Changing Audio Levels

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the December, 2004, issue of
Larry’s Monthly Final Cut Studio Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]

One of the neat things about teaching is that I learn something from each class. In this case, it’s new ways to adjust audio levels.

First, a bit of background. I teach that audio in Final Cut is clip, rather than track, based. If you need to change levels, you need to do so one clip at a time — unless you use the Audio Mixer, which allows you to easily adjust levels by simply moving the fader to adjust whatever clip is playing currently.

The mixer has two big benefits

  1. Listening to, and adjusting, audio levels in real-time
  2. Easy switching between setting levels for an entire clip or setting audio level keyframes inside a clip

I also teach the idea of checker-boarding your audio. This is where you put all clips that contain similar sounds on the same track. For instance:

Here’s an example that illustrates a six track audio mix, with sync sound on top and music on the bottom.

The advantages to checker-boarding your audio are:

  1. It helps you keep your audio clips organized
  2. Placing audio according to a system makes re-editing a project easier, because you don’t need to spend time figuring out what you did
  3. It simplifies mixing, both inside Final Cut and when you take your files to a ProTools system
  4. It makes it easy to see where your audio has holes
  5. There’s no performance hit in Final Cut to checker-boarding your audio.

There’s another benefit, which is the purpose of this technique: If you have similar audio on the same track, it is possible to change the levels of multiple clips at the same time.

Traditionally, I’ve adjusted the volume of each clip individually. When the audio mixer showed up, I used it a lot in demos, but rarely in my personal projects (more likely out of laziness than any concerns about the tool). My biggest complaint was that I couldn’t set a level, or a filter, that would apply to an entire track.

Well, I still can’t, but this is a neat technique that I’ve started using more and more. Here’s how it works:

  1. Put all similar audio on a similar track. For instance, put all your talking head audio on A1 and A2.

  3. Then, if you need to change the level of all these clips by a similar amount, which is often the case for dialog that is recorded at too low a level, select all the clips whose level you want to change. A good way to do this is to Option-click on the first clip, then Shift-Option-click on the last clip. All intervening audio clips will be selected.

  5. Go to Modify > Levels and enter the amount of level change into the data entry box (a negative number lowers the level, a positive number raises it)

  7. Selecting “Relative” adjusts each track’s volume relative to the current level. Selecting “Absolute” changes all selected tracks to the value indicated next to the slider. In almost all cases, I’m making relative adjustments.

This technique doesn’t work if you have lots of different clips on the same track, as all levels of all selected clips will be adjusted. However, if you checkerboard your audio, to keep similar audio on the same track, this technique is both fast and effective.

UPDATE – May 19, 2009

Dejan Savic writes:

I just wondered if this was not just for the reference level at the start of the tape? I live and work in Switzerland, and the Swiss TV asks for the reference sound to be set at -18 dB; for digital tapes, the mix can exceed this reference sound level by 9 dB, which means that the highest sound level can be -9 dB. (For analog you can add 6 dB, which means that the highest sound level can reach -12 dB). In France, some broadcasters ask for a -20 dB reference sound. Maybe that explains the remark that some programs must be set at -20 dBFS?

Larry replies: Dean, you are correct. The -20 dBFS I mentioned refers to the reference tone, not the audio level of the program.

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