Audio For Picture: Where to Start

The Blog is up, finally. 

over the next few weeks, i'm going to start blogging about audio for picture and see where it takes me.  i do have some grand plans in my head for all of this, but who knows.  for now, i'd like to just start yapping here about it and see what happens.

before i start, i have to take a second here and say that i answered a whole ton of questions about this stuff when i was interviewed for what is now called 'the go creative show', a podcast that i now mix every week that i also wrote and performed all the new music and bumpers for.  it has my friend ben consoli at the helm and he's a beast of producer and interviewer.  he also happens to be one of the most knowledgeable and skilled producer/shooter/editors i've had the good fortune of working with a whole lot over the last couple of years.  those who know ben, know what i'm talking about.  we've decided to re-cut that interview for a variety of reasons i won't go into here, but i'll definitely by posting a link to it on this blog as well as on twitter.  also check out ben's work here.  his site is brand new and it's nice to see many pieces on his reel that i mixed.  he's a great guy that does great work. 

so, you want your audio on your video and film projects to sound a whole lot better, eh?  i can help you.  i know you'd like me to start right at the post production moment when you open things up take a listen and oof, you realize there's a lot to do to make the audio acceptable, let alone 'finished' and pro sounding.  

the first thing to note is that if you're using a lot of production audio, that is, audio that was captured on set, you're gonna need to do some things to make it work that are probably foreign to you.  even if you've done your share with soundsoap or other freebie/cheap noise reduction tools, there's probably a whole world of tools and techniques out there that you know exist, but you've never had the time to really dig into them.  more on that later.

if the plan is to capture audio on set and then do a whole ton of ADR (automated dialog replacement) in a studio, that's a whole other discussion.  for this post, i'm going to focus on the planned use of production audio, recorded on set.

the truth is, i'd like to learn to edit video.  i probably never will.  why?  it's hard and time consuming and i have enough hard and time consuming things in my life just with audio!  for many of you, audio is this 'other thing' that you know you need to learn more about, but it's SO foreign to you, it's hard to know where to start. 

that's where i hope to help you and do so by breaking things down into pieces in an easy to understand way.  i work with so many video people, i know how you think, i know how you work and even knowing all of that, i swear, i can help you.  i'm kidding.  kind of.

one thing i will say right off that bat is that no matter what you know or what you'll learn here, if you're an editor, it's probably not a stretch to say you're busy as hell and if you want something mixed right and you want it mixed right now, you should call someone that can do that for you.  you won't be able to come here to this blog and learn that "one thing that makes your mixes work".  mixing is just like editing - a good edit is the result of a thousand choices and lots of experience that help you make those individual choices.  mixing audio is no different and the only way you make better choices is to do this an awful lot and make an awful lot of bad ones for a long, long time.   think back to your first year of actual editing.  that's more than likely where you are with audio, no?

sorry to go on and on, but it's important to note that i began working on audio for picture more than ten years ago, but had been a musician that had been in studios playing, producing, engineering and mixing for nearly 10 years prior to that.  i knew the tools, i just had to re-think everything and i was fine.  again, i'm kidding.  sort of.

so to actually begin, you should be capturing better.  that's right, you need record it well in order for it to work well in a mix.  what a shock, i know.

let's begin.  finally.

before you go out and shoot your next piece, consider taking a hand held recorder like the tascam DR-05 or a zoom H6 to your next sight survey - something with a pair of built-in condenser mics and bring your trusty sony 7506 headphones with you.  be sure to be there on the future set at a similar time of day that you would shoot - not only for lighting purposes, but also to note the activity that may be going on around the space that the client isn't considering at all - the noise.

walk around the area where you think you'll be shooting and take a listen with the headphones on with the unit recording.  gain it up a lot and see what happens.  talk.  see what happens.  do you hear a lot of HVAC noise (low rumble or otherwise)?  do you hear people talking in adjacent rooms?  do you hear doors opening and closing, elevators, traffic outside, phones, printers, airplanes above (i'm serious), birds chirping (even more serious), dogs barking or anything else that's loud and distracting?    ask someone some questions right where they'll be standing/sitting in the interview and get the mic reasonably close - like a lav and like shotgun.  keep recording and plan on listening to this recording when you get to your edit suite.  you'll have a whole new perspective on what the room sounds like when you're not in it and not thinking about the picture.

now then, you're in your edit suite and listening back to the recording.  how do the voices sound?  do you hear reflections from the hard surfaces all around you?  how about a resonant sound that has a tight echo from the tiny conference room with a lot of glass that will, "look so great" and sound so terrible (i'm not bitter or jaded, i swear!)?  how about a long reverb from the gymnasium-sized room that you're shooting in?   many rooms that are indeed small end up sounding huge with mics on - you've heard this and you know what i mean.  sometimes, they just sound wrong and you don't know why, so don't shoot there!  

admittedly, this isn't the best test.  you won't be recording using those mics.  that said, those mics give you a sense of the worst case scenario.  a well placed lav, which puts the sound source (their mouth) much closer to the mic will obviously cut down on the room sound as you're getting more signal than noise.  a shotgun might not, depending on the shots you're going for (which will change how close you can get the mic to their head).

get creative and find another space if you have to.  if you noticed the sun shining through the windows and creating moving reflections from cars outside across the subjects faces while shooting an easy going, corporate piece that caused the talent to squint every time a car passed outside, would you stay there?  if you couldn't make it stop, of course not.  why would you shoot where at best, you're going to have an awful time making what they say AUDIBLE?   isn't the point of THE WHOLE THING THAT THE VIEWERS HEAR WHAT IS BEING SAID?

ahem.  not bitter.  ok, sort of not bitter.  we move on...

if you're outside, your problems only grow.  i swear i've heard it all in productions and my clients (you, the video guy, not the end-clients) are often VERY surprised what comes out when you use a condenser mic and add a smidge of compression, just trying to mellow the dynamics of someone talking (and to help get them above the music track, but that's another topic).  outdoor recording can be extremely challenging.  listen carefully because although being outside often means you're in the most sound absorbing environment there is, what's often just under the surface is traffic in the distance, birds chirping and dogs barking, lawnmowers and other things you don't even notice - you name, i've been asked to fix it and i can't remove everything without ruining the sound of the voices.

really listen.  be picky, because if you hear any of those things, there's a really good chance you'll hear them in your final deliverable no matter what you learn here.  when a loud noise happens RIGHT on someone's words, it often can't be fixed and the wizard of production that was hidden behind the curtain is immediately revealed - the viewer is now watching a video, not having an experience.  non-production people notice if the sound is good or not, much like a performance of the national anthem - they might not know when it was truly great, but they sure do know when it's bad or worse.

all of the above mentioned sounds have appeared in pieces i've mixed and sometimes, all of them happen on a single piece.  i can never get over it and probably never will.  you'll never just 'fix it in the mix' even with the best tools.  there are some amazing tools out there (see the cedar tools here - wowing, but so is the price and so is the cost of the operator).  my new favorite, izotope RX3, is stunningly good and i'll get into that in an upcoming post.  that all said, nothing beats getting it right on the way in.  the vast majority the 'big name' pro's we all admire capture it right and there is no 'fixing it later'.  they don't have to.

so, now it's time to capture.  you plan on using the production audio from the set and you have to make some choices on what mics to use, where to put them, what recorder to use and who's going to actually listen on set and to make sure you don't record crap.  
i get asked all the time to go on set and capture audio.  i rarely do that anymore.  it's just not my thing - i like post production with regards to picture projects specifically and that's where i spend most of my time.  that said, i just left a set this very morning where i was asked to just make sure that things were connected correctly and that the wireless mics were dialed in and functioning properly.  i was about to leave and i asked who would be monitoring the audio during the shoot and i was told no one is.  i asked how they would know if they starting getting RF hits, if there was a sudden and awful ground hum that kicked in, etc, etc?  not one of them on set had a pair of headphones other than in-ear iPhone style ones.  seriously.  i couldn't leave the ones i had carried in with me as i was off to do other things (not just write this post - actual audio work).  they were dismayed, but i couldn't help them.  this is not the first time i've seen this happen and i'm sure it won't be the last.

i've heard so many people tell me, right to my face, that the reason they need to hire me to fix things is this simple - no one was monitoring the audio recording on set.  i bet you've seen this happen too.  
i can't imagine you didn't look at the camera's image while shooting so, why wouldn't you...

yup, i really do know you guys.  we'll cover a whole lot of that next time.

anyway,  this first tip is summed up this way...not only should you do a 'site survey', but you should also take a 'listening survey' while you're at it.  

on the next post, which will be up shortly, i'll get into mics, recorders and techniques without all the set up discussion at the top of the post.  follow me on twitter and feel free to make suggestions on things you'd like covered in future posts.

thanks for reading,