4 Myths about Location Sound

Producers, especially new ones with tight budgets, sometimes labor under misconceptions about the true value and cost of production sound. Many experienced sound mixers offer these words as advice.

Myth #1 - Sound is less important than your picture.

Many new filmmakers or producers think this is the case, and it has actually been proven to be the opposite by several focus group studies by major studios and smaller acoustic societies. With the dawn of Youtube and similar outlets our public have become conditioned to accept shaky cameras, grungy looks, and bad lighting as visual style. . . as long as they can hear clearly.

Audiences will sub-consciously or consciously lose interest, change what they are viewing, or completely turn off within 30 seconds of being subjected to bad sound.

What is bad sound? Bad sound includes dialog that is indistinguishable through the background noise, muffled voices, and sound that doesn't match the visual perspective.

Good sound brings an aural image to the visual and actually brings dialogue forward because it's clear and present. It may not seem complicated, but it takes experience and knowledge.

Myth #2 - The camera costs much more than the sound gear. You can put an adequate sound package together for a few hundred dollars .

When comparing the price of a good camera and its tripod (which are the basic essential gear for a shooter), versus the gear for an even adequate "bag" sound package, the investment in sound gear surpasses the costs of the camera.

This has not always been the case, but starting 20 years ago with the advent of lower-cost digital video it's a solid fact. Here is an example of a basic sound package provided by a typical location sound person with a "bag system":
-Portable 4-channel field mixer ($2500),
-Boom poles + mic mount + zeppelin + windmuff ($1000),
-Boom mic ($2500)
-Shotgun mic ($1600)
-Lavalier transmitter/receiver combo ($2400 per mic combo),
-Lavalier mics ($280 - $400 ea),
-Portable 4- or 10-track Recorder ($3500 - $9500)
-Audio & data cables/connectors ($700)

Plus investment in equipment on hand for rental as needed: additional wireless mics, digital camera hops, wireless IFP for director/producers, Time Code slates and lock boxes, etc.

The basic sound package to record high quality sound, with latest generation digital wirelesses and multi-track recorders, will cost $17,000 to $24,000 and up -- often equal to or more than the cost of the HD camera used for the shoot. (Cart-based sound packages with more gear are even higher).

By contrast, a competitive daily rental of a very basic gear package from any indie-friendly rental house anywhere in the country starts at $250-350/day, wireless mics extra.

This is why sound people must charge for use of their equipment.

Myth #3 - Anyone can do sound

We've all witnessed several productions willing to train a well-intentioned PA to learn sound "on the job", resulting in mostly unusable production sound.

Problems that come from inexperience include: boom in the shot, subjects being off-mic or too far away to be usable, distortion and unbalanced levels, clothing noise from poor mic placement, RF noise on wireless channels, and continued shooting through sirens and plane noise without the sound person notifying the director, or AD, or DP Result: even more surprises and problems in post-production that could have been done correctly on location.

I heard of an entire feature film requiring ADR due to an inexperienced sound team with no training or previous professional experience. The producer found out the hard way that one can make a better film and save expenses by engaging competent sound mixers from the start, rather than draining completion funds to "fix it in post."

Here's the learning opportunity: Let your friends be PAs. Let someone with experience record the sound.

Myth #4 - "Material for their reel" as an incentive to work for free

Have you ever listened to a sound operator's reel? No? That's because experienced recordists don't need reels. Few people know what to listen for, and sound tracks out of context don't demonstrate much. Plus, sound reels can be misleading and easily manipulated. Experienced sound recordists don't use them. Our work comes through building relationships and references.

Bonus Myth #5 - You can reasonably expect people to work for an unfair wage

Getting a DVD, screen credit, pizza and "it will be a rewarding experience working with fun people" can be good to "pay your dues" and learn the craft. Fair enough, but professional mixers who excel in their craft and have invested heavily in gear must support maintenance expenses and business overhead. To do so they must receive a fair wage for their work and equipment.

All of us donate time to good causes. And we all need to make a living, too.