Sound Track: Digital Sources for Superior Sound Tracks


Whats the best way to ensure a high-quality audio track in your video productions? Start with the highest quality audio sources you can get your hands on. Even if your video is destined to play on a crummy VHS VCR without hi-fi stereo, your audio will still benefit if you use high-quality audio sources from the beginning.

In todays consumer electronics marketplace, all of the best sources of audio are digital. CDs, DAT recorders, Mini Disc (MD) technology, even MP3s and audio files gleaned from the Weball of these digital sources of audio are available for you to use in your video productions.

In this article, well take a close look at the various ways you can incorporate high-quality digital audio in your videos. Though this information may seem most useful to those who edit nonlinearly on a computer, well cover plenty of ground for the beginner whos doing two-finger editing from camcorder to VCR. By the time you reach the end of the article, youll have a wider knowledge of the various ways you can incorporate digital audio into your work – in some cases, without spending a dime of your hard-earned money.


CDs, See?

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The most popular form of consumer audio today, compact disc audio provides one of the best and easiest ways to incorporate digital audio into your videos. All you need is a CD player, a few cables and an appropriate CD, and youll have everything you need to start laying down some high-quality sound tracks.

Of course, the most difficult question is, what constitutes an appropriate CD? For home video producers who arent likely to make any money or public display of their work, it may be feasible to use one of your favorite music CDs, whether its Willie Nelson or Black Sabbath. If you plan to sell or broadcast your production, however, you must be more careful. You should be sure to secure the legal rights to any music or other commercial recording you use in your sound track, if you dont you may be in for some big trouble.

For precisely this reason, theres an entire marketplace of royalty-free CDs available from which you can choose. Ranging from sound effects to just about any musical style you can imagine, these CDs provide a much-needed resource for the low-budget videographer as well as the most sophisticated professional. For a thorough listing of music and sound-effect libraries available, check out our buyers guide in the January 2000 issue of Videomaker. In it, youll find an extensive list of companies and the variety of music they offer. Most of them have Web sites you can visit to hear samples of music and sound effects. Some will even send your order to you over the Internet or via e-mail.

Another alternative is to record your own high-quality digital audio. For that, youll need an audio recorder. For consumers, high-quality digital recorders come in two main flavors: DAT and MD.


Its Like DAT

DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is a very high-quality recording format that has recently become available at consumer prices. With nothing more than a DAT recorder and a decent microphone, its possible to record your own high-quality digital audio sources for use in video productions.

Portable DAT recorders are perhaps the best solution, because theyre small enough to take on location, yet they still deliver phenomenal audio recording performance.

For example, Sony sells a DAT Walkman, the TCD-D8 ($900). Though expensive, the TCD-D8 delivers top-notch performance, and features 16-bit, 48kHz sampling, digital input and output, and an automatic date function for fast identification of recordings.

For a little less money, MD recorders are available. Though not quite as stellar as DAT recorders in terms of quality, most MD recorders deliver a high-quality recording thats superior to almost anything available in an analog audio recorder. Sonys MZ-R37 ($250), for example, offers a 40-second shock resistant memory and a remote control with editing functions.

If youre up to date on the current Internet audio scene, then no doubt youve heard of MP3s. This new format (which stands for MPEG-1 audio layer 3) is highly compressed, yet still retains enough quality to provide a very pleasing sound track for video.


MP3s, Please

Currently, the most popular application for MP3 audio is Internet-delivered music. Its a pretty simple concept: download a song to your home computer, then play it there whenever you want, or, if you prefer, you can transfer your MP3s to a small, handheld Walkman-style device, such as Diamond Multimedias Rio 500 ($270). These MP3 players have the considerable advantage of no moving parts, which means theyre highly resistant to the ordinary wear and tear that an audio player must go through on location.

For home videographers, MP3s offer a number of options. With the appropriate software (often referred to as "ripper" software), you can transfer your CD audio to MP3. Once your CD audio is in the MP3 format on your computer, it takes up much less space, and resides on the hard drive, where its easier to find. Think of it: you could transfer hours of sound effects to the MP3 format, and have them ready to use on your hard drive whenever you needed them.

If you check out the current MP3 phenomenon on the Internet (for an example, look at MP3.com), youll discover that its mostly embraced by musicians who havent quite scored a big record deal yet. What good is this to the home videographer? Its a possible source of connections to quality musicians who might be willing to let you use their music in your productions, for a bargain rate or even perhaps for free.


Sound Bits

Another good source of audio you can find on the Internet for free are sound effects files, usually in .WAV, .AIFF, .ASF or .WMA formats. Many purveyors of personal Web sites have made it a hobby to collect various types of sound effects and offer them to anyone who wants to download them. Most often, these sound effects come in the form of snippets from television shows, such as the Simpsons or South Park. Though a clip of Homer Simpson saying "Doh!" might be exactly what your home video needs, professional videographers will have to observe the same copyright restrictions discussed above for music.

Some sites, however, offer truly useful, original sound effects that videographers can use in their productions. Videomakers own Web site has a nice selection of sound effects available; just follow the links to Club Vid, and look for the Images and Sounds directory. There, youll find sound effects such as wind, rain, fire, telephone rings and busy signals, all offered as high-quality .aiff files that you can download and use in your productions right away, copyright-free.


MIDI, etc.

Remember, any sounds you can make on your computer are potential candidates for use in video productions, with the only limitations being copyright laws and your own creativity and skills. If you want some help making sounds in the form of software, there are many music-creation packages available for home computer use. These programs allow you to compose your own original songs, even if you dont have musical training.

MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) software comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. Many sound cards come bundled with MIDI software, with Cakewalk being one of the most popular. One look at Cakewalks somewhat complex interface, however, has discouraged many who dont have training in the complexities of MIDI. Luckily, there are a number of simpler MIDI-based song-creation packages, including Edirols Roland VSC-55 Virtual Sound Canvas software ($39), which includes everything you need to easily create and play back your own songs in the MIDI format.

Another good choice is Sonic Foundrys Acid ($75), which makes it easy to put together a set of hip drum, bass, rhythm and melody tracks into an impressive-sounding, royalty-free music bed for your video productions.


Conclusion

As you can see, theres a whole world of digital audio out there just waiting for your video productions. You dont even need a computer to use most of it; all it takes is a good CD player, the right CD and a cable.

If, however, you do own a computer, and youre not afraid to go out searching on the Web or learn how to use some new software, then your digital-audio options begin to expand exponentially. Just remember: its easy to get lost in all of the sound effects Web sites, looping software packages, music creation software, etc. Unless youre looking for a job down at the local electronic music club, try to remember that after a while you need to put down the digital audio toys and make some video, okay?



Mike is the Editor-in-Chief of Videomaker and Creator Handbook