How to build a sound kit: sound equipment for film production

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Written by Cecilia Keirstead

What do I need in my sound kit?  What sound equipment for film production do I need?

Story time: for years while I was in film school, I was afraid to touch equipment. Cinema cameras were confusing jumbles of parts and pieces, so what if I set it up wrong in front of the whole class? Beyond that, what if I broke something? I was broke myself!   

Then, I discovered sound gear. It was so easy to use, more rugged than the camera equipment, and slipping on those headphones felt like stepping into a new world. I wasn’t afraid of breaking anything. I wasn’t afraid of looking stupid pressing the record button. If I messed up, I was the only one who knew, and I could just ask for another take. Eventually, I did work up the nerve to work with lights and cameras as well, but by then, I was already sold on sound.

Whether you’re new to filmmaking altogether, or just new to the sound department, I’ve got some basic recommendations for getting started on your own audio journey. Many of these are budget options, but I’ll also include some of my current go-tos for comparison. Take note: this is a 2024 article, and technology is constantly changing (as are prices). The good news is, you don’t need the latest and greatest sound gear to get good audio. If you know what to look for, you can make the most of even a budget sound kit.

The Kit

Your basic audio kit should include a recording/mixing interface, a microphone, a boom pole, an XLR cable, headphones, an SD card, power, and a slate. With that, you can start running sound for your first movie. 

Lots of sound mixers charge more for their kit fee when they add on wireless lavalier mics, timecode, and IFB comms. You can add these to your kit as you expand your career and take on bigger projects, or if you start doing commercial or client work. 

The recording/mixing interface is what digitally records the sound input from your microphone. As someone starting out on short films and small projects, you’ll often find yourself as a single-person sound department. For this kind of work, you’ll want a tough, lightweight recorder that’s easy to use. I started with the Zoom H6 handy 6-track recorder. The H6 is small enough to operate with one hand, can hang from your wrist or neck with a strap or lanyard, and is simple to work with. You can get one new for a couple hundred bucks, or used for even less. 

For slightly more advanced mixing, I would recommend getting a field recorder and a bag. The Zoom F8n and Sound Devices MixPre recorders can handle more track inputs than the handy recorder and have more functions. These all generally retail between $1,000 – $1,500 depending on the package you get and where you order from. I bought my go-to recorder, a used Zoom F8, from a guy in the middle of a blizzard for $600, but that’s a story for another day.

Most sound mixers I know have bags from Orca or K-Tek, which come in different sizes based on the recorder they’re meant to carry and can range in price from $100-$500. You can also purchase harnesses that help brace the weight of the recorder against your chest and shoulders. Based on my body type, I’d rather have weight on my hips than my shoulders, so I’ve decked out a construction toolbelt to fit all of my gear. It cost around $50 from the home improvement store, and even came with a hammer holder that’s convenient for propping up my boom pole when I need my hands free.

For shotgun microphones, the Sennheiser MKE 600 is my recommendation for people starting out looking for a solid, high-quality shotgun microphone on a budget. Prices generally run somewhere between $300 and $400.

My go-to is the Sennheiser MKH-416, which is a classic industry standard shotgun microphone. I bought it new for around $1,000 and find it useful in a variety of setups. Watch out though – there is a knockoff microphone market, and this is one of the most commonly faked items. If you see one at a price that’s too good to be true, it probably is.

I would also recommend getting a fluffy outdoor wind shield, colloquially referred to as a “dead cat.” When you’re starting out, you can switch from indoor to outdoor setups more quickly if you have the kind that can slide on over the microphone. Sennheiser makes a wind shield that specifically goes with the MKE 600 for under $100, and some stores offer the mic and wind shield as a set. I also like the Bubblebee Spacer Bubble and fur cover, which is generally available for less than $200.

Microphones come with clips to attach them to stands or boom poles, but also consider getting a shock mount, which absorbs vibrations from the boom pole to keep them from making noise. The PSC Universal Shock Mount is a good option, and I’ve also bought a few Amazon ones for as low as $20. 

Now the fun part: the boom pole! I’ve been in those situations where you have to make do with random household objects (broom pole, anyone?), but an actual boom pole will go a long way. K-Tek has solid options for beginners, since they have legit boom poles at a variety of price points, starting around $200. They have an Airo model with foam on the handle, which is helpful for reducing handling noise if you’re not used to boom operating. 

My go-to is the Ambient QuickPole, which I bought when I decided that I wanted to be a pro boom operator. I had used smaller beginner poles and was frustrated at the way the microphone would cause the end to dip. I was ready to invest in something stronger. The QuickPole cost me around $850, and then I spent a couple hundred more after 2 years to retrofit it with an internal cable. Last summer, Ambient sent me the new QuickPole Slim and a wireless mounting plate when we partnered on “Sound Speeding: Quick Tips for Better Audio.” I love them both, and switch between them based on whether I’m booming in a cabled situation or a wireless one.

When you’re starting out, you’re probably not using a wireless boom, so you will need an XLR cable to connect your microphone to your recorder. You can find nice ones at your local Guitar Center or music shop for less than $50. Look for one that is long enough to reach from your microphone, past the entire length of your fully-entended boom pole, plus another few feet to account for your outstretched arm length. 

My go-to is the Mogami Gold, which was given to me as a gift (or maybe it was a bribe? That’s also a story for another time), but I believe the model and length I have retails for a little under $100.

For headphones, the key is to get a pair that transmits sound as accurately as possible. I would recommend the Sony MDR-7506 Studio Monitor headphones, which are pretty standard among sound mixers and cost around $100. Watch out for consumer-oriented headphones like Beats, which may automatically alter the sound with features intended to enhance the listening experience.

You will also need at least one SD card for your audio files. I am not an SD card snob, and find SanDisk 64 gigabyte cards to be plenty for the projects I work on. 

Your recorder and microphone need power. Zoom recorders can run off of AA batteries, and depending on the model, also come with cables that can connect them to external power supplies or wall outlets. Some microphones work with phantom power from the recorder, and some also have a battery-power option. Reduce your carbon footprint (and your expendables expenses) with rechargeable AA batteries, or NP-1 style lithium-ion batteries for larger recorders. 

The final piece to getting started is a slate. Your camera friends might already have one, but providing a slate is technically the responsibility of the sound department. Plastic clapboard slates with dry-erase markers are available online for less than $20.

Now, the basics above are a starting point, but they’ll only get you so far. You’ll be ready for simple setups like interviews or single-camera projects that get close-up coverage of all dialogue. As you move on to more complicated projects or client work, you’ll want to add a few more items.

First, you’ll want to get a timecode system. By syncing your recorder’s timecode with the cameras’ timecode, the editor will have a much easier time lining up everything in post. Tentacles timecode systems are popular on small sets, since they can connect to a variety of cameras and are controlled by a phone app via bluetooth. These are available for around $250.

Timecode systems like Denecke or Ambient Lockit can also include smart slates, which electronically display the timecode. These systems are a larger investment often in the $1,500 – $3,000 range, depending on the number of sync boxes and style of slate you get.

Next, you’ll start collecting wireless lavalier microphones. If you’re starting out, I highly recommend Sennheiser G4 transmitter and receiver sets. Because wireless mics work with radio waves, you have to find the right frequencies to play on. Let the G4’s “easy setup” option do the work for you while you’re still diving in. 

My first set of lavs was the older Sennheiser G3 model, which was given to me as a wrap gift (and later traded for someone else’s nearly identical set – yet another story for another day). I bought a few more sets of G4s from another sound mixer, for $600 per set, which included the transmitter, receiver, lapel mic, cables for the receiver, and other accessories. He even threw in a couple of Bubblebee Lav Concealers for me, which made wiring up actors much easier.

Eventually, if you upgrade your wireless system to something like Lectrosonics, you can still use the G4s as additional inputs, to share your feed with the camera as scratch audio, or as an IFB setup.

Speaking of IFB, or “comms,” you can let others listen in on your mix.  If you’re mixing while someone else is boom operating, IFB allows you to share your feed with them, and if you have a talkback mic, you can give them directions from afar. Directors, script supervisors, or commercial clients will often want to be able to hear what you’re recording. Comtek brand comms are pretty standard for loaning to non-sound department folks, since they’re extremely easy to use and therefore hard to mess up. 

Finally, I’m going to let you in on a little secret to buying equipment: your kit is never complete. There are expendables, like gaff tape and lavalier stickies, that you consistently have to buy more of. There are accessories, like RF antenna savers or wireless transmitter straps, that make life easier. There are upgrades, like going from a bag to a cart for your recorder and receivers. 

Don’t be afraid to ask other sound mixers what equipment they use and what they like or don’t like about it. Follow brands and other audio pros on social media, or join online groups where people buy and sell equipment. Even if you’re not interested in buying used equipment, they often say what it is and why they’re selling, so you can learn what works or doesn’t work about it. 

Helpful brands to check out when you’re purchasing equipment:

  • Ambient Recording (they have online tutorials for boom operating hosted by yours truly – as well as info guides and videos on timecode and boom pole maintenance)
  • B&H Photo/Video (this is a retail store, but their website has great photos and info about a wide variety of products)
  • Bubblebee
  • Cinela
  • DPA Microphones
  • K-Tek
  • Lectrosonics
  • Radius (look up Radius Windshields to find them)
  • Sanken
  • Sennheiser
  • Shoeps
  • Sound Devices
  • URSA (look up URSA Straps to find them)
  • Viviana (look up Viviana Sound Solutions to find them)
  • Wisycom
  • Zaxcom
  • ZOOM (look up Zoom H4, H6, F6, or F8 to find them)

… And many more! Yes, I am 100% forgetting some. For more information about gearing up, getting on set, and using the equipment I have outlined here, check out my ebook series Boom to Brilliance. New 32 also has monthly resource roundups and free articles for filmmakers, so be sure to explore our website and follow us on social media to keep learning!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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