Don’t Forget the Soundtrack

Feb 24 2011

When clients ask us to create video assets to support their marketing efforts, they often have a pretty strong idea of what imagery they want. But that’s really only half the recipe when it comes to making a compelling video. In addition to great visuals, you need great audio to make a complete video experience.

First, all audio needs to be as clear crisp and noise-free as possible. When videotaping, this means paying very close attention to where microphones are placed, minimizing any ambient noise and accounting for characteristics of the space in which you are recording. When videotaping someone talking, the microphone should be as close to their mouth as possible without interfering with the camera. An overhead boom mic or a lapel mounted remote mic will give the best results.

If you just need a voiceover—that is, a voice track where you don’t see the person talking—you have the option to place them in a small, acoustically dead space and put the mic right up close. I once suggested to a client who was trying to record some training voiceovers at home that she step into her linen closet: a small space lined with sheets and towels to absorb all echoes…

A camera-mounted microphone too often will pick up unwanted ambient noise, such as the whoosh of air from an HVAC system, or traffic outside the window. A large room can sound echo-y and hollow, especially if the microphone is far from the speaker. And an outdoor space can fill your audio with wind noise, traffic, birds chirping and any number of odd sounds that will distract the audience from your message. The best approach is simply to put the microphone as close as you can to the source sound you really want to record.

Now even the cleanest voice track can sound odd and leave the audience feeling like something is missing if it is used alone. Sometimes this is good, and forces the audience to focus on what is being said. We used this technique recently in a videotaped message from a regional manager to his technical team regarding field safety and recent injuries on the job. The unadorned voice track came across as serious and attention grabbing.

In other cases, some sort of music track will go a long way to making the video feel more polished. The music should not drown out any spoken message, and the type of music selected should be appropriate to the tone you want to convey. We’ve used new age music behind a yoga/fitness demonstration, an electric guitar riff behind a message aimed at young males, and an edgy violin track to create excitement about a new product. Pretty obvious when you write it out, but sometimes easy to forget when combing through the thousands of possible tracks that you’ll find if you Google “royalty-free music.” That’s probably the hardest part of this effort: listening to and discarding possibly hundreds of samples of different commercial music. Of course, be sure to obtain proper copyright clearance before using anyone else’s music in your production.

So now you have at least two tracks, voice or whatever audio goes with the visuals, and music. You’ll need to balance the volume levels of the two tracks so they don’t compete. Beware that radical and frequent changes in volume can be distracting. Or, if timed properly, they can emphasize a point in the visuals.

In any case, don’t forget to invest as much effort in producing a good soundtrack as you do in the visuals, as they must work together to create the compelling video experience you’re after.

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Paul Hamerton-Kelly
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