Sound Recording in Low Budget Productions

The Importance of Sound

by T. Schlipfinger (Author)

Seminar Paper 2010 15 Pages

Didactics - English - Miscellaneous


Table of contents



On-camera Microphones
Directional Microphones
Radio Microphones
Mixer and Recording Device

Dealing with Microphones
Wild track





Marcus Krause once called the introduction of sound to the modern cinema the second big­gest special effect ever - right after the moving images themselves[1] (Krause 2007: 50). Nev­ertheless, sound seems to be a bit neglected today. One often heard sentence concerning sound on the film set is, according to Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe, the authors of the Guerilla Film Makers Handbook: "We'll fix that in post!" (Jones 2006: 298). Unfortunately but obviously, sound recording ranks on a lower scale of importance. But this is how it works, and many sound recordists have to live with that situation. Therefore I am going to take these circumstances as given and build my following theories around that.

That is to say, the aim of this paper is to point out how a movie can be provided with the best sound possible under the worst circumstances imaginable: next to no money avail­able and pressure from all sides, including but not limited to: the director, schedule and the director of photography, just to name a few. By doing so, I am going to divide my paper basi­cally into three main parts. At first, I want to explain why sound is so important, but also why it is so underrated (which goes hand in hand, as can be seen in the following). After that I am going to get right in to the practical aspect of sound recording, for example by pointing out the proper equipment. I am going to conclude this paper by talking about the various ways to record the sound for a movie.

After reading this paper, the basics of sound recording should be clear and in a best case scenario the awareness of the importance of sound should have been raised.

The Importance of Sound

In his very flowery introduction to Michel Chion's Audio-Vision, Walter Murch talks about modern cinema as a land where King Sight rules with an iron fist. The king's counterpart, Queen Sound, spectacularly stepped on the stage in 1927. But from then on she was at the most only consciously drawn to our attention when something was wrong with her (Murch 1994: VIII). To show that the queen is by no means less important, he introduces another simile: image and sound as the two flat images produced by each human eye and the com­bined experience as the depth perception produced by the brain. In essence, this means that the end product is of a greater value than the sum of its parts (Murch 1994: XX). He under­lines this theory with two examples: for one, the screen could show a door that is being closed, at the same time we hear a clapping sound. As a result we know that the door is closed - an instant realization, but not a very striking one. But on the other hand, we could see a distressed man in a hotel room while we hear the twittering of jungle birds (as in Apoco/ypse Wow). In this case it takes longer to form the depth perception, which is in this case a more remarkable one (Murch 1994: XXII).

In his book, lo-to-Wo Budget Fi/mmoking, Elliot Grove also tries to convince the reader of the importance of sound - also in very flowery terms[2]. He divides the whole soundtrack of a movie into basically three parts of equal importance: the dialogue, the sound effects and the music. And, as far as the dialogue is concerned, he writes: "If the sound is improperly recorded, the audience sees an actor struggling with their craft. Re­corded properly, the audience sees a character struggling with life." (2004: 81). This is be­cause whereas the images of a movie convey the information, the sound is most of the time responsible for transmitting emotions (Grove 2004: 85). Another - in a way problematic - aspect of sound recording is that the better it gets, the less it is noticed consciously. That ties in with the above stated comment about the king and the queen. Usually, the soundtrack is only recognized if there is a problem with it, otherwise it works on a subconscious level. Jones and Jolliffe even go as far as stating that "[...] sound can be up to 80% of the movie going experience" (Jones 2006: 298). Unfortunately this notion is not shared by many, espe­cially inexperienced, filmmakers. Problems with the lighting or focus are noticed right on the spot, but this is mostly not the case with sound. As a result, many filmmakers delay tackling the sound issue until post production (Grove 2004: 85). Consequently, possible occurring problems come up at a point in the project where financial means are naturally already run­ning low. And this could be avoided easily, as achieving a good sound is a lot less difficult and expensive when it is done right on the set in a proper way than when everything has to be done with foley or ADR[3] (Grove 2004: 82). It also saves a lot of work because filmmakers should try to include every important (but also seemingly unimportant) sound that is indi­cated on screen in their soundtrack. If those sounds are missing, the whole movie tends to sound incomplete or sterile (Merrit 1999:164).

Another difficulty for the already problematic status of sound is its inherent hierarchy between music, sound effects and dialogue. Especially the sound effects (or, in essence, "noise") range on a lower scale of importance. This can also be seen in the fact that one can not exactly describe "noise", whereas with notes there is a possibility to transcribe music[4].

Summed up it can easily be seen that Queen Sound has a lot of difficulties to fight with, despite her importance. But given a general awareness of her presence, there are loads of possibilities to include her in a proper way into every filmmakers' dreams. The ways to do so are explained in the following chapters.


The way a certain sound travels from its origin to the recording device can easily be seen as a type of chain. And as in every chain, the weakest link determines the strength of the whole, in this case the quality of the recorded sound. As it is with sound recording, the various links are represented by the sound and its source, the microphones, the mixer and the recording device. But those are not the only important links: most of these components are them­selves joined together by various sorts of cables and connectors. Therefore, their quality also determines the value of the end product - their importance must never be underestimated. Filmmakers should never regard cables or connectors as a possibility to save money by choosing the cheaper alternative (Grove 2004: 84)!

In this chapter I am going to talk about all the components of a sound chain (which are, by the way, most of the time owned by sound recordists themselves), thereby working my way forward from the first technical device, the microphone, to the last, the recording tool. After the technical basics are established, I am going to continue with elaborating on the proper ways of sound recording on set.


I do not want to go into too much detail on the technical aspects of how microphones work, but the basic structure is most of the time the same: sound waves strike some kind of move­able object within the microphone, which starts vibrating. This object is surrounded by an electromagnetic field that creates an impulse when the object starts moving.


[1] Original quote: "Malmoulians Dr. Vekyll and Mr. Hyde ist die erste Tonfilm-Version des viktorianischen Selbst­versuches. Auf diesem vielleicht zweitgrößten Spezialeffekt der Filmgeschichte (nach der Tatsache, dass sich die Bilder überhaupt bewegen) lässt es der Film aber keineswegs beruhen [...]."

[2] There seems to be no other way of talking about our listening experience. The reason for that is the topic of another paper of mine.

[3] Foley and ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) are terms that refer to artificial audio recording in post production - for sound effects or dialogues respectively. These techniques are explained in greater detail later on.

[4] Even though there are also restrictions - Rick Altman writes: "By restricting our description of sounds to famil­iar musical terminology, we have bamboozled ourselves into believing that sound itself is restricted to those characteristics" (Altman 1992: 40).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
486 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Innsbruck – Amerikanistik
Sound Film Low-Budget


  • Depending on your browser, you might see this message in place of the failed image.

    T. Schlipfinger (Author)


Title: Sound Recording in Low Budget Productions