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How to record natural sounds + fill your film with ambience

Story & Heart
November 11, 2015 by Story & Heart PRO

Natural sounds (sometimes referred to as “nat sounds”) may be the best way to add depth and realism to your films. They make your stories come alive in a way that your visuals can’t achieve all on their own.

While audio itself can be complicated and intimidating for many filmmakers, recording gorgeous nat sounds doesn’t have to be — nor does it require a bunch of pricey gear. Watch Boom Sizzle’s Jeremy Bircher, an audio technician and Academy of Storytellers instructor, as he shares advice on how you can record and use sound in your films to connect to your audience.

Transient sounds

Transient sounds happen quickly and abruptly. They arise sharply and cease almost instantly. Think of a footstep, a plate smashing on the ground, or a punch to the gut (ouch!).

The goal in recording transient sounds is to obtain direct sound and minimize other interferences — so get in close!

Evolving Sounds

Contrary to transient sounds, evolving sounds hang around for awhile and persist. These noises may be introduced slowly or quickly, but ultimately they decay much slower than transient sounds. In some cases, they may never completely go away. As examples, fondly recall the car horn outside your window that failed to abate, the incessant buzz of an overhead fluorescent light, or the ancient grumble of the office freight elevator.

When you record evolving sounds, your aim is to provide information about the surrounding environment by capturing more of the audio from the scene that’s taking place. Because of this, you should physically back up when needed if you’re too close to the audio source. Then, you can properly capture the setting.

Speech

Speech sound effects are kinda self-explanatory: they involve the voice. You may hear them referred to as “walla.” Often, these are the background conversations that make a scene feel human.

Unlike transient and evolving sounds, what you’re trying to achieve from recording speech varies from scene to scene, so you’ll need to adjust how close or far you are from the action based on the specific story. If you’re just looking for background noise and you don’t need to discern any specific dialogue, a good starting place is about three feet away.

With all three types of nat sounds, perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is to stay curious. Investigate and chase after interesting intonations to bring your stories to life.

We know audio can be confusing, so if you have questions about recording nat sounds or are just seeking out answers to some more general sonorous dilemmas, post them in the comments below. Jeremy will be following the convo and chiming in with his expertise. 

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p>You can also visit the Academy of Storytellers for audio help and filmmaking tips — and if you sign up by November 13 for an Academy subscription, you’ll get an $80 discount plus 25% off a Vimeo PRO account, so you can pair your passion for video tutorials with your undying love of high-quality video hosting. 

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36 Comments

Wisconsin Sea Grant

So, if you're a one-person video & audio recorder, how do you get nice, close sounds of the basketball bouncing without disrupting the visual scene?

Story & Heart PRO

Doing this in a doc-like setting definitely adds complexity. We'd recommend you focus on one at a time to start. When you're dealing with audio proximity, try and be as creative as you can when you need to be up close, without altering the scene or game. If you do have access to more gear than just an on-camera shotgun, you could definitely look to lav players / refs as Vox shared below. Good luck, indeed!

Vox Populi Communications

The main thing is to get a microphone in close. Maybe a wireless lavalier worn by a referee or a shotgun just outside the court. If you can, record a variety of ball bounces as well as crowd sounds so you have something to work with if you have to do it in post. Good luck!

Story & Heart PRO

You betcha! After you try them out, do let us know if you have any follow-up questions!

Inseego PRO

I use a portable digital recorder just to capture ambient sound. They can be found for not much money, and are worth the investment.

Story & Heart PRO

Great tip! A little recorder (or even your smartphone) is awesome for capturing ambient sounds.

Rogerio Job Plus

Great tips!I picked up many ideas for my next outdoor video. Thank you!

Jim Crooks Plus

Great story telling through sound. Some things I never considered trying.
Thanks for the tips.

ELECTRIC CHAPTERS PRO

All DSLR trendy bollocks there is still a lot to be said for a proper camcorder.

Rudy Cepeha

Just did a short video using mostly JPGs. One sequence shows several stills of a helicopter in flight from various focal lengths including from inside. Once I had managed to record one, I varied the same piece of audio up or down in each shot to give the impression of the various distances from it. It feels like you're there... I hope...

Per-Rune Andersson

Hoe do I get rid of the wind noise. I have a Nikon Coolpix but the wind is ver distubing in the sound

Story & Heart PRO

Wind noise after the fact is super tough to get rid of even by pros. If it's clipped, it's unfortunately gone for good. Best thing to do is if you can use foley or use a sound effect library. Moving forward, definitely make use of a windjammer of some sort and try to avoid pointing the mic in the direction of the wind (or use something / your body to help block it). Good luck!

Rudy Cepeha

I have a Nikon d5200 and recently bought a "Rode" mic, similar to the one in the video above and added a " dead Cat " wind sock to it. If it adapts to your camera, it's not horribly expensive but makes a big difference in all but very windy conditions. I've tried also to shield the mic with an umbrella or jacket and once even a bucket, away from the wind, for the occasional " must have ," shot....A little unconventional but it worked... You'll need a cable to use the mic off the camera though....

Story & Heart PRO

Very cool Rudy! Big fans of Rode's VideoMic Pros + deadcat here too. For such a small and affordable mic, it really can add a ton of life and realism to your films. Foamcore is also a great object to help shield your mic from wind, if you've got some laying around on set.

eric lee

very useful tip,thx man

Rudy Cepeha

That's great...I'll be trying that too....Thanks...

Tim Lowe Plus

Thanks. Great food for thought. I found a great solution to wind-noise, quite by accident, recording at sea in windy conditions. I had bought a good quality (Kata) rain cover to protect the camera from spray, and used it with the mic inside, shielded only by some fluffy fabric from a toy gorilla. I was amazed to find that I picked up dialogue with no wind noise at all. Killed two birds with one stone!

Adrian Mahovics Plus

Hi Jeremy, Thanks for all this valuable tips! Can you please, tell what sort of a levels are we aiming for at all this mentioned senecrious? For example, I am alway going for -6db when music (and only music) is in my video, and -12db at narrative parts (an interview for instance). What about, transient, evolving, etc.. Is there a commonly agreed level for these or just go by the feel? Thank you!

Rui Pinto

Great tips here. I always find very difficult to mix sounds because the background changes from sound to sound and ever if I use one background as base and then put several other sounds on it, I just can't isolate only what I want. Guess I have to study some more Adobe Audition :)

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