24 October 2011

Sound over picture

As you may have noticed, I’m participating in the #SciFund Challenge.

One of the main things you need for the challenge is a video. This made me nervous. I’ve shied away from video for this blog, but taking part in the #SciFund Challenge has forced the issue.

What I have learned from making my own video and watching other #SciFund videos is that an undervalued part of a good video is the audio.

Film schools are always telling their students, “Film is a visual medium.” But I like what director Nicholas Meyer wrote for a 1993 box set of the Star War soundtracks:

(S)ound always dominates picture. If you are in any doubt, simply drive around in a car with the radio or cassette player blasting and look out the window. The nature of the music affects the mood of what we are seeing. It is never the other way around. If you play happy music, even some fairly squalid and dispiriting surroundings seem more cheerful. If you play sad or ominous music, the most agreeable vistas assume a sinister aspect.

This shouldn’t surprise me, because I am, after all, a total soundtrack nerd. And I’ve been stuck with poor to middling audio before. But I have gained a deeper appreciation for the sound mix.

What I have learned:

Your computer microphone isn’t good enough. Sure, a lot of laptops and desktops have built-in cameras and mics for video chat and the like. But if you’re just sitting at your usual distance from your computer, your voice will sound small and tinny, and there will be a lot of hiss and background. And if you have a different mic for voice-over of pictures or videos, the difference in sound quality and intensity will be distracting and noticeable.

You can’t just talk. Normal speech is filled with hesitations and pauses. This is okay in conversation, but it’s noticeable in a short video clip. And those pauses chew up valuable time. Every second on a YouTube clip is a second that someone might leave to see what’s happening on their Twitter feed. You have to be the best version of you.

For example, good movie commentaries are scripted, not improvised:

One condition which Toho insisted on was that a script of the commentary be submitted to them for approval. This turned out to be one of the best things that happened to us. ... Reviewing the first draft, I quickly understood the merits of having a script. While it would be easy to just talk about the film, it would be just as easy to overlook important subjects by getting lost in the moment and running out of time, and it was also vital that certain comments be timed to images on screen.

You need split second timing. I was constantly fiddling to get the pictures and the sound lined up the way I wanted. In some cases, tenths of a second made the difference in synchronizing the two so that the effect was cool. Being out of sync by fractions of a second made it look so much worse.

Recording voice overs in small bits helps. Short sound bytes are easier to align to particular points in the video, particularly if (like me) you’re stuck using very basic, free video software.

If you want to make a good science video, buy the best microphones you can get your hands on.

Additional: Coincidentally enough, today sees a post called 10 common video storytelling mistakes (and how to avoid them). And the number one mistake?

.01 you don’t prioritise sound

I’m actually gonna stick this one at the top because it’s probably the most common mistake. I’ve seen far too many video stories where the interview is practically inaudible, drowned out by traffic, air conditioning or something else. The cause? Not using an external microphone.

Audiences seem quite happy to tolerate poor quality pictures – they don’t mind mobile phone footage for example; but they will not tolerate crappy sound. End of. Invest in a good quality clip microphone for interviews and a Rodemic or similar for on board sound.


First said...

Do you have any recommended microphone types or brands?

Kristina Killgrove said...

In making my own #SciFund video, I found the freeware program Audacity unbelievably useful. It'll let you record, edit, take out noise, amplify, and include a background score (you can even make the music swell and fade!). The online help is actually quite helpful too. A mic is important, but so is good audio editing software, and Audacity can't be beat!

Zen Faulkes said...

I haven’t looked anywhere near enough. But the good news is that almost anything is a step up from a built-in webcam mic!

Also, there’s a lot of different recording software out there. But I’ve been using Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/). Again, it's a big step up from the free sound recorder that comes with Windows. At least it allows you to mix tracks, which you can't do in Windows Movie Maker.