Mark Mainolfi has 13 years experience as an audio technician. He is the Production Coordinator at a live theater in Brooklyn, and is pursuing his master’s degree in TV Writing and Producing.
So it’s my last day at Stareable, and I thought I should write one more quick article on sound design to leave you guys with (we need more audio info out there!). On set, the main job of the audio guy is too make the audience forget about microphones or anything that might make the sound seem fake. Everything is controlled as best as possible so you get clear, high quality audio. But, there’s a problem with this approach that I see more and more in independent film, and that’s making the audio sound TOO good. In short, if everything sounds crisp and clear, everyone starts sounding like they’re speaking in a radio booth. This can take away people’s suspension of disbelief even more than bad audio can.
Oh, and this problem is ten times worse with ADR (alternate dialogue replacement), which if you don’t know, is when people dub over their own voices after the scene has already been shot.
There are a lot of things you can do to make your audio more believable, but I’ve just come up with three simple tricks that might help you out.
1. Equalization (EQ)
The theory can be a bit complicated, but the basic idea is that any sound we hear is a set of many frequencies, which together form the single sound we perceive. The reason that a guitar and a saxophone sound different even though they’re playing the same exact note, is that while they are producing the same dominant frequencies to play that note, they also produce their own unique array of other frequencies that shape the sound. EQ is about taking these frequencies and manipulating them to shape the sound your own way. Hopefully your audio tech has already done a bit of this to get clear sound on set. If you’ve ever seen an analog sound board, many of the knobs are there just for EQ.
So what can you do with EQ and your limited audio knowledge? Luckily, most video or audio editing softwares already have preset EQ patterns that you can simply plop right onto your sound files. There are usually separate patterns for male or female voices, music, sound effects, and even for certain environments. Spend a few minutes clicking through all of these preset patterns to see if anything makes your audio sound better.
Another preset EQ effect that many programs have is something known as a de-esser (or sometimes de-sibilizer). This preset cuts out the frequencies which manifest from a person using harsh consonants which involve blowing wind through their teeth (like with the “s” sound). The wind causes noise in the mic, so cutting that out will make the microphone less noticeable.
Reverb is essentially echo, but a little more complicated and controlled. Once again, reverb tends to be something that most programs already have plenty of presets for. Now you may be thinking, “I just spent a lot of time and money buying sound blankets and other crap to make sure my audio has no echo! Now you want me to add echo back in?” The answer-- yes, but now it’s on your terms. Natural echo usually sounds bad in microphones, but controlled reverb can make it sound more realistic. The basic idea is that there aren’t real life sound blankets everywhere, so a little bit of echo sounds more believable. Look in the reverb menu of your software, and see what presets there are. You can often find a preset reverb to make a character sound like they’re in a train station, empty room, far away, and many more. This is also a great tool if a person is supposed to be in, say, a huge cathedral, but your budget made you film that scene in your parents’ basement. Cool things like that.
Reverb should almost always be used for sound effects. Most sound effects you find online are recorded in actual sound studios, so that you can make them sound like wherever they’re supposed to be in your film. I was recently working on a webshow pilot that involved a lion roar. When I first saw the rough cut, I immediately told the director that the roar needed reverb. With absolutely no echo in this loud bellowing sound, no one would be convinced that this lion was anywhere near the actual scene.
Most of you know what stereo is-- it’s when audio is split into two different signals, a right and a left. Sometimes you will be recording in stereo, but often (especially for voices) you will be recording in mono. Since as humans we have two ears, we hear things in stereo, which means stereo sounds more realistic to us. So, you should always make your audio stereo, and that’s as simple as giving all your sounds different volumes between the left and right channels. If a character is speaking and is on the left side of the screen, make his voice sound louder in the left channel, etc. etc. You can even give sound effects the illusion of moving around the audience by fading them in and out between the left and right channels. Creating stereo for your entire video can be tedious, but the rewards are plenty.
It is often said that the best sound guys are the ones that make you forget they even exist. If all your audio sounds believable and realistic, no one will notice. It’s the bad audio that people notice. It’s a thankless job, but whether people know it or not, it will make your production SO much better. Try experimenting with these tricks if you have the time. And if you’re doing ADR, all of these tricks are basically mandatory.
Thanks so much for paying attention to my articles over these past few months. It’s been a blast here at Stareable; and even though I’m leaving the Stareable staff, I’m not leaving the community! Please reach out if you have any questions or want help on your production.