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Eric F Adams

Expert Advice Wanted. Sound for Film.

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I will try and make this brief so I will not bore you.  I shot a feature film a year or two ago and it went well, but I need to improve my sound.  I self funded the film.  No paid crew or no paid actors.  I shot it on Super 16mm.  Despite the limitations, the film went great and I plan to do another one.  

 

In my film, I had one sound person.  My wife.  lol.   She is an RN by trade, but we have studied quite a bit on mic placement and positioning, so I don't want to replace my free labor.   

 

I use a boom mic throughout the whole film.  These are my 3 components.  

 

1) Audio Technica AT875R Line & Gradient CondenserMicrophone.

 

2) Sound Devices MM-1 Single Channel Portable Microphone Preamp.

 

3) Zoom H4N Handy Reconder.

 

That is my setup.  Mic on Boom Pole > Preamp > H4N.  Then I download my wave files from the H4N onto computer and I edit in FCP.

 

My questions/concerns.  I want to improve sound for next film, but I can't scratch and start over with a whole new sound set-up.  Keep my micro budget in mind.  If these 3 components are good? Then what should I have my preamp settings on?  Should I replace one of these components?  If so, what? And what should I get?  Not sure if I can replace two components due to $$.  I realize I need improvement but just lack the funds to go all out.  I could and would definitely drop a few hundred if need be to get the most out of the above setup.  Any advice wanted.  Thank-you.  Eric.   

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The one piece of "equipment" you need to get rid of is the Micro Budget. I strongly recommend that you NOT buy anything more, rather you will be better served finding a sound person to do your sound --- you shoot the images, they do the sound. It's a tried and true formula that has been used for years.

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Other than needing to add an experienced professional sound person (which would probably solve the majority of whatever problems you had), the weakest link is probably the AT-875. However, the best mic on the planet in the hands of an inexperienced person will give the same results you already had.

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Good on you for having a go and I wish you all the success in the world, but really it's a bit like self building your own house with a no money and inferior materials............. then wondering why the roof leaks !!!

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I certainly understand all of what is being said. Thanks for y'alls input.  

Jeff - I can't get rid of the "micro budget".  I wish I had financial backing but I don't.  I wish I could do the traditional formula and shoot for 3 weeks straight with a hired sound man, but that cost $$.   I shoot on the weekends when everyone is off.  I work full time Monday - Friday.  Even if I could afford a quality sound guy, that schedule would not work with him.

Glen - I believe that (AT875) is my weak link too.  What would you recommend? 

Steve - I understand I have inferior products, but if you were in my shoes and with your sound knowledge, what would you be considering?

 

   

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1 hour ago, Eric F Adams said:

Even if I could afford a quality sound guy, that schedule would not work with him.   

Aw, come on, surely you can find at least a local film school or something kid who knows more about it than you do, and pay him a few bucks... if not a professional sound guy. 

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You're a good sport, Eric. My tidbit of above is to pick and treat your locations well. Shoot in places that are quiet. Bring a bunch of furniture pads and some extra stands. Put the pads on the floor and hang them out of shot in rooms with extra echo.

What about your sound are you trying to improve? 

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It seems like the biggest thing that a professional would bring to this situation is critical listening skills. In order to improve the sound, you need to know what is wrong with it in the first place. What to do about it then becomes much easier, and any professional would be able to advise on this too.  

Would it be possible to organise a consultation from a professional, show them some parts of the film you are unhappy with, and ask for their advice? This would cost less than the price of a good microphone, and would be far more useful.  

Just to play devils advocate for a moment...are there other ways you can make room in your budget for sound? You say that there is no budget, but you are shooting on 16mm and considering the cost of film and processing, there are much cheaper techniques (digital) for the budget conscious filmmaker.  

 

 

 

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Critical listening skills are not required. Knowing what you're listening to is required.

As the saying goes, it takes years of experience to get years of experience.

It has been mentioned that you could have the best gear possible, but you won't get professional results without using professionals, or at least someone with some sort of training. Sound mixers need to understand how a scene cuts together. So do directors. 

How are you paying for 16mm processing? What's your ratio? Perhaps consider prosumer HD and use your savings on improving your sound. Have you been to many film festivals? What you'll discover is that bad sounds makes for a bad film, far more than bad picture.

The very best way to improve your sound, other than finding a professional, is to keep both the dialog and background noise consistent throughout a scene. Matching mic position to your focal length (staying on the edge of frame). The MM1 is a great piece of gear. For simplification and better consistency of background noise, set the gain for each scene and leave it. Set the gain so the loudest peaks of dialog are just engaging the limiter. Then set up the zoom so that those peaks are -12 on the scale.

I still think that a local film student with access to better gear and more experience using it would be a great choice. Your wife can help and improve your sound even further.

Best of luck.

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3 hours ago, RPSharman said:

Critical listening skills are not required. Knowing what you're listening to is required.

I'm sorry, but how can you know what you are listening to if you are not listening critically? 

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All good advice. If I were you, I'd try to shoot with HD camera (Sony FS7 variants come to mind), and re-budget so you can spend more on sound than on buying and developing film stock. I love film, but the discipline of working with it demands certain level of skills and preparation. You may get more useful material with digital HD. Might want to see how that turns out. As you may witness on youtube, a movie with bad picture but clear sound gets usually watched longer than the beautiful 4k flick where you cannot hear what they're saying. 

As for your equipment: a skilled (eg. experienced) operator could make a movie with the setup you've got. Maybe replace that Audio Technica mic for Sennheiser 416T+ab power adapter (can be found very cheap now). Ideally for starters, you'd need two wireless mics, and a mixer too. But that opens a new world of lav mounting, which is a skill in itself.

Find a local sound student. Hear what he has been doing previously. If he's better sound op than your wife, hire him.

Good luck.

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18 minutes ago, resonate said:

Find a local sound student. Hear what he has been doing previously. If he's better sound op than your wife, hire him.

Good luck.

Sorry - could not resist:

Find a local sound student. Hear what SHE has been doing previously. If she's better…..

Cheers

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2 hours ago, James Bull said:

I'm sorry, but how can you know what you are listening to if you are not listening critically? 

Perhaps I should rephrase, but if you don't know what to listen for, then you can listen as "critically" as anyone else, but have no idea how to apply what you are hearing to the project.

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Expanding on the mic placement theme...

  Heres my advice.... If your shooting this project and have creative control...The best thing you can do to get the best possible audio is shoot in such a way that will allow for your mics to get to where they need to be...  This and a GOOD mic... a recorder, a decent boom pole and someone to handle it properly and your on your way... (so to speak)..

 

Shoot an old school style....A wide master doing the best you can to get your audio, if a scratch so be it... Then bump in for your coverage allowing proper mic placement for scenes that really matter... Failure to allow the boom mics in a proper position because of funky camera framing and the use of multiple cameras, (although saving time)  pushes you to lesser sounding solutions... This has been the pitfall of modern filming it seems these days...  "Lav everyone up, use them for everything... shoot wide shots and close ups at the same time"...   This "Style" of shooting is responsible for more funky sounding projects than the use of  a Zoom or a Sound Devices machine...

  Get a good recorder, a nice mic, place it correctly, get your gain structure figured out and shoot it in a way that allows your mic to get in there where it needs to be, and your project will sound as good as it can given the circumstances of a micro budget....

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12 hours ago, Eric F Adams said:

Glen - I believe that (AT875) is my weak link too.  What would you recommend? 

Maybe a Rode NTG1? Those are not awful for cheap mics. Maybe a used NTG-3? All better than the inexplicably still-used Sennheiser ME66. But there's so much else to address... Great advice and comments from everyone else so far.

Perhaps dig into a good book about production and post audio. Like Jay Rose's:

http://www.greatsound.info

00PGS4eCoverSm.jpg

 

And I'm not trying to be a snob (and I'm hardly a senior expert around here), but you might find some thoughts about super-low-end audio in a forum such as DV Info (which I don't follow regularly so don't have knowledge about the quality of the info)

http://www.dvinfo.net

 

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Also, I notice that some talent voice project much better than others. Some scenes, the sound is amazing and others it was poor. I need better consistency

 

Note: you're describing an actor problem.  Better gear won't fix this, and it can only be mitigated with good technique. 

The 416 is a great mic outdoors and can be great indoors if it's not a reflective room. 

 

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I think you see that the sense of the meeting here is that you are throwing good money after bad in that you think you can figure out how to get good sound on your own, with minimal experience if you get the right gear.  It's ok, it's a very common hallucination--I clean up sound recorded by filmmakers like you all the time in post.  I understand the attraction of not including anyone in your crew beyond family, but I can tell you that I would be a little alarmed if I went to your nurse-wife's workplace and found an amateur standing by to treat me instead of her, right?  A silly analogy?  Not really: your sound is of life and death importance to your film.  My guess is that you want to buy equipment because you like gear--we all understand that surely.  But before you go down the rabbit hole trying out and buying more sound gear for yourself (and it is a very deep hole, as the folks on this forum can tell you), consider what's best for the eventual film the audience will see and hear.  Finding good crew, somehow, is part of the brief of a good director.

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My book was written for people in your situation: filmmakers with good visual sense and ideas, but no idea why their tracks aren't up to snuff. You can do much better with the equipment you've got... if you take the time to learn and use it properly.

If you don't want to pay $35 for the book (Amazon), at least check the info and free tutorials linked from the book's website: GreatSound.info.

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1 hour ago, Eric F Adams said:

 I did hire (and paid dearly) for a couple of post sound guys to come in and fine tune the sound.  They are pros and work at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge.  Dang, that was expensive. lol.  

So you ended up paying for it in the end. As a former post guy with some production experience (and now in manufacturing), I can tell you that you will save yourself a LOT of headache by getting someone that knows what they are doing to be your production sound mixer. Would you hand over your camera to someone who doesn't know how to use it? 
If you get a knowledgable sound mixer on production, you will save yourself from possibly having to do ADR (with the above mentioned suggestions) AND your post sound people can spend their time doing what they are supposed to do, actually edit your dialogue, record your Foley and edit sound effects, and then do a final mix. If you are paying for someone to fix bad dialogue, you won't have money for the other things, and in the end your sound is STILL not good. 

I understand your scheduling issues and budget issues, and I used to run into this kind of thing all the time when I was just starting out as a freelance sound editor. I was lucky enough in the start of my career to be able to learn a lot from the very professionals responding to you right now in this thread, and one thing I learned very quickly, is that getting better results requires time and a proper budget. There is no magic bullet that will solve your current issues unless changes to scheduling and budget happen. That is, of course, unless everyone involved on the project happens to be experts in their field, has very flexible schedules, and is willing to work for nothing, which means you'd be relying on friends that have the skills you need for these positions. 

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The sound is where the judgement of quality of the film comes into play.-------Really

     If the camera is shaky,thats art.If the sound is shaky,thats crap.

                                                                                                J.D.

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all the above is great advice; when you upgrade your mic and maybe the recorder (zaxcom zfr 100 or sound devices 702t) you should learn how to be a boom op/recordist then look for some worky worky and make some money money.

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A truism that crops up often is, "If you think a professional sound person is expensive, wait until you find out what it costs you when you hire an amateur." (Apologies if someone has already quoted that here.)

I've counseled many beginning filmmakers and what I've found is that the three most frequently critical areas that separate amateurish productions from good ones are: 1) Script, 2) Acting, 3) Sound.

Notice that "pretty pictures" doesn't show up in the list.

To echo what J.D. said, here is a quote of mine:

"If the picture is dark and murky, it's a creative choice. If the sound sucks, it's a bad movie."
-- John Blankenship, CAS

All the advice above is good.  If you're still going the super low budget route, pay particular attention to the comment about contacting a school in your area for a college student who is pursuing a career in film sound.  Choose carefully and you will probably hear an improvement in your tracks.  It's likely it still won't be up to full professional standards, but could be improved over what you're doing now.

I hope you don't think any of what we're offering is overly harsh.  Keep in mind that this is a discussion group for working sound professionals.  It's kinda like you going to a forum by and for experienced law enforcement personnel and asking, "If I buy a gun and a badge what quick tips can you give me to be a great cop?  I need to be able to arrest someone next week.  Oh, and what does 'probable cause' mean?"

 

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You just said you can afford to shoot 16mm because of your good job. We are ALL suggesting that you consider spending less on film and processing, and more on better sound. Where are you showing your films? If on YouTube, there is no reason at all to be wasting good money on film. There just isn't. You can stop asking for advice right now if you're not willing to reevaluate you distribution of resources.

If you want to show your films at film festivals, then go to film festivals. Seeing professional movies (almost exclusively shot on HD, by the way) will not give you a frame of reference. Professional films are shot by professionals. And don't be fooled by the indies. If a movie is shot "low budget", it has gone through all kinds of polishing after the fact before ending up at your local cineplex. Go to film festivals. Watch the films you will be "competing" against. I assure you that if you go to a film festival, you will come back with an entirely new view of where your money should be spent.

You have come here for advice. Please heed it. Not just from me, but from the others. 

You are in Louisiana. I bet there are PILES of camera operators that need DP credits. I bet there are PILES of boom operators that want sound mixer credits. Find those people. They might work for very little and help you A LOT.

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RE:  What you'll be getting via the college student route. 

Talk to the professors who teach the relevant courses.  They'll know who are the most promising sound students and how hungry they are.  Your professional instincts will help you cull out who is giving it to you straight and who may just be trying to find any practical experience they can for their students.  I think you'll be surprised by how forthcoming and helpful they are. 

Also, understand that you have something to offer in return.  Many of these kids are making their own films, and some could benefit greatly in having a trained law enforcement professional as an adviser on their project.

>> "Your analogy is a little harsh with "what does probable cause mean?  lol.   I am not that naive to film making."

I was simply making an analogy that I still think is pretty spot on.  How many people in the general public actually know the specifics and particulars of "probable cause"? -- mostly just what they've seen on television cop shows.  Keep in mind that real learning begins when someone understands how much it is that they DON'T know.

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1 hour ago, Eric F Adams said:

 

Dfisk.  So you saying to have a sound guy on the set and then that same guy will all foley, effects and final mix.  Production and post (all sound) ? If it was a student, how much would an average student charge for project like that? And I live in the country....45 minutes from city (Baton Rouge- LSU University) All shooting will be done in my small town.  

 

 

No. having your production sound person do all your post is not completely unheard of, but it is also extremely rare. I did mention a production sound person, and then I said "post sound people". Usually the post people is a separate group of people. On a typical shoot, the production sound mixer does their job, then moves on to the next project while the first job is in post. I personally have done production sound and post sound, but that was a very rare occasion in the video game world and I had the unique set of skills to get it done efficiently on a very a-typical type production (for the time, anyway), and even then, on the post side of things, we had a large team to get it all done. I know that's unrealistic given your budget, but what my point was is that in the end, on your last project, you ended up paying for sound in the long run because you said the cost to clean up the dialogue in post was expensive. You experience exactly what John Blankenship was talking about...if you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur. 

Another point I was making is that getting good production sound frees up your post sound team to be creative. A post sound budget only covers a certain amount of time. Your team can spend their time fixing stuff, or they can spend their time being creative and adding to your project. 

And related to all of that is the core point...in order to increase the level of what you are doing you need to realize that you'll need to make changes in terms of budgeting and scheduling. 

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