Sound Decisions: How to Get Good and Consistent Audio for Your Events
Posted Feb 23, 2009

Getting good wedding and reception audio is relatively easy to accomplish. However, getting good and consistent audio can be problematic if incorrect equipment and recording processes are used. Many videographers will agree that audio is the weakest link in their production capability. In this column, we'll examine some general practices that will help you capture not only good audio but, more importantly, consistent audio.

Why is consistent audio so important? Remember this basic premise: Video conveys information; audio conveys emotion. Let that sink in. As wedding videographers, we are in the emotion business, so one would assume we would strive to get the best results using the best equipment available-and using it correctly. Sadly, this is not always the case. Many videographers use substandard equipment with incorrect methods and wonder why they struggle so often with their sound.

Conversely, others may use the best equipment money can buy but still get inconsistent results.

We'll examine the wedding ceremony process first. What is the most important audio in a wedding ceremony? The vows. I would speculate that about 99% of professional videographers who don't rely on an on-camera or a camera-mounted mic use a wireless system to capture the vows. A quality UHF wireless system is essential for getting good sound. However, even the best system may be prone to dropouts and other interference. If something like this happens just as the bride says "I do" and you miss that moments because of it, you're sunk. Most interference sources are beyond our control, but preventing dropouts that result from a poor signal can be a fairly easy thing to do. Without getting into the specifics of radio propagation, remember this simple but very important rule: Always keeps the transmitter antenna and the receiver antenna pointed in the same direction. Mismatched antenna polarization can significantly drop the efficiency of your system. Simply put, if the receiver antenna at the camera is pointed straight up, the antenna of the transmitter you place on the groom or officiate must be pointed in the same direction.

To overcome issues of interference or dropouts with your wireless system, you may want to try an alternative recording process as a backup. For the weddings I shoot, in addition to the wireless mic placed on the groom (which I use only for sync purposes), I also use a flash-based digital audio recorder. In the past I've used IFP Series iRiver recorders. The IFP Series iRivers, which are no longer manufactured, were good low-cost recorders. However, they had some drawbacks. One, they recorded in the highly compressed MP3 format. Two, there wasn't a usable signal monitoring of the recording process. I currently use the Marantz PMD620 recorder. It's a very small form-factor recorder and, coupled with a good lavaliere microphone, is capable of superb 24-bit PCM audio recording.

What is the consistency trick with any of these devices? Once you have successfully set up the recorder and microphone combination and have captured good audio, never change the settings or use it for anything else. Granted, it may be a bit expensive to have multiple devices set up for one type of use, but if you desire consistent audio, this is the way to ensure it.

Some videographers opt to use a camera-mounted shotgun to capture audio. Unless you can get the microphone very close-within a few feet of the sound source-a shotgun is probably the least-effective microphone (besides the one factory-installed on your camera) for getting good and consistent audio. The distance between the microphone and the sound source will have the largest influence on your recording capability. Regardless of the cost or quality of your shotgun microphone, if it's placed too far away or aimed improperly, your sound quality will be diminished.

A common misconception is that a shotgun microphone acts like a parabolic microphone, which is capable of reaching out and recording sound at a considerable distance from the microphone. Shotguns don't have any reach; in fact, they have a narrower angle of acceptance than other microphones. When used improperly, this narrow acceptance angle allows extraneous, ambient sound that is bouncing all around the room to eventually get into the front of the microphone. Unfortunately, this sound will be severely out of phase, producing very thin or weak-sounding audio. In addition, shotguns are very prone to picking up noises, unless they are placed in a good shock mount.

Here's a good rule of thumb to remember: A $50 microphone placed 5' away will sound immensely better than a $500 microphone placed 50' away. If you want good, consistent audio from the microphone on your camera, try to get as close as possible to the sound source.

What if you shoot an event in which you have to record a small group of musicians? The Zoom H2 with its configurable internal microphone is a very good choice. It's capable of recording at 24-bit PCM quality and can be easily attached to a microphone stand and strategically placed among the performers. Again, for consistency, once you have captured a successful recording, lock down the record settings.

Never turn down a source of audio. If you can get a feed from the venue's soundboard, do so. Although opportunities such as this come often, getting good and consistent audio continues to be an ongoing problem with many videographers. I've read many comments in online forums blaming the venue's sound guy when, in fact, I would guess, it was probably the videographer's own fault for using the wrong recorder. There's a simple rule for getting consistent soundboard audio: If you are taking a feed, your recorder must have at least a 1/4" line input. If it has only a 1/8" line input, forget it. Typically, the preamp circuits of these smaller input recorders will not be capable of successfully and consistently handling the signal voltage coming from the board.

Remember, if you record poor-quality sound, it will always be poor quality, no matter how you try to enhance it in post. Don't leave yourself with any excuses; since recording media is cheap, always record at the highest uncompressed setting possible.

Capturing good and consistent audio is not hard to do. If you follow the general processes explained here, chances are you will capture not only good audio but consistent audio as well.

Mark Foley (mark at foleyproductions.net) runs Foley Productions, Inc. of Warner Robins, Ga. Before becoming an event videographer, he spent 26 years in the United States Air Force and has worked as a part-time sound engineer since 1980.