“Sound is half the experience in seeing a film.” —George Lucas (NY TIMES).
The Importance of Quality Sound Design
In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with image, many underestimate the power of sound in film. Try watching your favorite scene without the sound. Any epic battle, any spine tingling thrill, even the moment your favorite protagonist falls in love for the first time, falls flat (or worse) without sound.
Imagine Saving Private Ryan without the sound of bullets whizzing over your head, or the opening of Halloween without Michael Myers’ ominous breathing from behind his mask. The sound affects our emotional response to the environment, sometimes even creating a very real sense of danger.
Despite the power of sound design however, the catalog of household names in entertainment—including film actors, directors, and even composers—rarely includes sound designers. As the unsung heroes of the film industry, they are tasked with what is simultaneously the most magical and most difficult aspect of the film experience: total immersion.
As the independent film scene becomes increasingly DIY, it’s important that our commitment to sound quality matches our commitment to image quality. Luckily, investing doesn’t always need to break the bank: while audio needs to be held in high regard, the technology needed for capturing clear, high-fidelity audio has become increasingly affordable.
So for all the world-makers working to move an audience without moving back in with their parents, here are three money-saving hacks for filmmakers on a budget!
Hack #1: Smartphone Lavaliers
Why it's important:
Lavalier Microphones can be the difference between capturing all your dialogue accurately onset, and having to re-record dialogue in post-production.
How it saves you money:
The process of re-recording dialogue in post (also known as ADR: Automated Dialogue Replacement) comes with a slew of problems. First, it’s much easier for actors to deliver their lines on set than positioned in front of a microphone in someone’s closet. Second, ADR requires you to have access to a Digital Audio Workstation, an Audio Interface, a quality microphone, and a quiet room. That’s a whole lot of time and resources that could be avoided by simply having a lavalier mic handy!
Although lavalier microphones and their required recorders can be expensive, there are now some awesome affordable options. It’s better to have multiple low-cost lav mics for consistent audio quality across all dialogue, rather than have inconsistencies between different actors, characters, or scenes.
Smartphone lavaliers connect and record directly into your smartphone. It’s easier to hide a smartphone than a bulky recording device in an actor’s costume, so these are not only affordable and effective, but practical as well!
We recommend the Rode Smartlav+ for independent projects. Rode has a reputation for making high quality products that deliver clear audio with amazingly low noise-floors, all for a great price. The Rode Smartlav+ is an omni-directional microphone that comes with a foam pop shield and a mounting clip to attach it to your actors’ clothing.
All you need to seal the deal is a smartphone app that will accept audio from your phone’s headphone input! We recommend the app Dolby On. It has a wide array of tools and features like effects processing and noise reduction and allows you to record from an external source via your phone’s headphone input.
The super low-budget option:
Alternatively, you can use costuming choices as a way to save on a lavalier: simply dropping a smartphone (without any kind of microphone attachment) in an actor’s shirt pocket and recording on voice memos can get you dialogue-focused audio to blend in with the rest of your on set sound.
This works especially well for long shots or other shots in which the pocket phone won’t be visible. It’s a quick fix, but it can ensure you have choices of dialogue recordings for your final mixdown!
Hack #2: The Right Shotgun Microphone
What it is:
A shotgun microphone is a lot less scary than it sounds: these mics are highly directional, meaning they are great for capturing focused audio like dialogue and foley. On average, shotgun microphones can record high quality audio from up to three to four feet away from the source of the sound being recorded. This makes them great for recording on set, as long as they are being pointed directly at the sound source.
There are different kinds of shotgun microphones: if your camera is following your performer, you can go with a camera-mounting shotgun mic. These can mount easily to the top of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The directionality of your shotgun mic will align with your camera lens, and you’ll capture high quality audio recordings of what you are filming. These work great in interview settings. For a film shoot, however, you will likely need a microphone that can move independently of the camera.
Traditional shotgun mics don’t need to be mounted on a camera in order to work. You can mount them to a handheld pistol grip or to a boompole and assign one of your teammates to follow the movement of any sources of sound you need to capture. Allowing the camera and microphones to operate independently of each other expands the possibilities of a scene.
Why it's important:
Why is the shotgun mic an essential tool? Well, while the lavalier mic is ideal for capturing dialogue when the actors are on the move, a good shotgun mic will always have a richer, fuller, and more isolated sound. This is not only true for dialogue, but for all diegetic or on-screen sound!
Take a basic kitchen scene in which someone is pouring a drink and preparing some food. The sounds of a glass being set on the counter, liquid filling that glass, cabinets opening and closing, and food being chopped all need to be captured and integrated into the experience in order for it to feel real. Unlike a lavalier mic, a shotgun mic will allow you to record all those sounds on set, either during the take or between takes. Then those sounds can be dropped back into the scene in post-production.
Just like with your Smartphone Lavaliers, you will need to record your shotgun mic’s audio to an audio interface or recording device. Luckily, you can connect a shotgun mic’s xlr output to a phone input very easily with an affordable XLR to 3.5mm TRS adapter. For a budget condenser shotgun that delivers high quality audio, we recommend the Rode Ntg-2 and it’s accompanying shotgun mount.
If you’d like to go a step up and have a higher quality audio interface as well, you can go with the Zoom F1-SP Field Recorder and Shotgun Mic Combo! As far as budget goes, the Zoom F1 is your best option. In addition to having a great price, it records high fidelity, clear audio, with an option to record in 24-bit/96khz. For such a small device, it packs a whole lot of sound power!
The Zoom F1-SP is super versatile. It can even mount to a boom pole with a simple 5/8" to 1/4" inch adapter. Another great aspect of the Zoom F1-SP is that you can use the same device as an interface for any lavalier mic! Instead of running your lavalier into your phone, you can run it into your Zoom F1-SP to get higher audio quality!
As far as hardware goes, the Zoom F1-SP is your biggest production sound money saver. Think of it as the Swiss Army Knife of your recording toolkit! If you had to go with only one microphone for your entire shoot, the Zoom F1-SP is the way to go! The versatility and quality of this mic/interface combo make it a necessity for getting professional sound quality for your independent film.
Hack #3: Audio Design Desk
An All-in-One tool for Sound Effects, Foley, and Music
When you are working on a budget, it’s difficult to have the time or the tools to get all the sound effects, foley, and music you need. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to leave out the attention to detail that will make your independent film feel professional! Remember that without great sound, it’s difficult for audiences to become fully absorbed by or transported into the world of your film. This is where a great sound library and an intuitive software come into play.
What it is:
Audio Design Desk is the most accessible and user-friendly sound design software in the industry, and integrates seamlessly with Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, Pro Tools, and Frame.io. It comes with a huge, royalty-free, film-ready sound library for you to use and the intuitive interface and search functions make it easy to find the perfect sounds for your scenes! Feeling indecisive? Audio Design Desk’s innovative Replace Function (a simple Command-R Keystroke) will swap out the sound for another in the same category, so that you can audition different foley or sound effects with ease and efficiency.
Perhaps the most time-saving aspect of Audio Design Desk is that the software makes use of sync markers: markers in each sound sample that delineate the peak of the wave form!
The dotted line represents a sync marker in an audio sample.
This allows users to “perform” sounds live-to-picture using the QWERTY keyboard: the software automatically syncs all the waveform peaks to the keystrokes! Footsteps line up exactly where you want them, gunshots sync with the image after a first attempt, and dynamic sounds like that of a car speeding by can easily be matched to the screen. Gone are the days of looping a two-minute clip and painstakingly dragging audio regions for hours to make sure they line up. After a first attempt with the software, you’ll be able to get more accurate results than ever.
Compare this workflow to those of any other digital audio workstation—be it Pro Tools, Logic, etc.—and you will immediately see the difference. Traditional DAWs are notoriously expensive and require users to purchase and import massive sound libraries, all while navigating steep learning curves. Meanwhile, Audio Design Desk has an entry level tier that is completely free of charge, as well as low monthly costs for higher tiers so that you can get the most out of the software when you need it.
On top of all that, you can also create music with Audio Design Desk. Music creation in the software functions on the same principles of replacing audio with simple keystrokes. You can audition different arrangements in real-time, and adjust replacement functions with parameters that affect the speed, tonality, and character of the music!
Don't let your budget keep you from making something you're proud of! Creativity and innovation are always more important than the price tag on your equipment. If you use these tips and pour just as much passion into your audio as you do into your video, then your film will be a fully immersive experience that moves the heart of anyone who watches it.
There are so many great hacks to save your money on your independent film, and these are just three. Let us know what DIY methods or tools you’d like us to test out or write about.