Is there a fix for trying to get decent video sound in a loud room such as a nightclub?

Some cameras have a limiter in them that clamps down on the sound levels but leave you with wimpy sound, while others are totally overwhelmed by the sound and all you get is ultra distortion.

This situation has always driven me crazy. Do I have to employ an external mike and a mixer if I hope to get acceptable sound? Are there cameras that have the fix on board?

–Denis Scherk

Our ears come with an awesome sound mixer built in– our brains.  In a loud room, we watch mouths move with our eyes and tilt our heads for the right stereo input.  Our brains sort through the background noise so that after a while, we stop noticing it.  Then we can pay attention to the super-interesting conversation as our significant other tells us about his or her day….zzzzzzzz.  Oh, sorry.  Where was I?

A camera has no brain.  It hears the people behind you, the music, the clanking of silverware– and it has no way of deciding, unlike your brain, whether the guy showing off desserts at the next table is more or less important than what the boss said to your significant other today in the break room and…zzzzzzzz.   Oh, sorry again.  Anyway…

What the camera does have is an automatic gain control, which will try to boost the quiet stuff and lower the loud stuff so everything’s at the same level. Instead of hearing the person at whom you are pointing the camera, you’ll hear a giant compressed mess.  Worse, you’ll have no way to fix it later.

If you want to even approximate decent sound in a loud nightclub you will need an external mike (probably a lavaliere— the kind that clip to your subject’s chest), a mixer, and a camera that lets you turn off the automatic gain control. That way you can control what sound you want to pay attention to, and how loud it is.

Of course in a really loud nightclub your recording will still sound like crap.  For perfect sound, do it the way they do in movies:  Shoot your nightclub scene on a quiet set.  Have the “customers” filling the club mouth words silently and groove to unheard music.  Make your subject the only one in the room actually making any sound.  Add music and crowd sounds during your edit to bring the nightclub back to life.

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  • The tip about having the "customers" mouth their conversation is a great idea. I bet it would take a great actor to do the "loud drunk guy at the bar"!

    Another option that can help is using a shotgun mic and selective positioning of any mics being used. Proximity and direction have a big influence with shotgun mics, and I have been able to (mostly isolate) my desired sound source with proper mic placement.

    As you say, mics don't filter out the non-desired sound they way our brains do, so mic placement is really critical.

    BTW, your book and website are great resources for info on improving video work. Thanks for sharing your talent and experience.


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