Sound Track: Building a Better Soundtrack

Imagine you want to build your own house. You round up a screwdriver and lug wrench, a few bags of potting soil and a few photographs of homes that look decent to you. You’re all set to build your house, right? Wrong. Without the proper tools, materials and know-how, you couldn’t begin to build something that resembled a house.

Building up your video’s soundtrack is no different. You need the right tools, materials and knowledge to get from good intentions to finished product. Thankfully, you probably already have the tools and materials at your disposal. That third ingredient–knowledge–is quite easy to come by. In fact, we’re going to help you out with that knowledge in the next few pages.

The Materials

The most common place to get music and sound effects is off a compact disc. The CD has become the medium of choice for all things audible, due to its excellent sound quality and ruggedness. Odds are you have more than a few CDs hanging around your house.

Before you pick a song off your favorite album, however, you need to consider copyright concerns. Music and sound effects CDs are protected by copyrights, which prohibit anyone but the creators of those CDs from making money off their use. Using copyrighted music or sounds without permission can get you into trouble, especially if you’ll be distributing your video in large quantities. If you’re making a single tape for personal viewing, using a favorite song probably won’t be a problem. If you’re planning on selling several thousand travel videos for a local resort community, you can virtually plan on getting caught with stolen music. For more information on this, see the article "Video, The Law and You" in our January 1999 issue.

If copyright hassles sound scary (as they should), music and sound effects libraries are the safe way to go. These libraries, which may consist of one CD or several dozen, are designed specifically for videographers in search of affordable (and legal) music. One form of these libraries–called "buyout"–allows you to pay a one-time fee and use the contents of the library all you want. Many buyout CDs aren’t too expensive, and you can get a lot of use out of a single disc. Check the back of this magazine for music and special effects buyout library manufacturers. Also, be sure to check out the article "More Music for the Money: CD Sounds for All Budgets" in the January 1999 issue.

You can find music libraries covering every style of music at a broad range of price points. Some libraries devote a CD to a single musical genre or mood, while others mix up styles on a single disc. Sound effects libraries are similar–you can find single discs that cover a range of effects, or a larger libraries that devote single discs to a certain type of sound effect.

The Tools

With shiny disc(s) in hand, the next step is to get the music or sound effects into your video. Here is where your tools come into play, which may consist of a camcorder, VCR, computer, CD player and/or tape deck or other type of audio recorder. Everybody’s equipment setup is a little bit different, so you’ll have to become your own expert. As a starting point, here are some general facts about the various tools in the average videographer’s toolbox:

  • CD player A CD player is a great tool for the videographer, for several reasons. First, it sounds great. Second, the CD player offers fast access to different parts of the disc. Third, most CD players cue up and start a track quickly and consistently. This can be a real help when it comes time to manually synchronize a sound effect with some on-screen action.
  • Cassette deck Don’t forget the common cassette deck as a valuable tool for video. It doesn’t sound as good as a CD player, nor does it locate specific sounds or songs as quickly or consistently. What is does offer is the ability to record music or sound effects with sound quality adequate for almost any video applications.
  • Camcorder Depending on the format, your camcorder may offer excellent sound quality, the ability to record or dub multiple tracks, and flexible input and output options. You can use it as a high-tech audio recorder for sound alone, or it may be the tool you use to dub additional sound or music into your video’s soundtrack.
  • VCR Like the camcorder, the humble VCR can offer a wealth of audio recording capabilities. Most VCRs boast great sound quality, standard RCA jacks and good tape controls. If your VCR does audio dubbing, it’s probably the best tool to add additional sound and music to your video.
  • Computer Thanks to the multimedia sound card, most of today’s computers do a great job recording audio. Even if you’re not doing computer-based editing, you can layer up multiple tracks of audio in the computer with the right software. Run the computer’s output into your VCR, play the sounds back at the right time, and you have an instant audio masterpiece.

  • Audio mixer Though not necessary, an audio mixer can give you more control over your sound. It will allow you to mix multiple sources at the same time, and may allow you to change the tone of a given sound.

The Key

For most videographers, the key to the soundtrack-building process is the audio dub. An audio dub simply adds new audio to existing video. Depending on your equipment and video format, an audio dub may supplement audio already on the tape or replace the audio altogether. Here’s a quick rundown of the various video formats and how they handle audio dubbing:

  • VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS, S-VHS-C If a VHS-family camcorder or VCR offers audio dubbing, it’s to the somewhat low-fidelity "linear" audio track. This leaves the original audio on the hi-fi tracks (if present). On playback, you can set the VCR or camcorder to mix the hi-fi tracks and newly dubbed linear audio track.
  • 8mm No 8mm camcorder or VCR offers audio dubbing.
  • Hi8 This format may offer audio dubbing, but only if the VCR or camcorder has PCM digital audio tracks. Dubbing to the PCM tracks supplements the existing audio on the tape, and the VCR or camcorder will mix the two on playback.

  • DV The DV format offers two different audio modes. In two-track mode, audio dubbing completely replaces the old audio. In four-track mode, dubbing adds to (but doesn’t replace) the existing sound.

The Process

With a dubbing VCR or camcorder, building up your soundtrack with music or sound effects can be simple. The easiest approach is to: 1) connect an audio source to your VCR or camcorder, 2) cue up the videotape, 3) cue up the song or sound effect, 4) put the VCR or camcorder in audio dub mode, 5) start the sound source playing, 6) hit Pause on the camcorder or VCR to roll the record tape, and 7) press pause again when you reach the end of the dub (unless your camcorder or VCR ends the dub automatically at a location on the tape that you can preset).

If you’re trying to synchronize a sound effect with some on-screen action, timing becomes critical. If your sound source (a CD player, for example) offers quick playback, you can wait until just before the action to cue the sound. If there’s some lag time after you start playback, cue off of your VCR or camcorder’s tape counter. Pick a point a few seconds before the on-screen action, and start the sound source playing just as that point passes. If the sound effect doesn’t line up, try a point slightly earlier or later to start the sound playing. It’s best to practice a few times before actually recording in order to get the timing correct.

Dubbing two sounds at once complicates things a bit, and requires an audio mixer to combine the sources. If you want to dub music and a sound effect simultaneously but only have one CD player, you can record one or the other onto tape for playback. One sure-fire approach is to copy the music onto a cassette deck, camcorder or VCR. Music rarely requires precise timing, making tape a good storage medium. Play back any sound effects, which usually require more accuracy, from the CD player. As the music plays along with the scene, you can cue the sound effect with a good degree of precision.

To dub more than two sources at once, you’ll probably have to resort to tape "bouncing." With a CD player, an audio mixer, a cassette deck and a VCR, you can build up as many layers of sound as you want. Here’s one tape bouncing recipe: First, record your first layer of sound from CD to VCR. Play back that recording through your audio mixer, and add in your second layer of sound from the CD player. Record this mix onto a cassette deck. Play combined layers one and two back through the mixer, and add in layer three from CD. Record this mix back onto your VCR. With this technique, you can keep transferring back and forth as many times as you want. You can also substitute a camcorder for the VCR.

The main drawbacks of sound bouncing is a buildup of noise, a loss of fidelity and the inability to change relative levels of the sounds once they’re recorded. Top-quality audio cassettes (chrome or metal, if possible) will minimize the noise and fidelity loss. If your cassette deck has noise reduction, use it. Make sure levels are good and strong to tape, but listen closely for distortion.

If you have an edit controller and two accurate VCRs (or camcorders), you can automate your audio dub for better precision. Start by recording the sound effect or music onto your source VCR. Now, your edit controller can treat the recorded section as an audio "scene" complete with in-point and out-point. Then, instead of recording video and audio to your record VCR, you perform an audio dub. This technique works well with music, but it’s most effective for timing the synchronization of sound effects. If you are using time code for editing, this method becomes very precise. For the ultimate ease, record all your sound effects and music onto the source videotape at once. Make a note of their whereabouts on the tape (the time code address), and you can easily find them when dubbing onto your video.

Once you understand the materials, tools and techniques of building a soundtrack, a world of creative expression opens up. Never again will you settle for drab-sounding videos.

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