*** be sure and check the bottom of the post for a special bonus! ***
the last film I produced and directed was made on a shoe-string budget. as with any independent production, we had to find the balance between professional quality and cost-efficiency. unfortunately, the first place most independent productions skimp is with audio. this is a compromise we weren’t willing to make.
audio is half your movie.
if you don’t record good production audio and don’t have professional-level sound design, it doesn’t matter what camera you shoot with or how good the story is. i, like many others, have seen both sides of this beast. bad audio can ruin an otherwise well-done film. professional sounding audio immediately takes your film to the next level.
for post audio, i have some really good friends in the upper echelons of post-production sound in the Hollywood Industry. my buddy Mark Messick mixed the sound for Sleepwalking on his home ProTools rig. another friend Josh Chase did the score, composing and recording it himself in his home studio. having friends who make the sacrifice for you is a huge plus for a young filmmaker (i’m still young, right?). hopefully it won’t be long before i can repay their generosity with some awesome paying gigs.
post-production sound design can make or break your indie project, but production audio is also crucial. if you don’t get the dialogue recorded cleanly on set, then you’ll have to do ADR/looping (re-recording of dialogue) in post, which just never sounds quite right without experienced professionals at the controls.
the “Time to Pass” setup
me, DP Jim O’Keeffe, and sound mixer Joey Robertson
production of this film (called “Time to Pass”) was going to be challenging as we would be in a lot of tight spaces. apart from the small house we were shooting in, we also had some dialogue scenes in a car, so the sound setup needed to be a one- (or no) man show in order to fit in the backseat with the director of photography, camera assistant, and director (me). also, we didn’t have money to rent a nice audio package, meaning we had to go with what we could piece together.
luckily, a friend lent me his Sennheiser shotgun mic. the mic is to the audio what the lens is to the picture. if you have a great camera and a crappy lens, you’ll get crappy images. if you can only afford to rent one thing, rent a nice mic. they’re not terribly expensive. once you have a great mic, the recording mechanism is less crucial, especially if you’re recording digitally.
Joey Robertson was our production sound mixer, and a lot of this was his idea, but we decided to use FiRe (iTunes link) and an iPhone 4 to record all of the production audio. he even invested the initial cost of buying the cables we hobbled together to make it work. it worked great, but I’ll spare you the setup. the iRig makes it so simple and is actually cheaper than the combo of cables and adapters we bought. if only we’d had one then!
the Sennheiser is XLR, and the iRig is 1/4″ mono, so you’ll need an adapter. i tried an XLR to 1/4″ mono conversion cable, but that doesn’t work; the levels don’t come through correctly. you’ll need a metal XLR female to 1/4″ male adapter you can get at Radio Shack (the silver part in the photo up top and below). it has a Lo-z Balanced to Hi-z Unbalanced translator built-in, which i guess is what makes the difference.
note: this particular model of Sennheiser has a built-in powerpak, powered by a AA battery. this setup won’t work with a mic that requires external phantom power. if you’re renting your mic, make sure it is self-powered.
since you’ll need some distance between the iPhone and the mic, you’ll need a great XLR cable between the mic and the Radio Shack adapter. the iRig has an 1/8″ out for headphones. you can use the iPhone headphones, or any standard set of stereo headphones.
lastly, Joey bought an armband for his iPhone (seen above) which let him use two hands on the boom while he was recording. between takes, he could quickly start a new recording and rename it to match the scene and take number on the slate.
files can be transferred from FiRe a number of ways, but the easiest is browser access. like many iOS apps, just make sure the iPhone or iPod Touch are on the same wifi network. you can then connect to FiRe’s file management system via any web browser. then you can download the files quickly and painlessly. we downloaded them to Dropbox, of course, meaning the editor had near-instant access to the audio at the end of the production day.
this same setup was also used to record hard effects, foley, and ADR for “Time to Pass.” i transferred the picture lock cut to my iPad via iTunes (or Dropbox). using my iPad as a monitor, the talent could see and hear their previous performance as i recorded them with my iPhone/FiRe setup. this is also how i walked foley.
it’s a great setup for its portability. find any quiet, acoustically-dead area wherever you are. i’ve gotten professional quality foley while sitting in the floor of my nieces’ playroom.
don’t have an iPad? i believe FiRe records while backgrounded, so you can try playing the movie while recording. i have not yet tried this setup, though. if you try it out, let me know how it turns out.
also, for podcasting
i also do app reviews for macgasm.net. Editor-in-Chief Joshua Schnell recently adopted the iRig setup for recording the macgasm podcast:
“FiRe only records the line-in signal. This means you can connect with a voice Skype call, then background it. You’ll be able to hear the Skype conversation in your headphones, as well as the mic audio. The iRig plus FiRe give you a complete, professional-sounding, self-contained podcast recording setup.”
remember that iOS devices are 44.1kHz, meaning it won’t record at 48kHz, the standard for film and digital video. but even Hollywood professionals will tell you the difference is indiscernible. any rendering time in Final Cut is minimal as 44.1k files generally play in real-time. besides, you can talk specs all day, but the bottom line is, “how does it sound?” it sounds great.
iRig + FiRe is a professional-sounding, low-cost solution for indie filmmakers looking to make the most of their budget. it meets audio needs in production and in post.
just don’t skimp on the mic.
Joey’s Cavalier was used for Time to Pass, and we did a bunch of hard effects recording with it before he got his muffler repaired so it would match with production audio. sadly, the Cavalier recently burned to a crisp on the side of the road. other than the emotional scars of losing a long-time automobile friend, Joey is okay. so in honor of the Cav, i am making the entire 2000 Chevy Cavalier (with bad muffler) sound effects collection available in the downloads section.