The Sound Advice Workshop by MZed is one of those workshops that, until you go and attend it, you don’t realize just how important it is. The Sound Advice Tour does something I don’t know that anyone else is doing – offers up a wonderful, engaging in depth way to take from beginner to advanced audio practitioner and set you up to manage all your audio needs in a way that is informative, fun and rewarding
Sound is absolutely critical. Lack of good quality sound or audio can be far more devastating to us as videographers or film makers, than the lack of good high quality visual content. MZed has recognized this and brought us the Sound Advice Tour, which I was fortunate enough to check out when it opened recently.
Before I get into the review, if you want to know JUST how important sound is and the role it plays in our immersion with whatever we happen to be watching, you have got to check out their tour trailer below which is just brilliant in how it’s been put together to show off the dynamic and emotional impact sound can and does have on us.
The funny thing about sound is that we are so used to it just ‘being there’, that when it’s not there, or is of poor quality, we get completely removed from ‘the moment’.
A clear example of this was discussed as we opened the start of our 10 hour day. A typical MZed workshop tour format is to have a morning and afternoon session, followed by a separate evening session, and a nice ‘opener’ which sets the scene for the day ahead. For our opener, we were told about the video of Star Wars that has done the round online. It’s essentially a dub of the final, climactic end scene in the Throne Room.
As we talked, I looked it up to remind myself of it and almost burst out laughing in the class – the lack of music - and the SFX that have been added - gives you an entirely different emotional experience from the original. Even if you’re seen it, it’s worth watching again to reinforce the point.
The Importance Of Good Audio
If you spend anytime in the world of video, inevitably at some stage audio will come into play, at which point a couple of things can happen. Everything can go really well, or, more likely, things can go very badly, very quickly.
Audio, unlike video with it’s multiple cameras, or b-roll and insert shots, can’t often be substituted or easily ‘fixed’. The point of the Sound Advice Tour, and something I felt it did extremely well, is to not just fill ‘in the gaps’ you might have with your audio knowledge, but to give you a complete end-to-end learning experience, taking you from beginner to advanced intermediate in a single day, to set you up for audio success on whatever project you are involved in that utilizes sound.
The Breakdown Of The Day
We started off sharing our audio horror stories and the funny thing is, most of us had them in one form or another. Mine was around using wireless lavalier microphones and dealing with audio interference for the first time, during a two camera, two hour talk, where I couldn’t stop to fix the issue. Editing NIGHTMARE!
It’s amazing how many of us had audio horror stories to share but this built a great sense of “we’ve all been there” type of atmosphere, in which we could all relax and work together to hopefully avoid these in the future.
The Sound Advice Tour aims to help you avoid having an audio horror story of your own, and I only wish I’d taken it a couple of years ago.
Many of the challenges we have faced probably come from the piecemeal knowledge we’ve gleaned from various sources – friends, colleagues, the internet. This is fine, until something goes wrong and you’re not sure how to deal with it. Unlike video, where a botched shot could be smoothed over with b-roll or a second take, in the world of audio, it’s not often possible, especially if you’re only relying on one audio device to capture the source (not something typically recommended).
Most of the people attending were photographers who dabbled in video or videographers and film makers looking to up their audio game but at least one person I spoke to was neither, but had an interest in sound and the psychology behind it.
The workshop was deftly led by Mark Edward Lewis (Frank Serafine, the award winning sound designer was unfortunately ill on the day of the tour in Philadelphia - I wish him a speedy recovery).
Mark was an absolutely first class presenter, at ease with the crowd and making the learning both clear, easy to understand and filled with humor throughout. Aside from all of his experience, he is a big believer that "Post production begins in Pre-Production”, something I tend to live by when it comes to visual media so it was a nice philosophy to begin the day with.
The entire day was built on this principal of get it right first, to avoid spending time and money to try to fix an issue later.
I have to say, his 25 years of composing and sound production experience were obvious as he deftly took us through the basics of how we all process sound, to how best to capture sound through the myriad hardware options available, to how best to process it and maximize the quality of your production.
Given Mark had only just stepped in for Frank, he more than rose to the challenge and was thoroughly engaging throughout the day, with great pacing and approach to keep things easy to understand and above all, fun.
The Format Of The Day
While the crux of the learning that takes place is well suited to videographers and film makers, it’s really aimed at anyone with an interest the psychology of sound and how we react to it.
Just like the previous MZed tours with Vincent Laforet (who looked at the psychology behind camera movement) and Adam Epstein (the importance of the arrangement of both visual and audio media to better present the audience with the intended emotions that the piece was trying to deliver), Mark broke down the key elements of what goes into effective sound design from start to finish, and looked at both the how and why of why we do what we do.
The format was a good mix of theory and practical – including green screen audio capture, live listening examples with Mark working the sound desk (remember o bring a set of headphones – and if you don’t have a 3.5mm connecter, they’ll have a ¼” to 3.5mm adaptor which means you can bring your big stereo hifi headphones). Seeing and hearing Mark talk through what he was doing while live at the sound desk, was invaluable because this is where the theory and practice met and could be easily digested.
Mark went through and broke down the day largely based around 3 main tenets – DX (or dialogue) which aims to further a story, SFX (or sound effects) which aims to immerse the viewer into what they are watching, suspending our disbelief, and MX (or music), which is about the emotional connection the audience has with what they are watching.
We watched as Mark stripped out the component audio parts from a scene in Iron Man 3 – and on the 7000W 5.1 surround sound system that the tour uses, you will really hear what is going on in these examples!
What was very apparent early on was that sound design is like surgery of sorts, where, without one ‘organ’ you are not left with the entire healthy final end product. Dissecting DX, MX and VFX in this way allows you to fully understand not just HOW sound designers work, but more importantly WHY they do what they do (because we understand the effect it has on our brains). This is the key to the success of this workshop for me – as a visual person myself, seeing these elements play out, and hearing WHY the sound designer has made the decisions they have really helped solidify the learning experience.
Needless to say, I can’t cover the entire gambit of what we were taken through on the day, but here’s a flavor of some of what I really got a lot out of personally:
- ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) – finding out out that practically every scene in a movie has the actors re-record their dialogue – and then watching a live (and pretty hilarious) example where we filmed a guy and ADR’d him with a woman’s voice. This established the role of how we become immersed in the smallest details that are added back in, and how dialogue is structured to help further the story, or narrative
- Inverse Square Law – just like light fall off in photography, sound uses the exact same principle which was quite fascinating to look at briefly
- Placement of mics (what sounded better and why) was invaluable. Why does an omni directional lav sound good coming from the top of the head for instance? Why should we not place a lav on axis of the sound source? Why shouldn’t you hold a boom pole from the ground pointing up? These things were all answered in the day, and I use lav’s for 99% of all audio work so this was brilliant to get into
- Looking at different microphones and when and where to employ them for best results (the Holophone H4 with 5 channels of 3D surround audio on set was incredible – sound is really becoming much more three dimensional, something I had not really appreciated so much but it’s huge for immersion)
- The after-lunch session focusing on various plug-ins and the post-production side was invaluable (if you’ve ever wanted to clean up bad audio, this is the section you’ve been waiting for). Denoising, Zynaptic’s ‘Unfilter’ plug in (to create frequencies that weren’t even recorded) and reducing audio inputs like emergency sirens passing by in the street with Spectral Layers in ProTools was fantastic to see what you can actually achieve in post should you need to
- The section on foley (creating sound in the studio to mimic real world sound), was fascinating. If you’ve ever wanted to record the sound of fresh snow being crunched under foot, you’ll see how it’s done with nothing more than a bag of cornstarch. We discussed common sound elements put back IN to a film – branches from trees or leaves rustling, clothing, ticking clocks, animals, background conversations, footsteps, breathing, heart beats, punches (using raw pieces of meat and hitting them on the ground apparently works really well, as does substituting chicken bones being broken for human snapped for broken limbs apparently!). We talked about all of these and it really helped analyze how you can recreate a sound, and why you would want to do it in the first place.
- The evening session really looked at using SFX and sound libraries to help ”put our brains to sleep” – or rather, immerse us into the world so we don’t think we’re watching something created for us.
- We also looked at options for licensing music (and how you might be able to get composers to do it for free, based on Mark’s experience as a composer, which was invaluable). We looked at the 3 main aspects of music – rhythm , melody and harmony, and their interrelation to how they are used to keep us emotionally engaged with what we are watching. If you’ve ever wondered why Hans Zimmer avoids melody for the soundtrack of ‘Inception’, then this section is definitely for you. I personally found it fascinating and was well worth staying on for (the evening session is about 1.5 hours, from 6-7.30pm)
The Sound Advice tour was exactly that – simple, great advice from someone with decades of experience in the film and TV business that was distilled down, analyzed and broken down and shared in really fun, bite size chunks, never making the day feel overwhelming, and at the same time providing enough to leave you feeling like things were taught with enough depth to support you in whatever audio situation you might find yourself in.
We’re only half way through the year, but I know for a fact that this will be one of (if not the) best workshop I’ll attend this year to bring better production levels to my video and motion work. I’m using the techniques I employed on the workshop TODAY as I get ready to put a lav mic on a client and record them for a video that will involve indoor, outdoor and high wind levels. If only all workshops could ‘pay for themselves’ in this way, I’d be very happy to invest a lot more time and money into them.
Whether you work with audio, or not, if you have any interest in the fascinating world of sound design, music, film scores, composing, and how sound works to make us feel emotionally engaged, I can heartily recommend the Sound Advice Tour.