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Acoustic Sound In Film: A Fundamental Understanding

Terms: When learning about film and sound there are a few basics you will want to know. For starters, gain a general understanding of terms so you’ll know what everyone is talking about.

Acoustics: Hard surfaces can easily reflect and/or deflect the normally straight paths that sound waves travel in. They do so at high frequency. Fibrous, porous materials can easily absorb these sounds. On the other hand, those 100 Hz and below (termed lower-frequency sound waves) are more easily absorbed and are not influenced by obstacles. Shapes, structures, and the surface nature of obstacles can reflect or modify the quality of sound waves upon their meeting.

Audio Mixer: Whenever a number of different sources of sound are used for selection, blending and control (as in VCR audio output, CD, or microphones), and an audio mixer will be necessary. A recorder is fed this unit’s output.

Audio Sweetening: This is also called track laying or the dubbing session. This happens after the video has been completed, and is the process when the sound program is worked on.

Condenser Microphone: Ideal for pickup of musicals, this is a microphone that is capable of high-quality audio production. It’s ideal for miniature microphones such as lavaliere or shotgun microphones. This is because one of the most attractive attributes of this condenser is that it can be quite small.

Directional Microphone: Rear-side insensitive, the pickup pattern of this mic is cardioid, which means directional; it has a pattern that is shaped similar to a heart and is quite broad.

Dynamic Microphone: One of the more rugged mics, the dynamic microphone is still able to provide sound that is high-quality, good sound. They are good for sounds that are loud (consider drums) because they are not very easily distorted.

Dynamic Range:  Refers to the range a recording device is able to adequately record between the loudest and weakest ranges of sound.

Foley: Term used when sounds are created in studio to replace what an original noise would be.

Line Level: Term used when non-microphone devices (consider a CD player) are used to generate an audio signal.

Mic Level: This is the level of the microphone-generated signal.

Monaural Sound: This is often called mono. It is a limited audio, as it is single track. Direction is unable to be conveyed in any way, and it can only tell the distance by how loud it is.

Omnidirectional Microphone: A pickup pattern that is sensitive equally from every direction and unable to determine between reflected or directed sounds–this is where the term ‘omnidirectional’ comes from.

Perambulator: This microphone is a large boom on wheels.

Super-cardioid Microphone: To avoid distance sources, noise from the environment, or just when you need to ensure that the pickup is very selective, a pickup pattern that is very directional (also called super-cardioid) is used.

Stereo Sound: A term used when the illusion of dimension and space is created through dual tracks of audio. It makes it more difficult for the viewer to be able to easily locate the sound’s direction.

Surround Sound: If this sound is correctly mixed, then it will provide a sense of being enveloped with sound. This sound (5.1 surround) uses six individual, distinct or discrete, channels. Stereo sound uses two channels, and mono uses only one, but often people believe surround sound to be the best.

Wild Track: Noise in the background that is just general.

In television it has become common to see audio take a backseat to the video. Most often sound is considered simple, cheap speakers in a television, while producers and manufacturers put their heart and soul into the actual image and visual effects. If you don’t think the audio is just as important, or more so, than the image, click the sound off for some time and see how well you follow what’s on the screen. It will be easy to see how lost you’ll get. On the other hand, many people love having the show playing while tidying up the kitchen or doing any number of household tasks. With nothing but the audio, you will still be able to easily follow what is going on.

It’s true that the sound is as important as the actual image. Without the audio the image is less than convincing. With the right audio the audience will feel more involved with the show. The designer for sound in the Olympics, Dennis Baxter said, “audio, in partnership with video, delivers a holistic experience with all of the intense emotion and interesting nuances to the viewer.”

It’s critical to not underestimate the very important contribution that audio brings to television shows and movies. In the best productions, audio isn’t used as an afterthought; it is instead an integral part of the process involved in the entire production.

Generally speaking, people tend to think of movies and television as an image with sound attached; however, when the well-made productions get to be analyzed, most tend to be surprised that it is the audio which does much of the work. It is this sound that is busy passing along information, as well as entertaining the audience. In this instance it’s the actual image that accompanies the sound. Sound is able to assist the audience’s imagination and enhance the viewer’s experience.

It is the audio that can be evocative. As an example, take the picture of two people who are leaning against a building with a beautiful sunset behind them. If there are noises of water and seagulls, we can quickly figure that they are at the ocean. If there are noises of a bustling metropolis, then we know they are in the city. If you change those sounds, you can place the same people near a battle scene, near a protest, or near a race track. These sounds may also help create an opinion about the couple leaning against the building. Perhaps they are calm in the midst of the background noise portraying a battle.

The truth is: this is a simple shot of a building and two people. The people could be anywhere, and so could the building. The actual mood and location is easily created by the audio.

The success of sound depends on the blending of two items:

  • Choices that are artistically appropriate–the selection and mixing of the sounds.
  • Techniques that are considered appropriate–equipment and the process for audio capturing.

Both of these aspects need a combination of experience and technical abilities.