Hearing... Visually!

What if I told you there was a revolutionary new way to visualize your audio recordings? A closely-guarded, secret technique that only the audio elite know and very few people can actually use. This secret technique is a recent discovery by a Swiss scientist who has gone into hiding due to government interference. But today, for only $19.95, I will email the secret to you. With this new visualization technique, you will make better audio edits and learn to manipulate audio in ways you never dreamed possible. But hurry, this offer won’t last forever!

Audio Truth

Okay, the truth is that this visualization technique isn’t new or secret or subject to government scrutiny. There are no scientists in hiding -at least none that I know of -and you don’t have to send me $20 to find out, but the other stuff is true. This technique is spectrum analysis -or specifically, an audio spectrogram -and your audio editor may already have this feature buried somewhere inside it.

Remember VU meters? These glowing little boxes on audio equipment contained some volume level markings and a moving needle to indicate the loudness of your audio signal. They’ve recently come back in a retro sort of way, and we even emulate them in software, but the fact remains, they’re not terribly accurate or responsive. Next came LED ladders, which are still in use. They are quicker and easier to read in the dark, but still only show signal volume in real-time. In the audio and video editing world, we’re acquainted with the audio waveform -those squiggly lines on the screen that show us loud and soft portions throughout the recording. This is even more useful, as we can see gaps, changes and trends over time. If you zoom in to a small portion, you can even see drum beats, dialog and other sounds. On the downside, there is no real way to determine the frequency content of the sound, only volume.

Enter the spectrogram. Editors like Apple Soundtrack Pro, Sony Sound Forge and Adobe Soundbooth and Audition all have a built-in spectrum view. There are others too, but if your editor of choice doesn’t offer this alternative view consider downloading the freeware program Audacity. It has a nice set of standard editing tools, is multitrack-ready and offers a basic spectrum view. Regardless of your platform, the spectrogram offers a new and powerful way to view and edit your audio tracks.

A New View

The audio spectrogram provides quite a bit of audio information, but it may take some time to figure out. As with a waveform view, you have volume and time information, which helps you identify sections of the recording. But instead of a simple up-and-down volume indicator, the spectrogram shows the intensity of sound across the spectrum through a colored vertical scale. Applying the visible color spectrum to audio, louder sounds are represented by reddish colors, while softer sounds lean toward the blue end of the scale. The first time you see an audio spectrogram, it may seem a little strange. You see the cursor moving through the length of the piece, but instead of seeing lines moving up and down, you’re treated to a color show. It doesn’t take long to figure out, and you will quickly learn to identify musical beats, individual instruments and other items.

Figure 1 shows the introduction to AC/DC’s Back in Black. You can clearly see the opening count-in and where the guitars kick in. On further examination, it’s pretty easy to pick out individual guitar notes, along with bass drum and snare hits, and later the vocals. Just as with a waveform view, you can also zoom into a specific area, in both the time and frequency domains. You’ll have to do a little more mousing to navigate the spectrogram, but the information is all there. This puts a whole new twist on standard editing. Using the spectrum view, it’s easy to find the downbeat of a musical section or beginning of the solo. This makes it easier to divide a musical piece for looping or rearranging. Vocals benefit, too. Now you can quickly find the take where the narrator used his best James Earl Jones voice.

Photoshop for Audio

Adobe Audition and Soundbooth offer some unique editing tools in the spectrum view. Using the familiar Marquee and Drawing tools, you can isolate a specific area of the file for editing. Used just like applying a filter to a selection in Photoshop, these audio editors give you the power to apply audio filters to tightly controlled areas of your soundtrack. A simple example is the removal of hum from a voiceover. With the track open in your editor, zoom in to the bottom portion of the spectrum. You’ll see the hum noise separate from the recorded vocal. Using the marquee tool, draw a box around the hum and reduce the volume to zero. You’ve quickly and easily eliminated one of the standard problems audio editors face every day. Want to pull down that irritating saxophone solo in your buyout track? Highlight the section, then apply a volume or bandpass filter to gain some control. This technique works for almost any kind of frequency-based problem you have. The bonus is that you can actually see where the problem lies.

Crazier combinations are also possible. You can apply time-based effects like reverb or echo to specific sections of the audio, too. By using the spectrum view and drawing tools, you can perform drastic surgery on large or small parts of your audio track. Compressors, limiters, EQ, pitch shifting -any effect you have available -all work in new and creative ways using the spectrum view in your audio editing application.

Give it a Look

Obviously, we can’t address every possibility in the limited space of this article. That means it’s up to you to open up some files and experiment with your newfound capabilities. Don’t be afraid to mangle some audio in the process. You’ll soon see the power and limits of editing audio visually. Along the way, you’ll uncover new and quicker ways to edit. You may even find a unique sound signature for your next video production. In any case, audio spectrograms offer another powerful tool for your editing arsenal. By the way, if you still want to send that $19.95, make your check payable to Save the Spectrograms.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

Sidebar: Visual Analysis

If your audio editor doesn’t offer all the cool editing tools, that’s okay. You can still learn a lot from viewing audio recordings with the spectrum view. As an experiment, open a familiar audio track from your MP3 collection, something you know inside and out. Zoom in on the timeline until 10 or 15 seconds are visible on the screen. Play the track and watch the frequency display as it scrolls by. It should be easy to visualize the beat, vocals and that amazing guitar solo. Working with a familiar piece of audio will prepare you to see the sound in your production recordings.

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