Updated: Oct 8, 2020
In part two of our series about recording high-quality sound for a documentary interview, William discusses using the right equipment, location, and subject.
In part one I discussed positioning and setup, and how these two aspects of recording sound for a documentary interview are crucial to producing high-quality sound. In this article, I will talk in more detail about equipment considerations it is important to make, based on my own experiences. I will also outline some things to take into account when choosing a location for the interview, as well as some factors to do with the subject that might make recording high quality sound difficult.
Using The Right Microphone
The first thing to consider when choosing what to use as your main microphone (mounted on a boom stand as discussed in Part One) is your location. I will talk more about locational considerations below but the basics are as follows:
If you are shooting indoors in anything up to a medium-sized room with minimal background noise, a cardioid or super/hyper-cardioid microphone would be the best choice. Cardioid and super/hyper-cardioid microphones have a wide area of frontal sensitivity and so can be more forgiving in terms of what they pick up. In other words, you can afford to be a bit more relaxed with your directional positioning towards the subject, because the microphone will pretty clearly capture all sound in front of it.
“Cardioid and super/hyper-cardioid microphones have a wide area of frontal sensitivity and so can be more forgiving in terms of what they pick up”
Because you are indoors you can expect other noises to be kept to a minimum and so you shouldn’t have to worry about the microphone’s large polar pattern. A really great and affordable hyper-cardioid microphone that I have used a lot in the past is the Audio Technica AT4053B
If you are shooting outdoors it is best to use a microphone with a highly directional polar pattern and so a shotgun microphone is the best choice. The reason for this is that being outside you are more likely to encounter unwanted noises that are out of your control (birds, people, cars etc…). Because of this, you should use a microphone that rejects all sound that it isn’t directly pointing at to ensure you record clear audio to use in the documentary. A great affordable shotgun microphone that I used for many years is the Rode NTG-2, but if you have a slightly bigger budget I recommend the Sennheiser MKH416.
Using The Right Mixer/Recorder
The most important thing when deciding which mixer/recorder to use is making sure you are completely comfortable with how to use the device and have an understanding of all the features it has. Your main mixer/recorder probably won’t change all that much and it’s important to familiarize yourself completely with the device so that you can be sure to overcome any unforeseen problems that you might encounter whilst on set.
“The most important thing when deciding which mixer/recorder to use is making sure you are completely comfortable with how to use the device...”
If you are on a budget, the Tascam DR-70D is a really great mixer/recorder that I have used for many years. It has four XLR inputs and has a really easy to use navigation system. It also has threads on the top and bottom which means it can be mounted in between a camera and tripod, or just directly underneath the camera. This can be really useful if you position your main microphone on top of the camera, but are using something like a DSLR that doesn’t have XLR inputs for audio. You can feed the main microphone directly into the DR-70D and then send a feed of that audio directly to the camera via an auxiliary cable. This is a great way to record high-quality sound directly to the camera from a mounted microphone if you are using a camera without XLR inputs.
Whilst on the subject of mixer/recorders I’d like to note how useful my Zoom H5 has been throughout many documentary shoots. The recorder has two XLR inputs and so is always in my sound bag as a backup recorder, but it also has a built-in stereo microphone on top. This microphone is fantastic for gathering room tone, as well as atmos tracks whilst on the set. I will often spend a bit of time either before or after the interview walking around and gathering stereo recordings of the atmosphere at the location, and these recordings always prove invaluable during the editing stages of a documentary.
“...spend a bit of time either before or after the interview walking around and gathering stereo recordings of the atmosphere at the location...these recordings always prove invaluable during the editing stages...”
It is important to consider the location of the interview shoot, and any factors about the location that might impact on your ability to gather high-quality sound. I talked in Part One about the importance of location recce for figuring out your positioning, and it is just as important to take some time to note down any potential problems with the location at the same time. You can then either try and come up with some solutions or talk to the director about changing the location. Some of the main problems you could encounter and need to consider are:
Traffic Noise - Is the location close to a busy road? Are you going to be pointing your microphone in this direction? Will the time of day affect how busy or loud the road will be?
Public Noise - Is the location near a busy street? Is it exposed to these noises or can they be quietened by the building? Will the time of day affect how loud people are likely to be?
Echo - Is the location large and open? Does the location produce reverb when you speak? Are there any measures you can take to dampen any echoes?
Weather - Is the location likely to be affected by weather conditions? Will rain cause any loud sounds at the location?
Another thing that will be key in gathering high-quality sound for a documentary interview will be the considerations and problem solving that are associated with your subject. It is important to talk to the director ahead of time and identify; who the subject will be, what they will be wearing, and any facial hair that might obstruct a lapel mic.
If you have the go-ahead to display the lapel mic (which will be preferable when recording high-quality sound) then you need to identify in advance how you are going to attach it to your subject. If you need to hide the lapel mic, then the type of clothes the subject wears is of even more importance.
You should consider whether the subject will be wearing any jewelry or accessories that might make a rattling noise. If the subject has facial hair that might obstruct the placement of the lapel mic, then this also needs to be considered ahead of time.
I have discussed many of the important factors to consider when recording high-quality sound for a documentary interview based on my experience as a sound recordist. Every project is different and comes with its own set of challenges, but the points that I have outlined over this two-part article are the foundations of professional standard sound recording for an interview.
Use the right microphone for the location
Gather atmosphere recordings using a stereo microphone on location
Do a ‘location recce’ where possible and take notes on potential problems and solutions
Identify considerations with the subject ahead of time
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