Stupid Indie Tricks: No-Budget Audio Recording for Indie Filmmakers

“If it sounds good, it looks good.”

This is a Hollywood mantra which should also be engraved in the heads of everyone who wants to shoot a film of any kind. It doesn’t matter if it’s a narrative film or a documentary, nothing will turn an audience off from watching your film faster than bad audio.

But, what if all you’ve got to make your whole production is a couple of smartphones?

You’re in luck, because that’s exactly what you need!

Cellphones are designed to capture fairly good quality audio and send it winging off through the airwaves, so they’re fine for recording sound for your movie too- provided that you keep a few simple things in mind:

  1. Cellphone Mics are designed to be short ranged, because they’re supposed to be focussing on the owner’s voice and not the ambient noise around them. The makers of Smartphones assume their owners will be walking through crowded urban areas and talking on them, and design accordingly.
  2. Cellphone Mics are directional, so they’re designed to pick up sound in a cone out from the bottom of the phone. (Where the owner’s mouth is most likely to be found, if they’re human.)
  3. Cellphone Mics are mono, since the designer assume that nobody needs stereo sound during a normal phone conversation.

If you remember these things, and plan accordingly, you can then start to use them to capture sound for your film.

First, however, you will need a recording App for you phone. If you’re using an iPhone I recommend getting a copy of the R0DE Rec LE App, which can do pretty much everything you need and is free! It’s one of those Apps that doesn’t have a crippled Free version, but which has a Pro version that just unlocks a lot more features.

If you’re using an Android, you might try one of these Apps.

Once you’ve got an App and a phone, you’re ready to go!

So here’s a few tricks you use to seriously improve your sound quality…

Trick One: Doubleshot

For this trick, you simply film your scene twice, once in close-up, and once farther away at whatever distance you want the majority of the scene to be at. Then, when you edit the scene you use the close-up audio (which has the better quality) with the farther away footage. Ta-dah! You have the sound quality of being close up, but you have the distance away from the actors you want for the scene. You also have two sets of distances you can jump between to make the scene more interesting visually.

When doing this, I also recommend using an elastic to attach a credit card or some other card to your phone to make your sound more directional. The video below demonstrates why….

One minor thing to remember, though, is that both takes need to have almost identical delivery by the actors, otherwise the close-up sound won’t match up with the footage from farther away.

Trick Two: Multi-Phone Recording

Generally, the best recording will almost always be done not by the Camera Mic, but by a separate Mic located on or near the actors or subjects. Since most people have more than one phone available to them (use a friend’s or relative’s!) you simply record video with one phone and audio with another, and then join them together in post production.

This video shows the advantages of this technique…

But, this technique is also useful on-set and in quieter locations, and in fact that’s where it really shines.

As Lee says in that video, you can place the phones on the actor’s bodies to function as Mics, and use things like the Earbud Mic as a mini-lapel Mic to hide on the actors and get better quality audio. I’ve experimented with placing my iPhone upside-down (with the Mic facing me) in my shirt’s breast pocket with pretty good results. You might need to use more than one phone to record, and then mix all the audio sources together in Post-Production, but that’s still a huge improvement over the sound you might get otherwise and produces totally useable results.

One last trick you can use with this method is to hide the additional phone being used to record somewhere on the set near the actors with the Mic pointed up and towards the actors. Say, if you have two people at a table and then slip the phone behind a box of tissues or a picture so that it can pick up the sound while remaining hidden. Of course, since it’s in contact with the table it may also pick up vibrations from the actors touching the table, so use carefully!

These aren’t my tricks, but things I’ve picked up while I’ve researched Cellphone Filmmaking, so I thought I’d put them together and pass them along. Try them out, and if they can make your audio sound better, you’re halfway there to producing a higher quality film!