In the beginning, reality television was called a fad, but after all this time, the medium has become part of our pop culture, with shows like Survivor and American Idol dominating Nielsen ratings as well as water cooler chatter. The shift has defined today's culture almost as much as the first television programs ever broadcast.
Those working in audio post have felt the impact of reality TV in a number of ways, including more challenging production audio coming in the door, tighter deadlines and expectations from producers to walk out with feature-quality tracks.
All in all, many audio post pros are thriving under the pressure and have found a way to make reality shows sound like the scenes were shot on soundstages in pristine circumstances. So, this month Post checks in with those in the trenches, and that just might make a pretty nifty reality show in itself.
CLEANING UP AFTER GHOSTS
Marcus Pardo, VP of audio at Los Angeles-based AlphaDogs (www.alphadogs.tv), has his hands full with a pair of reality shows: Ultimate Fighter, which is broadcast on Spike, and the Sci Fi Network program Ghost Hunters.
While both have unique challenges, Ghost Hunters presents a series of interesting issues on each show. "It's very tough because they go and stake out mansions and different places where people claim to have seen ghosts," Pardo reports, "so you're always in an uncontrolled environment." The one thing he does have going for him is the fact that the hosts wear lavalier microphones and are followed around with a Sennheiser 416 boom overhead. Another is the fact that the production crew powers down the building where the ghosts are being hunted. "So, I don't have much air conditioning noise," he says. "It's just room ambient noise."
Pardo's work starts after he gets an OMF from the producers, who do a first quality control run through the audio, and then he cuts sound effects, cleans up dialogue and makes sure the music edits that have been provided are smooth. "My main focus is to get the dialogue as clean as possible," he says. "That is what's driving the whole story, and you don't really know the characters without hearing them so I focus my whole mix around what they're saying to get their stories to come across."
To get the job done, Pardo uses the Waves Diamond bundle of plug-ins for his Digidesign Pro Tools system, including X-Noise and X-Crackle. "Whenever there's distortion I run it through X-Crackle and then I do a lot of EQ notching. I try not to squeeze stuff too much, but I need to get rid of the low-end stuff and there's always a kind of hiss involved when they are in huge spaces," he says. Pardo turns to the Waves Renaissance Equalizer as well as the L1 and the L2 limiters so the mixes conform to network specifications.
As for sound effects? "In Ghost Hunters they have these things called EVPs, which stands for electronic voice phenomenon," he explains. "EVPs are the sound picked up by microphones that the human ear didn't hear. They leave microphones open in an allegedly haunted room and record for 12 hours. After they listen to it, they find these certain sounds that are unexplained. I swear I've never added anything to these. They won't let me."
THE SOUNDS OF SURGERY
Tree Falls owner/senior mixer Michael Klinger describes Surgery Saved My Life, one of the recent shows that has come through the doors of his Los Angeles studio: "It's not like a game show or anything like that. This is real people getting surgeries that really mean something to them."
Indeed, the Discovery Channel program follows people who have life threatening issues that can only be solved by surgery. One of the recent shows that Klinger and the Tree Falls (www.tfsound.com) team worked on featured a woman who had six organs replaced at once, another was a patient who needed surgery to relieve a curvature of the spine. "It's pretty incredible," he says, "and not all of them have survived."
The story's drama comes through easily via the visuals and Klinger has to communicate the urgency of the situation through the audio. There are a handful of obvious challenges, including the life and death situation, working in a sterile environment and a fast-moving pace that means the audio is often the second or third consideration during the shoot. He's fortunate that the producers understand the limitations. "There are high expectations from the producers for it to be a great show, but there's also an understanding that on some level, it is what it is," he explains. "It's a hospital show showing a real-life situation under a challenging circumstance."
The first step in the audio post process has Klinger, or one of the other Tree Falls staff, cleaning up the edits that were provided to them by the producers and then cleaning up the tracks of audio via EQ and noise reduction plug-ins. More specifically, Klinger reports that the staff works on Pro Tools with Waves plug-ins, including X-Noise, EQ and Dynamics. "X-Noise can be miraculous in some cases and in other cases it can only do so much," he reports. "When people come in they have a certain sense of having something cleaned up. I think there are high levels of expectations and I know from working on a lot of these shows that a grand accomplishment is to improve something 10 or 15 percent. People come in and they hope that you can do 50 percent improvement, but I think 10 or 15 is pretty good on a really noisy track."
DOWN, SET, HIKE
There are many things happening during a high school football game and only some of it takes place on the field. It's up to Ear Goo president/senior creative director Paul Goldman to bring the sonic side of the MTV program Two-A-Days to life. "It's the reality show of Friday Night Lights, but it's actually more drama," Goldman says.
Ear Goo (www.eargoo.com) was approached, he adds, because that drama needed to be punched up. "They needed something a little more than the norm," he explains. The show follows the football team from Hoover High School in Hoover, Alabama, as they go through their school week — at home and at practice. Each show ends with a football game and that audio comes from the field, the crowd, the announcer and from players' helmets.
The work on Two-A-Days starts with the Ear Goo team laying in sound effects and Foley tracks, cleaning up dialogue tracks and then getting set for the mix. That's where things get creative. "A safe mix is where all the dialogue is out front with music and effects," says Goldman. "Basically there is no question if you can hear the dialogue or not. That's how it is throughout most of the show. When they're home talking to friends, it's a normal mix with stock music or licensed music thrown in there, but in the football games we sometimes drown out some of the dialogue on purpose because that's how it would be if you were there.
"Our job is to pull you into the game and make you feel excited," he continues. "We really play around with it, actually, and for me that's the coolest thing."
Ear Goo's New York facility features Pro Tools, which is used to record Foley, edit sound effects and then mix the show. Plug-ins from Waves and Focusrite are used just about every day and the team uses Reason to design sound effects.
There's reality programming that's shot by professionals and then there are reality programs shot by average Joes who don't understand the basics of lighting or audio. Red Broad, owner/president of Los Angeles-based Oasis Digital (www.oasisdigitalpost. com), has spent the past two seasons working with homemade videos for the CMT program Country Fried Home Videos.
Broad and the Oasis crew are responsible for cleaning up all the audio tracks, recording host Bill Engvall's VO and then providing the final mix. The audio post production team will take a first run through, dropping an Avid OMF into a Pro Tools session.
The real challenge for all concerned comes from the fact that the show is put together from video that's been shot on a wide variety of formats, from VHS Handycam to DV. "It's obviously not professional, so you're trying to make it work so it doesn't sound too horrible," Broad explains. "A lot of it is trying to clean it up to the point where you can understand what's being said."
To get that done, Broad turns to a handful of plug-ins that include many in the Waves bundle, Digidesign's DINR and Bias's SoundSoap. "We've found SoundSoap to be very useful," he reports. "It sounds a little cleaner than the Digi ones, so we tend to use it a lot." For EQ and compression, Broad reports that he tried to keep it as simple as possible and that means Digidesign's EQ III, Focusrite d2/d3 and the Waves L2.
Once the dialogue has been handled, the audio team will add in some sound effects that emphasize what's happening on screen, like a door knock, a car drive-by or a door close.
"We'll also do a pass through the music, to clean that up a little. Some editors are really good at editing music, others are not," he reports. "So, sometimes it will come in and the music is just terrible, the editor has hacked it and we'll try to figure out what the editor was going for and clean it up. Other times it's great and it's all ready to go."
Thanks to his work on the Travel Channel's program Made in America, mixer Charles Dayton, CAS, has had an opportunity to listen to John Ratzenberger talk about products that are made in United States factories.
The freelance mixer bounces between his own Twisted Avocado home studio and facilities like Absolute Post (www.absolutepost.tv) where he worked on Made in America. The production audio, he says, comes in fairly clean. "The guys who did the on-location sound were good. The challenge for that show is that often they are recording inside a factory and it's kind of noisy." To get that done he pulls out a Cedar DNS 1000 or drops it into Pro Tools and turns on the Wave noise plug-ins or takes advantage of EQ notching.
At his own facility, Dayton is using a Pro Tools HD|3 rig on a Macintosh G5. "I'm running 7.2 currently, because I use an Avid Mojo for video and 7.3 is not compatible with Media Station, which you need to transcode QuickTime, so the Mojo will read it," he explains. "The Mojo will play a lot of codecs that are not native to Avid necessarily, but sometimes I'll get a QuickTime that it won't read and I need to transcode it using Media Station."
While the production audio was clean and the mixes were straight ahead, Dayton's challenge on Made in America came when the Discovery Channel detailed its delivery requirements. "They are requiring that you run the show through a Dolby LM-100, which measures dial norm for a show," he reports. "The specifications are very narrow and you have to hit a particular number, so you have to mix your dialogue to the number to make sure you are not outside their specs.
"It adds time to the mix because you have to pre-mix your dialogue," he adds. "You can't just go through the show and mix everything together. You've got to pre-mix the dialogue to the LM-100 spec and then mix the rest of the show to that. Then you have to run the entire show through the box realtime to make sure you hit that number. If you don't, then you have to go back and make adjustments and run it through again and make sure you've hit the spec."