Good audio, bad audio

I just posted a couple of clips on youtube, originally created for a presentation on the difference between using an on-camera mike and an external (plug-in) mike when doing an interview. This is in response to a comment by Howard Owens yesterday about whether consumers really think there is a need for mike inputs on consumer/prosumer video cameras.
If you listen to the two clips, you will hear a difference – one is definitely cleaner sounding. The problem is that this was shot on my back patio (five years ago) in the country and there isn’t a lot of ambiant noise. I’ll try to post a clip in a normal atmosphere in the next week shot at the same distance so you can get a feel for how bad it really is.



Personally I still think there needs to be an option – each manufacturer should commit to one affordable camera with mike input.

14 thoughts on “Good audio, bad audio

  1. I wouldn’t argue that ambiant noise destroys an otherwise good video — but one of my ongoing points about P&S video journalism is that the problem isn’t the equipment, but the training (when it comes to what can make P&S bad). If you understand the limitations of a P&S camera (with onboard mics), then you can produce good enough video. The big debate is about what consumers will tolerate vs. cost and effort (to me).

    There’s no doubt that you can produce very bad P&S video, including audio, but it isn’t automatically bad. And bad most of the time can be avoided with sufficient training.

    My question is: Will consumers tolerate lo-fi audio along with their lo-fi video (and that shouldn’t read as to be a blessing on distorted, lots-of-background noise, pixelated, shaky and as unlistenable as unwatchable).

    Where is the line for what is “good enough” as just a technical question?

  2. You know what’s fun about blogging? Hearing arguments for stuff you “know” is wrong…kicking back and thinking about it…and realizing the world won’t come crashing down if you’re right or wrong. It’s kinda fun to open up my mind to blasphamy.
    I am a purist about a couple of things – and this applies to me and my obsessive/compulsive nature. I am a control freak – lighting must be as near perfect as circumstances allow. Framing ditto. Audio ditto. I can understand situations (and I’ve been in them) where control is impossible. So I can forgive bad visuals and bad audio. I just don’t see any reason to put up with it – when I shoot.
    Joe Blow-Ordinary Guy also knows what he likes…and while it may not meet my standards, if it makes him happy – fine. If he is the only one on scene to catch the story of the moment and the video and audio are recognizable – great. But that’s only in extreme circumstances.
    I think folks will tolerate lo-fi audio, but they will recognize it as such and, given a choice, go for audio they can understand. Pictures are one thing – you can watch poorly shot video and mentally adjust to the struggle of understanding what you are seeing. It is much more difficult to strain to understand audio…after a whlie the brain just gives up.
    So if you look at the two clips above…you will be able to tell which was on-cam and which was clip-on. And you might think that the former is okay. It actually is tolerable. Sometime in the next week I’ll shoot some audio under less favorable circumstances and see how that fits into the mix.
    Thanks again Howard for making me rethink my position.

  3. Our newspaper has decided that a wireless mic setup is desirable because of a situation like this…

    http://bgdailynews.com/articles/2007/02/09/multimedia/video/93funny.txt

    The photographer was at the back of the auditorium with a shotgun mic. If he would have had wireless, he would have attached the mic to the stand and gotten much clearer audio. He was using a prosumer cam.

    This clip also illustrates Cyndy’s point: the girls tripping (visual) could have been captured with any P&S and be effective. However, the event (the joke telling) suffers because of the audio.

  4. One way to get around the problem might have been to set up the camera beside a speaker…I’ve done that. Couldn’t get near the stage or find the audio booth so I could plug into the mixer…so I’d find the most accessible speaker and either stand next to it or run a wired or wireless mike and tape it right to the speaker to pick up (somewhat) cleaner sound.

  5. Just had the audio discussion with my 14 year old daughter (Alexis – seen in the two clips above when she was 10)…she said that watching a video with good audio is better because if the audio quality is poor, then “it’s like listening to it in Spanish or some other language you don’t understand.” You just don’t get it. (Thank you Alexis)

  6. A professor of mine once made the excellent point that if you’re watching a movie and the picture cuts off, but the sound keeps going, people will remain in their seats. But if the sounds cuts off and the picture keeps playing, they’ll get up and leave.

    Good sound is critical and is missing from far to much pro and semi-pro video on the web. Audio technology has come an amazing distance, so that good sound can be acheived with an on camera mic quite often. There are many situations, however, when an on camera mic will not suffice. Unfortunately, events in the real world don’t limit themselves to ideal recording situations.

  7. I am web content editor at a small paper in small southeastern town in Washington and I have to shoot a few video clips using my own consumer Sony camera without an external mic input. Most recently I shot a short interview and presentation with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He has a very raspy voice, apparently due to some medical condition, but I was able to get some decent audio from the interview despite shooting backstage and despite the ambient sound. However, I wasn’t able to use some of the clips because of the poor audio. His presentation wasn’t a problem because he was at a mic’d podium. So with some audio editing it can be done, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would get more consistently good audio using an external mic. Hopefully, the paper will upgrade a prosumer model sometime later this year. You can check out the video at:

    http://www.cosadesign.net/blog

  8. Re Adam’s comment above…
    I agree at a movie people will hang around for sound longer than visuals.

    In news it is a mix of both…and compelling video will hold the audience (think 911) as much as sound. I remember the Moscone/Milk assassinations in San Francisco in the late 1970’s…the audio tape confession by Supervisor Dan White, although not professionally recorded, was compelling.

    There are ways to transition so the change between the good/bad is not as evident….and this is done in editing. Narration with ambiant sound that is goosed just before the sound recorded off the shotgun or camera mike lessens the distinction…and will work if not overdone. I’ve shot breaking news where I have no reporter and no time to deal with a mike…so I am literally in people’s faces (think one foot to two feet away) to grab interviews. At the same time I’m getting better audio, I’m making the visuals stronger – the sense of “being there” because the face is so close you see nothing else. In some instances I just give up on visuals (cause I know I have what I want) and just put the camera mike a few inches away from the person’s mouth, with plans to cover the video in the edit.

  9. Hello there,

    I’ve been working in different guises as a television reporter/videojournalist for over 25 years. experience includes 11 years with ABC News as reporter/producer and roughly 5 as freelance correspondent for CNN. Most recently, since 2001, have been working as a documentary filmmaker. Am also educator (university and professional training) and author. Congrats for the very interesting site.

    Re “good audio, bad audio,” the right equipment and knowhow both play an important role. I would like to stress importance of headphones and their correct usage. The discussion on this site is a perfect example of the fact that this characteristic is hardly ever mentioned, hence completely ignored by amateurs and even beginner videojournalists.

    First of all, I’m convinced that – especially with regards to “professional” usage but even for amateur use, it is useful to state that – as a general rule – video and good audio are equally important. Of course, there can be exceptions such as exceptional video of an event or viceversa. In such a case (for example a plane crash) one would use video even without any audio or viceversa.

    With regards to the gear, as a rule of thumb, I would say that for any sort of prefessional use, one needs to use a videocamera with a mic input and a headphone output.

    Allow me stress the importance of the latter. A true professional will NEVER shoot without using a set of headphones or earpiece. It is always necessary to monitor audio constantly. This allows one to fix technical problems in the field; it can be a disaster if you only discover audio problems when you listen to the tape after the shoot is over.

    Most problems require simple solutions. You might not be recording any sound on account of a dead battery or because the external mic is not plugged in correctly. Likewise, if you want to do an interview and there is a lot of ambient noise, the remedy can be as simple as moving from a crowded street inside a doorway or around a corner, etc.

    It is important to have a basic understanding of how sound travels (in a circular pattern from any given point and that it will also deflect and bounce off any object, changing direction) and to understand the characteristics and limitations of one’s equipment. This makes it possible to obtain good audio in emergency situations, such as when using only one type of microphone for whatever reason (either because user only has one or because the appropriate mic has broken).

    Amateurs and even professionals need to be taught to listen to audio using headphones. Example. If we are talking to someone one the street, our ears are gathering sound from all external sources but our brain filters out the unwanted noise allowing us to focus on the conversation. Without realizing it, we act the same way using headphones, so it’s necessary to learn to use headphones in order to “hear” to sound (with ambient noise) as it is being recorded.

    Over the years I have noticed that students learn to “listen” correctly to the sound in their headphones only AFTER their first practical exercise on the street. I send students out to record vox pops using the on-camera mic and with rare exceptions, ambient noise is always too loud, the reason being that – without being aware of it – they have allowed their brains to filter and reduce the unwanted ambient noise. After hearing the sound they have actually recorded on the streets reproduced in the classroom by the loudspeakers of a tv set, they are able to comprehend that a microphone – even shoot gun mics – gathers all sounds (cars passing, music from a store, etc.) coming from all directions and this allows them to learn to listen – and take appropriate action – to all the sounds being recorded the next time they use their headphones in the field.

  10. Wolfgang – thank you for the clarification. I’ve found showing the two clips of may daughter drives the point home. Most follks think the clip with poor audio is fine until they hear the good clip. Excellent points about filtering sound and using headset.

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