Let’s put the bad news right up front:

Sound seems simple, but it’s actually one of the most difficult parts of typical video production to understand and get right. This is partly because we so often underestimate its importance in the overall scheme of things.

To underscore this reality I have a simple demonstration I do in every seminar I teach on sound-related topics.
First, I instruct the class to look around and get comfortable that they are in a safe and secure environment. Then I ask them all to close their eyes for a moment.

When all eyes are closed, I loudly announce. “My name is Bill Davis. I live in Scottsdale, Arizona and I’ve been making videos professionally for more than 20 years.”

Next, I ask them to open their eyes, and I SILENTLY mouth the words “I’ve been married to my wife Linda for more than twenty-five years and I have one son named Mike.”

Confronting their puzzled glances I quickly say, “OK, you’ve just experienced the SOUND without the PICTURE—followed by the PICTURE without the SOUND. Which gave YOU more useful information?”

The point of the exercise is to acknowledge that quite often sound is MORE important than the picture.
Sound information might be in the form of dialog, narration, or even the scene-setting background of the location, but make no mistake, SOUND is often doing the communications “heavy lifting” in movies and on TV.

Yet, too often we either struggle with it or ignore it.

And we do so at our peril.
To drive home my point, I typically follow up that first sound exercise with another almost as dramatic.
I hold up a small camcorder and tell the class I am about to choose a volunteer to shoot some simple footage of the class, including a wide shot and some close-ups of a couple of individuals.

When I ask for hands, many go up. But then I pause and say, “Oh, by the way, this camera is a bit unusual. I’ve taped the LCD Screen shut with gaffers tape and I’ve disabled the eyepiece, so there’s actually no way to SEE what you’re shooting.” “Who wants the job now?”

Typically, all hands will drop.
People just aren’t comfortable shooting pictures without being able to see what they are recording. I can understand that. After all, how can you tell if you’re doing something right if you can’t monitor your work?

But wait a second, we just talked about the fact that audio is at least as important as the video, right? And, possibly more so?
My last question brings home the point.

“How many of you commonly go out and use your camcorder without a pair of these?” And I reach down and pull out a pair of audio headphones. Addressing the show of hands, I say, “So you’re not okay about SHOOTING VIDEO without SEEING  it—but you’re perfectly okay about RECORDING SOUND without HEARING it?”

For most audiences, these two exercises change their perception of the importance of audio. Permanently, I hope.

Audio is not particularly intuitive for most people. We don’t see sound waves, so it’s hard to understand how to improve our recordings without studying the physics of sound. But there is one simple variable about how sound works that when you understand it, will lead to much better audio recordings.
The single most critical factor in sound recording is the DISTANCE between whatever’s making the sound and the microphone that’s recording it. Sound largely obeys the inverse square principal from physics. Double the distance from a sound source to the microphone and the level drops by a factor of 4. Triple the distance and the level drops by a factor of 9. So if your camera is 10 feet away from someone speaking, the sound of the voice will be one hundred times softer than if your camera was one foot away!

So MOVE CLOSER. Better yet, forgo the on-camera mic all together and get an external microphone on a cable so that you can move the mic closer to your subject. This is what you see reporters do all the time, using a handheld mic to feed the audio back to the camera during interview.

In sound, the primary for better results is simple.
The closer you can get a mic to the sound, the better your sound will be.
Next time: Post Production with EDITING!

Bill Davis is a video professional with more than two decades experience producing, writing, shooting, and editing video. He spent 10 years as Contributing Editor at Videomaker Magazine and conducts seminars and lectures nationwide on the art and craft of videomaking. He is the author and producer of the Videocraft Workshop series of video editing training programs, including the START EDITING NOW! Classroom Workshop Edition.