The Importance of Audio

Photography and video have a lot in common. Image composition, lighting aesthetics and the shot-based production process apply to both fields. Of course, there are a number of technical differences – lighting instruments, camera support equipment and postproduction workflow to name a few – but these challenges generally aren’t too painful for the ambitious shutterbug. There is, however, one major aspect of video production that can be most painful indeed: audio.

Good audio won’t save a bad shot, but bad audio will definitely ruin a good shot. Noisy, echo-ridden, or distorted audio instantly labels a motion picture as an amateur effort. Regardless of the quality of the image, a project with bad audio will struggle to keep an audience’s attention.

I know what I’m talking about here, because I learned it the hard way. Indeed, it was one of the last lessons I learned in film school. While shooting my final project at the Savannah College of Art and Design – a 12-minute narrative, shot on 16mm film that was supposed to be the culmination of everything I’d learned over the last four years – I focused entirely on the visual components of the piece, learning – only too late – that the audio had been compromised.

After three months of writing, planning and preparation, my crew and I (all students) shot the project in three consecutive days, using the same equipment each day. At that time, the standard device for capturing dialogue was a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder. Normally, DAT is pretty much bullet-proof, and the classmate who was acting as sound recordist had quite a bit of experience working with DAT equipment, so I had no reason to suspect that any issues were occurring. (In retrospect, this was a naive assumption on my part, and one that I have tried not to repeat too often. When it comes to audio, paranoia is often justified.)

While recording, the DAT sounded fine, but – as I found out after the shoot was over – something was going wrong with the tape itself. We never figured out exactly what had happened, but I remember thinking that my magnum opus sounded like it was being played back from a bad answering machine. The audio was terrible. There was no way to salvage it, I couldn’t afford to reshoot it, and I couldn’t use it. So, I had to bring in all my actors to “loop” their dialogue – to record their lines in a sound booth, and then piece everything together like a jigsaw puzzle, syncing the dialogue as well as I could.

In real movies, this process is called ADR, and the studios have the expertise and equipment to do it properly. I had neither. The process took forever, and when I was all done, my one chance to show Hollywood what a brilliant filmmaker I was, the project for which I had passed up the opportunity to be the best man in a good friend’s wedding because I felt that I couldn’t spare the time … Well, it looked like an overdubbed low-budget foreign film. The magic of the original performances was lost. The subtle sounds of cloth rustling and body movements had been awkwardly replaced by “foley” effects recorded in a sterile environment. The ambiance of the locations and the aural interaction of the characters was gone forever.

To say that it was a disappointment would be a drastic understatement. It was a crushing, devastating failure. And all because of audio.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I suspect that anyone who has worked with video for any length of time could share an experience as bad, or worse.

If you’re just getting into video, do yourself a favor and spend some time learning about audio. Get a handle on the difference between line and mic level signals. Read up on the different types of microphones, their pickup patterns, and their proper usage. If you’re shooting with a DSLR, get an external audio recorder, and get used to working with it. And, as I learned on that film project, check your playback as often as you can, to make sure that what you’re hearing is what you’re recording.

Working with audio is like swimming in the ocean. You don’t have to fear it, but you do have to respect it. And, just as you can charter a vessel in unfamiliar seas, you can hire a freelance audio engineer to work on complex or critical shoots. But what you can’t do is ignore it or muddle your way through it. Audio is a complicated subject, and any photographer starting to work with video needs to have at least a basic understanding of how to capture it properly. If you make an effort to learn what you’re doing, your projects will benefit. If you don’t, it’s only a matter of time before you’re telling your own story about a big shoot that got ruined by bad sound.

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