Technical considerations —

Sound stems

I use a film re-recording mixer’s approach to educate students on the fundamentals of audio production. The sound stems which comprise film mixes: Voice, Music, Sound Effects and Ambience become the foundation for planning sound only projects. Silence stands as a fifth stem to encourage consideration of volume control and the possibilities of the absence of sound. This gives students four practical, and five theoretical, categories of types of sounds to consider in their piece.

Voice is generally dominant in student projects at the pre production stage, as they imagine and find it easier to tell than to express. Usually, when students first design their projects, they envision one continuous track of voice over wherein a narrator describes the action. As a result, there is a need to encourage a reconceptualization of voice. Voice can become musical or work as a sound effect. Vocal utterances such as sighs, cries, screams, breathes, sniffs, etc. can replace words to convey emotion and intent. These methods of construction make the narrator unnecessary. (In their very first sound only project, the project requirements include the absence of narration entirely.)

Music poses a great challenge pedagogically. Though fair use allows for a minimal amount of music in student work, I ask students to avoid pre-recorded, popular music altogether. Music functions as an unfortunate crutch for the elementary media producer. It easily conveys emotion and tone, and beginning media makers rely on this entirely, using the meaning from popular tunes to give their random shots and sloppy editing import. Whereas, an excerpt from the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Psycho might easily convey fear, here multiple layers of sounds are required to produce anxiety. A hefty footstep, exasperated breath, water drip that increases in pace supported by a base layer of ambient sound from a reverberant street combine to produce the desired treachery. Students also rely on music for pacing. We see this when student editors of audio/video projects lay down a popular song and cut to the beat of this song without consideration of the movement and pace within a shot itself. Students editing for the first time find editing without pre-recorded music to be more difficult, but their learning curve in a ten-week course, is high. Instead, they learn to edit according to the development of the story and the genre of their piece. Tone must be built carefully and deliberately.

By eliminating pre-recorded music in a project, students may still work musically. Voices and sound effects take the place of traditional instrumentation and create rhythms. “Sound effects” typically refers to non-verbal sounds like bells ringing or doors closing, but may also relate to verbal utterances if they are not linguistically based. Sound effects libraries contain many sounds that your students will need to flesh out a story, however these library sounds often lack the breadth of choices needed to express the emotion or tone required for a specific project. While a few library sounds are helpful for the signifieds that are difficult to record, (birds without any background sound, for example), even beginning level makers can use their imagination to create the heartbeat or train whistle that they imagine.

Ambience may include one sound recording made with an omnidirectional microphone, or ambience may be built by layers of sound effect recordings. When working with constructing narratives in the traditional sense, ambient sound presents the greatest challenge to beginning level mixers. All of the sounds in a piece should live on some texture so that sound holes are avoided. Makers at a range of levels can find it difficult to control the base layer of sound in the mixing stage. When the ambient sound exists without other sound present, it must be unnoticeable. When it plays with other sounds in a piece, it must be not doubled, adding twice the volume of ambience or air with texture. Pay attention to the moments when students fade into and out of room tone in their mix and encourage them to record many different varieties of tone so that they have something to play with in the editing room. Require in their first and second projects that a layer of sound be present at all times and encourage them to use ambience as that base layer.

Silence, like black in a film, may help to develop structure, establish the pace, or produce a mood in a piece. Silence in a project can add much needed space or it may be used to intentionally generate a discordant listening experience. What comes to stand for silence differs based on the genre of a given piece. Moments of silence in an experimental piece may be produced through the complete absence of sound, whereas in a narrative or documentary work, ambient sound often constitutes silence. From a mixing standpoint, silence should be produced with a sound, or some type of recording, even if it is nothing but device noise floor. The total absence of information typically represents an error in a beginning level producer’s project and absolute silence would be rare or non-existent in film sound tracks or radio. In audio work, there is always some layer of sound present, and students must realize the difference between creating silence and having silent moments happen because of a sloppy mix.

Scripting the sound piece

Once students have a project idea in mind, moving from the abstract to the practical follows smoothly with the spotting sheet. The spotting sheet is a visual guide for both recording and editing a project comprised of horizontal lines, or tracks, and boxes drawn within these tracks. Each of the boxes represents an individual sound that the producer must record. The spotting sheet helps the instructor understand and critique a project before it is made and, like storyboards, spotting sheets expose potential problems in a student’s work. Finally, the spotting sheet serves as a blue print for the look of the sound product in post-production. Whether working in iMovie, Pro Tools or Final Cut Pro, all digital non-linear sound editing interfaces are based on boxes labeled with the sound itself which can be moved around on tracks in the software. Encourage students to use the spotting sheet in the editing room and to think of it as a screen grab of their future edit.

Working with gear

An “audio-first” approach is available in many different contexts and basic video production programs already have the necessary tools to make it work. Classroom instruction begins with recording techniques: microphone placement, avoidance of wind noise, avoidance of mic and cable noise, awareness of noise floor of different devices, monitoring, slating takes, and use of sound logs. Students work with omni-directional and directional microphones, and condenser and dynamic microphones. As we have both analog and digital equipment available, I first introduce students to the warmth of analog recording (traditional cassette recorders) and then the uniqueness of digital recorders (DATS, mini discs, or hard disk recorders.) Each device presents its own unique problems: drop out vs. distortion, necessity of the limiter on digital recording, differences between monitoring with peak meter as compared to a UV meter.

When assigning projects, require students to avoid noise, record additional sounds in a quiet space (like a closet or sound booth) and record ambient sound (room tone.) We then move to Pro Tools (or iMovie). In the mixing stage, they must control volume levels, avoid pops and dead space, and mask edits. Projects edited in iMovie generally use two tracks and advanced Pro Tools projects employ between 4 and 10 tracks of sound with Auxiliary Tracks and a Master Fader.[2] [open notes in new window] Having taught this course with Pro Tools 882/20 boxes and mBoxes with Pro Tools LE, I recommend the mBox. At $450 per system, mBoxes come with software and hardware for sound editing/mixing and digitization and can be installed easily in a computer lab by technicians untrained in this specific hardware/software.

For technical instruction, I rely primarily on Stanley Alten’s Audio in Media. It is an expensive text, but there are select chapters which provide the necessary information. I recommend the intro chapters in which he details how the ear works, how microphones work, and the frequency range of human hearing. He defines concepts like amplitude, explains digital sampling, and analog recording. His chapter on mixing works directly from a Pro Tools edit/mix environment, as does David Yewdall in The Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound.           

After students have recorded and mixed the "right" way, encourage them to consider how editing and recording the "wrong way" functions. A fascinating project by Matt Test took me to task on my insistence on "proper" recording techniques. Room Tone presents a tour of a fictional Analog Tape Museum. As the documentarian tours the museum with his participant, the piece begins to decompose and distort as the very analog tape stored in that space might. To make this piece, Test found inspiration in David Lynchian sound design. He also employed numerous "mistakes" in sound production including pops, wind noise, drop out and distortion.

Listening to the final cut

Once a project is complete, listen to the piece in class and make time for critique. Whether the project is made in iMovie and finished on video, or made in Pro Tools and burned to CD, try to find a space where the stereo work can be appreciated. Dim the lights, ask students to listen carefully for content as well as technique and discuss the piece briefly. Then play the project again. The unique experience of sitting quietly in a classroom, heads bowed, taking in a project without video, is a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by visuality. At first, students are jittery and awkward in this new environment. Folks may look around, becoming distracted and tired easily (though the class draws many students with experience in music production or with a greater appreciation for music in general, so their ears are generally finely tuned.) But over the next few weeks of instruction and critique, you find a new group of sound geeks emerging.

Distribution in audio is more limited than video for student work, however students have submitted projects to various film festivals that call for sound work, radio outlets that play independently produced pieces, and websites which consider sound art. Students find that they can distribute their audio work to friends and family more readily and simply than with video. Audio CD’s are mass produced by the student makers through iTunes and mailed and passed around to the various participants and interested parties on the cheap.[3]


There are a few challenges to note in the sound first classroom. Though I mentioned this earlier, I wish to reemphasize that students should avoid music and narration. Often students rely on music to convey tone and rely on voice to convey meaning, which can undermine the basic theoretical elements of the class. Music and narration also limit technical and creative development.

It is important to have a variety of microphones at the student’s disposal so that they can hear the difference between directional and omni directional mics. Having the option of recording on analog and digital media is also useful as they develop their "ear" as makers. Though I recommend using iMovie, please do so with the understanding that it was never intended as an audio mixing program. This software seems to be the lowest common denominator in video production programs, so it is incorporated here. However, the benefits of iMovie as a way to cheaply enable the audio-first classroom greatly outweigh the drawbacks and limits of the program as a mixing environment.

The professional future of sound work is not as visible, but there are opportunities for radio production, sound recording, sound mixing, and sound art beyond this classroom. Finally, the biggest complaint from students, which I see as a positive side effect is that now they hear everything. Where their living spaces used to be comfortable, now they recognize the noise and volume of sounds around them. My own challenge, which I am still negotiating, is simplifying the approach. Once you start considering sound and you realize how much relates to sound production and sound theory, the term is never long enough.

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