Well, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, today, SMACK, I would GRIND, CRUNCH, like to say, SMACK, SLURP, a few words, SIP, GULP, about, CLICK, SWISH, audio for video. Pretty irritating, huh? With several small children in our home it’s very common to hear someone offer the correction: “please don’t talk with your mouth full”. As much as I love my sweet cherubs and desire to capture the heart of what they are trying to communicate it takes great patience to ignore the sqishing of their mac and cheese or the popping of tasty grapes. You may ask how this relates to this blog...well, as soon as I, SMACK, SWALLOW, finish this piece of steak I’ll tell you.
GARGLE, GULP, sorry, I needed to wash that last bite down. So in any form of audio communication, we desire clarity and find noise to be very irritating. Noise is used to torture and brainwash prisoners so it shouldn’t surprise us when an audience has difficulty overlooking audio problems.
There are lots of articles that deal with the mechanics of what it takes to capture and process good sound for video so I won’t address that today but rather focus on helping those who may influence production understand the importance of audio.
Consider a day in the life of a sound professional
It may be instructive for us to consider the profile of a typical sound recordist, audio editor, soundscaper, etc. Well, how can I put this diplomatically? Oh, forget diplomacy, they are just odd. They are often very passionate about a wide array of acoustic and technical things and their ability to focus on what others might consider minutia can be be frustrating for people who just want to “get a move on”. It’s important to remember that they have usually endured many, many, many, hours of attempting to repair bad sound recordings, interspersed with banging their heads and muttering, “Why, why, why?”
You see, they are often hired or asked to volunteer their services after many decisions that affect sound quality have been made by other people who may not have the understanding or experience to realize the gravity of the situation that they have created.
They are very often put into the uncomfortable position of attaching their name to sub-par work when they were not consulted about location, equipment, or crew selection. It is not uncommon for the sound person to be the only person on a set to identify problems that will prove to be impossible to work around in post production. Experienced directors are quick to listen when a sound person identifies a problem but sometimes the bearer of bad news is treated poorly and viewed as a hindrance to expedient shooting.
Why “Fixing it in post” doesn’t usually work for audio problems
Don’t get me wrong, there are visual problems that can’t be repaired or covered up and require re-shooting but very often small video errors can be covered. Audio errors can rarely be corrected to an undetectable level. Since I like analogies that relate to eating, consider it this way: If you drop a spoon into the soup, it is easily extracted, or you could just leave it in the bottom of the pot and no one is the wiser. But, if the lid comes off the salt shaker and dumps into the pot, you have just ruined the soup for human consumption. Video error = spoon. Audio error = salt overdose.
If Audio Professionals Ruled the World
Cue Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” playing quietly in the background (after purchasing a license to use the music of course)...location scouting would be done with a sound professional donning his noise canceling headphones and field recording gear. Every director would consult them in planning the shots and consider mic placement. The shoot would be marked by an air of mutual respect and appreciation of the fact that excellent sound recording requires great skill.
Production planning involves considering the impact that any individual decision has on the project as a whole. It’s impossible to make decisions in a vacuum. For instance, a common source of noise are air handlers that must be turned off while shooting. The sound person may recommend that an additional crew member be added solely to turn the A/C on and off.
Old style fluorescent lights often create an irritating buzzing sound. If they are emergency lights, there is no easy way to turn them off while you are shooting.
A Primer for Understanding Audio Lingo
Terms like “wild sound" and "dead cat” are just a couple of terms that may be Greek to most people, but if you are going to make decisions regarding a video production - or do your own audio - it’s a good idea to get familiar with these and other terms. There are several glossaries available online. This is a good one: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/Product_Resources/Glossery_ProAudio.jsp.
At a minimum, understand the following:
- Noise - anything that you don’t want to hear.
- Peaking - sound that may result in distorted sound.
- Ambient - sounds other than dialogue that you may or may not want to control and or capture.
- Wild sound - ambient sound that is recorded at every location to be used to fill gaps while editing.
- ADR - dialogue that must be re-recorded in a more controlled environment and synced to the video footage
- Foley - adding sounds like footsteps, etc. in post
- Soundscaping - The creation of a soundtrack that may include dialogue, ambient, ADR, music, Foley, and other sounds.
Quiet Really means Quiet
You may be the Grand Poopaw of the Northern District who is interviewing the Grand Poopaw of the World but when the sound person asks for quiet on the set you need to think of them as being the Grand Poopaw of the Universe. I have been on hundreds of shoots where there were people who somehow assumed that the request for silence did not apply to them. In order for a sound person to do systematic checks of their equipment, they really need you to be absolutely quiet unless they are asking the talent to speak.
If you are one of the talents being recorded and you are asked for a mic test, speak at the same volume that you will be delivering your lines. Levels are set during the test so if you give your test in a low irritated mumble and then deliver them with gusto during the “real take” very often you will hear, “Take two.” Or a polite, “Let’s get one more take.”
Something to Listen to, no to Aspire to
Here are some examples of rich, full audio editing:
So the next time that you find yourself straining to hear what is being said over the CRUNCHING, CHEWING, GRINDING, SLURPING, and SWALLOWING NOISE, kindly remember the importance of planning for great sound for video!