Audio often flies under the radar in our field of video production. Often, this is by design, as a typical viewer won’t notice the importance of quality sound until it’s poorly executed, which can draw their attention away from your video’s message or cause them to stop watching altogether. On the other hand, good sound compliments strong visuals by further immersing a viewer into a scene or setting. For example, instead of just seeing a downtown farmer’s market, they hear the nearby traffic to the left, the slow river below the bridge to the right, and the murmur of the crowd surrounding them.
As the only “audio guy” in a company producing as many videos as we do, I get the opportunity to have a hand in a vast amount of projects, striving for quality and consistency across all of them. If you’ve watched any of our videos, you’ve probably heard my work (or you watched the video on mute, in which case, how dare you!).
So what does the job of a do-it-all audio engineer entail? For the most part, my responsibilities fall within three main categories: recording, sound design, and mixing the final product.
This is the first, and most important, opportunity to get it right. If you don’t start with a quality recording, it’s hard to end up with a final product you can be proud of.
When I’m on set, my primary focus is to record clean dialogue that isn’t masked by environmental noise. In a loud world of cars, trains, planes, birds, cicadas, crickets, fans, and more, this requires both awareness of your surroundings and knowledge of different microphones/recording techniques to adapt to those surroundings. While the cameras are rolling, I’m watching the microphone levels to ensure a strong signal without distorting the recording.
When I’m not recording dialogue, I also like to have a stereo pair of microphones with me to capture unique elements of a setting that I may want to incorporate into the final mix. This can be anything from a squeaky door frame to the strange sound of a factory machine, or even a breeze blowing through a cold, silent field.
After a video has been edited and the timing is locked, the editor passes it to me for sound design and mixing. Sound design is the process of adding sound effects or background sounds to compliment the visual story of the edit. This looks different for different projects. For a fast-paced, attention-grabbing video, I may be adding more noticeable sound effects like “whooshes”, impacts, etc. to bring video transitions and animations to life. For a slower-moving narrative video, I may be adding environmental backgrounds and realistic sound effects that match the action on-screen, such as a passing car, the flapping of bird wings, or the internal noises of a pinball machine. As I’m watching the video and expect to hear something that isn’t there, I do what I can to find an existing sound effect, or just turn on a microphone and create it myself.
The final step in the audio journey is taking all of the recordings, sound design, and music, and making them play nicely together. Again, the goal here is to keep attention on the video, so all of these elements must sound consistent with one another and not have distracting changes in volume or tone. This requires a lot of time and careful adjustments, which is why they keep me locked away in a soundproof room; the amount of times I’ll listen to the same five-second segment is enough to drive any nearby coworker crazy.
Typically, this begins with cleaning up dialogue recordings and removing unwanted environmental noise that couldn’t be avoided when recording. Then, if there are multiple speakers in the video, I have to account for the differences in microphones used, microphone placement, vocal characteristics, and recording environments.
Once the dialogue is in a good place, I’ll add in the music and sound design elements appropriately to enhance, but never overshadow the spoken message.
Finally, before handing the audio mix back to the editors, I “master” the mix to ensure its volume is in line with other videos and meets specifications required for broadcasting. I’m sure everyone can remember those random annoying TV commercials that were drastically louder than everything else – this step prevents that.
At the end of the day, I’ve done a good job if nobody recognizes how much work is required to do all of this! I get joy out of enhancing and contributing my creativity to a video, in a way that keeps a viewer’s attention on the awesome material we have the pleasure of filming.
About the Author: Dave Janus, Audio Engineer, studied Audio & Recording Arts at Madison Media Institute after earning degrees in Biochemistry and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He leverages the precise, logical mindset he developed in scientific research positions to strive for excellence in all aspects of his work with audio. Since starting at Discover Mediaworks in 2017, he has been involved with all three broadcast brands, as well as corporate video productions, and most recently can be heard co-hosting as “Audio Dave” on Discover Wisconsin’s podcast, The Cabin.