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Ask any festival programmer about the fastest way to get your film rejected, and they’ll probably say “bad sound.” Filmmakers high on pursuing their vision can forget about sound, but when that happens, it’s the first thing a viewer notices. In other words, good audio can sometimes enhance a film’s storytelling, but bad audio always ruins it. In recent years, filmmaking has become more democratized than ever, a welcome development for the industry. “You can shoot a movie on an iPhone” has become a cliché, but there’s definitely some truth behind it. That said, you absolutely cannot shoot a movie with just the sound from your iPhone (or your camera, for that matter). Good quality external sound equipment is still a must. In fact, if you have a little bit of money in your budget, there’s arguably no better return on investment than improving your production’s sound setup. It’s what separates the pros from the amateurs.
Shopping for sound equipment can be daunting or exhilarating, depending on how you look at it. There are a lot of different products on the market. And to the untrained eye, their uses can sometimes be hard to differentiate. But the flip side is that you have quite a bit of flexibility. You can attach your sound recorder to your camera, or have your designated sound recordist hold it separately. You can use a boom or clip individual microphones to your subjects. The number of inputs and channels that you’ll need on your recording device varies based on the complexity of your technical operation. Indoor and outdoor shoots often require different equipment, as do fiction and nonfiction films. In many cases, the only thing two films might have in common is that they need high quality audio.
But while sound cannot be ignored, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune either. From audio recorders to microphones to headphones and accessories, there’s a wide selection of fantastic equipment that’s good enough for veteran filmmakers while being affordable for beginners. And thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, you can usually have it delivered in two days or less. An Amazon Prime membership will run you $12.99 a month, which gives you access to tons of perks, including free two-day shipping on select items.
It’s always better to upgrade your gear in advance, rather than sitting down in the editing room and being unable to hear your beautiful footage. Yes, some things can be fixed in post, but these tools can save your entire team a lot of headaches in the long run. Keep reading for our list of the best low-cost sound equipment, then pick up a few items to take your indie film to the next level.
The first component to putting together a sound kit is a great audio recorder. The best microphone in the world won’t do you any good with nothing to store its footage on. The Zoom H5 is a discrete, portable option that can be held or attached to a DSLR camera. It contains two microphone inputs and can record four audio tracks at a time. Its small size and impressive precision make it as useful for interviews, podcasts, indie-film projects, you name it. Don’t be fooled by its unassuming appearance, this thing captures a lot of sound.
If you’re making any kind of documentary or nonfiction film, omnidirectional lavalier microphones are an absolute must-have. They can be clipped to your subject’s clothing to easily capture dialogue, while allowing room for movement, and spontaneity. If you are not worried about hiding microphones, or if you have a Brechtian streak, clip-on lavaliers are a great option that can make your life a lot easier. This affordable one from Boya can be plugged into a DSLR camera, a portable recorder, or even your smartphone. As filmmaking continues to evolve, you’ll still be able to use this on almost any nonfiction project.
iPhone filmmakers take note. Rode made a microphone specifically for integration with consumer electronics, and the results are surprisingly good. Plugging the Rode Smartlab+ into your phone or laptop lets you record crisp audio on even the most casual of shoots. Containing little more than a cord, a clip, a small microphone and foam wind cover, this adorable little gadget is definitely worth owning.
If you’re ready to upgrade your sound recorder to something slightly larger without taking out a second mortgage, consider the Tascam DR-60DMKII. It costs slightly more than some of the more compact options on the market, but the professional quality recorder won’t need to be upgraded as your productions get larger. In the long run, it’s still a great budget pick. This cube can record up to four channels of audio, and buttons on each side ensure that every inch is used more efficiently. Sporting a slightly different shape than many other audio recorders on the market, it is designed be attached to the bottom of a camera. So if you want to save money and space while building your rig, look no further.
Lavaliers are great for documentaries, but narrative filmmakers need to be able to hide their microphones out of frame. Enter the shotgun mic. If you’re looking for a clear, reliable microphone to attach to your boom pole, there’s no better budget option than the Audio-Technica AT875R. This one-direction mic is short, discrete, and captures excellent sound. And it’s currently going for a massive discount on Amazon, so there’s never been a better time to buy. With the $70 you’ll be saving, you can grab something else off this list!
Now that you have your Audio-Technica AT875R, you need to attach it to something. This boom pole from On-Stage is light enough to hold for 16-hour shoots, sturdy enough to keep your microphone in good condition, and cheap enough to keep your film under budget. Many parts of filmmaking are worth overthinking, but this is not one of them. Purchasing the On-Stage MBP 700 is an absolute no-brainer.
Shotgun microphones are sensitive enough to pick up dialogue and room tone much more effectively than your camera. But the downside is that they also pick up sounds you don’t want. Like wind. Before your next outdoor shoot, be sure to cover your mics with a windshield, like this excellent one from PROAIM, to ensure that your dialogue remains crisp. It’s a small price to pay to protect your investment, both in the microphone and the lengths you went to get your footage.
Now that you have all the right equipment, make sure you’re getting the most out of it. There’s no sense in buying a great set of sound recording instruments but not being able to hear what they pick up. In an incredibly sensitive art form where details are everything, wearing headphones during takes allows you to make adjustments on the fly. These above-the-ear headphones from Audiotechnica certainly get the job done. The only downside is that their sound is so good, you might start to hate your actors with loud voices. But that’s the price you pay to make movies. And for less than $50, it’s an easy purchase you can make today, and not have to worry about for years to come.