Sound Track: Putting Your Audio on the Right Track

Once upon a time, in a land before computers and editing software, video editors struggled to edit audio. Tracks were limited, and options were slim. Two channels of audio were a luxury. Only the most daring editor would attempt to mix narration, sound effects and music live onto one track. Most video editors focused their creative energy solely on the video; audio was merely a necessity.
Often with virtually unlimited tracks to work with, today’s software-based editing programs have revolutionized the way video editors approach the sounds they record and edit. Freed from the restrictive past, the video editor has grown to embrace audio as another tool to use creatively. You could say that audio has finally stepped out of the shadow of video. Today’s video editor never had it so good, and the future is looking even brighter.
Because of the flexibility inherent in editing software, audio editing is no longer a chore. It can be as much fun as video editing. And a well-edited soundtrack will certainly enhance the product. So put away the china markers and razorblades and get on track as we explore the joys of audio editing using your nonlinear editor.

Welcome to Management

Just like any video project, the key to managing multiple tracks of audio on your timeline editing interface is good organization. Remember the five P rule. Proper prior planning prevents problems. Planning starts with your script. Look at it. Is there a voiceover? Sound effects? Music? Can you identify where the audio sources are coming from? Do you know how you are going to input them into your editing program? Answer these questions long before you start to edit.
Just knowing your audio sources isn’t quite enough, though. You need to know what sounds to use and when to use them. Sounds simple, right? Maybe not. Let’s say your creative piece calls for two actors to be talking until one receives a telephone call. Does the ring start after the actors are through talking, or does it interrupt them? How many times does it ring? The safest solution is to not record the ring at all while the actors are talking. Use another audio track on your timeline to time the ring to the actors’ expressions in postproduction. However, if you don’t have the sound of the telephone ring independent of your talent, your editing options will be severely limited.
Keep in mind during the planning stage the system you will be editing with. Premiere has up to 99 audio tracks available. Some systems limit their audio layers to eight, four or even just two. The number really doesn’t matter, because there are many ways to go beyond these limits, as we’ll soon see. But you need to know the rules before you can break them.
Organization extends to clip management. When you’re looking at eight layers of audio, it can be hard to determine which one is the sound effect you want to trim. Use the first letters in each clip’s name as a classification system. For example, label our telephone ring "SFX Telephone Ring", to identify it as a sound effect. Label any talent audio VO, for voiceover, and so on. Audio locked to video usually shares the same name as the video clip. Be consistent in how you label your clips, and you will speed up your editing.

Tracking your Advantage

When editing audio on your NLE the best place to start is at the beginning. Put the audio that is most critical to the piece on track one. If your creating a documentary, most likely your VO would be on this track. If you were editing a music video for your son’s garage band, your music soundtrack would go on the first layer. Any audio locked to video will also have priority on this track.
Now as you add new sounds to your piece, simply put them onto another layer. As you start to fine-tune your edit points, you will discover that the audio is easier to maneuver and control when it’s on its own track. Your timeline is less cluttered, and the soundtrack is easier to follow visually. Don’t let yourself be intimated by the sheer number of layers. If you produce a good video your audience will never know or care how many audio tracks you used.
Of course, just because you have 99 layers of audio doesn’t mean you should use 99 different audio sources. The whole point of editing is to trim as much as possible from your raw footage and leave just enough to get the message across. Be as critical with your audio as you are with your video. Every sound on your video should enhance the story. If it doesn’t, don’t use it.
Once you have the main message of the piece edited, look for places to add polish. This is where working with a nonlinear editor can really make a difference. If there’s a long segment between voices, try adding a musical bridge. You can easily remove it if it doesn’t work. If you’re not certain whether your client wants a male or female voiceover, put them both in your timeline. Most software will allow you to turn individual tracks on or off. Simply alternate between the two voices by switching the tracks off and on.
Timing is critical when editing audio. Make certain that audio locked to video (an on camera interview, for example) stays in sync. A few frames off either way will make your video look like a poorly dubbed foreign film. Use your audio to lead the viewer. Let the audience hear your talent speak before they see him. It generates audience interest and is a very nice effect.


Making the Most of Your Layers

Regardless of the system you’re editing on, don’t let yourself be limited. Search for ways to work around any restrictions. For example, you may not have the luxury of having 99 audio tracks. Don’t worry, you can get the same results with as little as two, it just takes a few more steps.
Most editing systems have some method of combining audio tracks. You may have to render tracks together, or export tracks into one file. You can even output several layers of audio to tape, and then re-digitize that audio back into your program as a single source. Audio can usually withstand generation loss better than video, so sound quality isn’t that great of a concern. Mix and edit your tracks exactly where you want them, however, because it can be tough to go back and re-edit that audio once the layers are mixed together.
While editing, listen to your audio critically. Is there any background noise in the interview with Grandma at the family reunion? Perhaps some music could be added to another layer to mask the noise. Isolate individual tracks when you’re editing audio critical sequences. Go through all your audio tracks one by one and listen to each of them separately with your eyes closed. It may feel silly, but closing your eyes actually helps you concentrate on what you’re hearing, instead of what you’re seeing.
Listen to all the tracks together. Do the audio elements work in harmony, or do they clash? Again, by simply turning tracks off and on you can isolate any problems. Cross fades can help mask problems or audio glitches, and make for smoother audio transitions.
Explore the audio controls your editing software has. Some have very limited adjustments, some have full equalizers available. Experiment with different settings, and see if they enhance your project. Almost all editing programs have a left and right channel separation. You can use these pan controls to simulate stereo recording. Duplicate the audio clip, add it to a new layer, and vary the EQ and level settings slightly between the two clips. As long as you keep the channels separate when outputting your finished project, you will be able to create a subtle stereo effect.
You can achieve a variety of special effects when you use your audio tracks creatively. Audio phasing is fun and easy on a nonlinear editor. Simply copy the audio clip, paste it into a new layer, and offset the start of the clip by a few frames. By adjusting the levels and timing of the second clip, you can add room acoustics, or even fake an echo.

Sibling Rivalry

Most producers used to look upon audio as a stepchild of video, and often rightfully so. After all, we’re not called audiomakers. Video content took center stage, and was often easier to control. But the audio portion of any video is just as critical an element. Like a shy younger sister, it just took a little longer for audio to step out of the shadows and into the limelight.
Audio editing has matured nicely with the emergence of computer editing software. Soundtracks have been able to take their rightful place as an equal compliment to video. The ease of use of editing systems in the marketplace enables the video editor to concentrate on the creative vision of the project without having to worry as much about the technical aspects. This makes for a more enjoyable experience for the video editor, and a better product for the viewer. All around, it’s a win-win situation. If you haven’t been making the most of your audio software, now’s a good time to start.

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