In Praise of Audio

January 5th, 2011 by Editor B

I’ve produced quite a bit of video in my day — well over a hundred programs, though probably less than a hundred hours all told. I don’t do much video production these days, but I’m called upon routinely to advise people who want to make a video, or think they do.

My most frequent advice: don’t.

That’s because, most of the time, what people really want is audio. In most of the cases I encounter, the subject in question is a single speaker, or perhaps a panel discussion. What is the crucial component there: a static view of the speaker’s head, or the words that are being said? If you said the latter, congratulations, you’re right.

We can prove this with a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re watching a video of someone making a speech about a topic that is simply fascinating to you. Imagine that it’s poorly shot. It’s dim, and the image is grainy, and the camera is shaking all over the place in a way that induces nausea. But by some miracle the audio track is pristine — crystal clear — you can hear every word in the highest fidelity.

That’s a good video. Even though it’s bad. Back in the days of analog TV broadcasts, people would squint through fuzzy reception as long as they could hear what was going on.

Now, by contrast, imagine the reverse. The image is crystal clear, the lighting is beautiful, you can see every twinkle in the speaker’s eye in high definition. But the sound is off. The mic wasn’t plugged in, or something. It’s muffled, barely audible.

That’s a bad video. Do you get my point?

In short, for many programs, the audio is the most important component. Obviously there are exceptions, programs where the audio is virtually irrelevant. Sports come to mind. But for the vast majority of programming, the audio is more important than the video.

People think they want video because it’s got a certain techno-luster. Video is, in the common parlance, sexy. Good video can indeed convey crucial information with great economy and clarity. But by the same token, producing good video is hard work. Even producing a bad video is hard work. Trust my years of experience when I say that for most people, most of the time, it ain’t worth it.

Even if you’re willing to do some work, it may be counter-productive. Video is such a headache, and such a distraction, that all the effort gets sucked into the video aspect, and the audio is totally neglected.

Also, remember the following: No one really wants to watch your video anyway. Life’s too short. But they might just put your audio recording on their iPod and give it a listen during their morning jog.

So I advise people to focus on what’s really important, and aim for a decent audio recording instead.

The advantages of focusing on audio are manifold. Audio tools are cheaper than video. Working with audio is easier, both in production and post-production. Moving audio around is easier. You can buy a Zoom H2 Handy Recorder for about $140, and you will have a recording device that is easy to use and produces really good recordings in the form of digital files which you can transfer to your computer via USB.

Perhaps most important of all, audio is doable.

So: forget the video, and focus on the audio; you might actually get a quality product.

2 Responses to “In Praise of Audio”

  1. Frolic Says:

    Why do you recommend the Zoom? Any other recs?

    I use a basic Olympus for interviews, and it works great. Although maybe I’d be better off with a recorder that produced better results?

  2. Editor B Says:

    My recommendation is based on using it for the last couple years. It is indeed very handy. The audio quality is universally praised, even by audio pros (which I am not). It’s self-contained and can run off battery. I haven’t really used too many comparable tools, and certainly nothing that gives the Zoom any real competition.

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