Avoiding the Nasty: 12 Tips for Better Sound

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

Recording the best audio signal you can at the source — rather than handing off the problem to post-production – is critically important. But that’s just the beginning of what makes a soundtrack sound…great. Enjoy 12 tips for better sound by PremiumBeat.
I remember one thing above all else when I – and about 100 other people — spent the day with Saturday Night Live Films editor Adam Epstein at his Cutting Edge tour this past summer: Adam told us that sound was more important than footage.


But I suspected he was right as soon as I heard him say it.

Think of any Three Stooges short film played on a crappy black & white TV back in ’63: the sound effects that accompanied Moe’s poke to Curly’s stomach or slap to Larry’s head made all the difference (see, for example, 8:31 in the short – but by all means, see the whole thing!).

Think of the Star Trek (original series only, please!) reruns before HD: we loved ‘em anyway. Photon torpedo, phaser, or transporter sounds, anyone? Opening a communicator with a flick of the wrist?

How about the scores to CASABLANCA or any of the golden era of Hollywood films?


Over the course of that day with Mr. Epstein we learned what sound design really means, and how much beyond voice and music great sound design can take a film.

And in a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kind of way, we learned that if you have really crappy voice capture (as I learned the hard way when we did the Film Adademie interview via Skype ), NOTHING can save it in post, and therefore nothing can save the footage. Talk about tips for better sound!

Here are 12 specific tips for better sound via PremiumBeat. Read ‘em, learn, em, and (lamenting the passing of Spock – I mean Leonard Nimoy) live long and prosper.

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12 Tips for Better Soundtracks in Post

Via PremiumBeat:

One of the quickest ways to determine the budget of a film is to listen to the soundtrack. Typically when it comes time to scale back production costs, sound is the first thing to take the hit. This is understandable, but more-often-than-not, a film will suffer from bad audio even though it doesn’t have to. So, if you are looking to get a better soundtrack for your next big production, check out the 10 tips below.

1. Record it Right on Set

The absolute best thing you can do to get a great soundtrack is record great sound on-location. If you are the producer or director, this means hiring a skilled sound person with good equipment. If you can’t afford the luxury of a professional sound person, at least get a designated crew member to do a live sound mix on-location.

It’s also good practice to record your audio to an external sound recording device instead of recording sound directly to the camera. This is especially true if you are using a DSLR. Most DSLRs can only accept a 3.5mm stereo input, meaning you will be extremely limited in terms of the type of sound recording device you can use.

Instead, try using external mixing devices like the Zoom H4N or the Tascam DR-100. Devices like these allow you to use XLR mics that require phantom power. This is important because most boom mics require phantom power to operate.

There are a lot of other really good tips out there for recording good sound on location. If you want to learn more, check out these previous posts on Planet 5D:

Comparing a $1 Lavalier Microphone with a Professional Lav Mic

Understanding microphone options for your DSLR

2. Listen to Other Films or Videos

Before you begin mixing your film, it’s good practice to listen to sound design in other films or videos for creative inspiration. Certain genres have different audio tendencies that you can begin to clue into by simply listening to them before you edit. While you’re watching the video or film, try turning off the TV or monitor and only listen to the sound.

3. Consistency

When it comes to getting a great soundtrack, consistency is key. You don’t want your audience to mess with the volume during the film. In Hollywood, it’s a popular strategy to have your production logo be the loudness baseline for the entire film. For example, you’ve probably noticed that the 20th Century Fox, Universal, or Dolby Digital production company logo forces you to turn down the volume to your ideal level.

However you do it, it’s incredibly important to have acoustic consistency in every aspect of your film. From dialogue to sound effects, you need to establish consistent audio levels that can help keep your audience engaged without having to ask, “what did they just say?”

4. Create a Soundscape

If you are a newbie to sound editing, you might think of your film’s sound as dialogue, music, and sound effects – but it’s much more than that. Beneath these three audio elements is your atmosphere. Depending on your specific video, this atmosphere can be different things. For an interview, it might be just room tone. For an action-adventure film that takes place in a crowded city, it might be car sound effects, background voices, planes, footsteps, birds, and water.

You want to create a soundscape that makes the audience feel like they are there. When you are building the soundscape for your film, it’s best to turn off all your dialogue, music, and sound effects and build your soundscape by itself. A little extra time spent building a soundscape will go a long way in selling your film.

5. Less isn’t Always More

When it comes to filmmaking, “less is more” is typically a good mantra to live by. Less dialogue is typically better than more dialogue, a clear plot is usually better than a confusing one, and three solid characters are much better than a whole cast of mediocre ones. However, when it comes to creating a credible soundtrack, adding in a few extra sound effects will usually push the soundtrack to the next level.

It all depends on your specific project. If it’s a corporate interview, you probably don’t want any extra sound elements. But if you’re designing the sound for an epic film, it might not hurt to add in more audio elements as needed.

6.Correct the Levels

There are a lot of misconceptions about how loud your video’s audio should be. Some people say you should level your audio around -6dB. Some say to bring it as close to 0dB as possible. It all depends on your desired use. If you are editing a video to be played on the internet, there’s no harm in mastering it as loud as possible (without peaking.) If you’re editing a TV show, you want to master your audio around -6dB (but certainly reference the delivery specifications of your broadcast project).

If you’re editing audio for a film that will be shown in theaters, you will want to mix your audio to be leveled much lower. For example, most theaters in the United States are mixed in such a way that pink noise levels played at -20dB equal about 85dB when played through average theatre speakers. This means that audio leveled out to 0dB on your computer may sound like 105dB when played back in a theatre.

So unless you want your audience to go deaf, it’s good practice to set your average level to somewhere around -20dB in your editing software.

Tips for better sound

7. Edit in the Right Order

When it comes to sound design, it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, there is a specific order of operations when it comes to sound editing that you should follow. However, this order of operations can change depending on the type of video you are shooting, so you need to ask yourself important questions like:

⁃ Am I trying to edit to a beat?
⁃ Is there audio that will lead to the next scene?
⁃ Are there important sound effects that will drive the scene?

While it fluctuates from editor to editor, you will typically add in dialogue first, soundscape/atmosphere second, sound effects third, and music last. But depending on your project, this order of operations can change. If you typically edit audio in one way, try another. You might find that you like audio editing better if you add in music before your sound effects.

8. Master the Voices

In an ideal world, the audio you are given from the production would be perfect and ready to directly incorporate into your video project, but this is usually not the case. It’s not uncommon to have to fix many audio issues when it comes to editing voices.

Thankfully there are a lot of really good online resources that can help you get the best dialogue possible. Notable audio mastering software include Adobe Audition, Apple Logic, and Avid Pro Tools. Even if you aren’t a voice editing master, there are literally hundreds of tutorials out there that can help you add basic EQ and compression to your audio.

9. Get Better Speakers

It’s impossible to properly level and mix a soundtrack without having good speakers. But for some reason, most indie-level video editors insist on using cheap headphones or worse, internal speakers, to mix their soundtracks.

If you want to get high-end professional sound, you need to invest in audio equipment for both production and post-production use. Instead of spending $300 on “bass-boosted” headphones from Best Buy, try getting some good 5.1 surround sound headphones designed with video editing in mind. Or better yet, buy an actual surround sound system for post-production use. You will be amazed at the quality of your end result when you can hear your audio the way your audience will.

10. Pick the Right Music

Filmmakers often have to settle for the best they can get, but when it comes to picking the right music for your film, settling is one of the worst things you can do.

Music has the power to dramatically shape the way your audience feels about what they are seeing on screen. Don’t believe me? Just [check out this clip] from Jaws without music.

Unfortunately, many indie-filmmakers settle for low-quality music because they get lost in the overwhelming quantity of royalty free music out there. However, if you want to save a lot of time and effort, simply check out PremiumBeat.com. PremiumBeat has a curated collection of production music that you won’t find anywhere else.

Using PremiumBeat, filmmakers can download full-length previews of what the finished product will sound like before purchase. This means you can easily test out different projects in your video project before licensing them.

12 Tips for Better Sound PremiumBeat

11. Separate the Tracks

It’s easy to be lazy during the editing process, especially if you are the only one editing your specific project. However, a lack of organization at the beginning of the editing process can cost you dearly once the project is further down the road.

When it comes to laying out your tracks in the timeline, it’s best to separate your audio into different tracks. Practically, this means having at least 2 tracks for dialogue, soundscapes, and sound effects, with additional tracks for room tone and music. By separating your audio tracks, you can have better control over the soundtrack mix.

12. Spend Lots of Time

While you may be on a tight deadline, if you rush audio editing, your audience will notice. Take time to make the audio right on your next project. The HBO Original Series Rome wasn’t mixed in a day. Good audio editing takes time and effort, but with a little research and a lot of patience, your films will sound just as good as they look.

(cover photo credit: snap from PremiumBeat)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

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