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A Sound Education

Book Knowledge

Audio books, or what used to be called "books-on-tape," are gaining in popularity now that listeners can easily download them to their portable listening device. In the old days, you had to fumble with a box of tapes or CDs. Now, thanks to software like iTunes, you put a whole library in your pocket. The ease of getting an audio book is exponentially easier with on-line stores like iTunes, Amazon, and Audible. Just like the print market, there's an audio book for just about anything. If you want a book for self-help, do-it-yourself, travel, humor, history, etc., it's out there. And the line between audio books and audio programs is dissolving. Read More...

Tools of the Trade

Okay, this is not a gear-geek column (but you fellow geeks can find a little tech talk in the next section "Dynamix Tech Notes"). But rather, a primer on why and how we make our choices for certain audio production equipment. As a part-time educator, I'm often asked by budding filmmakers, "What kind of equipment should I buy?" It's often paired with "How much will it cost?" It's a valid question. Read More...

Turn it Down!

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Turn it Down!

The volume is getting turned down on television commercials. What does that mean for you, the producer or advertiser? Well, you can still scream all you want, but you just won't be louder than the latest installment of a Fast and Furious movie. The CALM Act (The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, 2011) that President Obama signed into law last December mandates that TV stations and networks reduce the volume of commercials to match the program level. How will they comply? The simplest method is to install equipment that automatically balances the commercials with the program. However this solves one problem and creates another - the perception of loudness remains, even though the volume is lower. This is all because of "dynamic range," or lack thereof.

Let's say you have a one-gallon bucket sitting on your lap as you race your Fast and Furious hot rod through the streets of Tokyo. However, it's not water that's in that bucket - it's hydrochloric acid. And you must have the bucket as full as you can without spilling any acid. If you fill it to the rim, you'll surely spill it, so you opt for half full because of your wild race. The acid wildly splashes around inside the bucket's free space but doesn't land in your lap. This "free space" is called headroom in the audio world. It's how much audio space you have above the average dialog for things like sound effects and music to peak. This creates more impact between the elements, and is closer to the way we hear real life sounds. Movies and television dramas use this space very effectively. But when a commercial comes crashing in, it's occupying ALL of this free space, with very little headroom. It's like taking a pit stop and having a bucket completely full of acid put in your lap.

It's pretty unfair to fully burden the broadcasters with policing the sound levels. It starts with producers, recording studios, and advertisers to not fill that bucket up in the first place. The biggest challenge we engineers have when mixing commercials is how to squeeze voice, music and effects into a very small space where everything is loud. If we expand the dynamic range from the start by lowering the narration, then our commercials should better blend with the program. Let's calm things down and take a nice Sunday afternoon drive in the country instead.

Dynamix Tech Notes

How do we know where to put sound levels when mixing? The average dialog level is placed at a certain volume depending on where the program will be heard, such as movie theater, DVD, or television. This "average" level is measured using a slow-moving audio meter. OK, you're going to have to think in reverse to understand the next part. The meter we use has a scale from 0 (loudest) to about -60 (silence). Average cinema dialog usually rides around -20. The average television program averages -14 (this is louder than -20), with commercials and sports around -12 (slightly louder than -14). The reason cinema's lower is to have more headroom for sound effects. Also, theaters are able to handle the higher levels because of their robust sound systems.

Sometimes commercials are mixed with an average dialog level between -6 and -10, significantly louder than television programs. Both commercials and programs are still within limits, but the commercials are pounding the loudest portions of the scale. This limited dynamic range is why it's so difficult to fit narration, sound effects, and music into this tight space.

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Neil Kesterson

BOOM Go the Fireworks!

And Down the Stretch They Come!

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And Down the Stretch They Come!

A jam-packed field. Each running neck-and-neck trying to lead the pack. The whole mass moving toward the finish line with breathtaking speed. Finally it ends, but it's too close to call!!!

No, it's not the Kentucky Derby. It's an overcrowded commercial with too much information that's been crammed into 30 seconds. Sound familiar? We all want to get our message across, but we often say too much. I'm guilty of it (as many of my friends would attest).

What's my point? Your audio engineer at Dynamix Productions is not one-dimensional. We can also be a part of your creative team; your copy writing staff; your proof reader; your client liaison. In other words, we're not just button pushers. During your recording session, we can offer scripting advice so that your message is not cluttered. If one sentence sounds better rewritten as two sentences, we can suggest how. If your brand is not standing out enough, we can point out ways for more emphasis. We are experts at understanding that scripting for narration is much different than for visual mediums like print and web. We want your message to be clear and concise, without getting bumped, ran into the rail, blocked out, or flat out beaten. Oh, and horse racing lingo? We do a little bit of that, too.

Dynamix Tech Notes

So what do you do when you do need to cram too much information in a short amount of time? "Time Squeeze" to the rescue! In the old analog days, engineers used to speed up a tape or record to make it run faster. However, the audio was pitched up and started sounding like Mickey Mouse. Digital time-squeezing solves the pitch problem by mathematically throwing out data. Smoother sounds can be attained by matching the right algorithm with the content. Although voice-over is less complex than time compressing music, it can perhaps be the trickiest. Our ears (and brains) are designed to be experts at listening to the human voice. Any deviation from "normal" can be detected almost instantly. Therefore, we like to quote the "ten-percent" rule when digitally reducing time. Once a voice is time-squeezed more than around ten-percent, it starts to sound fake. Therefore, a recording that is 33 seconds long can be time-squeezed by 3.3 seconds to about 29.7 seconds without sounding too processed.

However, when you time squeeze this much, you will lose the spacing and leave sentences butted-up against each other. We like to build in spacing with breaths deleted and tightened before the final "squeeze." This at least retains a little "air" and personality.

Just like all rules, it doesn't always hold true. Hard and short sounds like "k," "t, and "p" are shortened even more and sometimes disappear all together. If we are planning a dramatic time-squeeze, as in a legal disclaimer for instance, the narrator will read slowly with exaggerated emphasis on consonants so they won't get too truncated.

What about adding time? "Time-stretching" does the reverse and adds in information. Here we use the "six--percent" rule. Anything longer makes the narrator sound drunk and makes for some good laughs. But it can be a little eerie when you push it too far and it doesn't make much of a difference. That guy must have drank his lunch!

Neil Kesterson


With the recent college basketball championships engulfing our March, it's easy to see what it takes to make a winner: teamwork. Okay, I know it sounds cliché, but it's the same in production. If a coach only relies on one player, then the team will eventually fail. Everyone sees the other players just standing around and "phoning it in." What would you think? "Good player, but this team could be so much more." What about "Good video, but it could be so much more." Read More...

Bending Music

Most productions that go through our studios at Dynamix have some kind of music. It can be a jingle, custom, or library ("needledrop") music. A jingle can be great for branding your client over the long term. But, it's usually the most expensive item in your production budget, sometimes the only item. If you're producing a film, custom music can give cohesiveness to the soundtrack, but can also be expensive - sometimes as much as 15% of your total budget. That's why many projects that have a quick turnaround or tight budget lean towards using library music. Read More...

Replacing Dialog in Videos

Replacing dialog in video and film has come a long way since Clint Eastwood had to dub dialog for his spaghetti westerns. Whether it's noise in the original track, a changed or new line, or even a different performance, replacing dialog on programs and films is commonplace today. Read More...

Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

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Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

Being in the "Horse Capital of the World," we surely have enough experience to know that a horse sounds much like it did 150 years ago. However, back then a horse's role was very different than today. In a new documentary, "Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War," produced by Witnessing History, LLC for HRTV (Horse Racing TV Network), the role of the horse in the American Civil War is explored in-depth with rarely-seen photographs, documents and artwork. To a sound designer's delight, there are simulated battle scenes, troop movements, and other war action. Some are new videos of re-enactors, and others are artwork and photos. The opoortunity to bring these to life with sounds and music is why we love what we do. Dynamix Productions has previously produced soundtracks for two Civil War documentaries ("Long Road Back to Kentucky" and "Retreat from Gettysburg"), so our cache of sound effects has been growing. We even did field recordings during two re-enactments as well as studio recordings of Civil War-era weapons.

Every documentary requires its own approach as to how realistic or dreamy the sound effects are. In "Long Road Back," many scenes were very specific with close-ups of cannons, guns, and fighting. These took on an almost movie-like feel. In "Retreat," we backed off some and chose more ambient sections, with a sprinkle of realistic moments. It had many scenes of soldiers marching, so we created large troop movements from scratch by layering walking and marching with different shoes and surfaces. In "Unsung Hero," there are minimal re-enactments, so general background sounds supported by emotional music lift the visuals. More horse sound effects were used in this documentary than the other two. Each story is unique, that's why there were three different approaches to one era of time.

Dynamix Tech Notes

How do you record a cannon? Very carefully! Actually, it pays to buddy up with the gunners and learn the sequence of operation. During a Civil War re-enactment several years ago I needed to record cannons for a documentary. By talking with the crew I learned what orders were given during certain phases of loading, firing, and cleaning. I was located a hundred feet or so from the cannons, so I had to carefully watch hand signals. I also learned that the sound of live round cannons are very different that blanks. Thankfully they weren't going to shoot live rounds that day with a crowd, so I had to settle with blanks - still very loud.

The largest technical challenge was the extreme sound pressure, or loudness. You actually feel the shock wave hit you when a cannon is fired. A tiny, delicate, and sensitive microphone wouldn't handle this very well. I had to use microphones that could handle the loud sounds, the same kind usually used for percussion. To increase my success rate I recorded each shot at different levels, reducing it on each shot. The last bit of the technical puzzle was a recorder capable of recording high dynamic ranges. These cannons were definitely louder than the threshold of pain (130 dB-SPL) and a jet engine at 100 feet (150 dB-SPL). Because of tremendous advances in technology, my recorder was able to record at least 48 dB more sound level than what was available just 15 years ago. That's a factor of almost 100,000. It's pretty much the difference between a cannonball and a mountain.

Neil Kesterson