Although critics have pointed out that reality programming is not really real, audiences have made this television format a real hit. Hand-held cameras get the images right, thus creating the sense of reality. But what about the audio? Viewers have to understand what is being said, yet filtering out all the ambient sound would reduce the “reality” of the proceedings.
Mixing reality shows owes some of its success to the undercover documentaries that preceded them. It was these programs with their hidden microphones and cameras that initially created the challenge of making the sound come through the ambient background noise. The voices are always a bit off mic and echoey.
Digital technology has made a difference, however. After that, a lot of the work comes down to what one dubbing mixer calls “severe EQing.” This boils down to using high-pass filters to chop off anything below 150Hz to 200Hz. For the higher frequencies, anything above 8kHz is usually nothing but the mic brushing against a person's clothing. So the advent of the digital mixer has made quite a lot of difference, because digital EQ is more powerful than its analog brethen.
According to Steve Haynes, head of sound for Lipsync Post in London's SOHO, replacing an analog mixer with his first digital AMS Neve Logic 2 yielded 24db of gain and the ability to adjust the center frequency all the way up to 20kHz. Because the EQ is digital, an operator can hone in on any desired frequency. In addition, the typical problem of added noise accompanying gain doesn't happen with digital. Haynes says that by upgrading to a digital film console, he gained eight bands of EQ each with two separate filters. This allows him to use each band of EQ as a notch filter to knock out noises such as the hum of a refrigerator or the buzz from fluorescent lights.
Haynes also uses another technique he calls “gentle expansion.” Even after using notch filters to remove much of the annoying background, the result may be a voice track with a lot of broadband noise on it. By then passing the signal through an expander, the operator can add just a bit of expansion, which gives the perception that the voice is clearer.
Dubbing reality programming is a unique challenge, according to Dan Gable, dubbing mixer and co-owner of Resolution, a London-based post-production facility. Gable has dubbed everything from high-end documentaries to commercials to theatrical trailers, as well as several of the UK's most popular reality series, including “Big Brother” and “Fame Academy.” So he knows the differences.
Resolution has three facilities: one in SOHO, a second in The City and a large truck for on-location assignments. Besides editing and dubbing, the company does color grading and offers a graphics department.
Resolution has four audio suites. Three of them have Avid Pro Tools, and the other has Pro Tools/HD. Every suite uses Pro Controls. One suite has 24 faders and the other three suites have eight fader systems. While CEDAR Waves plug-ins are used for noise reduction, most of the processing is done on Pro Tools.
Essentially, different environments and different program styles effect how the program is mixed. Gable says that in this era of DV cameras, audio makes the difference between a professional production and an amateur production. In the reality show environment, the audience only notices audio when it's wrong. Because of the extensive use of noise-reduction plug-ins for reality show mixes, the audio dub is actually a restoration process.
This process, which originated in undercover documentaries, helps restore the audio captured on a mini-cam to a more life-like presence. While audiences may accept less-than-perfect video with reality programming, that can't be said about audio. A program's audio cannot be muffled and intelligible; the audience must be able to clearly hear and understand what is being said.
For Gable, a key to the process is a CEDAR noise-reduction plug-in for the Avid Pro Tools. The CEDAR hardware was originally developed for the music industry to restore LP recordings by removing the pops and clicks inherent in any vinyl recording. Gable uses the process to first remove microphone clicks from the audio track. Then, software is used to subtract background noise from the final mix. Operating as a plug-in to Pro Tools software helps the main dialog become clear and more intelligible.
Haynes uses a TC Electronic 6000 with a built-in noise-reduction system that is good for steady-state noise elimination. He uses it to sample the “noise,” turns the polarity 180 degrees and digitally remixes it with the orignal track. The two signals combine, effectively removing the offending background noise. In the old days, all the mixer could do was swap the phase of the entire mix, hoping the dialog didn't get removed in the process.
Reality vs. documentaries
There is a difference in the technique in mixing for reality shows versus documentaries. In both, the viewer needs to be able to hear the dialog. But seldom do reality shows add post-effects or sounds. Documentaries often use post mixing sound effects to help tell the story.
High-end documentaries, such as the ones Resolution has done for the BBC, include lots of reconstructions and sound effects using multitrack mixes, sometimes up to 80 tracks. It's an audio experience, similar to a feature film.
The documentary “Wild Weather” is a good example. The video was transferred from the Avid edit suite to the audio suite as data. Next, hundreds of sound effects stored on a server were added back into the audio track. Music was then added to fit the scene. Finally, the commentary was edited separately and combined to create the final mix.
On the other hand, “Big Brother” has an audio style that is part of the show. The background noise is actually part of the show. According to Gable, taking the noise out changes the feel of the show. If the sound is too good, he claims, the program looks staged.
Audio engineers have always known that the final mix has to sound right on the typical type of receiver or speaker that the viewer uses. It doesn't do any good for the final show to sound great on €5000 speakers if it sounds lousy on the viewer's TV set at home. That used to require engineers to perform a final audition listen, literally, on a set of small speakers. Even today, whether it's for a reality show or a high-end documentary, the dubbing mixer has to be aware of “the lowest common denominator” in receivers. The audio has to work for the small screen mono set in the kitchen as well as the entertainment center stereo and surround sound environment. What works beautifully for stereo may not work at all in mono, especially if someone has reversed the phase of one of the audio channels.
Therefore, Gable routinely uses a consumer TV receiver to listen to the final mix. Even for “Wild Weather,” the final QC pass was done on a Sony television set, typical of what would be installed in the home. Keep this in mind if you're mixing audio for a multi-device audience. You can be fooled into thinking the mix is perfect on expensive montitors, only to learn that the viewer with the €100 receiver can't hear the dialog audio because the low frequencies are overloading his or her amp or speaker.
Time is money
For a post-production facility, there are two key factors in an audio mix: the client's money and the end result. With this in mind, start first by listening to what the client wants and what he or she wants to achieve. That's the reality for a business where time is money. Everyone wants good results, but seldom does the client want to pay for tweaks that produce minimal improvements. Know when to stop; don't get stuck on that last bit of perfection while the client is sweating the costs.
Finally, know your audience and your place. The mixer has to be sensitive to the pictures and who is watching it. Thus, a day-part show will have a much different sound than a prime-time reality program. Mixing on a TV speaker provides a different perspective as well. In the end, Gable says, good audio engineers realize that great audio is a balance between getting it right and getting it done on time.