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Getting the Best Dialog Sound for Your Video Production

By Karl Winkler

If you’re reading this, it probably means that you’re doing some video production. These days, who isn’t? The combination of readily available and affordable technology, the Pandemic, and the general shift to information via video sources has brought about the creation of millions of new videos a day. Unfortunately, mediocre to bad sound is more common than it should be. Mainly, many people give a certain amount of care to the look of their content by getting ring lights, curating their background environments, and using decent cameras. But let’s face it, most videos we see now are done with phones, which have become quite good. Frankly, the sound quality of most modern phones when recording videos can be pretty good, too. So, what’s the problem?

First off, the distance between the microphone and the subject is often too great. It is very rare that any “on camera microphone” sounds good because there is too much “room” in the sound, and not enough directly from the source (the speaker’s voice). Most video professionals use stationary, good-quality microphones for sit-down style interviews. By mounting a directional microphone on a tall stand, looking down on the subject from just a few feet above, a very clean, clear voice can be captured for dialog or a sermon. This technique can be used when the camera shots are fairly tightly framed around the subjects. Microphones typically used for this are the “shotgun” type made by a number of manufacturers and can range in price from $300 up to $2,000. One of the classics is the Sennheiser MKH416, in the middle of this price range. These microphones would then require an input device to provide power to the mic and then transfer the sound into the camera, computer or phone. The minimum would be something like the iRig Pre. Something better would be a Sound Devices MixPre 3.

Another way to mic your on-camera talent is to use a lav microphone. This can be trickier than using a shotgun mic, because lav placement and concealment is a bit of an art. That said, companies like Bubblebee Industries and Rycote make a slew of lav mic mounting solutions to prevent rustle, wind noise, and still keep the mic invisible when required. There are many good lav mic manufacturers out there, from Point Source Audio, Countryman, DPA, Sanken, and others. These mics need power, too, and often have small connectors, so the proper interface is needed. If you are using DPA microphones, their MMA-A interface is a great choice. An alternative to lav mics that works very well for speeches, sermons, and addressing viewers directly, is the ear-mounted microphone. It is easy to place, sounds great, and you won’t have any problem with clothing rustle or the voice going off-axis when the subject turns their head. The only downside is that it is visible, which may or may not be an issue depending on your project.

And if your production needs to be mobile, for instance because your on-air talent is walking & talking, or dancing, or moving in any other way, you should consider wireless audio for the lav or ear-worn microphone. Like good shotgun mics, wireless mic systems are available for a wide range of prices, from a few hundred, to many thousands per channel. I generally recommend that if you want the sound quality to be decent and also avoid the common frustrations with using cheap wireless systems, to start at around $500 per channel. Companies like Sennheiser, Shure, Lectrosonics, and Sony make a range of good quality systems just for this purpose. Another option is to use a small recorder that is hidden on the talent, like the Lectrosonics MTCR. The same challenges exist for the mic placement as discussed above in the lav mic section. Again, ear-worn or headworn mics can solve a lot of these problems. And, if you using a recorder rather than a wireless mic, you have to find a way to sync the audio and video files. The pros use timecode – a central clock on set that everything is sync’d to. But, a simple clap at the beginning of each take puts a nice spike on the audio and video sound tracks allowing you to easily sync the tracks in your video editor.

Then, the last thing to consider is that you must know a little bit about audio to get the most out of any of the above equipment. The number one most important thing to get right is your audio gain structure. This means that you’ll want to turn up the gain on your mic preamp or transmitter input high enough to get a good, solid signal, but not so high that you hear distortion on the audio peaks. Another important concept is to always test your setup – in other words, listen carefully to your test video for any problems like a nagging background noise, clothing rustle, distortion, hum, or otherwise bad audio – then take steps to remedy any of those issues. Learning to be a critical listener the way we are critical when looking at ourselves in the video is key to getting better at the audio side of things. There are plenty of online video tutorials for getting better sound in your videos. Curtis Judd, for instance, is a popular YouTuber who reviews equipment and provides video tutorials.

Finally, don’t be afraid to tweak the audio on your main subject dialog track in the video editing software. For starters, you’ll want to make sure the level is nice and full, with peaks coming fairly close (say, within 1 or 2 dB) of max level. And, you can add audio equalization if needed – boosting a little bit of upper frequencies is common, and cutting extreme lows to remove rumble from outside traffic, etc. Remember, there’s nothing in the human voice below about 70 Hz – you can generally cut everything below that. But again – be sure to listen to your tracks and compare them to other, good videos along the way.

Karl Winkler is a 25-year veteran of the professional audio industry and is currently Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Lectrosonics, Inc. Karl will be presenting more about wireless microphones at Church Facilities Conference & Expo in Dallas, taking place September 21-22, 2021. Register now with promo code CPED20 to save 20% off select conference passes.