We’ve made it to the home stretch! This is the last installment of our four-part overview of the steps needed to complete a typical editing project. This month, we’ll finalize our audio track and get our program ready for public viewing. We’ll also talk about what you can do when you finish one project to make your next project easier.
How Sweet it Is
Our family tribute video example is almost finished. We’ve logged, captured, edited and built the video portion of our timeline, including everything from transitions to titles. So what’s left?
We’ll make one final pass to add a little extra something to our project, something that can take a good program and make it great. We call this audio sweetening. We’ll tweak and adjust, adding little sonic touches that can make your soundtrack stand out and really sparkle. Sweetening includes applying effects such as compression, normalization or possibly reverb to your existing soundtracks as well as the addition of sound effects and other audio enhancements. In most video projects, dialog is critically important to the story or message. So first up, let’s take a look at some techniques that can help clarify dialog and speech.
Unless all your footage comes from the same source and the same setup, the audio levels you’ve recorded will probably vary greatly from clip to clip. If you want the audience to hear these clips clearly, spending some time adjusting the audio levels of your clips so that they’re more or less consistent is a good first step in sweetening. You can manually do this using your ears and the audio meter in your software or you can use a filter to process your entire audio stream so that it sounds more consistent.
Compression and normalization are two of the most common software processes used on spoken content and indeed much of modern popular music. Compression is a process where we lower or reduce the dynamic range of the audio, which is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of track. Essentially, it makes the softer sounds louder, while making louder sounds softer. This leaves you with a more consistent track. We’d recommend being cautious about using too much compression, however, as you’ll sometimes want your actors to whisper their lines and at other times shout, but for parts like the voice-over narration, compression is almost a required process.
Normalization is a variant of compression, where the dynamic range is not only compressed, but after compression is applied, the volume is turned up to a maximum. Applied to a well-recorded track with a solid signal-to-noise ratio and no unwanted background sounds, normalization can yield an excellent result for helping sonic elements like narration stand out in your videos.
The problem is that if your initial track isn’t clean, the normalization process will take your noisy background and normalize it along with the speech you’re trying to enhance. The result can be an even noisier track than one without normalization. If the recording is good, a modest amount of compression will often make it sound better. But if you discover, after applying compression, that you’ve managed to enhance elements of your soundtrack that are annoying, you can back off.
EQ and Reverb
There are two other digital enhancements that are commonly used by professionals to sweeten the mix. The first is equalization or EQ. This is where you bring up the bass a bit to warm the audio up or perhaps bring down the high trebles to get rid of a nasty hiss. EQ is technically easy to use, but it takes a real artist to get it right. The second tweak is reverb. This filter effect can add space to your mix and even give a sense of stereo separation to a monophonic recording. In both cases, but especially with reverb, use restraint and concentrate on consistency first. Applying reverb to one clip and not another can make them sound as if they were recorded in two different locations.
Once you have the dialog and voice over tracks in top shape, the next step in sweetening is to look at your program in terms of how secondary sounds can help you tell your story. Let’s say our family history video has a video section where dad is teaching Junior to drive. We have silent footage transferred to videotape from old 8mm film. Why not use the sound effect of a car starting over the title slide as an audio introduction into this section? Then as dad and son drive away at a responsible and stately pace, you could add a revving engine and screeching brakes for a humorous effect.
There are literally hundreds of sound effects libraries available online or via disc. Sometimes, just browsing through the index of available sounds can spark some new creative ideas on how you can add some new interest to your program. The point is that sound is a powerful communications tool that reaches far beyond the basic processes of capturing and reproducing dialog.
Master the Moment
The timeline is complete and our program is ready to master! In this digital era, the whole concept of making a master videotape is actually a little out of date. Since modern editing systems simply put out a stream of digital data, making a program master is really just making a copy of your digital data in a form that someone can watch. The tape can be digitally cloned with each copy identical to another. Obviously, this makes archiving our work more flexible than ever before.
The final step in my typical production process is to do a computer backup of the data files I used in creating my program. That includes the batch capture list created by the editing software and any graphics, pictures, sounds or other media that I’ve created for the show.
I tend to keep the video clips on my hard drive from my last few programs just in case I need to make changes, but sooner or later, they get deleted. If I need to recreate the program later, all I have to do is reload my master files and re-batch capture the clip from the original tapes. Now do you see why tape labeling, organization and a good file naming convention are important?
That’s a Wrap
The video is finished. We planned carefully, logged, captured, edited, trimmed and built a dynamic and interesting timeline. We took great pains to make sure our video and our soundtrack communicated clearly. We also added some visual and sonic sparkle to our finished product. And, at the end of production, we mastered our show and took care of our system housekeeping chores in order to be ready for our next project. After all of this hard work what are you likely left with?
The simple answer is a video that will delight your family and friends, but you’re also left with what you’ve learned. And that’s probably the most valuable asset in the entire production process.
Editing software programs will come and go. So will the cameras, lights, microphones and even many of the people you worked with on your productions. The one thing that will never leave you is your knowledge and understanding of the process of making a good video. The ability to tell a story in a way that can engage, inspire or delight an audience is a very valuable skill that will last you a lifetime. Show promise in this field and don’t be surprised if you find yourself sought out by other people who will want you to help them harness the amazing power of video.
Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.
Sidebar: Send in the Clones
Since going digital years ago, I’ve found myself developing some new archiving habits. When a program is finished, the first thing I do is make a digital clone onto a master tape for my library. Then I output another clone for delivery to my tape duplicator. I usually add one additional step that I’d like to recommend to new producers: I dub another clone of my new program onto the end of one or more of my original field tapes. Why? Why not? Since clones are identical and cost nothing more then the time to burn them, and you have extra room at the end of one of your tapes, there’s no downside to having an extra copy of the master around. You can never be too safe.