The art of manipulating sound is an occult practice, mysterious and daunting to outsiders, though in reality, like almost everything, a little education goes a long way and the information is out there if you look for it; since many filmmakers, though, are taught from the beginning (at least I was), to shoot MOS and concentrate solely on the visual, with sound a distant second, it can be a blind spot in their skill set, but a vital skill. And with the concomitant proliferation of audio technology (specifically DAWs, or Digital Audio Workstations), there's no excuse for an indie filmmaker not to educate themselves in the art of noise. Click through for five tips on EQing sound, for filmmakers!
Okay, so, you have your location sound. You got your room tone. All of your levels are good, nothing is peaking or clipping (sounding terrible) and you are working on your edit on your NLE of choice. For many filmmakers, sound is something to be turned over to, and handled by a professional, and this is definitely the best bet if you can afford it, but if you can't (and even if you can), it still pays to know a little about how to manipulate the soundtrack of your film, because as an indie filmmaker you should be a jack of all trades, and sound is a big trade in the picture show business.
One of the most important steps you can take is, while shooting, to be sure that you capture quality sound. To paraphrase the always edifying Vashi Nedomansky, in his excellent post on the subject, "garbage in, garbage out," i.e., what you get on location is what you have to work with in post, therefore, there is only so much "fixing it in the edit" that you can actually get away with. And, as he so wisely puts it:
Great visuals with crappy sound screams -- “I am an amateur!” Conversely, lots of blurry, handheld, whip-panned footage with pristine dialog and a full soundscape can be completely acceptable. It will be perceived as the Director’s “artistic choice” even though shots are out of focus and flaying around. The audio is the glue that holds it together and sells it as a professional production. Embrace the Audio.
Okay, so, roughly, there are a narrow band of frequencies audible to the human ear. These run from very low "rumble" sounds at about 31hz, all the way to 16khz, or the sound of, as the graphic below puts it, "air." (The chart comes via Warbeats, which is a site primarily for electronic music production, but an excellent general resource.) They primarily concentrate on FL, or as it is more commonly known, Fruity Loops, as their DAW of choice, but the rules are the same from program to program, since Vashi, and we, are only going to be concentrating on a few small hacks you can apply to your audio. These hacks involve the parametric EQ and the 30 band equalizer, which are two basic features found on every NLE and Digital Audio Workstation (n.b., the number of bands on your equalizer may vary.) And now, without further ado, a few of Vashi's tips on EQing:
Cut the Top and Bottom
At the bottom end, roll off frequencies below 100hz to remove rumbles, wind, and other low end noises that can muddy up your dialogue. You can do this using a "high pass" filter, like so (yours may look different, this is from FL Studio 11, but the end result is the same). At the other end, apply the same technique to get rid of sizzles, squeaks and high-pitched noise. (below, a "high pass filter")
Saving Dull and Distant Dialog
Often the mic will be too far from an actor and you will hear boomy, reverie dialog -- First apply a Parametric EQ at 300Hz with -4db and a Q=2. This can remove some of the “room boominess”. The second Parametric EQ at 4kHz with +6db and a Q=.25 will brighten up the dialog. Even a slight improvement will make the entire mix sound better. Also -- I like to EQ dialog while the music, background sound and room tone is playing. If you solo the dialog and EQ in a vacuum -- you won’t hear how it’s interacting with the environment and the mix.
When all else fails, there's always a few a general rules and hacks that will usually help to produce acceptable quality audio. According to Vashi, a few of his favorite are:
- Add Male Power = Parametric EQ at 160Hz with +2db and Q=1
- Nasally Dialog = EQ reduction between 2kHZ to 4kHz by several db
- Add Female Thickness= EQ boost at 150hz by several db
- Add Vocal Presence = EQ boost at 5kHz by several db
- Female Sibilance Reduction = EQ reduction at 6kHz to 8kHz (find it)
- Male Sibilance Reduction= EQ reduction at 4kHz to 6kHz (find it)
- General Dialog Boost = EQ boost at 2.5kHz by 3db
If all of this sounds completely ridiculous and abstruse to you right now, it's kind of supposed to. It would be weird if it was totally intuitive to you. (But awesome. Good for you!) That said, this is all fairly straightforward stuff, and I taught myself rudimentary audio engineering (mostly via YouTube tutorials and sites like Warbeats) in a few months.
Finally, here are a few more golden rules from Warbeats:
- Audio for Video: 5 EQ Tips for Filmmakers -- Vashi Visuals
- Equalization Tricks That Everyone Should Know -- Warbeats
[Lead image via Wikimedia courtesy Andyzweb]