Sound Guys in Cars Getting Sound
Updated: Nov 7, 2018
Lately, I've been doing a lot of car rig shoots: car commercials, films and travel shows that take place primarily inside of vehicles. Miking cars is a whole other beast than a standard lav and boom shoot. They can require more setup and testing but I love it because cars sound great acoustically and they are more set-it-and-forget-it. However, there can be some misconceptions on the whole process.
There's more than one way to skin a cat, but I'll go over some of the most commonly asked questions and assumptions for getting sound in cars. Often times a Director or Producer will expect me to simply put a lav mic on talent and go with that. Sometimes I do this, usually in run and gun reality shoots when talent is already mic'd and I don't have time to mic the car. This CAN sound the best for their voice but it's difficult to avoid rustling on the mic caused by the car bumping and the seat belt both brushing up against the mic and also covering the microphone, making it muffled. Which brings me to another more preferred common miking method:
Miking the Car
I prefer to mic the car itself, if I have the time, because there will be no clothing noise I have to worry about and I can rig and de-rig the car at my own convenience, not talent's. When doing car scenes with talent in the front, the camera is often a few GoPros rigged to the windshield. GoPros have extremely wide angle lenses which see almost everything, forcing me to keep the mics further away than I'd like to. Fortunately, the newer models of GoPros (Hero 4, 5, 6 and Fusion) can record in 4k, allowing us to crop and zoom in in post. So I'll talk to the DP and Director to see if they plan on doing so and how far into frame I can actually VISIBLY place my microphones. This has helped me get my mics much closer to talent's mouths to get good sound; one of the few times shooting in 4k benefits sound. 4k is a tool, not an excuse to be indecisive, waiting to choose your frame in post. Directors still need to be smart in the field.
The most common spot in a car to place a microphone is a lav mic in the visor. However, In my experiences, the added space given by the 4k cameras / cropping is the lower part of the frame since the car ceilings are so low and close to talent's eyes. So this actually hasn't helped me much when placing a mic in the common visor spot. Instead, it has helped me with possibly my favorite car rigging option; a boom or condenser mic rigged below the frame.
Boom Mic Option
A boom mic will have much more range than a lav mic and sound more natural as well. Depending on the pickup pattern and placement, it can also pick up multiple people if they are close enough, lowering my channel count. The acoustics of cars are so good it really helps less than ideal miking spots sound better and smoother as the sound travels well throughout the car without sounding echoey due to the fabrics all around the walls, ceiling, seats, floors, etc. Lately, my favorite mic for this setup has been the Sennheiser MKH 50. Placing a boom mic that close to the undercarriage picks up quite a bit of low frequency rumble, but we have roll off filters for that. The 50 is a hypercardioid and great for getting up to both people in the front if positioned well. It also catches loud backseat speakers better than a lavaliere, but I'd give them a mic back there as well for premium sound.
Which brings me to my next scenario: Miking the front seats is very different from the back. In the back, you have no visors and you almost always see the entire ceiling anyways. I like to put a boom mic in the back on the floor on a mini mic stand or another great option for back seat miking is using a gooseneck mic such as the DPA 4098 plugged into the same transmitter talent usually wears. Traditional gooseneck mics don't sound as good as a boom mic and don't have nearly as much reach. They are more of a supercardioid (longer reach, more direct) lavaliere mic on a short gooseneck that can be pointed towards talent easily with a low profile. The upside to this is that I can sometimes get the mic closer than a boom or lavaliere mic, and it's super quick and easy to place while keeping it hidden. I wouldn't put a standard gooseneck below the frame in most cases though, as again, think of them more as lavalieres than as a boom mic; the distance is likely too much. Although, I would put it in the visor or on the back of a front seat to catch someone in the back. Once we have the setup we like, we need to send the sound to a Director's follow or lead car for monitoring.
Car to Car Monitoring
Of course, I'm always asked, "So how do you get the sound to us? Do you sit in the back of the picture car? Do we listen in on our headsets from the lead car?" I almost never sit in the picture car unless there is obvious room / a seat for me. I'm a human who would like a long career at this; I will not crunch my body into a trunk, albeit, not all vehicles or situations are the same. I thoroughly test the mics if given proper time, drop the bag in the car, hit record, recording each track on an isolated pre-fade, and send a wireless feed to the follow / lead car where we all monitor, whether or not we have a headset. I love to hook up one of the IFBs to the car's auxiliary input so we all can listen. I've noticed that standard hop / IFB transmitters aren't reliable enough for most car to car scenes so I like to use a Lectrosonics LT transmitter on 100 mW to send a feed and that has been sunny skies. If it's narrative, I may keep the bag with me in the Director's car and mix from there, I very rarely have issues with that, but of course, on some shoots, that chance of missing something you can't get again is too high.
I love doing car scenes, especially when we're given the proper time and an A2 to rig the car, but it's even nicer when this is communicated and planned far enough in advance in order to bring all the right toys to the job. Car scenes are the ultimate "If you set it right, you can forget worrying about it," but on those jobs where we never know what's going to happen next, there's quick solutions for that too.