Don’t forget the importance of audio

Audio is often seen as a poor relation compared to the images during the production of everything from big budget feature films to the humblest corporate video. This is a mistake. Imagine you are about to embark on a long-haul flight and you have the option of two seats: one has a TV with poor picture quality but great sound; the other has a perfect picture but poor audio. Which are you going to choose? My advice would be to choose the better sound – you can fill in the poor picture with your imagination if needs be but there‘s nothing worse than trying to listen to garbled audio.

During the early 1980s I was fortunate to work for an audio-visual production company, The Presentation Machine, in London. It was here, right at the start of my career, that I learnt the importance of a great soundtrack to any visual media production.

We made presentations for exhibitions, museums and product launches. These would typically use banks of slide projectors to project sequences of images across multiple screens, creating impressive panoramas and visual effects. Striking as these shows were, particularly at the time, the thing that really made them work were the soundtracks.

The Presentation Machine was owned by Roger Sinclair who started the UK’s first in-house corporate radio station for United Biscuits in 1970. Roger also owned Sound Developments, a recording studio that specialised in soundtracks for video and TV, and it was here that all the soundtracks for our productions were created. In fact the soundtrack came first and the visual elements were made to compliment the audio.

Of course I’m not suggesting that all productions need such powerful soundtracks. However, even the simplest video of, say, a talking head needs the sound to be considered carefully throughout, from recording, to editing and delivery. Is the room too ‘live’ with the sound bouncing off lots of reflective hard surfaces? Is there distracting background noise or a/c hiss? Is the mic positioned correctly? Whether to use boom mic or lavalier, or both? Have you compressed the audio in the edit so that quiet words are as audible as louder words? Would the sound benefit from some EQ enhancement? All these things will make the difference between great audio and mediocre audio.

Music is a difficult area for producers and directors. Everyone has an opinion about music choices and a vocal minority of the viewing public seem to object to properly mixed background music and effects, particularly in factual productions. This was recently demonstrated by the brilliant BBC Two science series presented by Professor Brian Cox, Wonders of the Universe. After receiving 118 complaints about the background music being too loud and/or intrusive following transmission of the first episode, the BBC agreed to lower the sound. Both the programme producers and Professor Cox felt that this was a mistake. Speaking on Radio 4’s Start the Week on 14 March, Cox said, ‘We can sometimes be too responsive to the minority of people that complain’. He added, ‘It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture’.
Choice of music can also problematic. In my own work I occasionally disagree with a client who objects to a particular piece of music. But as he who pays the piper calls the tune (!), I will always defer to my client’s wishes if they feel strongly about it. And at least we’re having a dialogue about audio and trying to make it better, which is a positive.

The world’s greatest film directors paid particular attention to the soundtracks of their movies, which often then turned out to be crucial to their films’ iconic status. Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Sergio Leonie, Francis Ford Coppola… the list goes on. If you consider some of their respective films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blue Velvet, Jaws, Halloween, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Apocalypse Now – the soundtracks are fundamental to their success. So don’t forget to think about the audio and place equal value on it to the images, even for the simplest production.

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