Jun 302015

People who know far more about location audio and filmmaking than I do have long maintained that while on occasion you may be able to get away with less than perfect video, substandard audio is a film-killer. While I’m fairly new to shooting video (relative to the 25 years I’ve been making pictures), this was something that was well worth learning very early.

I’ve been shooting a feature-length documentary film about Austin Riley, a 16 year old boy from a little north of Toronto who is a go kart racing phenom. He’s been racing since he was eight years old and has rocketed through the ranks of classes to the top level of karting in North America. On its own, that’s pretty remarkable as the drivers he’s competing against in what’s known as DD2 or shifter karts are generally older than him by five or more years and with much more experience than he has, but it’s further amazing as Austin battles with the challenges of autism every day.

When I first started shooting this documentary I was using a shotgun mic for general, overall audio capture in close quarters (like inside the race trailer) or when filming actual racing on the track. I was also using a single Sennheiser wireless lavalier mic to capture dialogue between subjects and for interviews. This setup was generally passable for one subject or a conversation between two subjects if they were very close together in a quiet environment. For anything outside, dialogue was terrible with the shotgun and any second (or sometimes third) person in frame would be lost when using the lavalier on one subject. If I had the expertise of a dedicated sound person carrying a boom mic, things would have been very different, however as a ‘one man band’ due both to budgetary and space restrictions, this was just not possible.

I quickly looked into other options and found the Audio Technica ATW-1820 system. This included a dual channel receiver that could be (with a little McGyvering) be mounted to my shoulder rig and would pick up audio from not one, but two wireless lavalier mics. This system would allow me to mic the main two of my four subjects and let their mics run all day while from the camera side, I could easily turn one of them off if one of them was not on-camera. The omni-directional lavaliers that came with the system offered a wide enough pattern that picking up a conversation between two or more people with solid audio quality was a breeze while still cutting out much of the background noise that would be, well, noisy.

I utilized this system over the course of five weeks on the road as I crossed the country with the racing team from the west coast, all the way back to Toronto, shooting inside, outside, in schools during autism awareness presentations, even at the side of the track with karts flying past at upwards of 75 mph and all with great results.

It’s possible to spend thousands of dollars per channel on wireless audio equipment. My budget doesn’t remotely come close to that snack bracket. The Sennheiser that I started with runs in the range of CA$675 for the equipment necessary to mic one subject, or one channel. It’s not unheard of for sound professionals to spend upwards of CA$3000 for one channel with equipment from Lectrosonics, for example. Is there a difference in quality? Of course there is. That said, however, the audio quality that I’ve been getting with the ATW-1820 system at roughly CA$1800 for two channels, has been excellent and with a very little bit of tweaking in post-production, I’m more than happy with the results.

If I had to do it all over again, I would start with the Audio Technica system hands down.