Monday, January 03, 2005

Nat Sound Junkies

Nat(ural) Sound. It’s something TV news viewers probably never even consider, but it’s a storytelling ingredient we editor types spend a lot of time thinking about. Here’s why:

Imagine you’re watching a television news report about a tuba player convention. Chances are between the blustery reporter voice-over and on-camera interviews, you’ll hear quick audio samples of the tubas themselves. If the editor’s any good, the mighty horns will “oom-pa” all throughout the report, striking a subtle rhythm that you’d never even notice - unless it were missing. Is it any wonder we broadcasters so enjoy weaving this background noise in and out of focus? Doing so can bring more clarity and flavor to a news story than the smarmiest of on-air correspondents.

But there is a dark side. Like wide-angle lenses, canted angles and psychedelic mushrooms, nat sound can easily be overused. I once worked with a reporter who proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt. He was a talented storyteller, but his obsession with a certain camera fraternity convinced him there should be five nat sound breaks per sentence. That’s fine if you’re profiling a sound-effects factory, but otherwise this method can send a perfectly good news story into eye-rolling parody.

In the field, the reporter (who we’ll call Frank) would trail behind my lens with a wireless microphone he’d rigged to a home-made pole. He’d stick that silly thing anywhere he could think of: underneath an idling ambulance, over a group of curious bystanders, in the face of a impatient fire chef (who once memorably told him where to stick his pole). Most people who saw the big lug with the giant microphone pole figured he was a sound tech who knew what he was doing. They were half right.

Back at the station, Frank would huddle in the audio booth with his script and voice his words in a halting over-affected voice, often sounding like Captain Kirk on a bad prison phone. Afterward, he’d sit with me in the edit suite and gleefully orchestrate the placement of his precious captured sound. I went along with it for awhile, thinking this was the ‘new way’ of TV storytelling.

It wasn't. Too often (WHICKA-WHICKA-WHICKA!!) his otherwise (BRA-A-A-ACK!!) well-written stories (THUCKA-THUD!!) were (SCREECH!) just (GIZZA-GIZZA-GIZZA) too (FLARF!!) damn (WHEEEEEZLE) hard (KA-WACKA-LACK!) to (SNORK!) follow.

Finally, after confusing viewers, irking management, and sending a few audio board operators into cardiac arrest, Frank laid off the nat sound. A little. Soon after his epiphany he left our station, went to the big leagues, and eventually abandoned TV news altogether. Last I heard he was working on a fishing show up North, where he presumably found better uses for that homemade microphone pole.

I hope this story serves as a cautionary tale to any and all reporters, photographers and editors out there, who may have mistakenly stumbled across my humble site. Don’t let this happen to you! (Oh, and sorry, fellas - is a few clicks over.)

Of course if you’re not in TV news, you can still benefit from this little nat sound parable. The next time you’re watching a story on your local news, THINK ABOUT all that background noise you are and aren’t hearing. I guarantee you someone else has.

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