Sound Advice: Thinking in Audio

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Good audio in a video or film isn't a theoretical, feel good, groovy sort of thing. It's a get your hands dirty, dig in, do-or-die sort of thing. Don't try to make your video sound great because you "should." Make your show sound good in the satisfying knowledge that good audio will bring your work up to a higher standard. Bad audio (particularly distant or hard to hear dialog) will destroy your show's impact, sometimes to the point of a smoking, charred ruin. If the sound is poor, your audience will probably tune out entirely without even knowing why they lost interest. The kicker is that all it takes to make your video sound good is some advance consideration and planning. You simply need to start thinking in audio.

Start by wrapping your head around this concept that you may not have previously considered: Your show is made up of only two elements—picture and sound. That's all. Isn't that enough? Importantly, they are separate elements—sound goes into your ears, and sight into your eyes, and in a remarkably fast process inside your brain, they appear to be together. In the video production process, however, they do not go together unless you make that happen.

For example, many people are shooting these days on DSLR cameras. If you are one of them, you are probably already recording your audio on a separate device, because many DSLR's don't have any audio input. That's called dual system recording (video-to-camera, audio-to-recorder). Right from the start you are separately capturing picture and sound. You can also clearly see the concept of separate audio and video every time you transfer footage from your shoot into your computer. When you import, it comes into the software as two things: the picture on a visual timeline, and the audio onto audio tracks (an audio timeline). I suspect that while editing you may have once accidentally moved the audio out of sync with the video as you slide things around. I certainly have. If you have experienced that phenomenon, then you know the audio and the video must be intentionally synced together. Understanding this concept sets you up for some very powerful ideas about sound and picture working together, and a much better understanding of what it takes to create good sound design. The audio and the video are separate until you put them together.

As you think about what makes up the sound portion of your program and how to maximize its impact, here are a few questions (and some answers) that you should consider:

I. Pre-production

In the early stages of discussing your idea with your colleagues, even if this is just your family (note: your dog will agree with everything, but your cat—not so much) make sure you have a discussion about the sound. Ideally, bring on board a sound professional. Will there be music in the show? Voiceovers? How can you start considering the sound design right from the start of the first script meeting? How can you develop a concept where the sound creates tension, satisfaction, and emotion? How can you be assured of a good audio track, both on-location and in post-production? How might the audio play a significant role? If you bring these things up early, you'll integrate it into your plans.

Your living room may be fine visually, but will the sound be OK there? Is there bad traffic noise, or a refrigerator sound, or an air conditioner? Does the actual sound of your voice in the room seem clear? When you scout, listen to your location, and plan accordingly.

When you are designing your budget and schedule, be sure to include what is needed for the sound department. Does your budget include audio? What gear will be needed? And when you are planning your shoot (you are making a shot-list, right?) it is critical that you leave enough time to capture sound properly. This applies to everything else too, by the way, so don't forget the time it takes to do makeup, lighting, traveling around, and for heaven's sake, make time for lunch! Leave extra time in the schedule to consider ideas that always come up: to discuss a shot, play with a line from an actor, or accomplish a complicated scene. And definitely leave plenty of time for things to go wrong, because they always do. That's how show business works.

II. Production

During the shoot, there will be stress. Work with good people and let them do their job. The best advice I ever got about being a director is to hire well, and let the crew show you what to do. Have an audio idea? Ask the sound person how you might accomplish it. Thinking about a fancy shot? Discuss it with the camera operator. Yes, it's your show, but they know their individual jobs better than you do, so let them make you look good.

III. Post-production

The old line that "we'll fix it in the mix" will bite you in the ass every time. That's not to say what went wrong during the shoot can't be fixed later, but never count on that. Do the planning in pre-production and make the time during the shoot to get what you want while you are there. This will save you endless headaches and big bucks down the line.

As you edit your show, meet with the sound designer early (if you are doing everything yourself, then have the conversation with yourself in your own head, but maybe not out loud in public). Discuss how picture and sound will work together, including the dialog, music, backgrounds, sound effects and anything else you are considering. And as you edit, remember to consider where shots might be changed, dialog might be trimmed, edits held longer, or an edit altered to accommodate a great sound idea or audio transition that adds a new element. Shooting and editing is an artistic process that involves both picture and sound. Stay open to how they interact and enhance each other. There are volumes written about post-production audio answers, but the most important thing is that you consider the questions. Once you have done that, you are well on your way to good sound—and a far better show.

I suggest you start this entire process by listening to other shows (TV and films) more closely. You need to start understanding where the audio was done with intent, where it is effective, and where it is not. And importantly, listen to the world around you more carefully. There is an entire sonic universe—what I call sonic space—in which we are always enveloped. These sonic spaces fundamentally alter our sense of place, our emotional state, and our very idea of reality. Understanding that phenomenon can have a considerable impact on your life and your work. Start listening. Start thinking in audio.

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Jeff Jacoby practices sound art and design, radio production, directing, producing, writing, and performing, and happily serves as Associate Professor of Audio & Radio in the Department of Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts at San Francisco State University. Jeff has served on the faculty of Quinnipiac University, Real Art Ways, The Media Arts Center, and the National Radio Project. Current projects include Into Sonic Space (sound art installations), The Traveling Radio Show (creative radio program), and collaborations with artists working in a variety of mediums. Jacoby has been recognized for his work with an Emmy award and two Emmy nominations, two Benjamin Franklins, two Crystal Radios, four BEA Best of Competition awards, and two Ciné Golden Eagles, among other honors. His work has been heard on PBS, NPR, commercial radio, at art festivals South by Southwest, Black Maria, Festival du Cinéma de Paris, ASIFA East, and in galleries across the country. Jeff lives in San Francisco with the brilliant visual artist (and CreativePro author) Sharon Steuer. For more information visit jeffjacoby.net.

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