Better Deposition Videos in Court: SOUND ADVICE

Posted on June 1, 2010 | by Bryan

If Video Don’t Sound Good, it Ain’t Good Video. (Part Two in a Four-Part Trilogy)

THIS SERIES IS ABOUT VIDEO. So why discuss sound first (or at all?)  Because , sound quality is more important than picture quality.

Let’s pause a moment while that statement sinks in. When watching deposition testimony on video, sound quality is more important than picture quality.

(Did he really just say that?) Yep.

(That can’t be right.  He means sound is equally important, right?)  Nope. For depositions on video, the sound is MORE important than the picture.

Think about it: When you’re watching depo testimony in the courtroom, you (usually) see a head-and-shoulders shot of a witness seated at a conference table or desk.  Most of the time, they’re looking off-screen, talking with the questioning attorney(s). Sometimes a witness will look at a document, or take a sip of water … but in general there’s not really much to see.

There is, on the other hand, plenty to hear. If the picture flickers a little, or is slightly out of focus, or grainy, or skips every now and then, viewers will forgive the problem (and usually won’t remember), so long as they can hear the testimony clearly. Even if the picture blacks out for second or two, a clear audio stream keeps the testimony going.

But that doesn’t work in reverse. A video might feature a beautifully-lit, razor-sharp HD picture of a perfectly-coiffed witness with sparkling blue eyes and a winning smile. But if the Q&A is muffled, scratchy, or otherwise unintelligible, the video itself is all but useless.  To use the testimony in court, you’ll probably have to read from the transcript (Zzzz …).

Getting a good, clear audio recording isn’t too difficult. But there are many factors involved, and a breakdown in any of them can interfere with the audio quality … or ruin it altogether. So here are some guidelines:

1.  Find a Quiet Room

This may seem obvious at first, but it isn’t. Because sometimes a “quiet” room isn’t quiet at all, when you listen on videotape. It’s remarkable how easily the human ear tunes out background noise (ventilation systems, elevator shafts, traffic). Have you ever been sitting in a quiet room, only to be startled by the sudden silence when a fan or ventilator — one that you didn’t even know was running in the first place — shuts off? The reason you didn’t hear it before is that your ear incorporates such sounds into the background, and pretty soon you don’t notice it any more. But you’ll sure notice it next time it comes on … when your “quiet” room isn’t so quiet after all.

Every room has its own unique background sound and noise level. This is known in TV/Film production as “room tone.” The problem with room tone is that while our ears tend to tune it out (thus allowing us to forget about it), video and sound recordings do not get used to room tone. And they don’t tune it out. So that noisy ventilation system, or the rumble of delivery trucks or elevated trains going past, will be not only audible but really distracting on your video recording.

One way to identify a quiet room is to walk inside, close the door, then stand motionless for a minute.  Listen closely for air handling systems, elevator shafts, street noise, overhead paging/PA systems, footsteps in the hall, phones ringing. If you can hear anything, so will the microphones.

This is not to say that you must have a room that is totally silent; unless you’re shooting in a TV studio or other specialized facility, you’re unlikely to find one.  But you should be aware of the overall background noise level in the room. If you’re stuck with a noisy room, just be certain you trust your videographer to pay close attention to sound levels throughout the day.

If you’re really not sure whether the room will work for you, there’s one reliable test to see what it will sound like over a microphone: If there’s a speakerphone in the room you’re planning to use, use that phone to call a different telephone – preferably a landline – somewhere nearby. You might call your own desk phone, or someone across the hall … just so long as the phone you call is on a landline in a different room. Once you connect the call, leave the speakerphone “on” (don’t mute the microphone), leave the room, and close the door. Go to the phone on the other end of the call you dialed. Pick up the the handset (don’t use another speakerphone), and LISTEN TO THE ROOM. The sensitive microphone(s) on a speakerphone will pick up the room’s natural noise levels, and you’ll hear those sounds amplified over the phone line. This is what your room sounds like. Is it a good choice?   (NOTES: This test works even in rooms that don’t have a large, middle-of-the-table conference phone. See that standard desk phone on the credenza or side table? It probably has a “speaker” function; if so, that works fine too.)

2. Many Microphones, One Mixer.

The videographer should provide a separate microphone (or “mic”) for everyone who will be speaking on the record. The mics connect through a “mixer,” a small piece of equipment that allows the videographer to adjust the volume level on each mic separately before mixing them together into one or two audio channels for recording onto the videotape.

Using several mics gives the videographer greater control over background noise, because it allows placement of each mic much closer to (usually clipped to the clothing of) the speakers. Close-miking a subject means higher voice volume at the microphone … which allows the videographer to turn the mic sensitivity down, which in turn also diminishes the overall background noise levels picked up by the microphones.

The trick is to be sure the videographer will pay constant attention to the audio levels. He or she must know how to adjust the levels on various microphones quickly and accurately to compensate for different volume levels, and to track whoever is speaking at the moment. The only way for them to do that is to use HEADPHONES at all times, and to pay close attention, all day. When discussing your expectations with the videographer, insist that they bring — and use — headphones for audio monitoring.  No matter how carefully you (or the videographer) listens, the recorded sound will always be different than what your ears heard, in the room, on the day of the deposition.  Only by listening to the mix through headphones constantly — for all of the day’s shooting — can the videographer know what the recording sounds like in real time.

3. Turn Off Sources of Static and Interference.

This means cell phone, Blackberry, Treo, or other wireless device. These devices produce annoying static and interference on audio recordings. You won’t hear any noise during the deposition, but the microphones will. (Don’t take our word for it … next time you’re on a conference call, ask someone else on the call to set a Blackberry or cell phone next to the telephone they’re using. About every 30 seconds you’ll hear annoying electrical “buzzing” over the phone as the unit communicates with the network. You can fix this by simply moving the device away from the phone … or, at the deposition, by turning off the wireless radio (or the entire device) before you go on the record.

(NOTE: It is not sufficient to just set your Blackberry/iPhone/Android device to “silent” or “vibrate” mode. That stops the ringer, but not the static.  You need to shut off the device’s internal radio.)

4. REMEMBER: The Jury is Listening.

Those not used to wearing microphones often forget they have them on. If you’re not planning to speak on the record any time soon, you should remove the mic or, if it’s a wireless, turn off the transmitter. If you don’t turn off or remove the mic, everything you say … even if you whisper, or cover the mic with your hand, will be loud and clear on the tape. This can be, at best, embarrassing. If you inadvertently divulge confidences or waive attorney/client privilege, it could be disastrous.

NEXT: VIDEO BASICS (or, “What is ‘white balance,’ and why should I care?”)

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