Camera Mic or Separate Sound?? Part 1

Should you use the ‘on-board’ microphone on your camcorder or should you plug in a sound mixer with headphones and an alternative microphone to give you ‘separate’ sound?

During my years at the BBC, one of my responsibilities was as a Sound Recordist for National Radio Documentaries – the sort of full-blown documentary that used to go out on Radio 4, rather than the news driven programmes that now seem to proliferate today. Then, working with a Producer and probably a presenter, we’d go out on location and record interviews and material to edit and dub a programme together back in the studio on tape or computer. My responsibilities were both technical and artistic – not only was I responsible for the technical quality of the programme, but the artistic feel and atmosphere of the programme. The Producer having talked through their overall view and requirements for the programme would then concentrate on the editorial content and the presenter, leaving technical and artistic issues to me. It was very rewarding to be involved right from the recording through to dubbing and mixing the final programme.

With the commercialisation of the BBC and a director General who only understood News, pressures were put on Producers to save money and not to take a sound recordist with them (a whole other story and debate!!!). But, the upshot was that producers were trying to do all the location recording themselves as well as produce the programme – the result being many programmes had to go through a rescue session in the studio as obviously the producer had been concentrating on the editorial issues, not anything technical. Remember this ‘rescue’ was always making the best of a bad job; you can’t make a good quality recording from a bad one – the original recorded material always dictates the overall quality.

I remember a particular Radio 4 Producer who had landed a very rare interview with Spike Milligan. He arrived and set the recording equipment up on a table in-between them. It was a stereo microphone and unknowingly he had pointed it towards the ceiling! The result a two hour interview, which if you listened to in stereo sitting exactly in the middle, was just about bearable (if a bit too echoy), with him and Spike hard left and right on the loudspeakers. If you turned the recording into Mono by adding the two tracks together (or indeed moved from your ‘middle’ seating position), they disappeared down a 20m hallway into the bathroom! As you have to consider Mono, as most people won’t be in that ideal stereo listening position or they’ll be listening on their small kitchen radio, it made the interview unbroadcastable, which was a pity, as the producer was not going to get a second interview!

So what has this to do with the use of camera mics???

The first point to make is that using a sound recordist, i.e. having someone solely responsible for sound quality (recording ‘separate’ sound), is a good idea.

If you then take the situation above and add video to the equation, as we are visually driven, it pushes the sound quality even further down the priority list, particularly if you’re working on your own!

So your ideal crew is a Producer/Director to take care of editorial and overall creative matters, a cameraman to put those ideas into the visual arena and take care of the video quality and a sound recordist to do the same with the sound side.

A lot of programmes today are shot with a two man crew, with just a director and cameraman and the sound is somewhat left to chance. Even if you then consider perhaps a two man crew with a Cameraman/director and separate sound recordist, you still have a conflict in the director/cameraman role where the editorial content will suffer and while you concentrate on the ‘pretty’ pictures!

I can relate a story that happened to a sound recordist friend of mine. He was booked to go on a 6-day shoot to South America to follow a couple on a trip. Two days before leaving the director phoned up to say the budget could not afford a full crew so she had decided not to take a cameraman and she was going to film it herself. As it’s usually the Sound Recordist that gets dropped, you might think it a result for sound quality???

The actual result was that in 6 days of shooting they came back with 56 hours of material/footage for a 50-minute programme!!!! What happened that the director was so involved in the editorial side she didn’t know when to stop, she’d even shot without the sound recordist plugged into the camera (i.e. mute!) in case she missed something. A Professional Cameraman would have come back with perhaps 12 hours of material at the very most. In his head, as he shot, he would put edited sequences together as he went, so giving the director enough material to cover a scene and an easy editing job for the editor back home. As it was she had 56 hours of resulting unsequenced material to watch and log before even thinking about constructing a scene. The resulting overall costs were probably more (although not as accountable) and the programme of much lesser quality.

Now having said all this, there are times when I’d consider, as a Professional Sound Recordist, allowing a cameraman to use the on-board camera instead of my ‘separate’ sound and these are principles you can apply to the simplest of projects.

I’ll talk about this in part 2.

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Many thanks for you patience.
Kind regards,
Mike - Media4ed.

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