Good Audio for Video & Film Production: How A Good Soundtrack Can Make or Break Your Film - Page 1

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Good Audio Can Make or Break Your Video Production

When you are doing professional level videography the quality of your audio is often the make-or-break aspect of your production. Unfortunately, audio is often the least understood part of a video project, and critical audio mistakes can sink an entire production.

In this article series I’ll detail the specific ways that audio is going to impact your project as well as what you can do to put yourself in the best position for success. Whether your project is a digital short, a training video, or a web or TV ad, if you have people talking on screen you are going to have to get the audio right.

A general overview of the impact of audio for video:

Depending on the complexity of your project, your sound track will have a wide range of effects ranging from basic intelligibility of speech to subtle emotional shifts based on music and sound effects cues. Since much of the audio process doesn’t happen until after the cast and crew have gone home, the sound usually isn’t addressed seriously until that point - which can be a big mistake. If you prioritize your audio well and plan for it from early on, you’ll reap all of the rewards of a completed and marketable project. If you underestimate your audio needs you may find that your project never seems to end.

Good audio is essential to any project that hopes to earn or recoup money:

Financially viable projects don’t necessarily need spectacular audio, but they do need to reach a baseline level of quality in order to be presentable to the public at large. This is the most common lesson that beginning videographers learn the hard way. Every year I run across 3-4 first time videographers with the same story: “I’ve put everything I have into this project, now I’m out of money and out of time and I can’t release this because it sounds horrible. Help!”

The bottom line is that if your production relies on the audience being able to hear what the people on screen are saying then your production isn’t going anywhere until that little detail comes to pass. You’ll have to take steps at every stage of production to make sure that you or your team can record and maintain good quality audio. Fortunately, good sound isn’t rocket science - it just takes a little thought and effort. The idea that you have to actively participate in your project’s sound in order for it to meet an acceptable standard is one of the most important lessons a budding digital video creator can learn.

Here’s a fun exercise:

Name a successful film that absolutely fails at one of the following:

  • Casting (There are several here, but many of the early Batman films come to mind)

  • Cinematography (The Blair Witch Project)

  • Acting (Clerks - and I love that movie)

  • Directing (I could go back to Clerks, but I’m sure that there are plenty on anyone’s list. Catwoman maybe?)

  • Script (There’s an excuse to start a whole new list. Start with The Fast and The Furious)

  • Audio (I can’t think of one. Can you?)

The lesson is that your production will be able to survive many shortcomings if the rest of it is strong enough - with the notable exception of bad audio.

Good audio extends the emotional content of the story and pictures:

The contrast to how negatively bad audio can impact your project is the degree to which good audio can help it.

Your audio content is the brush with which you paint the emotional content into your productions. Music, sound effects and intricate mixes can communicate emotional subtleties far beyond what the lighting and camera angle can do. This is because our ears are remarkably more difficult to fool than our eyes are. While it takes only about 30 frames per second to convince our eyes that we’re looking at an object in motion instead of a series of images, it takes upwards of 40 thousand “frames” per second to convince our ears of the same thing. Further, our emotional connection to the pictures in front of us is tied very directly to the sounds we are hearing.

Try this experiment:

  • Find your favorite scene in your favorite film.
  • First watch it with the sound completely off, and write down your emotional reaction to the clip on a scale from 1-10
  • Now turn the sound up relatively loud, watch the clip again, and write down your emotional reaction again.

What you’ll find is that your emotional reaction goes up dramatically with the sound in place, almost regardless of the scene you chose. In fact the true challenge is to find a scene where the opposite is true. We get strong emotional responses from the delivery of the dialogue, the musical score, and the sound effects editorial in all good films. What this illustrates is the degree to which sound can be an additive part of your production, and it gives a good barometer for the amount of value you should place in it during the production process.

Good audio gives a professional finish to your project:

The sad fact is that there are mountains of digital video projects out there that get by on barely passable audio. If the context only demands the bare minimum then this is fine of course, but one of the primary ways that you can set your production apart from the rest is to have an above average sound track. Productions with pro-level audio project an air of legitimacy that can overcome many minor flaws. Spend the planning time and brainpower on making sure that your sound track is top-notch, and your project will gain value more quickly than if you focus on almost any other technical aspect.

OK I get it, a good sound track matters. What do I need to do to make it happen?

The rest of this series will be devoted to the specific steps you can take to make sure that your production audio and sound track stand above the rest. With that said, there are two rules of thumb that you should take with you from the beginning to the end of every project:

  • Budget time and resources on the front end.

Many shoe-string productions end up blowing the entire production budget on everything that isn’t audio. Things like catering, wardrobe, wrap parties, and location expenses take precedence over the ability of the audience to hear what the people on screen are saying, and no one realizes this until the cast and crew have gone home and the video editor puts his hand on his forehead and realizes that everything sounds terrible. By contrast, all mid and upper level productions allocate time and money for the audio process well before the production gets underway because they realize that the audio portion does not have the option of failure. By proactively addressing your audio needs you’ll be giving your production a chance to succeed.

  • Take responsibility

It will often not be your job to know how to make the audio sound good. It will be your job to make sure that the audio sounds good. Don’t be afraid to listen to takes on the set, ask questions, and trust your ears and instincts. If something doesn’t seem right then it is your responsibility to find out why. If you don’t take responsibility for the sound of your project early, you’ll end up taking responsibility when you try to fix the problems later on.

In part 2 of this series we’ll address how to prepare your production for audio in general and for the location sound specifically. This is a most critical part of the audio production process, and messing it up can cost the entire production, so stay tuned!

This post is part of the series: How good audio can help your digital video production

An in-depth step by step guide to audio for your digital video production. Learn about audio pre-production, location sound and post production. Learn what to listen for and what questions to ask, even if you’re not the audio guy on the set.

  1. How Good Audio can Help your Video Production - Part 1
  2. Getting Better Audio in Your Digital Video Production - Part 2
  3. Good Location Sound - Part 3
  4. Part 4 - Dialogue Transfer and Editing
  5. Noise Reduction and Dialogue Mixing: Part 5