Film sound basics

by Tom Barrance

Film sound is as important as pictures. Unless you’re making a silent film, you should pay at least as much attention to sound as you do to the images.

There are lots of ways to use sound. You can use sound to help show where and when the film is set, draw attention to important things, create an atmosphere or set a mood, depict a character, warn that something is about to happen.

If you can’t record good live sound, fake the sound. It’s better to put your soundtrack together on the computer when you edit rather than have bad sound.

Use a separate microphone. You could use a directional microphone or a tieclip (‘lavalier’) microphone. Or you could use a separate audio recorder and sync the sound up afterwards.

If you have to use an in-camera or on-camera microphone, get in close. Zoom out and get as close as you can to your subject.

Get the sound levels right. Very loud sound can distort; very quiet sound can have ‘hiss’.

Use sound like you use closeups. Instead of just recording what your on-camera microphone picks up, build up your soundtrack from individual sounds. Try getting close or using a separate audio recorder to do this.

Listen BEFORE you shoot. Get everyone to be quiet and wait for a minute before you start recording, so you can hear if there’s any distracting background sound.

Listen WHILE you shoot. Use headphones to monitor the sound while you’re recording if you can. If not, record a test bit and play it back to check that it’s OK.

Shoot away from distracting sounds. If there’s a lot of background sound you can’t avoid, set up your shot so that it’s behind you.

Use a wind gag. If you’re filming outside you almost certainly need a furry windshield. Wind noise can make your video unlistenable.

Record silence. Get some ‘room tone’: a minute or so of the background sound from the location with nothing happening. It’s really useful for covering gaps and glitches when you edit.

Use sound to help the edit flow. Changing the sound at a different time to the picture (called ‘split edits’, ‘sound bridges’, ‘J-cuts’ or ‘L-cuts’) makes the editing seem less obvious.

Adjust the sound levels when you edit. Don’t have sound suddenly getting louder or quieter from shot to shot. Reduce background sounds and music if you need to so that dialogue is audible.

Clear music rights before you use the music. If you want to use a particular piece of copyright music in your film, make sure you can get the rights – it’s not always possible.

See also

Sound inspirations
Examples of how great film directors have used sound.

Using sound in your film
Different kinds of sound and music and how you can use them to tell your story.

Sound equipment
Choosing microphones, headphones and audio recorders.