Sound for videos: Here’s how you make your video sound brilliant

Sound is an integral part of pretty much any video, but getting it right can seem like quite an undertaking. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that hard to make your video sound great – and in the following guide, I’ll show you how you get it done.

We’ll go a bit more in-depth on the individual components that make up the soundscape of your video a little later in the guide – but let’s start out with some basic tips for making your video sound great:

My six tips when it comes to sound and music in videos

When I’m doing and editing sound for video, here are my rules of thumb:

1. Don’t clutter your mix:
Whenever there’s dialogue or narration, keep the music low enough so that the voices can be clearly heard. If you’re using sound effects, be sure to balance things so the music and effects are not competing for the same space in your mix. If there are parts of your video without sound effects or voice-over, you can take the music up a notch.
In general, if you feel your mix is becoming cluttered, narrow things down: Think about what’s essential to a given scene – perhaps it’s the dialogue, perhaps it’s the ambient sound or some sound effect. Make sure that the sounds in question are allowed to stand out, and weed out less relevant sounds. Be sure to compare your mix to other videos to hear if you’ve got the balance right.

2. Be creative in your editing:
If you’re finding that several sound elements are clashing in your mix, you’ll of course want to adjust the levels to get the balance right as described above. But it’s also worth seeing if moving voices or sound effects around a bit – or editing the music differently – can sort out the problem. For example: Having the sound of a massive explosion and dialogue going at the same time, and expecting both to stand out, won’t work – move things around ever so slightly, so that each element gets its own space in time.

3. Think about the flow:
When you’re using music in your video, you’re getting a lot handed to you when it comes to the flow, so always think in the rhythm of the music when you’re editing. And in general, proper sound editing is crucial to getting the right flow in your video – and trying to combine two music tracks without careful editing, not tweaking transitions, or using large number of different tracks in a short time span will break the spell for your audience.
So be sure to make your soundscape follow what’s happening in your visuals, create subtle transitions and keep things simple.

4. Don’t distract the viewer (unless it’s on purpose):
Music with vocals/lyrics is something that stands out in the soundscape of your video, so use it wisely. Keep your viewer focused with instrumental tracks whenever you want your visuals or story to take center stage, and use melodic content sparingly. If you have sequences with montage-like content, this is an area where you can bring in the more melodic stuff, or vocal tracks, to great effect – if it fits with your overall presentation.

5. Use the power of silence:
Music is a powerful tool in your sonic toolbox, but cramming wall-to-wall music into your video can easily lead to listener fatigue. And that way music will lose its magic. Using it sparingly, deliberately, as a story-telling and driving tool to ensure you’re making the most of what it has to offer.

6. Take a step back and bring in fresh ears: When you’ve worked on a video for a while, it’s incredibly easy to grow accustomed to the way your project sounds. The bad news is that some sound elements might be way off or incorrectly balanced. That’s when you need to take a break, go for a walk, stop for the day or do something else totally unrelated to your project for a while. After you’ve given your ears a bit of a rest, it becomes far easier to hear what’s really happening in your soundscape and mix. Oh, and taking notes when your ears are fresh is a great idea.

Also ask others for input on the sound side of your project too. In my experience as a composer, letting others listen to my unfinished work allows me to take a mental step back from the project and imagine what they think about it. This often makes me aware of details I didn’t notice when I was busy working on the music – so it’s really helpful in getting some perspective on what works and what doesn’t.

Why not give it a shot and see if it works for you too?

Now, let’s look a little deeper into the individual sound components that make up the soundscape of most videos: Music, sound design and voices. First up is the music:

Music

Chances are you’ll be using music in your video, as it’s a brilliant tool for setting the tone, shaping your story and gluing different parts of your video together. But how do you find the right music?

Setting the direction

First off, you’ll want to find out what works for your specific project. Perhaps you already have a track in mind – if you do, try playing it along with your video to see if it really works as well as you imagined. Sometimes you’ll be surprised how different a piece of music works when used with the actual video.

Experiment with a few different tracks and directions to see what gives you the effect and tone you’re after. Also, you’ve probably spent a while on your project, so be sure to get feedback from others – with fresh ears – on your choices.

Keep your eyes and ears open on how others use music in their videos – their choice in music and editing might be just the spark that sets you off in the right direction.

Tip: Use temp tracks
A shortcut to finding the right music can be to use temp tracks – details here

Finding the actual music

Once you’ve decided on the direction you want for your music, it’s time to start finding it.

But first, a warning: Don’t just use any MP3 or album track you come across – if you do, you might wreck your entire project! Why?

Because without a proper license for the music you’re using, you’ll likely end up seeing your entire project being removed from sites such as Youtube and Vimeo – and you might even get sued by record labels, composers or other right’s holders.

And if you’re doing a project for a client, they won’t exactly be over the moon if the work you’ve done for them lands them in hot water. It might not happen right off the bat – but it’s a risk not worth taking.

So when you’re using music with your video, it’s absolutely VITAL that you have a license in place to do so. And just owning an album or an MP3 does not give you the right to use it in your video, unfortunately.

Luckily, it’s not hard to find music that you can safely use for your project. Here are some of the ways you can do it:

* Bring in a composer: If you have the budget, bringing a good composer on board will give your project exactly the sound you’re after. The music will be tailor-made to your specific project, it will be yours exclusively – and the process of working with another creative can be very inspiring and give your entire project a boost.

I’d argue that if you find the right composer, it’s the approach that makes your project sound its very best.

I’d argue that if you find the right composer, it’s the approach that makes your project sound its very best. Just remember that creating material from scratch takes time, so bring in your chosen composer early on. Also make sure to let the composer know what you want to use the music for so you get the exact license you need.

* License an existing track: If you’ve fallen in love with a particular track for your project from a signed artist, why not find out what it’s going to cost you to license it? Give the artist’s record label a call or fire off an email, outline how and where you’re looking to use the track and they’ll often be happy to provide a quote. Just be prepared that it might cost you a lot.

But hey, you’ll never know till you’ve tried, so if you find a particular track critical to your video, give it a go and find out what it’ll take to get the music in your project.

* Use royalty-free music: If your budget is limited, or you’re short on time, royalty-free music can be a cheap shortcut for getting music in your video. Royalty-free music is licensed on a per-project basis, and is often quite cheap.

You’ll often find the same tracks being used over and over again in different projects, as composers make their money on having as many people as possible licensing their work. You can find royalty-free music on a myriad of sites online – but make sure to read the licensing terms on the sites to know what you’re allowed to do with the given track.

Bonus tip – a clever way of finding the right music:

Here’s one approach that many people often don’t think about – and it’s a solution that can work wonders for your project if you’re looking for music, and your budget is limited. So what is it?

License existing music from a composer – with customizations.

Composers often keep a catalogue of tracks handy that they’ve created in their spare time, for projects that never got off the ground and similar. So if you’ve found a composer whose work you really like, but you don’t have the budget for custom compositions, be sure to ask if they have something in their private library which could be useful.

The great advantage here is that, since the composer most likely has the original music project at hand, it’s easy for him or her to tweak the music so it fits exactly with your project. You just won’t get that with off-the-shelf music.

How to use music in your video

There are many different ways of using music in your videos – and a lot of it comes down to gut-feeling, experience and personal preference.

Music Editor Chris Ledesma shares his insights

For some great tips and advice on how to decide on where music should be used, check out this guide from music editor Chris Ledesma. He’s been the music editor on The Simpson’s for ages and gives an overview of spotting sessions, sourcing and music editing.

And even though your video may very different from a Simpson’s episode, there are still valuable tips to be picked up.

At the end of this guide, I’m also share my tips on some of the most important things to look out for when it comes to using music in your videos.

Voices

If your video needs voices – say, for voice-over, character voices or dubbing – finding out exactly how to go about it can be a little daunting. Let’s simplify it a bit:

1. It all starts with your script

A great voice-over starts with a great script, and when it comes to voice-over, there are a few things you want to focus on.

a. Write the way you speak. There’s often a major difference between how you write and how you speak, and people often far more informal when speaking. And – depending on your subject matter, of course – you’ll want that informal tone to come across in your script writing as well to make your script flow, so have it in mind while writing.

b. Avoid complex sentences. If you go for long, complex sentences, your audience might get lost halfway through as there’ll be visuals and other sounds competing for their focus too. Keep your sentences simpler than you perhaps normally do in writing, and keep the lengths down so as not to lose your audience.

c. Try it out. Read your text aloud to get a feel for it – and record it and play it back to yourself to hear if it works. If not, rewrite. You can also add a dummy voice recording to your video to find out if the flow is right.

For more tips on writing scripts for voice-over, check out edge studio’s guide here. And if your project will be in several languages, be sure to read my guide on preparing your script for localization too.

Finding the voices

The choice of voice actor can really affect how your message is perceived. Are you looking for a man or a woman, a young, middle-aged, older voice talent, what timbre do you want – and in what tone of voice do you want your message delivered? The answers depend on your target audience as well as personal preference.

The best way to key in on the right voice – and determine if you’ve found the right voice talents for the job – is to listen to their demos. And if you got a hunch you’ve found the right voice for your project, but can’t quite tell from the demos, many talents will read a snippet of your script on request to help you decide.

We’ve selected demos from some of the best voice talents around – hear them in the box on the right. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, let us know and we’ll be glad to help you out.

If you need character voices or dubbing, you’ll want to work with voice talents who can act. It’s not a given that all talents can act – some are simply great at narrating with their signature sound, but have limited to no acting abilities.

If you have someone help you find the talents for your project, let them know you need people who can act.

“Should I do my own voice-over to save some money?”
One question that you may be asking yourself is: Should I do my own voice-over to save some money? Let me put it this way: You may be one of the few with a great speaking voice, but to be frank, most of us just don’t have that. And in my view, there are few things more cringe-inducing than watching a great video being completely butchered by unprofessional, flat or poorly recorded voice-over. It can completely ruin an otherwise great presentation.

So if you’ve got a great voice, if you know how to use it, and you have the right recording and editing equipment, give it a go (but be sure to check out Randy Coppinger’s ten tips for vocal recording) – if not, bring in the cavalry (AKA an experienced voice actor and recording studio) to make sure your message is delivered in a professional manner.

Voice-over is a specialist skill – and, thankfully, there are a lot of talented voice actors to pick from. They’ve got the vocal chords, the gear and the experience to deliver great vocal performances.

Recording and processing

When you’ve found your preferred actor, it’s time to get the voices recorded. Let your studio know the details on the sort of performance you’re looking for, and add notes to the script if specific lines need to be read in a certain way. You can choose to get the full, raw recordings, but often times it pays to get an edited version from your studio.

Sound editing tools

One of our favorite tools when it comes to sound editing is Sony Vegas Pro. It’s a multi-track editor that allows for some in-depth editing of both music, sound effects and voices – and allows you to view and work with your visuals at the same time. If you’re looking for free alternatives, Reaper is worth checking out.

Sound design

You can completely reshape the aural environment of your project through sound design – so it’s powerful stuff.

But how does this work for your video project?

If you’re working with recorded footage, you’ll already have a soundscape in place from your recordings.

But whether this is is the soundscape you’re going for is another matter – and this is where sound design comes in. By removing or adding sound elements or layers, emphasizing or reducing certain aspects, you can dramatically change how the sound is perceived in your video. You can also completely replace the natural sounds with the soundscape you’re after.

Sound design is all about shaping the soundscape so it fits with your story, your setting and the mood you’re looking to convey
 
If you’re working with animation, you’re starting out with a blank canvas, sound-wise as there’s no natural environment sound, for obvious reasons. Here, a sound designer will essentially create your whole sound environment from scratch, giving you the exact soundscape you’re looking for.

Sound design doesn’t have to be a radical reworking on your sonic environment – it’s all about shaping the soundscape so it fits with your story, your setting and the mood you’re looking to convey.

Do it yourself, or bring in a sound designer?

Whether you want to go at yourself or not depends on your experience and the complexity of the changes you’re looking for.

If you want to add simple sound effects to your video, or replace the ambience sounds of a given scene, you can often do it yourself. You can find sound effects on many different sites online, and recently, a host of new libraries have emerged from independent sound designers. You’ll find a comprehensive overview here.

Peter Albrectsen gives a masterclass on sound design for documentaries

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also create sound effects yourself – and in fact, we run the largest DIY sound effect list available anywhere. Check out our Guide to Sound Effects.

When it comes to more complex things such as fundamentally altering the soundscape of your video, designing custom sounds for characters, objects, or places in your video, bringing in an experienced sound designer can be extremely helpful.

How to find a great sound designer

Sound designer David FilskovSound designer David Filskov

There are many sound designers around – but here’s a personal recommendation: If you want to bring in a sound designer on your video project, be sure to talk to sound designer David Filskov.

He’s worked as a sound designer on a huge number of projects and he’s an excellent resource to have on your team. Reach David here.

Letting your sound designer know what you’re after

1. Set the stage
Give your sound designer a general description of your environment, and explain what’s happening in specific scenes, what the tone and mood is.

2. What stands out?
Are there particular things in the scene you want to bring out or tone down? Do you want to focus your viewer’s attention towards (or away from) certain things, events or actions?

3. Provide references and visuals
If you have any examples of the soundscape you’re looking for, let your sound designer know. And be sure to provide visuals for your sound designer to work from – even if they’re just rough edits, pre-renders or animatics. It could also simply be character drawings, storyboard images – or anything else you feel would help key your sound designer in on the world you’re looking to create in your video project.

That’s it! Hope you’ve found this guide useful – and if you have any questions or feedback, or need music, sound design or voices for your video, get in touch here.