Since we specialize in crafting the best sound for any type of audiovisual project, it was just about time for us to share some tips on how to achieve a balanced soundtrack and elaborate a bit more on what we at Enhanced Media do. The topics discussed pertain, of course, to the vast universe of film sound, but we will try to avoid oversimplifications while keeping it digestible, understandable and, why not, enticing. Be that as it may, this post is meant to be illustrative enough for you to develop your own knowledge regardless of whether it’s basic or not —learning something new will always be worth it.
Volume and Loudness
Too many people firmly believe that both volume and loudness mean the same thing; however, there’s indeed a crucial difference. When we speak about volume we mean the unit of sound that can be measured in decibels; loudness, however, is the perceived amount of volume. This depends, of course, on several factors such as frequency range and the noise. When it comes to crafting a balanced soundtrack—balanced also meaning homogeneous—both properties are no less than pivotal.
Simply put, when it comes to establishing how both terms interact with each other, we could assert that the physical volume must not be exceeded. In the vast majority of video editing programs and most multimedia software, the master volume is usually displayed with a decibels scale. It’s also important to mention that even though zero decibels can be achieved, zero does not mean inaudible, as some folks may think. Instead, it represents the maximum level before the digital clipping.
When mixing film sound, not only in the musical score but also in the dialogues, off voices and additional sounds, the master level may be at zero decibels, otherwise, the sound would go into what we call digital overdrive, cutting off the sine waves at the amplitude maxima —the highest and loudest rashes. This phenomenon is known as digital scratching, which, if you happen to work within the film or the audiovisual industry, is certainly known to you. Additionally, digital scratching ought not to be confused with confused with the popular term tape saturation, which is way older as it dates back to the time when magnetic tapes were used. Back then, and even today, tape saturation was rather a natural compression that would sound fuller and even far warmer than what is actually achievable today with software.
Traditionally, film score and music is used, and it has already been taken care of in the mixing room for immediate use and, chances are, likewise mastered —of course, that is, the soundtrack as if it was as made in the maximum volume, which allows sound editors to basically integrate it into the film or the audiovisual project. If that were the case, however, the only prerequisite for its integration is that no other plugin for artificial inflation is inserted in the master volume channel and the subsequent individual channels.
Music and its Sources
When it comes to choosing the music for your film, as a producer or as a sound editor you may as well use music from various sources. This means that you will be resorting to different soundtracks from different composers, studios, etc.; all of these tracks should have a clean level, but normally they happen to be uncommonly and excessively loud —which takes us back at the loudness and the perceived volume.
Lamentably today, the vast majority of music producers have taken part in the loudness-war, aiming to pump up your music according to the motto: the louder the better. In the end, you just hear a shallow shriek, let’s be honest. This has its roots in the human mind, as humans and individuals seem to perceive louder musical sounds, in this case, film score or simply music, as better music. This course of action has left music so compressed and so pumped up, that nothing can be done to differentiate it from other lines of sound; however, bear in mind that reality dictates otherwise: the louder, the higher the chances for it to be utterly broken.
Today’s music, the vast majority of the stuff we hear on the radio has almost no dynamics —it’s just annoying, to some extent, but definitely loud! When it comes to filmmaking, film score and film music are supposed to support the project, not the other way around. But what if you were working on a purely technical video? Under these conditions, the goal would be to help the music support the storytelling of the images being projected. If the project begins rather quietly, the music should follow that same course of action. If there’s a sudden increase in tension, the music might as well be used to accentuate that change. Thus, you merge both volume and loudness into perfection.