HELPFUL TIPS AND INFORMATION FOR YOUTUBERS FROM AN AUDIO ENGINEER

I had a conversation the other day with Devin, my brother in law. He happens to work in social media marketing and we ended up having an interesting conversation about possible reasons that people watch certain videos, skip over some or turn off others all together. There were lots of things that were possible contributors but interestingly enough, the one thing that we readily agreed upon was that if a video had poor audio, people were much more likely to stop watching and move on. As an Audio Engineer I’ve known this for a long time. We can see this in everyday life. If you’re at home watching a clip of something that has poor video quality but the sound is good, chances are you’ll finish watching it. If there is a clip that is in crystal clear 4K resolution and has horrible audio, people will turn it off or flip the channel. Anyways the point is that there really is no excuse nowadays to have poor quality audio and so in the spirit of the pursuit of excellence, Devin suggested that I create an article to help show YouTubers how an Audio Engineer could be a valuable asset to their productions and, in essence, get them more clicks. So I’ve put together a list of some areas that I think I can help people get much better sounding results than what they are used to getting. I’ve broken them down into the following categories: Consultations, Pre-production, Production and Post Production. I’ve also included all of the jobs that are traditionally done by 20-30 people for film, but these jobs can be done on a much smaller scale with just 1 or 2 people. I’ve included the traditional way just as a matter of reference.

COSULTATIONS

I realize that a lot of YouTubers aren’t made of money and essentially start their channels from scratch. There is a lot of DIY that happens and I think that part is great. To me it’s just a representation of the American Spirit and the hard work and dedication it takes to build and maintain our country. Now in the spirit of the do-it-yourselfers, sometimes it pays to consult with someone that has first hand knowledge and experience to help you get the most bang for your buck. In this case consulting with (and paying) an Audio Engineer can help you buy the right products, teach you how to use them properly and to get the best possible sound out of whatever project you’re working on. So here are some things that you might want to ask an Audio Engineer about.

          1. Room Acoustics/Acoustic Treatment – Out of all the things to ask an Engineer about, this is probably the most important thing that gets skipped over the most. Without going into a ton of science, what you really need to know about what ever room or space you’re planning on recording in, is that they all have their own individual tone and characteristics. Audio Engineers use certain tools to help eliminate the undesirable parts of a room and to keep the good parts. We use tools like oscilloscopes, frequency spectrum analyzers that run white and pink noise, reference microphones, tone generators, mirrors and a bunch of other fun tools to identify problem areas in a room where we can use things like acoustic treatment, sound diffusers and bass traps to eliminate problems like standing waves, bass buildup, and reverberate reflections. It also leaves us with a desirable recording space that still sounds natural and has a good ambiance. This is what is known as “tuning a room”. If you are planning on doing anything in a dedicated space I highly recommend you have these things checked out.
          2. Gear Choices – One of the biggest questions that I see from a lot of YouTubers are related to what gear to buy. There are tons of videos out there about what people are using; but honestly, why not consult with someone that uses these things on a daily basis and knows what each of them sounds like? There is way more to gear selection than just things like price and quality. There are things like application, project type, and even things like the individual human voice that can change what the best gear for the situation is. For example, I would use a much different microphone for recording vocals on a song than I would for doing something like a voice over or dialogue replacement. I’ve even had situations where I choose to use a much different mic based on whether I’m recording a man or a woman because in general, men and women’s voices vary greatly in the timbre that they produce. I’m fond of saying that there are certain mics that love your voice, and there are certain ones that hate your voice, and knowing what one to use is 90% of the battle. Anyways an Engineer can help you get set up with the right gear for your situation, regardless of budget. I’ve used gear that costs $5 and I’ve used gear that costs $500,000. There is great gear at every price point and on the flip side, there is a lot of overpriced junk out there too. I’m actually fairly certain that most people would be surprised at just how little the things that I prefer to use cost. The point is it might be worth your while to talk with someone who knows the difference.
          3. Gear Use – So this kind of goes with the one above. Just because you have the right gear, doesn’t mean you know how to use it properly. So why not get some training from someone that can help you personally optimize your gear to your project specifications? These can be things like project settings and specs to general use of things. For example: On most audio equipment that uses a microphone, there is often a gain knob that goes along with it; say on a field recorder, pre-amp or audio interface. It is a common preconception that this knob controls the volume of the microphone signal. What it’s actually doing is controlling the magnetic field created by your microphone based on the pickup pattern. The more the gain is cranked, the larger the magnetic field. You can actually have a person stand directly in front of a mic, and if you increase the magnetic field enough, you actually end up recording what is behind a person instead of what is coming out of their mouth. This is just one of many things that that happens on a regular basis and it can have a huge impact on your sound.

PRE-PRODUCTION

This section builds a lot on the Consultation section of this article but takes things a step further. Firstly; in the above section I broadly assume that consultations would be done on a strictly limited basis; whereas this and the following sections assume that you have hired an Audio Engineer to work as either an Engineer, Producer, Post Production Supervisor, Mixer, or as the Head of the Sound Department for the length of a project, or on a series of projects. Pre-production is an interesting stage of the game nowadays. It is something that is repeatedly overlooked but can drastically change the outcome of a project. There are really only two things worth mentioning in this section. They are similar to how consultations work and basically involve planning and budgeting.

          1. Planning – Having an Audio Engineer around at this stage may not seem like something that a lot of people would do, but in both film and music, it isn’t uncommon to have an Engineer act as Producer or a Consultant. They can often provide vital information on things like equipment, time, best practices, and all kind of things that have a direct bearing on the budget or the outcome of the budget over the life of a project. This is also the point that all of the prep work for a product should be done. In music this can include things like songwriting, demos and gear choices. In film, it can include things like script writing, story boarding, screen tests, casting and a whole host of other things. Anyways having an Engineer involved from the beginning of a project can help you plan properly for things and possibly save you money based on their experience and expertise.
          2. Budget – I think it’s fairly obvious to most people that sticking to the budget for a project and keeping things moving on time is really important, but most people don’t realize that because sound is the last element to be added and finalized on films or videos, it’s also the same area that is negatively impacted the most. If a project goes over time and over budget there are two things that can happen. The first is that there is often much less time than is needed to accomplish the work that needs to be done; which in turn, runs your project into massive amounts of overtime and debt. The second thing that can happen is that your project runs out of money and comes to a screeching halt. I really don’t like having the conversation in the middle of the film where I get to tell the Director that he is over budget and it’s going to cost twice what he had planned for because he didn’t take the time to consult with an Engineer on how much things actually cost.

PRODUCTION

In the production process an Engineer often moves over into 1 of 3 roles. I’ve worked as all of these things and each one requires a ton of skill and discipline to work well.

          1. Sound Mixer – So if you are doing anything with dialog you want one of these guys. They are responsible for capturing and marking all of the takes in something like a film. They often communicate constantly with the script supervisor on things like print takes and what are known as wild tracks. Wild tracks are sometimes just the scene done up close with all of the actors standing in a circle where they do their lines as just audio, or things that might help the sound designers later in post production. Depending on how good these guys are, they can make or break your post production budget.
          2. Boom Operator – A lot of people I’ve met think its a simple matter to be a boom operator and that anyone standing around can do it. That will do in a pinch, but in reality Boom Operators can save you a ton of time in post production by getting good usable audio on set. This means that there is less time in post production doing dialog replacement.
          3. Audio Engineer – The other aspect of production would be to do something like a podcast or a video or a radio spot where you are in a studio and are properly mic’ed up. Most people think that these guys just push record and walk away, but if they are good, they will be constantly riding the volume fader and eliminate tons of editing time in post. This is just something that you just have to see to understand. It’s also becoming less and less common to do because it requires a lot more skill than just pushing record and walking away.

POST PRODUCTION

By way of information, in the Film and Music industries there are tons of people involved in the post production process. In film there can be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 people working on a project and in music there can be 3-5. To see the full extent of how Engineers are involved in the film and music processes, see my articles in the Engineer’s Corner. For the sake of simplicity, we can realistically break down post production into 2 categories: Editing and Mixing.

          1. Editing – Editing can be a very important process and there is a lot more to it than most people think. Without getting into the semantics of exactly what audio editing entails, I’ll just say that the goal during editing is to take out everything you don’t want to hear, and to leave everything else good behind. These can often include addressing issues like pops, clicks, hums, background noise reduction and plosives while simultaneously adding things like proper fades or volume automation.
          2. Mixing – Mixing is the last stage that gets applied to a project in both film and music. It essentially is combining and regulating all of the elements in a project to play nicely with one another. There can also be different levels or degrees of mixing and each is an art unto itself. They differ in the film and music industries, but ultimately the goal is to deliver a good final product at the right specifications for the intended market. What that means for YouTubers is that you want someone mixing your material who is going to take into account the changes that YouTube makes to your final product. Like I stated earlier, mixing is an art and there are tons of tools and techniques that go along with mixing. Ultimately what you want to look for in a mixer is someone that has an uncompromising view on quality. I say this because if you choose to put your name on a product like a video, film or song, it should be something that you should be proud of and be the best work that you can deliver.

I hope that this article has helped some of you in some small way to either seek out and get help to capturing better sound, or at least opens up the possibility to the idea that better sound is possible with the right kind of knowledge and expertise.

 

-S. F. Shields

© 2017 Media Smoothie, L.L.C.

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