Recording good audio is critical when shooting news stories. To put it more bluntly: Bad audio IS bad video! Research shows that audiences will tolerate occasionally poor video as long as there is a strong audio track and the story is compelling. But if your audio track is overmodulated (too loud), or distorted, or too weak, it won’t matter how gorgeous your video is. The audience won’t stick around just to watch pretty pictures that have no meaning. Your audio adds context and carries the story along, especially when you’re relying on voice-overs and soundbites.

Here is a series of audio tutorials from the Media College web site. They have useful information about how microphones pick up sound, an explanation of the various types of mics, and how to use mics properly.

In addition, here are “5 Sound Rules to Live By,” courtesy of Anthony Q. Artis, author of The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide. And, yes, these are RULES. They are not meant to be broken. This is your safety checklist!

1. Get the mic as close as possible to the source of the sound — without it being a distraction in the shot.

2. ALWAYS USE HEADPHONES (the caps are mine….for good reason).

3. Monitor the sound levels from the camera. You should watch the audio meter in the camera and listen with headphones. It doesn’t matter what the audio sounds like to the naked ear. You need to hear what’s being recorded by the camera.

4. Scout your locations for sound problems. If possible, arrive early and scope out the location for any issues that might affect audio recording — like a nearby airport, railroad tracks, hospital, or busy street. Plan to make adjustments based on the location. If you need to move around the side of a building to shield yourself from loud noises, do it. Even offices can have noises that can affect your audio. Checking out the location in advance will allow you to make adjustments before you start shooting.

5. Always record “wild” (natural) sound. You should obviously do this every time you shoot b-roll because natural sound adds context to your story. It helps establish the location and gives viewers a sense of how it feels to be in that location. That said: it’s also important to record natural sound everywhere you shoot, even a quiet office where you tape an interview. The purpose is to have at least one minute of uninterrupted background sound that can be used to smooth out inconsistencies in your audio tracks while editing. When recording nat sound, make sure you and other members of your production crew are silent. Don’t chit-chat in the background. You need to record pure, unembellished sound from the location. You should also follow Rules 1, 2, and 3 when recording nat sound!!!

Good Audio in Action
Now that we’ve covered some audio basics, let’s see how the professionals use these techniques to create memorable stories. The story below was produced by Scott Rensberger, a video journalist who’s won dozens of awards for his work. This story is about a nature photographer. Listen closely to the audio. Notice how Rensberger uses natural sound to punctuate key moments in the story. Listen for the nat “pops” throughout the story, and also the consistent use of nat sound under the soundbites and narration. As discussed in class, the goal is to take the viewer inside the story. Good natural sound helps you do just that!

Here’s another story with abundant natural sound. In fact, we could call this a “nat sound package.” This type of story does not have a reporter’s narration track. The soundbites are the narration, and they are punctuated with natural sound. So you could say the nat sound does a lot of the talking. It feels more like a short documentary. Watch it closely, then watch again, but focus your attention on the audio.