Audio Tools for Filmmakers

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Audio Tools for FilmmakersAudio is important throughout the filmmaking process. If you can catch and solve audio issues before you get to post, it means we (the post sound crew) can spend our time and your budget making your project sound badass in other ways. Technical problems can eat up the budget and take time away from things like sound design, Foley, ADR, and mixing.

For production sound, hiring a sound crew is always the best choice for quality. But, in reality it’s not always possible (for whatever reason – budget, safety, privacy or otherwise). I’m recommending some products to help get decent and usable audio. If you’re serious about getting into major film festivals, distribution deals etc, having a production sound crew is a must.

Why it helps to have a good listening environment

One of the most common comments I get from filmmakers, producers and editors is “I didn’t hear that in the edit bay!” Some of that comes from audio processing but the speakers make a major difference, too.

What you’re trying to hear is audio problems – anything from a hum, hiss, distortion, unwanted background noise, mic dropouts… the list goes on. It’s possible to fix these in post (with processing, sound editing, or ADR) but it takes time. Some audio problems can be addressed easier before picture is locked. I like it when editors or filmmakers send me a sound sample and ask, “Is this usable or is it going to be a problem?”

Get a good pair of headphones

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

You’re going to hear a lot more detail on headphones than earbuds, tv or computer speakers, or mobile devices. If you’re reviewing an edit through a computer (Vimeo, Youtube, Wiredrive, etc) professional headphones will help you catch problems. If you have a pair of headphones you use regularly (even when watching movies or extracurricular watching), your ears will get used to the sound of those headphones. That’s when you’ll start noticing things like balance problems, too much bass or hiss, etc because you’ll have a better sense what sounds “normal”.

You can get a quality pair of professional headphones under $200 USD. Popular professional brands are Sony (Sony MDR7506 are very popular), AKG, and Audio Technica. My favorite headphones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones. I use them all the time with my work.

Beats headphones (by Dr. Dre) would work fine for this purpose (if you already own them) but I wouldn’t recommend buying them. Professional sound people tend not to use them. Beats intentionally have low frequencies (and very high frequencies) boosted so the sound is “colored” and not neutral (this has been verified by independent research). So, the balances you hear through Beats headphones may not be true to how it sounds in a sound studio (or the edit bay). Beats can be more expensive than many of the professional brands mentioned above, too. Research has shown no correlation between frequency response and retail price – so more expensive isn’t necessarily better.

Studio Monitors (Speakers) & Accessories

Tips for buying speakers

  • Bigger is going to sound better. Small woofers can’t create low frequencies as well as larger ones.
  • Look for speakers designed for a studio (not live sound). They may be called “Reference monitors.”
  • Look for “Near field monitors” which means they’re designed for close proximity (less than 6 feet away). You’re going to get the best sound and detail up close.
  • Active speakers just need to be plugged in. Passive speakers may be cheaper but you’ll need an amplifier. (All of my recommendations are active speakers.)
  • Some monitors are sold individually, not in pairs.
  • Spend at least $300 for a pair if you can. Anything below that is basically consumer level audio (not great)

Standard Size Speakers

An 8-inch woofer is the smallest I’d recommend to find speakers with a fairly balanced frequency response.

JBL Professional 308P MKII
JBL Professional 308P MKII

On the low end of the price range, I would recommend JBL Pro LSR308 MK II. These get rave reviews for the price. In general, JBL puts out solid speakers.

There’s also brands like Yamaha or KRK making speakers in this price range (like the KRK RP8G3 ROKIT). There’s nothing wrong with them but I think with JBL you’re getting better bang for the buck.

The next price point ($600-$1000ish USD) gets you into well-known professional brands like Genelecs, Focal, or Neumann (such as KH 80s) – all which you may be able to find used. I haven’t tried the Focal Alpha 80 but they’re moderately priced. I’m a big fan of Focal (I use one of their higher end models in my studio).

Small Speakers

IK Multimedia iLoud Monitors
IK Multimedia iLoud Monitors

When you buy a small speaker, you just have to be aware that it’s not completely flat (balanced between frequency ranges). Adding a subwoofer ay help but it doesn’t solve the problem (you’ll still be left with a frequency gap in the mid-lows or possibly a muddy low end).

Some small speaker options I’d recommend are JBL 306P MK II  or JBL 305P MK II (these are the smaller version of what I recommended above). Genelec 8010A are a decent option, too.

A new speaker I recently heard and was impressed by was IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors. They have a lot of low end for the size (and cost) and are easily portable.

Speaker Risers/Stands

Ideally, you want your speakers placed so the tweeter is the same height as your ears (if possible). Anytime you set your speaker on a surface (like a desk) you’re going to have sound reflections bounce off the surface. The combination of the direct sound and the reflection can muddy the signal.

Auralex Acoustics MOPAD Monitor Isolation Pads
Auralex Acoustics MOPAD Monitor Isolation Pads

Foam risers (like Auralex MOPAD pads) can help if you just need a little height. I wouldn’t recommend them to a professional sound studio but if the goal is to get the speakers off a large tabletop or desk (the two worst offenders), it’s worth it.

Any speaker riser for a table would probably work, too. IsoAcoustics makes great risers but those are a pricier option.

Onstage SM6000
Onstage SM6000

If you want a dedicated speaker stand, something like the Onstage SM6000 works well. They’re adjustable height and not a tripod style bottom (which is harder to place and easier to trip over). I wouldn’t use foam risers with stands like this since it makes the speaker less stable. You can adjust the speaker height with the stand, anyhow.

Once you get your speakers and risers, Thomann has some great tips for placing them.

Sound Recorders

I know I’m a broken record saying this, but the absolute best way to do production sound is a hired sound crew. Please, please hire sound crews and pay their rental fees unless you absolutely can’t do it. This isn’t just about saving money – it’s that you may end up spending money and losing time correcting problems in post-production.

Zoom H6 Recorder

My hands-on experience with production audio is limited so my recommendations come from filmmakers I work with (and hearing the good results they get with these tools).

An external audio recorder is better than recording to camera because you have full control over setting levels and sampling frequency. I would definitely recommend a Zoom Recorder. I can’t speak as to which model is best for what needs but I do know the sound quality it can get is good (with good mic placement and the gain set correctly). The H4 models (and up) have XLR connectors so you can use any boom and wired lavs.

There’s also accessories to make it more versatile on shoots like:

Microphones

Again, I have limited experience with production mics and boom equipment (I could talk about studio mics all day, though!)

Sennheiser MKE-600
Sennheiser MKE-600 Shotgun mic

For boom/shotgun mics, the brand Sennheiser is the industry standard for production. I have a Sennheiser MKE600 Shotgun Microphone which I’ve used on production shoots and for ADR and Foley recording. It’s one of Sennheiser’s lower-end boom mics but it gets the job done.

If you’re doing any work outdoors, you’ll need some sort of wind protection for your boom. Wind (directly on a mic) is a pain to fix in post – if it can even be repaired. Boom mics are different lengths so double check before buying.

 

 

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