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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sound Practices II


More sounds for your images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Multimedia gives your audience a chance to hear, as well as see, the subject of your picture, like this rooster in front of a pub, the Aran Islands, Ireland.
In this, the second installment of “Adventures in Multimedia,” I’ll discuss some basics about gathering and editing sound. Last issue, I covered choosing and using a digital sound recorder, whether it’s one of the dedicated units like the Olympus LS-10 or Zoom H2, or even your iPod with one of the optional recording microphone attachments that are becoming ever more popular.

At first blush, recording ambient sound and interviews may appear to be simply a matter of turning on your machine and hitting “Record.” After all, we’re photographers, used to dealing with digital apparatus and capturing the world around us—how hard can this be? Well, like a lot of other crafts, it’s a lot harder than it looks! Here are some key considerations to getting clean sound.

I mentioned recording levels in the previous column, but it bears reviewing. Just as there’s a range of visible tones that are recordable on our digital chips (and represented by our histograms), so is there a range of audible tones that most recorders can pick up.

This, too, is represented in a graph on your recorder and measured in dBs (decibels). If your sound runs off the graph on the high end, you have a sound too loud to record (as when highlights are clipped in a histogram and the light is too bright—or in this case, the sound is too loud—to be recordable). Likewise, a sound that’s too soft won’t register either. The trick is to find a recording level (equivalent to an exposure value) where the loud sounds and the soft sounds fall between the two extremes.

Not a problem, right? We do it all the time when measuring light to make our exposures. Well, there are some differences, and one of them is the fact that, short of a lightning storm or a blackout, it’s rare for our light conditions to spike repeatedly, unpredictably and pretty much constantly. Yet the same can’t be said for the sounds that surround us; they’re constantly modulating and changing. The toot of a train’s whistle, beep of a car’s horn, bang of a drum or a cymbal, a sneeze, cough, whoop, yell, ring tone—well, you get the picture. Sounds run all over the place, volume-wise.

Finding the correct recording level is a challenge, and even when you have something that’s good for 95 percent of what you’re recording, there are still those “wild” sounds that pop off the scale. Some of it’s fixable in post; some you just have to live with.

Then there’s wind. You landscape shooters know what a pain wind can be when trying to get those deep depth-of-field shots with flowers in the foreground and majestic mountains in the background. Well, wind vexes sound gatherers even more because the slightest breeze will cause pops and hisses as it crosses over the sensitive surface of your microphone, and those imperfections can ruin a recording.

The quickest way to mitigate the wind problem is to use windscreens on your mics. Most of the digital recorders with built-in mics offer, as standard, a foam windscreen. These are good, but the addition of a big furry, so-called “dead cat” sock over the standard foam windscreen is even better. To date, only Sony offers this type of windscreen (as an expensive accessory!) for its PCM-D50 recorder, but there are places that custom-make these furry windscreens for almost any type of recorder (www.thewindcutter.com). They’re not cheap ($30-$50), but they’re so worth it if you’ll be doing a lot of outdoor recording.

Interviews. Ambient sound, which is the natural sound occurring around the action you’re photographing, is a good first step for creating the soundtrack to your multimedia slideshow.

Getting someone to talk about what he or she is doing in your pictures—whether it’s a fisherman mending nets, a park ranger leading a hike or a craftsman making a work of art—also will add to the depth and interest of your soundtrack.

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