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Three tips for recording great documentary sound

Documentaries are an important way of communicating facts or telling real-life stories in the form of filmmaking. They don't need to be as high-budget as a Hollywood blockbuster either, but can easily tell a powerful slice-of-life tale on minimal expenditure. 

However, one thing that could let any documentary down - even one with a fantastic story - is bad audio. Here are our tips for helping get the best sound for your film.

1. Invest in the right recording equipment

First and foremost, to start yourself off the right way, it would be wise to purchase a quality recording microphone. Your budget will largely define what you should get, but remember one thing: People notice bad sound more than they notice bad video, so don't be afraid to spend what you need in order to get the right equipment. 

People notice bad sound more than they notice bad video, so don't be afraid to spend what you need in order to get the right equipment.

If you intend on using a DSLR camera without XLR inputs, we recommend the versatile RØDE VideoMic Pro. This is a convenient shotgun mic that can be fixed to a standard camera shoe mount, or even mounted on a mini tripod closer to the talent using an extension cable, such as the RØDE VC1, positioned just out of frame. However, if you have a boom and an external digital recording device (as you almost certainly should), consider instead the broadcast-quality NTG3 or NTG8, with a blimp or deadcat for wind protection.

2. Be careful of clothing rustle

If you go with the RØDE Lavalier, smartLav+ or PinMic option for your sit-down interviews, be wary of clothing rustle. The folly of many documentary sound recordists is attempting to hide a lapel mic, only to find the subject's clothing is brushing it too loudly, causing unwanted sound defects.

The PinMic is likely your better option if you are concerned with mic visibility, as it designed for this very purpose. Otherwise you can use a device to hide the microphone such as RØDE's invisiLav mounts. It's not a major problem for the mic to be seen in a documentary or interview scenario however, so it's better to opt for superior audio over obscuring the microphone in most cases.

3. Think about location

Though following a subject may feel like you are stuck in whichever location they happen by, most instances will allow for some degree of flexibility in location choice. For example, if you are recording an event with a large crowd, you could encourage your subject to a quieter corner or adjoining room. Most people are quite willing to work with a filmmaker, though this of course does depend on the situation.

If you find yourself unable to exclude a particular sound from the environment - the classic example being a public fountain - you'll find that if you include it subtly in the back of the shot, your audience will automatically tune it out. It is a much greater nuisance if it is audible but not seen.

As for sit-down interviews themselves, ensure you follow standard interior recording procedure and find a well-furnished room with a carpet and few bare walls. 

As a back-up, we recommend recording at least 30 seconds of generic room tone for each location you visit, so you have something to cut to in post should you need to work a little magic. This can be used in conjunction with video cutaways, which your camera person can acquire.