Tools and techniques for removing unwanted noise from vocal recordings
by Richie Nieto
One of the biggest differences between film and documentary sound versus animation and video game sound is that, usually, in films and documentaries, the recording environments are not fully controlled and often chaotic. When shooting a scene in the middle of a busy street intersection, for instance, the recorded audio will contain much more than just the voice of the subjects being filmed. Even in a closed filming environment in a “quiet” set, there is a lot of ambient noise that will end up in the dialogue tracks.
Traditionally, in the film world, dialogue lines that are unusable due to poor sound quality are replaced in a recording studio, in a process called ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement). Documentaries don’t have the same luxury, as interview answers are not scripted and the interviewed subjects are not actors (and wouldn’t be able easily duplicate their own previously spoken words accurately in the studio). There are also issues of budget limitations – ADR is expensive, and most small-budget productions can’t afford to replace every line that needs to be replaced.
So, the next best option is to clean up what is already recorded, as best as we can. I’ll explain some of the tips and techniques to ensure that you get the most out of the material you have. As a brief disclaimer, keep in mind that some of these techniques are divided up between dialogue editors and re-recording mixers on most professional-level projects, so if you’re not mixing, make sure to consult with your mixer before doing any kind of processing.
As an example of bad-sounding dialogue, we have the following clip:
This clip has a number of problems (aside from the poor performance by yours truly). There is hum and hiss in the background and, due to improper microphone technique, loud pops from air hitting the diaphragm too hard and the voice sounds very boomy. This would be an immediate candidate for ADR. However, we will assume the budget doesn’t allow for it to be replaced, or the actor is not available. I’ve had situations where the actor just doesn’t want to come into the studio to do ADR, even though it’s in their contract, and no amount of legal threats will convince them otherwise, so the only course of action in those cases has been to make the bad-sounding lines good enough to pass a network’s quality control.
Okay, so let’s get to it. The first step is to filter out some of the boominess with an EQ plugin. For this example, I’m just using one of the stock plug-ins in ProTools. All of the processing here is file-based, as opposed to real time processing, mostly to be able to show how each step affects the clip.
By listening and a bit of experimenting, we can hear that there is a lot of bass around 100 Hz in our audio file. Here’s how the clip sounds after removing some of the offending low frequency content:
Next, we’ll use a noise reduction plug-in to get rid of some of the constant background noise. There are plenty of other options in the market, but I’ll use Waves’ X-Noise for this example. The trick here is to not go overboard; if you start to hear the voice breaking down and getting “phasey”-sounding, you need to pull back on the Threshold and the Reduction parameters. You won’t get rid of all the noise with this step, but I find it yields better results to use moderate amounts of processing in different stages instead of trying to cure the problem by using a single tool.
After having the plug-in “learn” the noise and then adjusting the Threshold, Reduction, Attack and Release parameters, we process the clip, which now will sound like this:
There is still a fair bit of background noise in there, so now we’re going to use a multiband compressor/expander to deal with it. In this particular case I’ll use Waves’ C4, but, once again, there are many equivalent plug-ins to choose from. I am just very familiar with the C4 and how it behaves with different kinds of sounds.
We need to set the parameters for expansion, which does the exact opposite of compression: it makes quiet things quieter. That’s why we apply it after the noise reduction plug-in, so that the noise level is much lower than the voice when it goes through the expander. A normal single-band expander will not work as well because the noise lives in different areas of the frequency spectrum, and those need to be addressed independently with different amounts of expansion.
Now there is a vast improvement on the noise level on the clip, as we can hear:
Okay! The following step is to tackle the pops caused by the microphone’s
diaphragm being slammed hard by the air coming out of my mouth. Obviously,
this is a problem caused by bad planning, and it is replicated here to
illustrate a very common mistake in recording voiceovers. In this case,
the most offending pops are in the words “demonstrate” and
A solution that has worked really well for me many times is actually
very simple. It involves three quick steps. First, select the part of
the clip that contains the pop, and be sure to include a good portion
of the adjacent audio before and after the pop in the selection.
Use an EQ to filter out most of the low end of that selection. This will automatically create a new region in the middle of the original one.
Then crossfade the resulting regions to eliminate any clicks and to smooth the transitions. You will need to experiment with the crossfades’ proper positions and lengths, and the exact frequency and the amount of low end content to be removed, based on the severity of the pop.
And now, without those loud bumps, our clip sounds like this:
Finally, I do a second pass through the multiband expander to remove the rest of the noise, and some EQ tweaks to restore some of the brightness lost in the process.
If you compare the first version of or audio file to this last one, you’ll hear the huge difference that is accomplished in sound quality by using several different steps and combining tools and tricks. As you know, there are always better and more affordable software applications being created for dealing with noisy audio, and some of the newer ones are able to cover several of the stages that I’ve described here. Others, which use spectral analisys algorithms, can even isolate and eliminate incidental background noises that happen at the same time as the dialogue, like a glass clinking or a dog bark. So the game is constantly changing.
In closing, hopefully this article will serve as a guide on how to tackle some problems with audio material that, for any reason, can’t be recorded again. It’s by no means a definitive approach to eliminating noise, since the number of variables and tools out there is staggering. So experiment, and have fun!
About the author: Richie Nieto has been a professional composer and sound designer since the early nineties. He has been involved with projects for DreamWorks, Lucasfilms, Dimension Films, Sony Pictures, HBO, VH1, FOX Sports, Sony Music, BMG, EA, THQ, Harmonix and many more of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry. His work can be heard on many commercially-released CDs, feature films, documentaries, video games and over 30 television series for the U.S. and Canada. Recently, Richie has composed music and/or designed sounds for projects like EA’s “Nerf N-Strike”, “Nerf 2: N-Strike Elite”, “Littlest Pet Shop”. “Littlest Pet Shop Friends”, and THQ/Marvel’s “Marvel Super Hero Squad”. He also finished work on Ubisoft’s “James Cameron’s AVATAR: The Game” and is currently a contract composer and sound designer for EA. VIsit Richies website at www.richienieto.com
By Richie Nieto
Getting paid to compose music is every hopeful music composer/producer’s dream. Some make it into a full time job, others land one or two gigs and sees their dream fade away, yet others never even get a single paid music composing gig and give it up work in an office instead. Sad, but true.
In this article, our contributing writer Richie Nieto shares some tips and advice for the would-be full time video game composer or film/TV composer on how to behave and interact towards your client.
So you have finally landed your first paid gig as a video game composer. The first thing you do is call all your friends and try to excitedly explain that you’re going to work on a real game, but you can’t really talk about it because of the Non-Disclosure Agreement you just signed. After the initial rush of joy, you start to realize that you haven’t really done this before. Not the composing part — you got that down pat, no problem! It’s the part about working with a live, breathing, paying client that you start feeling nervous about. A lot is riding on this; someone has money to lose if you don’t deliver what is asked from you. You can easily ruin your reputation even before you start building it. Panic sets in.
Have no fear! Here are some pointers that will help you sail through the rough seas of composing for money for the first time (or the second time, if you blew it the first time around). These tips won’t help you write an award-winning score, but they will help take the stress out of mostly everything else in the process.
Remember that most clients are just like you. They want to make a living doing what they enjoy, just as you do, and they also have a lot of concerns about working with someone for the first time. They want to be certain that you are responsible, efficient, organized, cool under pressure and hopefully fun to work with. You ability as a composer is a given by this point. They have your reel, they’ve listened to what you can do, and they have agreed to your rates. The focus now is on work dynamics.
First things first. Communication is paramount. Make sure that you put together a contact sheet with all the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of all the people involved in the audio for the project. Be sure of who you report directly to and who gives final approval of your music, but never dismiss anyone as unimportant for any reason. You can’t possibly know if the opinionated guy in the background is a relative of the company’s CEO, so always be professional and polite to everyone.
If you were not involved in the pre-production stage of the project, you should receive a music asset list, detailing all the cues you need to write and their lengths, a description for each one, if they are one-offs or loops, and the final delivery format. Ensure that the list matches your contract, and if it’s a longer list or it’s bound to grow later, ask for an addendum to the contract that specifies that you will be paid for the extra music.
It’s also very important to ask for any visual materials that the art department can provide, unless you’re composing to linear media (i.e. cutscenes or cinematics), in which case you will most definitely receive video to work to. A drawing or a short video clip showing how a character moves can suddenly trigger a bunch of ideas about the feel and direction of a music piece.
If the descriptions on the music asset list are too vague or you’re still unclear about the music direction for any piece, ask for actual music references that you can listen to. Some inexperienced composers are afraid that their client will think that they have no ideas of their own if they ask for a reference, and therefore, are not up to the task. The truth is that using a reference, or “temp music” in film, is very common in most projects, even the really high-end ones. It saves time for everyone, which of course means money, and it makes the communication process more fluid, especially for clients who are not too familiar with musical terms.
Along with a reference, ask the producer or director what they like about that particular reference piece that suits the scene or level so well. It’s easy to just listen to it by yourself and decide that, for instance, the tempo and the percussion’s energy is what you should go for, but it turns out that what the producer really liked was the melody instead. This seems very basic and rooted in common sense, but when you’re trying to come up with an idea quickly, it’s very easy to get on the wrong path if you don’t have enough information. Asking questions is a sign that you care for the project. If a client seems impatient about your inquiries, tell them politely that you only want to do the best for their project and that you want them to be happy with the results.
Once you’ve finished composing a first pass of a cue, deliver an good quality MP3 to the appropriate team members through previously agreed-upon channels (FTP, e-mail, etc.), along with a short explanation of key aspects that you would like to highlight about it. This can seem trivial, but don’t send a big honkin’ three-minute 24-bit WAV file for review — it’s a waste of time for everyone, and again, time is money. Always follow up after submitting any music or materials. If you don’t get feedback within a reasonable time period, try again. An e-mail lost in a Junk folder can mean the difference between a smooth project and absolute chaos if redundant measures are not taken. A single quick phone call the next day takes little time and keeps things under control.
Always expect to have to write more than one pass for a piece of music. Only composers with a lot of experience who have previously worked with the same client for a while are able to consistently nail a cue right off the bat, and even then some tweaking may be required. Love your work, but do not fall in love with your music — it can get ripped apart if it’s not what’s needed for the project. Therefore, don’t take any requests for changes personally; it’s all part of the process and, after all, they are paying you. Even if you think their idea is ridiculous, give it a try. You may find that something really cool comes out of it.
Unfortunately, there will be the odd occasion when you run into an unusually difficult client, who keeps asking for endless or unreasonable changes, or starts requesting fixes for pieces that have already been approved. Here is where a previous written agreement becomes invaluable. You can politely but firmly show to the client that their requests were not part of your contract and they will need to compensate you for the additional work. This can get tricky, especially if they have already dug in their heels, but in most of the cases it becomes a matter of re-negotiating, and both of you meeting halfway. It’s not ideal, but it certainly beats contemplating getting into a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
Once all your music has been signed off on and your final mixes delivered, make a point of personally thanking everyone on the team for their work and their help. Without brown-nosing anyone, send a short email to the team highlighting a couple of things you enjoyed about working on the project. Some people who are starting out just disappear as soon as the last cue is approved and delivered, and while that isn’t inherently frowned upon, they are wasting an opportunity to leave a long-lasting positive personal mark on the client. Word-of-mouth is a powerful thing, and your reputation as a great person to work with can be spread around among a lot of potential clients very quickly.
So, that’s about it. Good luck and have fun!
About the author: Richie Nieto has been
a professional composer and sound designer since the early nineties. He
has been involved with projects for DreamWorks, Lucasfilms, Dimension Films,
Sony Pictures, HBO, VH1, FOX Sports, Sony Music, BMG, EA, THQ, Harmonix
and many more of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry. His
work can be heard on many commercially-released CDs, feature films, documentaries,
video games and over 30 television series for the U.S. and Canada. Recently,
Richie has composed music and/or designed sounds for projects like EA’s
“Nerf N-Strike”, “Nerf 2: N-Strike Elite”, “Littlest
Pet Shop”. “Littlest Pet Shop Friends”, and THQ/Marvel’s
“Marvel Super Hero Squad”. He also finished work on Ubisoft’s
“James Cameron’s AVATAR: The Game” and is currently a contract
composer and sound designer for EA. VIsit Richies website at www.richienieto.com