A good eye can only get you so far in video making — you also need a good ear. Next time you’re on location, put the camera down for a few minutes and listen.
There are birds outside, and traffic and wind. In the office, the air conditioner hums and there is a low murmur of workers at their keyboards and telephones. The factory comes on like a cacophony, but if you listen to the individual workers and machines you notice they’re each playing their own individual parts. It’s still no symphony, but there is a rhythm to the place. Try finding it.
You’ve come with your camera to capture a story. If you’re not getting the sound, then you’re only getting half of it. Here’s some sound design suggestions and techniques that can help make your video stand out.
Not So Quiet on the Set
Interviews or dialogue between characters should have clean and clear audio free of distractions when possible. But that doesn’t mean they should sound airless. When the interview is over, record 30 seconds or more of the natural sound at the location, indoors or outdoors. Then lay it low in your mix beneath the scene. It will help to cover the sound of any cuts and will subtly bring the room or location to life.
Here are a few other suggestions:
- While you’re gathering B-roll, look for shots that are more than just eye candy. Gather shots with good opportunities for sound. A drill in a worker’s hand, for example, water from a faucet, fingers on a keyboard. These little bits make great transitions.
- Speaking of audio transitions, try working them into your piece with a J-cut or L-cut. A J-cut is when you hear the audio before you see the video. It’s an effective way to get from one scene to another. We’re on a shot of an executive at a bank finalizing a loan, for example, and while he’s signing the papers we hear the roar of a jet engine. Then we see him working onboard the aircraft in flight.
- An L-cut is the opposite. The audio from the previous scene continues as we see the video from the next. The guy is being denied a bank loan, for example, and we continue to hear that conversation while we watch the beginning of the next scene: sad guy driving down the road.
- No mic, or forgot to record natural sound? You can easily find a replacement sound online. Search for sound effects and marvel at how many sites offer varieties of sounds, from office spaces, to sea shores, to specific types of aircraft engines. You’ll find what you’re looking for, or something close enough.
Cue the Band
Music won’t make your video, but it might break it. You should put as much thought into it as you have every other element of the video. Here some things to keep in mind when selecting a track.
Taste is subjective, so be objective. You are looking for music that best works for the story on screen. Forget what you like or what makes you want to dance at your desk. Focus on how it works in your piece. Does it set the right tone and serve the scene, the story, the brand?
Regardless of style or tempo, you should look for music that goes places, does different things and has dynamic range – maybe a couple of rests or hits here and there where you can match your cuts to the cues. You’re looking for variety, and so is the easily bored viewer. This is especially true if you plan to use only one song that will play for the duration, as many videos do.
Speaking of, maybe don’t do that. Try using 15-second stings (short cuts of music) throughout the video. They can serve as an opener and then scene transitions. In between, you’ll have room for all that natural sound you’ve recorded.
Don’t fall in love. And especially don’t fall in love with a track that is out of your league. Never use a song by a popular artist, for example, even as a placeholder, if you can’t afford to use it in the finished piece. You will fall in love with it during editing only to have to settle for something else in the end. It will never feel the same.
Speaking of love, don’t marry too early. Play the field. Listen to several different tracks beneath the footage and don’t be afraid to experiment. Try different styles and tempos. You might have thought you liked the rocker, but then you tried flute beneath the scene, and it’s hard to explain, but the angels sang.
The key to incorporating any of these suggestions in your work is to try them and fail then try them again until they work. It’s an art, not a science. But you will know good sound design when you hear it.