Tricks of the Trade for Posting Reality Audio

"The time constraints of reality television are like nothing I’ve ever
seen before," comments Ken Novak, a staffer at Larson Studios in L.A.
whose reality credits include Joe Millionaire, Paradise Hotel, Mr.
Personality, Married By America, Plantation Island
and NBC’s upcoming
American Princess. "I finished the last Joe Millionaire on a Sunday
night and it was on the air on Monday night."
Under Pressure
Editing, posting and mixing reality shows has refined the idea of
working quickly under pressure in post, and every engineer has his or
her own tricks of dealing with the velocity of reality. But before any
techniques enter into the discussion, it should be noted that all of
the post professionals who talked to Film & Video about their
experiences also pointed out that there is a tremendous disconnect
between the location audio and the post process.
"Most of the time, I can’t tell you the name of the location audio
person on a show I’m posting," says Jamie Ledner, an audio post mixer
at Post Logic who has done work on Meet My Folks and Who Wants to Marry
My Dad?
. "That’s not the case on most other types of shows I work on.
There is a disconnect between the producers and post. I’m not sure
they’re aware of it, because post always manages to make it sound
better than it really is."
This might have to do with the nature of reality productions, says
Conner Moore, Ledner’s colleague at Post Logic and audio editor and
mixer for both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. "So much of the
production happens so far in advance of post, especially in the initial
seasons, that they haven’t even chosen a post house before they’re
halfway through the season."
With location audio being recorded in every conceivable type of
environment, on the fly and with few opportunities for retakes, what
comes in to post is often a jumble of sound that has to be pieced
together in a matter of days. Novak says he recently had a meeting with
Rocket Science Labs, the producers of Joe Millionaire and Temptation
, on exactly that topic. "I hope this is the beginning of a
dialog that will make all of our jobs easier," he says.
Where’s the Audio?
Engineers agree that location audio crews have their work cut out for
them, trying to hide microphones in beaded necklaces and potted plants,
hoping that sea and sweat don’t crash the signal and that the show
participants manage to deliver their dialog close enough to a properly
wired ficus tree.
"There’s a lot of bad audio that makes it to post," says Novak.
Camera-generated audio makes up much group-shot sound, but it’s
notoriously unreliable for capturing key bits of dialog at critical
moments. The solution is to use the camera-generated audio as a guide,
using time code to match it up to the sound recorded from lavalier and
planted microphones. "But when what you’re looking for is strewn across
15 tapes, how do you find it on the kind of post schedule these shows
run on?"
But reality television is forgiving, to say the least. When the camera
audio is less than stellar, why not turn defeat into a cinema
verità©victory? "You smooth out the rough spots by filling it in with
sound that reinforces the sense of location," says Novak. "You use the
hard-disk technology that ultimately allows reality television to get
made on this tight a schedule in the first place to pull you through."
Novak found out that Joe Millionaire‘s Paul the butler had his lavalier
microphone tacked under his tie the hard way: "Every time he turned his
head the tie would close up and the dialog became muffled." The
solution was EQ: "I brightened it as a much as I could in the muffled
parts using the Renaissance C-4 EQ plug-in from the Waves Gold Bundle, automating it in Pro Tools to roll on as the muffling increased and roll off as it decreased."
Distortion is another location audio problem. Novak literally redraws
the waveform of the problem area in Pro Tools. But other problems can
arise in the video cut. "They might assemble the same piece of dialog
across three shots edited together," he says. "The dialog might be fine
but the backgrounds are dissimilar. I’ll bring a little bit of reverb
in to give it some sense of a common room sound. It’s not perfect, but
reality TV is forgiving of that sort of fix."
Missing dialog is not an uncommon problem in reality TV. "On Paradise
Hotel, they didn’t give the competitors lavalier microphones until a
day or two into production," notes Novak. "They relied on hidden mics
until then, until the hostess presented them with their beaded
necklaces that held microphones." (The necklaces were fitted with
Countryman M150 capsules by location audio mixer Kevin Nicholson.)
Novak continues, "We were in the middle of a massive deadline and
pulling out our hair trying to figure out why we couldn’t find the
dialog anywhere. No one told us that there were no lav microphones.
Then I asked the director,‘Whose crazy idea was that, anyway?’ And he
Larson’s Bruce Buehlman is the mixer and editor for Love Cruise,"
"MTV’s Camp Jim and the current incarnation of television’s ur-reality
show, Candid Camera, now on the PAX network. He also has had to create
consistent ambiences at times, and he draws on his experience as a
concert video editor. "When I was working on a Jennifer Lopez video, I
had to get some of her stage dialog from one scene to match another,
but couldn’t find an exact match," he says. "I made a loop of some pink
noise and filtered it, rolled off the low end and added a little bit of
distortion from a plug-in. It matched pretty well." He has also had to
rescue dialog on a syllabic basis at times, pulling the occasional
similar consonant from one word to complete another. "I’ll highlight it
on the waveform, bringing it down to frame and [48 kHz] sample level,
grabbing five to ten milliseconds of the word and adding it in to part
of the frame. I’ll add as much as 20 to 30 dB of gain for a fraction of
a second. It’s a lot of work- it’s like doing a 30-minute commercial-
but necessary if it’s a key word. The idea is also to make the audio
sound relaxed, so the listener doesn’t have to strain to understand it."
Jaime Ledner says the ultimate last resort on a bad piece of dialog is
to request that the producers add a "lower-third" super to the screen
containing the dialog. "They hate that, but sometimes there’s nothing
else you can do," he says. "It’s not like you can bring the talent back
in for ADR."
Conner Moore recalls a scene in Joe Millionaire in which a participant
is informed that her grandmother had died. "It tried everything to
bring the level up, everything in the Waves bundle," he says. "And even then they still had to subtitle it."
Sound effects in post was a touchy topic early in the reality
phenomenon, but it’s common knowledge that reality televisions shows
get a certain amount of sweetening. As long as it’s used to enhance
what’s already there, the consensus is that it’s not misleading the
"It’s not much other than ambient sounds," says Ledner. "If it’s
outdoors, I might add in the sound of birds, just to reinforce the
sense of location. It also provides an opportunity to bring in a sound
element that you can do in stereo and enhance what is otherwise
strictly mono material." But there’s not enough demand to warrant
creating dedicated libraries for shows, as is often the case on
scripted episodics, where certain familiar sounds are part of their
sonic backdrop. Most sounds come straight from commercial libraries.
Fred Howard, sound editor and mixer for The Jamie Kennedy Experiment on
WB and Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight, has come as
close as any reality show mixer to crossing into the SFX pale. " Jamie
Kennedy is comedy and it’s outrageous, so sound is an element of its
humor," he explains. "If a table crashes, it has to come down not with
a bang but with a big bang, so it might have to be augmented with an
effect. If he’s in some outrageous getup, that might have to have sound
to support it. Like the time he was in a motorized wheelchair: the
wheelchair was actually very quiet, but his character was zooming
around a restaurant and the sound of a motor plays up the chaos more."
The Mix? Yeah, Right
Mixing a reality TV show is an exercise in the anticlimactic. The
reality is, the show was mixed as it want along, with automated signal
processing applied to sound elements tied to time code, and parts of
dialog lines edited together and level-matched on the fly.
"The transition between [editing] and mixing is minimal," says Fred
Howard. "Most of this stuff is edited and mixed in the same environment
and as part of the same process."
"The edit is actually the first pass of a mix," says Conner Moore.
"What you might perceive as the actual mix is actually the‘tweak’ pass.
The most I might do in addition is to send it through the TC Electronic
DB Max, which is a multiband comp/limiter. I use that in the dialog
chain when there’s a group on microphone and the levels start getting
spiky. The Max can smooth it out. You want to give broadcast as
consistent a level as possible. Especially ABC, where The Bachelor is,
anything over plus-10 dB is immediately rejected."
An underlying question that gets asked on every reality post project
is, has "good enough" become good enough? There is no shortage of
complaints that reality television has lowered the standards bar, from
a lack of elegant scripting to a willingness to let quick-cut camera
moves act as a surrogate for narrative. Has this debasement infected
the audio as well? Does it make sub-par audio more acceptable?
"My job is to make the audio as good as possible, however the condition
it’s in when it arrives," says Beuhlman. "But leaving in some of the
grit that’s part of the production audio lends some authenticity to it.
It’s not a matter of making bad audio acceptable but rather making it