The “Hollywood” Approach to Better Location Sound (2)

An in-depth article written by Fred Ginsburg, C.A.S. Ph.D.

Here is a summary of the Hierarchy:

Part 1

Part 2

Lavialier Mics as Plant Mics

Let’s say you are covering dialog of two actors in a room and a third actor pokes his head into a doorway and delivers a line. Your two key actors are probably being covered by a handheld fishpole. The doorway could be easily miked either by a boom mic positioned above the door arch with a clamp or C-stand. Another choice could be to tape a lavalier to the inside of the doorframe.

A telephone booth can be readily miked by hiding a lavalier onto the surface where the caller will be facing.

A desktop can be miked by hiding a lavalier on a pen set or a rolodex. A restaurant table can be miked by sticking a mic into the floral centerpiece.

To mic an automobile, merely attach a lavalier to the sun visor. Determine to which side the actor/driver will be speaking, and cheat the position of the plant mic to accommodate that.

A microphone on the visor is preferable to using a mic on the actor’s body. A body mic would give you lots of clothing rustle, seat belt rubbing, and other noise. On the visor, it is completely clean. Being high up in the vehicle, the mic is distant from road noise (gravel striking the underbelly of the car), as well as less susceptible to engine rumble. The padded ceiling of the vehicle reduces sound reflections and echo, and the padding of the visor provides additional isolation.

To cover driver and passenger, put the mic on the visor near the center of the car. If the passenger has a much weaker voice than the driver, place the mic on the center-facing edge of the passenger’s visor. Or, if the driver faces forward most of the time, but also has a line or two directed out of his window, cheat the position of the mic to the far left of this visor. If necessary, use two plant mics to cover driver’s window, driver front, passenger front, and passenger window. A second or third mic can be used to cover dialog from the rear seat.

One caution about planting mics around on the set: They will only be effective if the dialog is directed in their general direction. A plant mic that is behind someone’s head won’t be much good. Also, their range is limited; don’t expect miracles. This is filmmaking, not surveillance. What works fine for a stakeout may not be acceptable in a professional sound mix.

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Lavalier Mics as Body Mics

Lavs tend to have three major problems: perspective, clothing noise, and mobility.

1. Perspective is the biggest problem.

  • Dialog recorded with lavs usually sounds like dialog recorded with lavs. The talent always sounds like they are close to the camera, even in long shots. If the talent turns their heads over one shoulder, their voice drops off. If the talent leans over a hard podium or tabletop surface, their dialog suddenly becomes infused with reverb. The lav sound is sterile and somewhat free of natural sound effects and ambiance. The result is more authoritative and reporter-ish, less slice-of-life. Depending on the effect you are looking for, this could be a plus or a minus. For example, an instructor will sound more dominant on a lavalier. But a community-relations spokesperson will sound warmer and more natural if miked with an overhead boom.
  • Perspective can be improved by using some simple cheats. Place the lavaliers further down on the chest or further away from the voice to “open” up the sound. Two people standing close to each other and can be miked off of each other’s mics to increase the air space.
  • A boom mic on the set can be used to record footsteps and sound effects that the lavs might ignore. Recording just a smidgen of ambient “noise” (open the mic channel just a little bit) will wash out the normal sterility of the lavaliers. Use more “mic bleed” in long shots to thin out the dialog, and then reduce the mixture for close-ups.

2. Clothing noise is another major problem with lavaliers.

  • Although we don’t have the space in this article to fully explore that area, one simple solution to clothing noise is to avoid the problem by attaching lavaliers to nontraditional sites, such as a hat brim or a clipboard. When lavs do have to be hidden under clothing, secure the clothing carefully on all sides of the mic head. If the clothes are taped to the mic, then they cannot rub against the mic. Any loose flap of clothing that could strike the mic should be secured with tape or pins. Break the stiff starch near the mic with some water, so that noise does not conduct to the mic. The use of StaticGuard can also help reduce clothing friction.
  • Mic cables should be connected at the ankle. Never let the talent drag the power supply of a lavalier by the thin mic cable that attaches it to the capsule. Instead, secure the power supply to the leg (put it in the sock, or use an ankle strap, or line the ankle with a protective strip of cloth or toilet tissue, and then use gaffer tape). Attach the mic cable to the connector at the ankle during a take. Remember to disconnect immediately during breaks so that the talent is free to move off of the set.

3. Lav Mics’ Lack of Mobility, and the Need for Radio Mics

  • Obviously, there will be situations when it is neither practical nor safe for talent to be tethered by a mic cable. Our last resort as a miking solution is to use radio mics.

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Lavalier Mics as Wireless or Radio Mics

Radio mics suffer from all of the limitations of lavaliers, plus others, such as electronic failure, radio interference, and bad karma that the scientific types are loathe to admit exist (such as mysterious magnetic black holes). Everything that has ever made your television reception bobble for a moment can interfere with radio mics: appliances, computers, passing trucks, overhead airplanes, CBs, and so on. Radio communications can also be a source of interference: walkie-talkies, mobile radios, repeaters, etc.

Rigging radio mics is a complex art in itself, but the most important point to remember is to never allow the mic line and the antenna to cross. Also, the antenna should be kept somewhat rigid, and never looped over itself. If the antenna has to run in a direction other than straight up or to the side, flip the transmitter unit around. (It is okay for the mic line to loop around, though.) A good way of keeping the antenna rigid is to affix a rubber band to the tip, and then to safety pin the rubber band to the clothing. This maintains a little tension but still provides a safe strain relief if the actor should bend over. Check the talent regularly.

Tape tends to loosen due to moisture and movement. Costumes need to be adjusted constantly, either by the talent themselves or by the costume department.

Never assume that wardrobe personnel know how to rig either lavalieres or radios. Consult with them in terms of costume selection or modification so as to facilitate microphone and/or transmitter placement, but do not leave the actual wiring up or readjustments to them. Costumers worry about how the actors look, not how they sound.

Try to use wireless as sparingly as possible. Sometimes, you can start a scene with a wireless, and then go hardwire after talent has settled into a spot. Only use fresh batteries, and change them routinely every couple of hours, or sooner! If you are planning to use radio mics, bring along backup units for contingency. There may be interference on one channel, or a unit may fail, go sour on you, or the talent may break a unit accidentally.

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Conclusion

Good production sound can be achieved by taking an aggressive and attentive-to-detail approach. However, it does require a commitment to professionalism in terms of dedicated personnel, quality equipment, and cooperation from the director and other members of the production company. Mixing on a production set is a matter of generating usable raw material, in what are usually uncontrollable conditions.

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