Don’t think much about audio monitoring during shooting or editing? Maybe it’s time to listen
up.

Mark brought his latest video along to the weekly Monday Night Football party at Randy’s house. Randy powered up his expensive home theater system, put the tape in the VCR and whistled to get
everyone’s attention.

Mark’s heart dropped as the opening music faded up from silence. He hadn’t noticed how brittle and thin the music sounded, or how it was almost engulfed in a rush of tape hiss. As his own voice came through the speakers, his heart sank again. His voice sounded muddy, as if he had put a pillow between his mouth and the microphone. Every edit brought with it a new audio horror–previously unheard sounds and inconsistent record levels. “It didn’t sound that way at home!” Mark thought to himself. “What happened to my audio?”

The answer is simple: Mark was hearing–really hearing–his video for the first time. He hadn’t shot with headphones. He didn’t listen to his video on any speakers but the one built into his inexpensive 13-inch monitor. The audio gremlins had been there all along.

If you’ve ever experienced what Mark did, you probably have some questions of your own. Here are answers to some common questions about headphones and audio monitoring.

Do I really need headphones when I shoot?

The answer to this question depends on two things: how crucial the audio is to your finished production, and how complex your recording setup is. If you’re out gathering B-roll images, the audio is probably not that crucial and headphones aren’t a must. Likewise, headphones may not be an absolute necessity if you’re using just your camcorder’s built-in mike. Headphones will alert you if your internal mike fails (which is extremely rare), but there’s not much you can fix.

Headphones play a crucial role when the audio you’re gathering is key to your production, especially when your audio signal chain includes external mikes, wireless systems, mixers and the like. The more complex the recording chain, the better the chance of failure. Headphones plugged directly into the camcorder (not into the mixer or wireless receiver) are the only way to be sure your audio is making it onto tape.

What kind of headphones should I use when shooting?

Because you’re concerning yourself more with the mere presence of the audio than how
it sounds, the fidelity of your headphones is not that critical. Comfort is a higher priority, especially on
long shoots. Safety is also an issue.

For all these reasons, inexpensive, light-weight WalkmanTM-style headphones are great for
shooting. They’re usually comfortable enough, they sound plenty good for shooting, and they don’t block
outside sounds. This latter characteristic makes it harder to distinguish recorded sound from ambient
sound, but it makes it much easier to hear oncoming cars, fire alarms and people shouting, “Look out!”
Headphones that seal around the ears sound nice, but they compromise your awareness of your
environment.

For a minimalist approach, try a bud-style earphone that perches in just one ear. These cost just a few
bucks, are easy to stow away–and usually sound pretty bad. For making sure you’ve got audio on tape,
though, they work fine. Stick with real headphones if you’ve got a complex audio system prone to clicks,
crackles or buzzes–earbuds may lack the fidelity (or volume) to reveal these problems.

When I edit my video, are the speakers in my TV or monitor good enough?


In most cases (as Mark learned all too well), built-in speakers are too poor to really hear what’s going
on in your audio. Better speakers mean fewer embarrassing surprises. For approximate frequency response
plots of various speakers and headphones, see figure 1.

You want to take the most revealing look at your audio before it’s too late to fix problems, not after.
With home theater systems improving to offer sound that rivals a first-run cineplex, your soundtrack may
not have a 2-inch TV speaker to hide behind. Some of the problems masked by tiny speakers include
unnoticed sounds, high levels of tape hiss and bad overall tonal quality. A tiny speaker also makes it hard
to balance the levels of narration and background music, something that’s crucial to the clarity of the
spoken message.

Ironically, the tiny speakers built into most high-end video monitors are about as bad as they come. Pros
usually have high-quality audio systems to match their video gear, so monitor manufacturers don’t bother
with high-fidelity speakers. Speakers built into most televisions aren’t quite as poor as those in professional
monitors, but their fidelity can still fall short.

Do I need a big, expensive stereo system for my video editing setup?


Not really. Thankfully, speakers don’t have to be large or expensive to sound good. Even
relatively small home stereo speakers (often called “bookshelf” speakers) are a vast improvement over
built-in TV speakers. Decent-quality bookshelf speakers will set you back less than $100 a pair at most
home electronics or department stores.

In the same way, you don’t really need a high-power audiophile amplifier for your audio monitoring.
Just 20 watts of clean power per side should suffice for most rooms and speaker systems. A common home
stereo integrated amplifier or receiver will power your speakers, while giving you some other neat
capabilities as well. Run the receiver’s tape output to your record VCR, and you can switch between
various input sources. Some amps even offer a microphone input for mixing a voice with any pre-recorded
source.

Speakers designed for multimedia or computer games may do the trick for some people. One advantage
of such speakers is their magnetic shielding. Speakers have magnets, and magnets cause mild to severe
picture distortions in video monitors. If you don’t have shielded speakers in your editing system, you’ll
need to place the speakers at least a few feet from the nearest video monitor.

Remember that all TVs are not mated to a high-quality home theater system. For this reason, always
listen to your production on standard TV speakers before you commit to tonal changes, level balances and
the like. Some things that sound great on big speakers just don’t cut it when played through a standard TV.
Your goal is to achieve a sound that works well on both.

Should I use headphones for editing?


If you don’t have access to a pair of good-sounding speakers, headphones are the next best thing.
High-quality headphones are quite affordable, and will give you an extremely detailed picture of your
soundtrack–too detailed in some cases.

Keep in mind that people aren’t going to wear headphones to watch your video. That crisp, clear sound
you hear through your headphones may not translate to normal speakers. Narration that is clearly
distinguishable above the music in headphones, for example, may be unintelligible on a standard TV.

Sealed headphones are probably best for editing, thanks to their ability to reject outside sounds for more
critical listening. Lightweight foam-pad headphones (like those from a personal stereo) will work for
editing, but they tend to have poor bass response. This makes it hard to hear wind rumble, the low-pitched
hum of an air conditioner or the thump of a roughly handled microphone. If you can’t hear it, you can’t fix
it.

I don’t have much money to put towards audio monitoring. Is there a bargain solution I should
know about?


The inexpensive portable stereo (or “boombox”) probably offers the most bang for the buck. In
the $100 to $200 range, these mini-stereos usually offer good-sounding removable speakers, a power amp,
a tape deck, a microphone input and, quite frequently, a CD player.

For use as a monitoring system, it’s mandatory that the portable stereo you choose have a stereo line-in
connection. If you hope to use its tape deck, tuner or CD player for your videos, it will need line outputs as
well. Though they don’t offer audiophile quality, portable stereos are a significant step up from most built-
in TV speakers.

It’s even less expensive to plug external speakers into your TV. More and more TVs now come with
external speaker jacks, often with an accompanying switch that disables the built-in speakers. Power output
and fidelity of the TV’s internal amplifier are not stellar, but they’re adequate. Switching back and forth
between the external and internal speakers will give you two different takes on your soundtrack, valuable
insight you just can’t get from one set of speakers.

One final tip: use a professional production to “calibrate” your ears to your speakers. In other words, train
yourself to recognize how voices, music and other sounds from a big-budget show come across on your
speakers. When your videos start to sound similar to a network news broadcast, you’re on the right
track.

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