Thursday, June 20, 2013

Putting "Excellence" Into Perspective

One of the hard lessons learned while working on an episodic TV series is that there is neither the time nor the budget to make everything "perfect." It's been said that a show is never finished, just abandoned when you run out of time or money or both.

In a recent blog entry on the ProTools Expert site, editor Russ Hughes wrote, "Perfection is said to be as much a curse as it is a blessing, especially for creative types. We record, edit, mix audio or shoot, cut and grade video and often we just can’t leave it alone, or indeed be satisfied with the end results.

"Our clients often never know the lengths we go to when working on their projects; they certainly won’t pay for half the work we did in the name of perfection. It’s a difficult balance being a creative professional with a budget on the one hand and a personal desire to do the best we can on the other. It’s the little things that take a project from good to great, as I’ve already alluded to most of us seldom feel we have done that, despite our best efforts," he said. (

One of the areas that causes us the most grief is all those annoying, unwanted noises that plague our recordings, especially production tracks for film and TV shows.

As supervising sound editor on 66 episodes of Relic Hunter a few years back, I calibrated our edit rooms to 82 dBA SPL and worked on eliminating unwanted noise perceptible at that level, and not at a higher level, since 82 was the level set in the mix theatre at Deluxe. Of course you would hear every little glitch and tick if you were to boost the monitor pot, but the average audience won't, and we're not going for absolute perfection, just doing the appropriate job for our client, the production company, within the available time and budgetary constraints without killing ourselves.

One takeaway from this is that for picture work, calibrate your monitor level appropriate for the program type and then DON'T TOUCH IT AGAIN. That's how it's done on the mix stage. In fact, I've seen film consoles with the monitor pot removed. Seasoned mixers know when dialog is at the right level just using their ears and never looking at a meter. If you mix consistently to, say, feature film level of 85 dB SPL each and every day for as little as 4 weeks without ever changing the level, you'll soon train yourself to accurately gauge level, and you'll love the freedom this brings to the work, along with a concomitant lack of stress over little things that will never be heard in the intended listening environment.

This is also the antidote to level creep in music mixes, where the monitor level goes up as the hours stretch on, and ultimately changes the track's spectral content due to the way we perceive the amount of bass and treble at different listening levels (due to the equal-loudness contours). Try to avoid this temptation at all costs and leave the monitor pot alone. Failing that, calibrate it to something like 85 or 90 dBA SPL and remove the knob. Try it. You may like it.

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