Huh? Audio for video tributes? I thought you were the video guys!? Well, yes, but we also do oral histories. And, there is an audio track (or three or four) in all our life story video projects and there are audio issues in every project. So, for those of you thinking about your own foray into video biography and related genres, I thought I would offer these audio tips.
For a lot of people getting started in the area we specialize in – tribute videos and family history video – the video part goes fine. But they rely on the video camera’s inbuilt microphone and the sound is definitely not fine. Why? Because the pickup pattern for an inbuilt mic is very wide – and that fact, combined with the camera’s auto gain function (low noises are automatically boosted in volume), means that all kinds of extraneous noises get added. The result can sound like the interview took place just outside the monkey cage of the Bronx Zoo.
But we can fix it, right? We just take the audio into a program like Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, or Adobe’s Soundbooth, isolate the background noise and, well, reduce it! Not really. While you can make bad audio a little less bad, you cannot make bad audio good.
So your best approach is to invest in a decent Lavalier mic and a reputable shotgun mic. If money is no object, then grab a couple of wireless mics while you are at it. Always use headphones when recording and, if you know what you are doing, turn off the auto settings and set your audio manually – cutting out problems that the camera’s auto gain can cause.
Ok, you decide you are going to include some recreational, vocational or occupational footage in your tribute video. That means you are going to be out on location somewhere. In nature. With planes, trains and automobiles. And their noise.
There are a few things you can do to reduce extraneous noises on location. Use a wind baffle or windscreen on your mics for one. Filming early in the morning is another – it is usually better light, there is less wind, and if you are early enough there will be less human-generated noise. Also, if you are recording interviews outside later in the day – and you get a burst of traffic noise – you may simply have to ask the question again. And again, if necessary.
They say that as an audience we are more tolerant of bad video than bad audio…
While you are out and about, it is always a good idea to record some general background noise (“nat sound”) while you are there. You may want to add some to your interview footage later (assuming you have been successful in screening out background noise in the first place).
Natural sound can also be useful if you are planning to incorporate images or other graphics with your location-shot footage while editing your tribute video. How? Well, in editing, you may want to transition from the location shots to your images. A sensible approach is to place some of the background noise under the images (plus some music, probably) so you don’t get a dramatic change in the sound tone and so that you maintain aural continuity. Also, background noise from location can serve as a “patch” if you need to cover some unexpected and unwelcome sound like an overhead aircraft.
Some Editing Suite Fixes
Once you are ready to edit your tribute video you are likely to run into other audio issues, many of which can be easily solved in editing. Sound too low on a clip? Export the audio to Soundtrack Pro or Soundbooth and simply normalize it.
Maybe you have a number of audio tracks stacked up – and the overall sound is too high. Mark the audio peaks and, using your audio meters and working with the individual tracks, bring down the combined level to around -6dB. Another issue: Interviews made with different cameras or different mics will probably have different sound levels – a quick fix is to select all the audio tracks and apply a normalization gain.
Fixing Worst Case Audio (Call the Foley Artist)
We recently had the privilege of shooting a tribute video for a couple for whom the garden was an enormous interest. The challenge was that the front part of the garden, which had a number of topiary animals, was situated on somewhat busy road – with the more than occasional car roaring past.
The footage we recorded of the subject clipping these crazy animals looked excellent. But at certain key moments a car would rush past and the audio became unusable. Simply placing natural sound under the footage (and muting the original audio) did not solve the problem, because we needed the subject’s footfalls as well as the sound of the secateurs as she clipped the topiary animals.
The best answer was to strip all the audio and replace it with natural sound and sound effects (footfalls and scissors in this case – kindly provided by Footage Firm). The result was perfect.
Other Tribute Video Audio Issues
These days, editing suites seem to be able to take almost any media format and it’s all grist for the mill. But with audio from disparate sources in disparate formats, we often find we get better results if we convert to 48.0 KHz, uncompressed audio (“aiff”) before bringing it into the edit. To be honest, we are not sure if the improvement is real or imagined, but given the importance of audio to any video tribute project it’s worth the extra step (you also avoid the need to render out the audio).
Another audio issue for tribute videos arises when it comes time to output your magnum opus for the web. You will be given a number of audio options, some of which are designed to save you on file size. Audio, though, is such a small constituent of file size but such an important factor in overall perception of quality there is really no choice. Always use “best” settings and the highest bit rate you can find (320 kbps in our case).
Audio can be the red-headed step child of video tributes. Yet sharp, clean audio is arguably more important to the overall quality of your life story video than good video. So, take the time to take the care and put audio at the top of your list in every tribute video.