Don’t Touch That Dial!
How many of you remember the title sequence from “The Outer Limits?” For those readers born after the Kennedy administration, here’s what I’m talking about:This iconic science fiction anthology series was a staple of my TV diet back in the day, and I still enjoy catching occasional episodes on cable. I mention it here because I recently encountered yet another situation where I found myself wishing that I had the kind of pre-emptive power over someone else’s controls boasted of in that audacious introduction.
One of the services I offer is audio sweetening, which basically means taking someone else’s recordings and making them sound better. It’s something I do well, and a service I’m happy to offer clients. Ideally, sweetening is a subtle craft, and involves minute adjustments to esoteric parameters, and I get to feel all geeky and clever when I’m done. Less geeky, but still fun techniques involve adding some reverb, or adjusting volumes and EQ so that all the elements blend well with each other. There’s also the occasional opportunity to add music and sound design, which is about the most fun I ever get to have at work. It’s all very gratifying, like adding a beautiful coat of veneer to a piece of fine furniture, without the mind-altering fumes. But sometimes I get files that have been poorly recorded, or ineptly processed, and it becomes a salvage job. Again, I’m happy to get the business, and I always manage to deliver something that sounds better than it did when I got it, but it’s a lot less fun – more like plunging a toilet than finishing furniture, and just as smelly. And what I find truly frustrating is that an opportunity was lost for me to contribute during pre-production, so that my client and I could have avoided the mess in the first place. And that’s where the whole “…we are controlling transmission…” thing comes in.
I have a client who is recording voice-over in several overseas locations, with several different talents, and who periodically sends me these recordings to sweeten. I began consulting with them on this project about a year ago, and during the early planning stages I worked up a list of instructions and technical requirements for them to communicate to all the recording engineers that they would be working with. The list included things like what sample rate and bit depth to record at, what average level of volume to record at and how much headroom to maintain, what format to deliver, that kind of thing. What I stressed would be most important, though, was that, whenever possible the recordings should be done in the same space, using the same signal path, and with minimal processing. No EQ, no compression, no gating, no reverb, and only limit as much as needed to avoid clipping. Which they shouldn’t have to worry about anyway, since I was specifying -18 dB of headroom. (“…we will control the horizontal…”) No post-processing, either, thank you very much. Don’t normalize, don’t run any noise-reduction, don’t do anything (“…we will control the vertical…”) Just deliver a raw, un-processed recording (“…sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear…”)
I knew that, in disseminating these instructions, I was risking, or rather, asking my client to risk, alienating whoever they contracted with to do the recording. No one likes to be told how to do their job. But experience has taught me that I should never assume that anything that I’m not actually doing myself is going to be done the way I need it to be. Now, I’ve also learned that the more experienced an engineer is, the more likely that engineer is to go ahead and add his own special touch to whatever he’s doing. I’m often guilty of it, too (sorry Jeffrey). This is a function of a lot of things – partly ego, but mostly just wanting to add the most value to one’s work. And, knowing this, I wanted to minimize the possibility of someone else adding their own touches as much as possible before I could get my own hands on it (…do not attempt to adjust the picture…”)
There’s a really good reason for this. My goal with all this was to ensure that the different recordings would all sound as similar to each other as possible and to be as acoustically neutral as possible, so that, when I edited them together into a conversation, I could make them sound like they were all standing in the same space, at more or less the same distance from the listener, and that the listener was hearing everything with the same set of ears. This is important, because this is how we actually hear things – with one set of ears, and from one vantage point.
It’s a little goofy to point that out, but the reality is that, though this seems ridiculously obvious, it’s what makes planning a recording session with multiple talents who are all supposed to wind up in one place talking to each other so crucial. If one or more of the people talking sounds like they’re in a different space from the others, it totally unravels the illusion you’re trying to create. So will a difference in the sonic characteristics caused by using different mics, preamps, and processors, all of which make it sound like you’re listening through different sets of ears.
At this point in the project, I’ve now been through about half a dozen iterations of getting a batch of files, reporting back on how they don’t adhere to the guidelines, and trying my best to mash them into something usable anyway. The thing with a bad recording, whether it’s too much compression, or too much gating, or too much room reflection, or the signal path was just cheap, low-grade consumer stuff, is that once the badness is baked into the file, it’s next to impossible to make it sound good. And even if the recording is good, but the engineer used his favorite dynamic mic, while everyone else was recorded with condensers, I’m still well and truly screwed. There’s no way I know of to fix those kinds of sonic problems transparently, anymore than than I can unscramble an egg or make a pig back out of sausage. Any process that changes the sound of a recording leaves artifacts, and the more drastic the change, the more obvious, and sometimes aurally disturbing, the changes become. Now, here I often find myself fighting the expectations created by Photoshop or CGI, which can totally change a visual image without tipping off the untrained viewer. The analogy doesn’t really work, though, because our eyes are actually designed to be fooled; our ears are much more discerning. Any sonic anomaly, no matter how delicately subtle, will be picked up on by even the most casual listener. They may not know precisely what it is that’s bothering them, but they’ll defeintely know something is.
I’m not averse to working hard, but I don’t like putting a lot of effort into something that only achieves an incremental improvement, especially when I know how easily the problem could have been avoided in the first place. And no matter how hard I work, the file is only going to be less flawed, which means it’s still flawed. And here’s something that makes me absolutely crazy – some of these recordings have been really good – whoever engineered them obviously knew what they were doing, and followed all the instructions, and the results were outstanding. But in those cases, I’m faced with either accepting that the files are going to sound incompatible with each other, or with making the good recordings sound worse so that they’ll integrate better with the bad ones. Yeesh.
So this is why I’m thinking about “The Outer Limits,” today, and wishing I had a way to take over the controls in far off studios. Next time my family and I play “What Superpower Would You Want?” I think that’s the one I’ll wish for. They won’t know what I’m talking about, and I’ll get the eye roll for being a geek, again, but the whole Manipulating Matter with My Mind thing has gotten old.