Recording Audio for Sit-Down Interviews

Ah, recording audio. The oft-forgotten sibling in the film and video world. The image is an easy distraction and many new shooters forget about sound, especially on a small crew. It’s one of the biggest traps that independent and student filmmakers fall into. Believe it or not, poor audio quality is the dead giveaway that the project is low budget – not the image. So move over 4K cameras – we’re here to learn how to increase your production value with sound!

Setting Up Audio for a Sit-Down Interview

One of the most common types of shoots is a sit-down interview or “talking head” scene. Here, the audio is particularly important because it’s the goal of the whole shoot. If the video quality is terrible, an editor is still able to use the audio over B-roll footage. If the audio is terrible, there isn’t much that can be done to save the scene.

This article explains a basic audio setup for a sit-down interview. No frills, no fancy techniques, just the good ol’ basics that will get you through any situation. You may need to vary the setup to get the best results depending on your shooting conditions. We’ll cover how to set up a shotgun and lavalier microphone. This setup will include the Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphone, K-Tek boompole, and the Sennheiser G3 lavalier mic – all recording onto the Zoom H6 recorder.

Why You Should Use External Mics

You maybe be wondering, “But…the camera comes with an onboard microphone! Why even bother with all of this audio setup if it already has a mic I can use?” The onboard microphone on most cameras is omnidirectional, meaning it will capture all sound in any direction. That means you have a whole lot of other sounds you don’t need. Have a listen to the difference in the example video below.

The Importance of Setting Your Frame for Audio

Sit your interviewee down, find the frame, and set up the lights. I know what I just said about the image quality vs audio, but you don’t want to have to do the work twice do you?! It’s important to start with the frame so that you know where you can (and, more importantly, cannot) place a mic. If you don’t know, you will waste time setting up the shotgun mic in the wrong position and have to start again. Work on the audio after the frame is set – but make sure you have enough time to set up properly! For more on this topic, check out How to Set Up 3 Popular Interview Lighting Techniques.

Components of a Boom Setup

If you’re in a controlled setting, the primary audio source is going to be a boom mic – not a lavalier mic. Since lavalier mics are frequently covered by clothing, the audio coming from the lavalier is often hindered by the scratching of clothing. They are better for a backup option. The boom mic should be set up pointing at the subject and free from any obstructions.

The folks at Borrowlenses have put together a handy Boompole Audio Package which includes everything you’ll need for a shotgun mic setup (except for a recorder). You may be recording directly into the camera, or onto a separate device like the Zoom H6. The boompole package includes a Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphone, a K-Tek aluminum boompole, a boompole holder, a stand, and a 25′ XLR cable.

Here are the assembly steps to get you started:

  • Screw the mic’s shockmount onto the top of the boompole.
  • Slide the back end of the shotgun microphone up through the rings in the rubber bands of the shockmount.
  • Test it by gently moving it around to make sure it’s secure.
  • Take the short XLR cable coming out of the top of the boompole and plug it into the back of the microphone.
  • Slide the windscreen onto your mic.

Assembling a Boom Mic Using a BoomMate

In this case, we are using a boompole with an XLR cable threaded through on the inside of the pole. If your boompole does not have a cable inside, use a long XLR cable and plug it into the back of the mic. You’ll have some cable slack so gently wind the cable around the boompole. Use the remaining slack to plug the other end of the XLR cable into your recorder.

  • Set up your stand for the boompole.
  • Secure the C-stand knuckle and BoomMate onto the stand.
  • Now here comes the tricky part: balancing the boompole on the BoomMate. Position the BoomMate at an angle, with the side that is shaped like a “U” slightly above the other side. The microphone will be placed on the “U” side.
  • Balance the boompole on the BoomMate, adjusting as necessary. The “U” shape should take most of the weight. The back side should hold the boompole to prevent the mic from crashing to the floor.

TIP: Sometimes the boompole needs to be extended in order for it to balance on the BoomMate.

Correct Placement of a Boom Mic

  • Position the shotgun microphone about 2 feet in front of the subject’s face, above the frame.
  • Point the microphone down at about a 45-degree angle directly at the subject’s mouth. Shotgun microphones are highly directional supercardioid microphones, designed to pick up sound in whatever direction they are pointed.
  • Place the mic out of the frame but as close to the subject as you can get. Run the XLR cable from the end of the boompole to your audio recorder. In this case, we are using a Zoom H6.

TIP: If your microphone requires phantom power, make sure that the audio recorder can supply it! Almost all audio recorders can but some cameras cannot. The Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphone does require phantom power, so we are using a Zoom H6, which can supply it. If you do not have a recorder that can provide phantom power, use a microphone that can be battery powered, like the Sennheiser ME66. If renting a recorder, look for phantom power support in the specs.

Using a Lavalier Mic

If at all possible, it is best to record two audio sources to two separate tracks. The backup audio source for this interview is a lavalier mic. We will be using the Sennheiser EW-122p G3, a very common wireless lavalier mic. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and reliable. Sennheiser has improved upon it with the new Sennheiser G4 microphones (arriving at BL soon).

Steps for Setting Up a Lavalier Microphone

  • Put the batteries inside the transmitter and receiver. I highly suggest you use brand new batteries for each shoot day. It would not be good if the batteries died in the middle of an interview.
  • Push the “on/off” button to turn on both units.
  • Take the microphone and plug it into the transmitter body pack. Double check to make sure you are plugging it into the right one! Each body pack is labeled on the back of the unit.
  • Plug the microphone in and screw the collar around the ring of the port. Only screw it to finger tight – no need to over-tighten. This secures the microphone onto the transmitter and helps prevent the mic from falling out if the subject moves.
  • Check to make sure both the transmitter and receiver are on the same frequency! When you rent from Borrowlenses, they should be delivered to you on the same frequency. However, it is always good to double check.

If you are hearing weird feedback when testing your wireless lav, you may be experiencing signal interference. Signal interference can come from a variety of sources – radio stations, television stations, and even cell phone towers. The easiest way to get rid of it is to change the frequency on both the transmitter and the receiver. You can change this in the menu.

Changing Lav Frequency Steps

  • Access the menu by pushing the “set” button.
  • Scroll through to find the “Frequency Preset” option and push “set” again.
  • Change the frequency channel to 2.1 or another frequency.
  • Push “set” again until the screen says “Stored.” Again, make sure you do this on both the transmitter and the receiver otherwise they won’t connect!

TIP: If you are using two wireless microphones in the same vicinity, make sure they are on separate frequencies! Otherwise, they will interfere with each other. For sure. 100%. This would apply if you have two or more actors in a scene, are interviewing more than one person at once, or if the interviewer and the interviewee both are mic’d up.

Changing the frequency to avoid signal interference is applicable to any wireless microphone. The method of changing frequency will vary from mic to mic. The Lectrosonic 100 series wireless lavalier microphone actually has a small dial on the side of both the transmitter and the receiver. Adjust the frequency by turning the dial.

The Beginner Videographer’s Guide to Frequency Blocks

The Sennheiser AVX MKE2 lavalier microphone makes this easy by automatically configuring the frequency for you! It will adjust both the transmitter and receiver to find the least signal interference.

Attaching a Lav to Your Subject

The next step is attaching the microphone and body pack to the interview subject. The simplest way is to simply use the lapel clip and clip the microphone onto the person’s clothing. If you don’t want the mic to be seen, there are many ways to hide a lavalier mic in clothing or under the shirt. It is possible to hide the mic inside a tie, under a shirt collar or attached to an undershirt. Take care not to damage the clothing of the subject or remove their body hair in the process!

Wherever you place the mic, make sure to include a loop to reduce strain on the microphone cord. The microphone is so sensitive that strain on the cord can end up creating a scratching sound. It is best for the sound recordist to place the microphone on the subject, rather than having the subject place it themselves. Remember to be respectful and polite! Always ask before touching someone or moving their clothing.

After attaching the microphone, secure the transmitter on to the back of the person’s clothing. The easiest way is to simply use the clip to attach it to the person’s belt.

Checking Your Levels

Now that you have the microphones set up, it is crucial that you check to make sure everything is actually working! Set up your microphones on two separate channels – NEVER mix them in the recorder. The purpose of having two microphones is so that you have one primary and one backup! I suggest having the lavalier mic on the left track and the shotgun mic on the right track. A good way to remember is “L” for Lavalier = “L” for Left.

Have the interview subject say a few lines in a normal tone of voice. Some people may get nervous under the pressure of a camera and microphone, which makes them speak softly. Try to help the subject relax and speak in their normal tone of voice. Some people have subjects describe the last meal they ate.

Throw on your headphones and start listening. Set the levels on each of the audio tracks independently. Look at the levels on the recorder and adjust accordingly.

TIP: Base the levels on the meter on the recording device – NOT the volume in your headphones. The volume in the headphones may be very loud, allowing you to hear the audio just fine. However, the recording may actually be receiving a very low signal. Or vice versa – the headphone volume may be very quiet, causing you to boost the levels and clip the audio. Take this one from personal experience! Set your levels based on the audio meter, don’t assume the headphones are the way to go.

After all of that, do a quick test record. Playback the audio and make sure that everything is recording normally. Always use headphones to make sure that you monitor the audio as it happens. You can avoid a lot of problems in post that way. As the audio person, it is your responsibility to make sure the audio is recorded cleanly. Don’t be afraid to speak up if there is a large truck driving by or a weird bang in the background.

Now that you’ve learned some audio basics, you’re ready to shoot!

Maddie Staszak is a freelance filmmaker currently living in Boston. Previously, she worked for Borrowlenses, Panavision, and on the show Transparent for Amazon Studios. She graduated from Boston University with a degree in Film and Television.

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.