The days that people in our industry were happy to be called “the video guy” are well and truly over. Now we are “professional videographers,” “event filmmakers,” and “wedding cinematographers.” But whatever you call yourself, Godfather Films’ John Goolsby has probably come up with the best description of who we are and what we do: “professional storyteller.” We document one of the most important moments in someone’s life and tell the story of that moment to the world (or at least to the part of the world that you and your clients decide to share it with). In our marketing strategies, we make sure we highlight the fact that a wedding day film is quite different from photographs, and that even the highest priced, highest profile photographer will not catch that sweet sentence that will change their lives, those two simple words that start a marriage: “I do.”
Although most of us will use a line like that during a sales pitch at some point, if we’re honest and look at our equipment and how we’ve spread our budget, audio often seems more of an afterthought than the key pillar of the work we produce. At Ever After, we have always tried to ensure good audio, but the importance of audio became clearest to us after we started to create short forms. The difference even the smallest of audio snippets can make to your production will often beat anything the latest gliding-sliding-magnifying gizmo can offer. When you show a bride a clip with the same images twice, once with a bad audio track and once with a good one, she will not say, “The audio on the second one was better.” She will tell you simply that the second video was better. There are tons of forum posts that will tell you how some creative editing can hide even the biggest filming mistakes. But if you miss that magical sentence “I do” or the vows that typically precede it, your only choice is to swallow your pride and ask for a do-over later that day.
The DSLR Sound Dilemma
I guess by now you’ll have realized that I’m a sucker for good audio. Because the DSLR cameras that have transformed our work visually seem to have ignored its importance, I’d like to share a few ideas on how to make sure you capture sound that is as crisp as your imagery.
Although I’ve often been able to fix some minor issues in post, you can never beat getting it right in the first place. Unfortunately, unlike what they make you believe on CSI, there are no magical mics that will crisply pick up the slightest whisper from across a football field. Getting your mic as close as possible is your first and most valuable rule of thumb for capturing professional-quality audio.
In our line of work, we typically come across a variety of production situations. In some cases, time is of the essence, and having your mic mounted on-camera is the best (or, at least, most convenient) choice. In other cases, where we have adequate setup time, an off-camera mic will be better. Each of these situations brings with it some challenges and potential problems.
Apart from using a built-in microphone (which is hardly ever a good idea), mounting a mic on your camera is, for many, the easiest solution to acquiring good audio. First of all, you need to make sure that whatever mic you use, it is fit for the type of shoot you’re doing. An omnidirectional mic will pick up sound from all directions, including the operator behind the camera, so it’s seldom a good choice for an on-camera mic.
A shotgun mic (such as the popular RODE NTG-2 or the RODE VideoMic), which will mainly pick up sound from the direction you point it in, will be better. This type of mic can give you acceptable sound as long as you’re in close proximity of the sound source. Trying to pick up a couple’s vows from the end of aisle with this type of mic will not yield great results; in fact, no on-camera mic will.
A RODE shotgun mic shockmounted on the Lumix GH2
Whatever mic you use, your two biggest enemies are wind and other ambient noises. To avoid handling noises, you need a shockmount. There are many shockmount options available, and most manufacturers will make a specific model for their mic. We use a Rycote Universal Camera Kit, as one shockmount will fit just about all our mics, including the RODE NTG-series and the VideoMic. I realize the latter has a built-in system, but I’m sure any user will tell you that those elastic rubber bands always break! Most of us have used a fluffy windshield gizmo (sometimes referred to—at least here in the U.K.—as a “dead cat”) on our shotgun mics when shooting outdoors to avoid picking up too much wind noise. Surprisingly, not many people realize this also does wonders with overactive air conditioning units.
As DSLR file compression formats are not very audio-friendly, a lot of people have started mounting a recorder (such as the Zoom H2 or H4n) on their cameras and feeding the output to the DSLR for syncing purposes. Rycote has just released a shockmount called the Rycote Portable Recorder Audio Kit specifically for this purpose. Having used it on a few shoots, I love how it brings down the camera noise. Unfortunately, as it forces us to position the recorder a little higher, it makes monitoring the audio levels problematic at certain shooting angles. A bracket to mount the contraption to the side of your camera will, however, solve this problem.
Off-camera mics can provide you with a better quality recording, but you lose the convenience of having all your controls in one place. Any mic used on-camera can be connected to an audio recorder as well; just beware that some of these mics will need power. A camera typically provides this via the XLR connection, and some mics, such as the NTG-2, will have a battery compartment as well. Other mics might be able to draw some power (if supported) from the audio recorder, either via an XLR connection or even mini-jacks. If none of these options are available, you can always use an inline adapter to provide the necessary power. Handling noise should no longer be an issue, although a shockmount is still a good idea, especially on bouncy floors.
The various color options for windjammer lapel mics
A particular favorite off-camera mic in the wedding industry is the lapel or lavaliere mic. Most of us have at least mic’d up the groom during the ceremony with one of these, either connected to a wireless transmitter or a small audio recorder. These lapel mics can fall in two categories: omnidirectional and unidirectional. Although a unidirectional mic sounds tempting (because it will reject unwanted sounds from the sides and mostly pick up the sound source directly in front of it), it also means you’ll have to mic up a lot more people and will no longer have redundancy if disaster strikes. We typically put an omnidirectional mic on a groom so we can also pick up the bride, the celebrant, and anyone in proximity to them. Heck, if worse comes to worst, you can even get usable sound from readers several feet away from them.
The problem with lapel mics is that they tend to pick up unwanted noises such as rubbing of clothing and wind. Once again, a windjammer gizmo comes to the rescue. There are tiny versions available in different colors that are inconspicuous enough to use on a groom’s lapel mic. It will remove most of his nervous sighing and will minimize the issues an unexpectedly active AC unit might create.
A windjammer lapel mic on the groom, with a gray color that blends well
What to Use?
So what equipment should you use during specific parts of the wedding day? Each wedding is truly different. There’s not always that much that distinguishes one wedding from another in the romantic way our brides would like to believe, but there are definitely significant variations between weddings from an audio point of view.
A windjammer cover ona shotgun mic mounted on the Lumix GH2
Let’s start with the ceremony. If you’re lucky, you might get a great feed from a soundboard. This could be golden, and I would definitely recommend connecting an audio recorder there if you’re allowed. I have, however, learned that having your own system in place is never a bad idea. Miking the groom with a lapel mic (wireless or not) is pretty much a must for capturing crisp audio of the vows. Miking the celebrant in a similar way is a great bonus. For the readings, an audio recorder at the lectern will sort them out, but you might want to connect a lapel mic to this recorder and attach it to the church mic.
All of these sound sources can be pretty unpredictable when it comes to loudness, so a good autogain system will be a help. If you do set manual levels, you can always make something louder, but you can never make an overmodulated signal sound right, so keep the levels low to be safe. If you have some great musicians, get a separate sound recording close to them. A nice stereo pair on a mic stand placed high enough above them will provide great sound. However, speed can be of the essence in these circumstances, and, for our purposes, a simple recorder such as an EDIROL R-09 or a Zoom H2 has decent built-in mics that can provide a nice recording. Whatever you do, remember that “autogain is the enemy of music.” Music purposely has crescendos and decrescendos, loud and quiet sections, and capturing it with autogain will just make it completely flat with the added bonus of fluctuation hiss. Don’t use it!
An Edirol R-09 recorder shockmounted on the GH2
Toasts or speeches are the second “controlled” circumstance in a wedding day in which audio is key. Once again, plugging in to the soundboard or miking a speaker can give you marvelous audio.
Just make sure you always have your own audio recorder close to the sound source as well. We’ve had several cases where a toaster decided on the spot that he didn’t need a mic and would talk loud enough for everyone to hear.
Audio During the Day
During the rest of the wedding day (especially during the prep), you can get some snippets of audio that are so good, you couldn’t have scripted them better yourself. DSLRs have built-in mics, and if you really had to, you might be able to make these snippets usable without assistance from an additional mic.
It is, however, far better to add a decent mic (a RODE VideoMic will do) or even use a small audio recorder mounted on and fed through the camera. Even when used with autogain control, the audio will sound a lot better. Granted, not every wedding will have those unexpected golden sound moments, but trust me when I say that you’ll regret not capturing them when they do happen.
The officiant mic'd with a subtle lavaliere
Redundancy Is Key
Equipment (especially wireless kits) can malfunction, pick up interference, and even get moved or switched off by an ignoramus. Having to say “someone moved my kit” will often translate to your client as “the dog ate my homework” and make you sound about as professional as a 10-year-old. Although we always have a primary mic for our sound sources (such as a lapel mic on the groom or an EDIROL R-09 at the lectern), we always make sure that there is another mic close enough in case of a disaster. A shotgun mic on the front camera will at least get you some sound of the vows if all else fails. An omnidirectional mic on the groom will still pick up someone doing a reading, even it is indirect and has some echo on it.
Do I use some unprintable words if something (or, more likely, someone) out of my control messes up my audio and forces me to rescue whatever I can? Definitely! But at the same time I know I will always have captured those two magical words “I do” on at least one more mic.
How Much Does It Cost?
This is probably the most hated question we’re asked, but I’m sure you’ll be ready to utter that sentence yourself by now. How much will it cost to upgrade the audio you capture on-site with solid additional gear? The answer: It doesn’t have to cost that much. You can easily pick up some small audio recorders for about $100, a usable lapel mic for about $30, and a shotgun-style mic for about $150. If, however, your recording is littered with unwanted and hard-to-remove sounds, it will not be worth much. Adding a simple windshield and shockmount to a mic costs $180 for a regular mic, $10 for a pack of six lapel furries, and $160 for a shockmount/grip/windshield for your audio recorder. Total audio cost on your MasterCard: less than $1,000. Capturing those magical words: priceless!
Niels Puttemans (niels at everafter videos.co.uk) runs Ever After Video Productions of Sheffield, U.K., with his wife, Sylvia Broeckx. 2009 EventDV 25 Finalists and winners of IOV Ltd. (Institute of Videography) and WEVA CEA awards for their wedding-day films, Niels and Sylvia were presenters at WEVA Expo 2010.