The importance of audio in videos

By Chris Blair

Bad audio can ruin an otherwise well produced video. Whether it’s poorly recorded voice tracks, mismatched ambient sound in scenes with dialogue, or poorly timed cuts in a testimonial interview, bad audio can disrupt the flow of individual scenes and sometimes the entire video.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest changes in video production over the last 20 years is that many people don’t budget for audio on projects. Whether it’s having a sound engineer on a shoot, producing custom music, or even spending time sweetening an audio mix, audio is often the first thing that gets cut when planning a shoot or edit. In fact, on most of our shoots, the camera crew ends up being responsible for audio. And while our shooters are adept at setting microphones and monitoring levels, it certainly isn’t the best way to guarantee quality audio on a shoot, especially when it calls for actor dialogue or extensive interviews.

Audio is just too important to be treated as an afterthought. It’s arguably half your product. It can drive the pacing of a project and can create the appropriate mood, add emphasis, and subliminally influence how images are perceived. People have gotten so used to the impact of sound that studies have shown that when test subjects are shown silent video of events or machines that make loud or distinct sounds, a huge percentage report hearing the sound while watching the video.

Of course you could claim those findings prove you don’t need audio, since viewers filled in the missing sounds themselves, but if you’ve ever watched deleted scenes on a DVD where the audio hasn’t been mixed and enhanced, the FIRST thing you notice is the uneven levels, the missing ambient sound and the improper mix of dialogue and effects.

The most important task when it comes to sound is to get good tracks during the shoot. Doing this requires conducting location scouts before the shoot to discover possible sound problems, assess microphone choices and determine correct placement. During the shoot, it’s equally important to set levels correctly and critically monitor takes. Plus, microphone choice and placement can differ depending on whether you’re recording an interview or actor dialogue. Interviews typically require putting the microphone as close to the subject as possible, while with dialogue, the microphone doesn’t always have to be right next to the subject. The reason is that motion picture and television sound editors often vary levels based on the subject’s distance from the camera.

But even if the recorded audio is clean, sound editing can also make or break a project. Editing interview comments can be especially tricky, since you often have to combine comments shot at different times. A person’s inflection, tone and enthusiasm can vary wildly, and keeping background sound levels consistent can be extremely difficult. Editing dialogue can just as tricky because conversations can often overlap and as noted, viewers expect levels to vary. The trick is to make all those edits sounds as if they’re one seamless track.

There’s also a real art to knowing where to cut so that shots mesh seamlessly. Whether it’s an interview, narration or dialogue, a good sound editor listens to the cadence of voice tracks, and identifies cut points based on emphasis, inflection or pauses in delivery. The key is understanding where to cut, then knowing how to adjust levels and transitions so they become transparent to the audience. Then there’s ambient sound. Even if voice tracks and music are perfectly mixed, when ambient sound fluctuates or changes too dramatically, it can ruin the mix.

Editing music also requires experience, patience and a good ear for instrumentation. Just selecting the music can be an art form in itself. Some people have a knack for finding music that matches the tone of a video, but most do not. I worked with a producer who once chose a snappy jazz number for a commercial he was working on. It was a great piece of music. Only problem was the commercial was for a funeral home!

The majority of videos we produce use either royalty free or needle-drop music, which is existing music provided on-demand. The typical process involves searching through a music library, finding a dozen or so cuts that seem to fit the tone of the video, then auditioning those cuts to see which ones work best with interview comments, voice overs or dialogue. It can take hours to search for and find music that works with a particular concept, and then hours more to test and decide which of those meshes with the video’s existing audio. That’s before any mixing is done.

Of course once you’ve picked music, you need to mix it loud enough to complement voice tracks, but not so loud that it’s distracting. That’s one of the biggest problems I see in local and regional production. Many clients are afraid to use what I call a “hot mix,” which is basically a mix that gives nearly equal weight to the voice tracks and music. Local television and radio commercials often air with music levels so low that they might as well be non-existent. In my opinion, that’s as distracting as having the music too loud. Spend a night listening to the music levels in nationally produced commercials and you’ll be surprised at how loud the music is mixed in those spots.

The key to a “hot mix” is to make sure voice tracks are dynamically compressed, which is a process that increases soft sounds to match louder ones in the same track. Equalization is another process that can allow for a hotter mix between the two. Equalization at the most basic level is the process of enhancing or reducing the frequencies of sound. So if a music track has high tonal frequencies that fight with a voice over, reducing those frequencies can help it work better with the voice tracks.

Notice I didn’t mention scoring music. The reason is that in this economy, very few clients are willing to pay to create custom music. But a well produced and written custom musical score can certainly make a video come alive. A good composer knows how to arrange a score so that instruments mesh with the visuals, and a well-written jingle can forever brand a company in the minds of viewers. As an example, who can ever forget the “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner” jingle?

If creating great visuals is important in video, capturing and mixing great sound isn’t far behind. Sound can enhance video when it’s well done or ruin it when it’s not. So pay attention to sound and budget for it on your next video. Your projects will stand out because of it.