will pick up something, no matter how faint. The further you are away from your sound source, the more the AGC has to magnify the sound. The more it amplifies the audio, the more it also amplifies the surrounding noise as well.
If the audio source is faint, the camcorder may adjust the AGC pick-up sensitivity so high that it even picks up the sound of the camcorders motors and gears.
And don’t forget – getting close will not only make your audio sound better, it will make your video look better.
4. Record Continuous Sound of Events or Performances
If there are problems or breaks in the audio, it’s almost impossible to cover them up by using creative editing. If a visual doesn’t quite match or you get a strange out of focus shot or two, it’s easy to replace it with a cut-away or new angle. But with audio, your audience will notice every small change and gap in the recording.
When you record a performance or event, make sure you record and capture the sound as a continuous event – without any breaks. While the camcorder is rolling and capturing the sound, you can be zooming in and out, getting different shots, shooting close-ups, and so on.
For example, when I was in Hawaii with my kids, I taped my kids’ hula lesson. Later on, it was easy to edit the video by just inserting shots of new video over the clean audio track. In addition the shots of the class itself, I inserted visuals of the entire Hawaii trip.
5. Monitor Your Audio
If your camcorder has an earphone or headphone jack, use it! Especially when recording tricky audio situations like concerts and live performances. Even though you don’t want to be recording where the audio levels are too low, you also don’t want audio that is too loud or distorted. In concerts, it may be helpful to turn the mic away from the stage and catch the sound coming from the ceiling.
By using headphones, you can monitor the sound. This is very important when a dead battery or a disconnected mic plug or cable may spell disaster.
6. Use a Portable Audio Mixer
Professional video makers just don’t plug their mics directly into the camcorder and record raw sound, especially when recording a concert performance.
By using a mic mixer with level controllers, you can use several mics to get the best quality sound for recording stereo. Most mic mixers also provide a headphone jack for monitoring the audio quality as well as record volume dials. On many pro camcorders, this mixer and volume control system is built into the camera. And some camcorders allow the operator to record, control and monitor up to four different audio tracks.
7. Capture Room Tone
If you plan on editing your videos, you’ll want to remember to capture a minute or two of room tone (or the ambient sound of the location when nothing is happening).
Every location has its own background buzz. It can be the sound of the surf pounding away in the distance, it can be the sound of the city outside the walls of a ballroom, and it can even be the soft buzzing of the lights and electronics in an office. By recording this background tone and using it while editing, you will be able to insert it into your video to cover any gaps in your audio recording. By cross fading from the good sound to the background tone, the loss of audio won’t be as jarring as going from voices and singing to deafening silence. If you are mixing in new sound or recording dialog, you can help make it seem like it really belongs by mixing it with the environmental sounds.
If you are able to integrate these seven tips above into your daily video shooting process, you will find that your videos suddenly seem to be much better. Your friends and family might not be able to put their finger on it they may not be able to isolate what has improved, but they will definitely better appreciate your work.