Sound for Picture II: Transparent Audio Matters

Ten or fifteen years ago, producing sound for picture was a significantly simpler process than it is now – either you had tools for the job and knew how to use them or you didn’t, in which case you would hire a location sound team and ship the final product off to a post-production house.

In that respect things haven’t changed all that much, but as professional video equipment becomes available to users of all levels and at every budget, we find that there are many more people producing video today who may not have experience in location sound recording and audio post-production.

The rise of digital video over the last few years means that the vast majority of users have access to professional equipment that can capture high-quality video at relatively affordable prices. The problem is that many independent projects suffer from recorded sound that is average at best and barely useable at worst, largely because budgets are spent on equipment that gives immediately obvious improvements – a better camera, lens and lighting will all give an instant improvement in the viewed image. A scene that is well-lit in a higher-quality format yields results that are easily justifiable when it comes to loosening the purse strings. Audio, on the other hand, proves to be a bit of a paradox; the better quality it is, the less noticeable it will be. And who wants to spend money on something that becomes less and less noticeable with every penny spent?

It’s important to note that no matter what the project, your audience will expect the audio to be completely transparent. If the audio is a point of discussion in the production, chances are that something isn’t quite right (unless, of course, the discussion is because it’s been done extremely well). The audio will convey almost all of the emotional impact in any given scene of your video. Try watching your favourite scene with the sound on mute and it will become obvious how much emotion and atmosphere is a direct result of audio – visual images without sound simply aren’t that moving. That’s not to say that silent films can’t be sad, happy, scary or dramatic, but they were, after all, conceived to be performed either without sound or with live sound. There may even be scenes you can recall where the distinct lack of audio heightened the impact of a scene, but that effect is almost certainly the result of its distinction from every other scene as a result of the absence of sound.

So should a part of your budget be dedicated to something that becomes less obvious with every penny spent? Absolutely! Sound works primarily on a subconscious level when it’s presented alongside a visual medium. Great sound will only enhance your project and, truly, it will be the difference between an amateur and professional production.

The most important thing to mention is that poor quality recordings will always be of a poor quality. Certainly there are techniques and tools to remove unwanted background noise such as ceiling fans or hum and hiss, but none of them leave the audio fully intact as they generally operate by removing a certain frequency from the waveform. If this frequency is outside of the range you want to keep, e.g. not in the same frequency range as dialogue, you might get away with noise reduction tools, but in the majority of cases audio cleaning will leave unwanted artefacts and will simply add another type of noise to your soundtrack.

When scouting for a recording location, there are several things we need to take into account, all the while remembering that preventative measures are far better than corrective ones during the post-production stage. Excessive ambient noise from traffic, groups of people and animals, or building noise from heating and air conditioning systems, computers and machinery can all be minimised to some extent.

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