Coming to terms with the reality that your audio is either subpar or unusable is never a good experience, but also a necessary one. Facing failure and learning from it is an important step in your journey, and there will be a point where you either directly contribute to a problem or have to pick up the pieces.
The horror — past mistakes
This next story might not be from the perspective of a video producer, but it does paint a picture of what it is like to produce a subpar soundtrack and the lessons you learn in the process.
A long time ago, when my studio business was just getting started I made my first major mistake. My business was young and I bit off more work than I could chew at that point in time. A volunteer project was probably not the wisest choice.
One thing led to another and before I knew it the deadline was fast approaching. We rushed through a quick set of ADR sessions. One of the actors was no longer available, which meant I had to recruit someone else to step in and provide voice-overs. A lot of the original audio was unusable because of wind noise that literally shook the building.
And here it is, we made the decision to address most of the audio in post. Post-production audio can work, especially with fantasy genres, but it always needs a solid foundation built on location.
In this case, post-production made me complacent. My previous success with post-production techniques and a heavy workload sealed my fate. I assumed it would be a matter of foley effects, sound libraries and clever editing that would get me through this. I was already sitting on enough music ideas to fill the gaps. What could possibly go wrong?
When the dust settled, I had over a hundred tracks of dialogue, music and effects; all for a 15-minute short film. Some scenes were fuller than others, gaps were being masked with unfinished music beds, effects were rough and unpolished. It was less than acceptable, and I knew it.
Identify the problem
The first step is triaging and taking stock of what’s good and bad. Do this while on set and stop problems in their tracks before they find a permanent home.
As mentioned above, try to fix as much as you can during recording–and by ‘fix’, I mean avoid.
Persistent buzzing and humming can be combated to a degree using noise suppression plug-ins and basic EQ. Plugins like Waves’ X-Noise can profile and intelligently suppress offending sounds; EQ and automation can be used to a similar extent to reduce an offending sound’s footprint. Try masking the sound with ambient background noise or music depending on the video and content.
On set, the solution is to find the source and remove it from the equation.
Audio that seesaws, sounds quiet or is too loud only lets your video down. Use compression, limiting and normalization to keep those levels in check. Your aim is to preserve the dialogue’s natural qualities; all you are doing is clearing up the background and enhancing its existing characteristics to suit your needs.
There was a point where there was no coming back from clipped audio, you either had to record it again or try to mask it as best as possible with fades, levels, cuts, and extra sounds.
We now have tools like De-clip, part of the iZotope RX 6 repair suite, that can scan and redraw waveforms to remove and reduce the effects of clipping.
ADR sync issues
Performance issues aside, let’s just assume that the timing is off. Your three options are to either record the ADR passages again, use the original set recordings, edit your ADR audio with the equivalents of Elastic Time in Pro Tools or Flex Time in Logic to manipulate the ADR audio to match up to the original timing and mouth movements.
It would have been simpler to capture better audio on set or to practice better quality control over the ADR sessions.
The crux of the problem here is that you are trying to make something out of nothing. The alternatives are to re-record or reuse existing audio if applicable to extend the track. This is the perfect kind of issue to own and resolve on set, be it because of operator error, a flat battery or full memory card.
Lack of content
A spartan soundtrack is sometimes a polite way of saying there isn’t enough sound. Does the sound feel natural? If the lack of sound pulls you away from the world then consider a different approach or simply add more.
Poor quality sound
This is undoubtedly the worst problem to have and can only be fixed with additional recording, editing and mixing. Don’t use poor quality samples and always aim for the best recording to save on editing.
I think the biggest problems come down to poor scheduling and procrastination, both are amateur mistakes that producers and engineers make early on.
Familiarize yourself with the content and shot list, and use this to anticipate potential limitations caused by the location and camera framing
Plosives and sibilance are to be minimized on set with the use of wind filters, fuzzy windscreens, or pop filters.
Hums and buzzes must be eliminated during the recording stage. Check your equipment for bad microphones, faulty cables and potential sources of interference like power supplies and wireless signals. Plosives and sibilance are to be minimized on set with the use of wind filters, fuzzy windscreens, or pop filters. Any minor reduction on set will make your post-production treatments more effective.
Going back to my story; one of the locations required audio in post because the sheer amount of wind and mechanical noise. In retrospect, I should have captured some background sound from the location because it could have been used to form a bed, regardless of whether or not dialogue would have been useable.
The simple lesson is to always plan your project in advance and adhere to a concept or theme. Jumping into a project head first with little or no plan will only build a disjointed foundation made up of disparate elements.
- Plan ahead and anticipate potential problems
- Set aside plenty of time for the work
- Leave sufficient time for iterations
- Keep a common thread between elements
- Avoid piling on tracks, use what is necessary
Project anxiety is the worst feeling and the only way I can make myself feel better is to study the notes and have a plan in mind before going in. If things change, they can only move in so many directions. So stay prepared, set aside time and don’t leave it til the last second in post.
Blag spends his time between web development, IT and audio. His background is, oddly enough, in the same things. Blag works in a software company and is a contributing editor at Videomaker where he mainly focuses on, you guessed it, audio.