Audio mixing and mastering is a technical and creative process that gives your narrated commercial video a huge psychological edge on the competition.
While the terms “mix” and “master” usually apply to mixing the individual instruments/elements of a production together and polishing the result for a finished product, I’m describing the process of treating your voice over and music layers to sound great together. This treatment:
- Allows the music to completely embrace the voice-over track, sonically wrapping around and through it, yet letting the voice-over clearly deliver itself without muddiness or confusion, and
- Creates consistency, volume, digestibility, smoothness, and overall flexibility to your audio.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to source a piece of stock music, drop in a professionally recorded voice-over (VO), tweak both volumes, and publish. As a music producer and sound designer for commercial video, I hear a lot of these DIY final mixes. But these often lack impact, and here’s why:
- Voice is way too loud. Simply adjusting volumes often leaves the VO sitting starkly on TOP of the music, not integrated, woven. This separation creates an emotional distance between the two, resulting in an almost subconscious sense of disconnect, even mistrust, in the mind of your viewer/listener. And it’s nearly unavoidable when you only use volume adjustment to match your tracks.
- Stock music sounds REALLY “stockish.” Symptom #1 often makes stock music sound even more ‘stockish’ due to the isolation (that whistle and ukulele song really screams “downloaded.”).
- Voice over is drowned out by the music/sound effects. In an attempt to compensate for the VO feeling too loud, you may find yourself bringing your music volume up (or VO level down), thus ‘burying’ your voice-over, leaving it drowned out by the background music. Your VO loses impact or, worse, is unintelligible in less-than-optimal listening environments. A pro mix and mastering treatment for your video’s narrated/musical soundtrack will provide your background music excellent volume while giving the VO a superb front-stage presence; not competing with, but complementing, the background music track (and any sound effects design layers). This process also ensures that your final mix sounds good in nearly any listening environment- critical for when your branding message will be delivered on a variety of platforms.
While the process is typically done with a variety of steps and nuance, let’s take a look at the biggest and most common steps:
Leveling and Equalization
The individual tracks (music, VO, sound effects) are adjusted in volume, including tweaking any variations on levels throughout a given track (e.g., narration from multiple speakers, etc.). While everything in your mix should make a personal statement, nothing should leap out as distracting from the end game: brand communication. To this end, each audio track in your mix is gone through for rogue frequencies, resonances- anything distracting. Likewise, an engineer will treat tracks with equalization to put focus on the more likeable characteristics; for instance, emphasizing the desirable tones of the voice-over artist’s recording while filtering out nasal overtones, low end rumble, etc. This also means taming a distractingly renegade snare in the music or the occasional run-away letter “S” from your narrator; anything that breaks the conversation you want to have with your audience.
Relationships Between Tracks/Layers
After each track has been individually tweaked, all of the tracks are blended together to ensure each track contributes its strengths to the mix while reducing negative impact. Think of each audio layer’s footprint as a puzzle piece; where one layer needs to use frequencies to make a statement, others generally should steer clear. Every layer should fit together so that each has a clear and distinct presence in your sonic space. This drastically improves message clarity.
Specialized techniques are used to reach the goal:
- EQ is applied to adjust frequencies to compliment the goal. For instance, frequencies in music that are needed by the voice-over may be reduced to avoid “frequency stacking” and other issues that cause muddiness and struggle between VO and music.
- Create real-time awareness in your music track so that the music knows to ‘duck’ when the VO narrator is speaking.
The last general phase is where your entire audio mix gets its polish. Think of it as the final sanding and buffing of a new marble sculpture. Your mix takes on overall consistency here, helping create a sense of ‘similar space’ between voice-over and background music. This step can also create broadcast compliance or change a variety of other overall characteristics, like sonic color, width, or playback flexibility when destined for a variety of devices, platforms, and listening environments.
The DIY Approach (Here’s a Trick!)
While this article makes a strong case for professional treatment of your video’s soundtrack, it’s not always feasible. Deadlines, budget. There are ways to get way better results in a DIY setting. Check out my video tutorial for one great way to quickly get your voice track and music to play well together in your mix in practically any video or audio editing software, using a simple EQ:
In a quick turn, media-saturated world where dropping audio tracks into a timeline and adjusting volumes is the DIY standard, the value of a proper mix and mastering process is clear. It’s quite affordable yet invaluable. A voice-to-music mix and final mastering treatment adds clarity, energy, warmth, and consistency. It can even make stock music sound more native to the production. The collective process ensures that your audience will be more immersed in your message, more engaged, and more willing to make that next crucial step to doing business with you.
About Kelly Warner
Kelly Warner of Scorechamber.com specializes in custom music and sound design for commercial media including TV spots, corporate videos, explainers, and creative shorts. In 2016 he received a D&AD Pencil Award in collaboration with Hue & Cry, and records and performs as indie pop creator Hotel Eden, currently featured on major television networks in the US and Europe.