The sound quality is the most important thing for self-tape. So, how is it that we create the best audio set-up? Did you know you can improve your sound without buying a new microphone? How can you create your audio set-up at a low cost without compromising quality? Which microphone should you use, and why? Answering all sound questions and more in today’s article.
Check out our first article from the series “How to create a self-tape” – “Lighting”
Let’s start with a funny video, where you can see the sound is in fact, more important than video.
How does sound travel through space? Simplified. You make a sound or say a word (which is the sound too, obviously). The sound travels from your mouth to the microphone but also around you, to walls and surfaces. It hits the walls and reflects back to the microphone. The small delay between the time the sound hits the microphone for the first time and when it bounced from the wall back is very small, but human ears can hear it over the audio channel and don’t like it.
The sound is not hitting just the walls. The obstacle could be a hard surface reflecting the sound back or a soft object that absorbs some of the sounds and reflects the rest. In short, any hard surface creates an echo. Any soft object absorbs sound.
If you want to get more into acoustic treatment, stay tuned for more articles on this topic. All the sound-makers, such as podcasters, voiceover speakers, musicians, or anybody else creating stuff, where the sound is the main and only important thing, should read more on this topic. But for us Actors, we need just the good sound to be hearable by agents, producers, directors, and also friends who are cheering us on in our process. So let’s talk about some easy, simply acoustic treatments.
Fill your room with stuff!
As we learned, the sound travels and hits the obstacles, which could create an echo if it’s a hard surface, so what can we do to reduce it ? Fill your room with stuff! By stuff, I mean the soft stuff such as pillows, couches, fabric, carpets, anything soft that will soak the sound. Some professional studios even use empty egg cartons.
Noises you can avoid
Turn off all the interrupting noises such as AC (I mean Air Conditioning, not electricity). If you are listening to AC/DC – turn it off too, also a ticking clock, or a noisy fridge you have next to you because you’re a very thirsty self-taper, and other similar avoidable things. Anything you can manage, no matter how subtle. If you can get rid of any noise sound now, do it! It’s always easier to do it now than in post-production.
Any audio set-up includes 3 things: Microphone, Preamp, and A-D Convertor. You have all three things already if you own any microphone. It could be even the microphone on your phone because all three things are built-in into the device.
How does the audio set-up work?
The microphone picks up your voice and converts it into an electric signal. The signal (called Mic Level) is too quiet, so it travels to Preamp. Preamp boosts up the signal and sends a new signal (called Line Level), much stronger in volume. It travels to the last device, A-D Converter. It picks up Line Level, an Analog signal, and converts it into the digital one “1100 1010 0101” – in this kind of robotic language.
All three devices should be of similar quality. When you get a $2000 microphone and plug it into a $50 preamp, it will sound like a $50 preamp, and you won’t use the potential of the big investment into the expensive microphone. So it means if you plug a microphone directly into your notebook, it will work, but it won’t use the potential of the microphone because the motherboard’s preamp and A-D converter suck. But still better than nothing, and we as actors don’t necessarily have to spend thousands on the audio.
We need money for other things as education, headshots, workshops, and life in general. So, in my opinion, you don’t have to buy an extra preamp and A-D converter from the start. But when you save some extra money, it is totally worth investing in something better. Especially during these COVID times, all auditions are based on the online world, and the good audio is expected, so a small investment into your career won’t be overlooked.
Some of the microphones have all three devices built-in in the microphone.
Frequencies and all those waves
Most human voices are between 100Hz to 8-9KHz. These numbers are good to know for post-production. You can avoid others frequencies, meaning up to 100Hz and above 8KHz, because these frequencies are mainly just noises. You can also reduce it more from 300Hz to 3KHz, as it is just enough for most voices.
Human ears respond to 20Hz to 20000Hz
We can talk later about editing an audio track and reducing these frequencies. You can always google more in the niche of your interest I didn’t mention here.
For all of those frequencies admires:
Low Mid – 250 – 500 Hz
Mid – 500 – 2k Hz
High – 2k – 4k Hz
Polar patterns, those weird diagrams
A polar pattern is a diagram showing in what direction the microphone is picking up the sound. We can have omnidirectional, which is picking up sound in 360º, subcardioid, cardioid, super-cardioid, shotgun, hyper-cardioid, and bi-directional. You can see the area which is pickup by microphone better in these diagrams. It’s good to know in what direction the microphone is picking up the sound. You can use the microphone’s potential even more when you know its polar pattern.
What type of microphones should we use? The best question should be – What type of things we want to use the microphone for and in what environment? Let’s talk more about microphones, and I hope everybody will find the right solution for their audio set-up.
CURIOSITY: Do you know how it is called that puffy thing you can see on the microphones? a Dead cat, Windscreen or Windshield
Keep in mind: the best audio result is always when the microphone is as close as it could be to the sound source, it means to your mouth.
Built-in microphones are all the microphones in your self-phone. iPad, notebook, camera, or any other devices you are capturing your self-tape. They all have built-in a microphone, preamp, and A-D Converter, but they are not good at all.
We will speak more about the capturing devices in the next article, so stay tuned.
Built-in microphones are usually very bad, so don’t use them if you don’t have to. Pretty much any microphone plugged into the device is better than the built-in one. But if you decide to use a built-in microphone or you don’t have any other option, make sure the reader is not too close to the camera as he/she will be louder than you.
How to make your reader quieter when using built-in microphone
If you have enough space behind the camera, have your reader the same distance from the camera as you are to create a similar volume of both voices. If not. Grab a photo (for example, headshot) or draw a face on paper and attach it next to the camera. This will be your eye line. For those who don’t know – the eye line helps you look on the same spot every time you look at your imaginary scene partner. You are avoiding losing the viewers in the space by this imaginary partner. Put it close enough to the camera to make sure viewers could see your eyes in the footage.
TIP : for starting actors – Don’t look into the camera if it is not on purpose.
Now you created your eye line, and you know where to look every time you want to look at your scene partner. Your reader now can go further from the camera, maybe the same distance as you are, and the level of your voices will be about the same. Don’t forget. You have the eye line now. Don’t look at your reader, but the photo or picture.
The lavalier microphone is a small microphone you can attach to your clothes. The big advantage of the lavalier microphones is that you can get the lavalier microphone very close to your mouth, and as we already know, closer to mouth = better audio. Another advantage is a direct connection to your phone, or camera, or any other devices you are using for a self-tape via a 3.5 mm jack. Finding the right spot to place the microphone on you to ensure the camera won’t capture it could be a disadvantage. Another one, when you are doing a self-tape with more than 1 person, you need as many lavalier microphones as the count of persons.
Here is a nice and cheap 2-pack kit you can use for your self-tape, even if you have a reader. The Lavalier microphone could also limit you when your act is based on a dance or any other high movement activity.
The most directional microphones from their family of microphones. They are usually attached to your camera or next to your phone, but be careful with the distance. If it is too far, it can pick up some of the noises around. The shotgun microphone sides reflecting audio waves going from the sides. If the distance is too far, the solution to avoid unwanted noise is to use BOOM set up. Shotgun microphones could be a 3.5 Jack or XLR.
3.5 Jack could be connected directly to the camera.
XLR has to be connected to the audio interface or any Preamp first. We will speak about XLR microphones and audio interfaces in a different article – stay tuned!
TIP: For the best result – point the shotgun microphone directly to your chest, or a little bit higher.
You can use the USB microphones for self-taping, but in my opinion, they won’t work great. First, you will have a separate audio track to have extra work to connect it to your video. Of course, if you are not streaming or capturing video directly on the computer. Second, USB mics are more for podcasts and voiceovers, so you need to get really close to the mic for the best result. Here could be a big challenge to hide the microphone to not to be seen in the scene, Wuhu we are rapping now, “seen in the scene!”
TIP for creators: If you have a noise in your audio track, use background music to cover it, if you can (Don’t do it in your self-tape for an audition, just if required).
All three devices are inside the USB microphone, you plug it into the computer via USB, and you can go! This microphone is great for starters of podcasts or voiceover actors. Still, if you are serious about it, or you want to continue in the niche where the sound really matters – you shouldn’t buy a USB microphone and buy a microphone and some audio interface or mix (or preamp and a-d converter) instead. You will get more control options, and if you want to upgrade any of the devices, you buy only one device. In the case of a USB, you have to throw away the old one and buy a better USB mic, or you have to buy all three devices, which you could do in the first place.
Yeah, I got it. You want something easy. Just plug and play. Well, the USB mic could be ideal for you. But as I said, not good for self-tapes. Jack’s connection to your camera is also easy, and the work with the lavalier or shotgun microphones will be much easier for self-tape.
Wireless microphones could be easier to use in many aspects, but if you are not serious about the sound technique, don’t buy them. Cheap wireless microphones suck and expensive ones? You have to have the budget, but is it really worth it? One transmitter could be operating with one microphone, and you will probably use the Lavalier microphone for the device. Hence, the first issue is that you need more wireless transmitters and microphones if you need more voices (as your reader).
You also have to consider the battery life. Don’t buy it if you are not a reporter, podcaster, dancer who needs to speak during the dance, or you have your own theater, and you want to use it for a musical, or you are the guy who needs a wireless microphone in the terrain for interviews, etc. I think you got the picture when you need it. Otherwise, I don’t think we as actors need wireless microphones.
Creating your audio set-up
If you are using any of the external microphones, you can use the boom set up to get as close to the microphone as you can.
Do you know that audio guys on a set with the long pole and microphone on the end, trying to reach as close as they can to your mouth? Well, that is the boom set up. You can create your own using just a stand and maybe extension cable for the microphone. You will place the stand with a microphone above you, just make sure the stand and microphone is not in the scene.
Closer microphone = better sound
Camera or portable audio recorder, TRS male 3.5 mm to TRS male 3.5 mm.
Tablet, smartphone, or computer, TRS male 3.5mm to TRRS male 3.5 mm.
Microphones with their own male TRS cable.TRS male 3.5 mm to TRS female 3.5 mm.
Audio set-up conclusion
Ideal microphones for self-tape audio set-up are the shotguns and the lavaliers.
We will have some recommendations and audio set-ups in the next article, so stay tuned. Hopefully, this article gave you basic knowledge about sound and microphones. Let me know your experiences or your sound tips and ideas.
About the author:
I am a never-ending fighter for the perfect ART, enjoying the process of unperfectness. I am many things and nothing, but my main focus is acting. I've studied at the Vancouver Academy of Dramatic Arts. I've been an actor in Theater Around The Corner, Moravian Theater Olomouc, Theater DiGoknu, or Mlada Scena II. And I am working hard on my craft.