Stage to Screen: Sounds Like Good Video to Me
Posted May 26, 2007

As video professionals, we spend a lot of time practicing the art of shooting good video. We have steadicams, DV rigs, and Glidecams to make our handheld video more stable; jibs, trucks, and dollies to achieve multi-axis motion; and wide-angle lenses, optical image stabilizers, and fluid-head tripods to make our motion as steady as possible. Add this to rule of thirds theory and the use of foreground, mid-ground, and background, and you have the basics of shot composition and selection. Understanding and utilizing these tools and theories is what makes for video that appeals to our sense of sight.

Creating great video takes more than just video that looks good—it takes audio to stimulate our auditory sense. Combined with vision, these two senses have the powerful ability to engage our emotions. Since the movie world went from silent films to “talkies” in 1926, audio has been an integral part of the movie-going experience. Technological advancements moved audio forward from wax to magnetic tape to optical storage and monoraul, to stereo, to surround sound. Audio is so important to motion pictures that 56 years after the original “talkie,” George Lucas and Thomlinson Holman developed the THX standard to ensure a high-quality and accurate theater playback of their movie soundtracks.

In the world of the event video producer it is understandable that audio is often given short shrift, as video is so visual and the association of video and videographer is much stronger than audio to videographer. But this lack of semantic connection does not mean that we can ignore the audio component of video. In fact, we have all experienced the heightened emotional response that good audio can have on a wedding video. Think of the impact of a mother’s narration of her daughter’s bridal prep, the sounds of a symphony instrumental for the highlight, and especially the ability to hear the groom’s tear-filled whisper of “I do” during the wedding vows. Good audio allows the viewer to escape from their present reality and feel emotions of the wedding day. Bad audio yanks them away from that reality and reminds them that they are watching a video and negatively impacts their perception of the quality of the overall production.

In a live stage production, audio is such an integral part of the events we capture that without audio, the video is an incomplete rendition of the original. I experienced this the first time I filmed a tap dance number and tried to rely only on my shotgun microphone mounted on my camera at the back of the theater. The taps were barely audible and when I tried to bring up the levels in post, I also brought up the background noise, which was not desirable. It is much easier to work with audio that has a strong signal-to-noise ratio, and your goal with capturing audio is to ensure that you isolate the varied sources so that you can balance them in post.

My current setup is much improved, and in a two-camera shoot I use three audio channels. On the first camera, both channels take a line feed from the soundboard that isolates the music and announcements. This track is so important that I find it is easier to have the audio going to both tracks so that when I use my circumaural headphones to monitor for problems, I get a signal in both ears. On the second camera I use both audio channels. Channel 1 is the stage track that captures tap shoe sounds, stage vocals, and the sounds from any other noise-generating prop that shows up on stage. Channel 2 is the ambient audio from the camera’s shotgun microphone and is used for applause. Once the shoot is done, I edit to the isolated soundboard track. On my second pass I add my titles and dissolves and I mix in the applause and stage-mic tracks when required.

Technically, I find that the most difficult track to get the right settings on is the line feed from the soundboard. Ideally, you want the line level from the soundboard to go into your camera with an XLR cable without any problems. I’ve noticed that with my PD170, I just cannot get the line feed from certain soundboards to come into my camera without sounding overmodulated, regardless of how low a level the signal is. I’ve found a few solutions for this problem, and alternate between them depending on what equipment I have left at my disposal. They include using either my Sennheiser wireless transmitter and receiver, my Shure inline attenuator, or my portable Behringer mixer.

I like to have isolated audio tracks as much as possible as its gives me the most control outside of running the soundboard myself. Last year one of my theaters decided to set up and mix tap mics into the soundboard feed for me. At first I was excited that I could skip the step of temporarily installing my own mics, but when it came time to do the edit I realized that the soundboard technician was turning off the stage mic when there were no tap numbers and occasionally forgot to turn it back on. To compensate for this missing track I used the ambient track from the shotgun on the camera closest to the stage, but the audio didn’t sound as precise as the tap feed would have. This year I’m going to run my own tap mic.

In the event video world, there are four types of videographers: Those you can count on for good audio, those you can’t count on for good audio, and those who can’t count. Make your audio count.

Shawn Lam, MPV is owner/operator of Vancouver-based Shawn Lam Video and a speaker at WEVA Expo and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07.