Final Cut Pro X Advanced Editing: Working with Sound
Note: This excerpt does not include the lesson files. The lesson files are available with purchase of the book.
It cannot be said often enough: Audio is more important than video. Audiences will tolerate shockingly poor quality video (see Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, or Blair Witch Project for proof), but no one will sit through even three minutes on YouTube if the audio is hard to hear. You can always close your eyes, but closing your ears is far more difficult. And while the images carry the basic information of a scene, the sound invariably carries the emotional content. If seeing is believing, then hearing is feeling.
Fortunately, Final Cut Pro X contains an impressive number of ways to improve your video’s sound. It has tools to set the audio levels to a uniform, accurate volume; multiple methods to create audio fades and four fade styles; intuitive controls for panning sound between speakers, in both stereo and surround sound environments; and much more.
Setting Sound Levels
One of the most basic and fundamental aspects of good audio is ensuring that the volume level is consistent across your project. If one scene is too loud and the next is too soft, it’s very hard for viewers to stay engaged in your program. And if the overall level is too quiet or too loud, other problems arise such as increased background noise or distortion.
Understanding Audio Meters
Final Cut Pro has highly accurate, easy-to-read Audio meters to monitor audio levels and ensure that they are correct and uniform. Tiny meters are always visible to the right of the current timecode in the center of the toolbar, but you can also display large meters with a single click.
In the Project Library, double-click the Sound editing project inside the Lesson_04 folder in the APTS FCP X ADV Part 1 disk.
The project opens into the Timeline.
- Click the tiny Audio meters in the toolbar, or press Command-Shift-8 to display large Audio meters to the right of the Timeline.
- Drag the left edge of the meters to make them bigger or smaller and view more or less detail.
- Play the first few clips of the project and watch the Audio meters.
The meters display the average and peak levels, and alert you if your audio ever hits 0 db.
You can determine the average level by watching the bouncing bars. This is not going to provide a precise value, but watching the meters can give you a good sense of the overall volume of the clip. In this project, the average level for the first clip is around –24 dB. The second clip averages at around –9 dB, and the third clip is even louder, and reaches 0 dB at about 27 seconds.
The peak level is indicated by the thin white line that lingers (for a second or two) as the clips play. That line shows the loudest level reached over the last section of playback and can be especially helpful if the audio has a very brief peak that’s much louder than the average level (such as you’ll hear in clip 2 around 15:00).
Fixing Overmodulated Audio
The warning indicator turns red if your audio level reaches 0 db. In this instance, you must turn down the audio below 0 dB or risk creating a distorted sound.
If you see this warning, do not ignore it!
The audio waveforms in the Timeline also indicate when a clip is too loud. When a part of the waveform is louder than –6 dB, it appears in yellow. If a part of the waveform is at 0 dB, it appears in red.
Fortunately, Final Cut Pro tells you how many decibels “over” 0 dB the peak is, making it very easy to fix the level. In Shot_03, the audio peaked at +3 dB.
- Select Shot_03, and choose Modify > Volume > Down (–1 dB), or press Control-– (minus).
- Repeat step 1 three times to lower the level by 3 dB.
- Play the project again.
The waveform no longer turns red. However, leaving that audio at such a high level might still cause problems if you later add any sound effects, music, or other clips. So lowering it even further is wise.
Unfortunately, lowering the whole clip will make the rest of the shot too quiet. To fix this, you’ll need to utilize keyframes, as you’ll learn to do in the next section.
Setting Levels in the Timeline
You have many ways to adjust a clip’s audio level. In addition to choosing the Modify menu item, you can adjust levels in the Timeline or in the Audio Inspector, or by using the keyboard. Each of these methods is best used in certain circumstances. To fix the problem in Shot_03, you will use the volume controls in the Timeline.
- Click the Clip Appearance button, and set the clip appearance to the second icon from the left.
- Drag the Clip Height slider to the middle to increase the clip heights.
Click outside the window to close the Clip Appearance window.
Making the audio portion of the clips larger makes it easier to see the waveforms and to make more precise adjustments to the volume control (the horizontal line across the audio waveform). In this case, you will return the volume to its default value, in preparation for lowering only the section that’s too loud.
Position your pointer over the volume control for Shot_03, and when the pointer changes to the Adjust pointer, drag the line up until the volume reads 0 dB.
This adjustment raises the overall level, but now the middle part of the clip is too loud.
- Play the project and press I just as she says “Uh...” at 25:00, and press O just after she says, “I’m enjoying that” at around 28:15. The area you want to attenuate is now marked as a selection.
Position your pointer over the volume control within the selected area, and drag the line down to –7 dB. You may need to zoom in on the Timeline to more easily select the line within the selected range.
The level is lowered only in the selected section.
- Play the clip to hear how the overall level is now far more uniform.
- Press Command-Shift-A to deselect all.
Deselecting allows you to more clearly see that keyframes were automatically added to limit the volume change to the selected range.
When two keyframes are set to different values, Final Cut Pro automatically interpolates the audio levels between the two values, thereby animating the audio level.
Animating Audio Levels
To change audio levels over time, you can adjust the line between the keyframes, adjust specific keyframes, or add additional keyframes to make specific changes (such as removing a pop or cough, or adding an audio fade-in or fade-out). There is no limit to the number of keyframes you can add.
- Drag the Timeline Zoom slider to the right to zoom in on the Timeline, or press Command-= (equal sign).
Position your pointer over the first keyframe, and then drag the keyframe to the left to create a slower fade effect.
Changing the value of the first keyframe will affect the level of the clip prior to that keyframe, and changing the value of the last keyframe will affect the level of the clip from that point until the end of the clip.
Drag the line between the middle two keyframes down to –8 dB.
Both keyframes surrounding the line are moved proportionally.
- Option-click the line twice to add new keyframes as shown in the following figure.
- Drag the line segment between the two new keyframes up to –5 dB.
- Play the clip to hear the results.
You may want to continue adding and adjusting keyframes to create an optimally smooth audio level.
Making Subframe Audio Adjustments
Audio clips recorded at a sampling rate of 48 kHz contain 2,000 samples for each frame of 24 fps video. That means you could conceivably add 2,000 audio keyframes in every single frame of video! Higher audio sample rates could have even more keyframes. Although no one is likely to add thousands of keyframes to a single video frame, having that kind of precision means you can fix miniscule errors such as clicks, pops, and extra sibilance.
- With no clips selected, click the Current Timecode field, and type 14:16. Press Return.
Press Shift-/ (slash) to play around that timecode.
You will hear a pop sound right as the woman says “green tomato jam.”
Drag the Timeline Zoom slider all the way to the right to zoom all the way into the Timeline.
You can see the waveform that represents the offending sound, but if you try to remove it, you also risk removing some of the woman’s voice. To avoid that, you should adjust only the specific samples containing the sound.
The light gray bar in the Timeline ruler indicates the duration of one frame. As you can see, audio keyframes can be edited with much greater precision than a single video frame; but in fact, you can zoom in much farther for even more precision.
Make sure that View > Zoom To Samples (the default) is chosen.
If Zoom To Samples was not active, you’ll notice that the Timeline Zoom slider suddenly has a little more room to the right.
Drag the Timeline Zoom slider farther to the right. The gray bar in the ruler, which represents one frame, becomes larger as you zoom farther and farther into the Timeline.
At the farthest zoom point, each horizontal pixel on the screen represents an individual audio sample.
- Option-click three times to add three keyframes around and on the unwanted noise.
Drag the middle keyframe all the way down to –96 dB.
The two surrounding keyframes limit the adjustment to the area between them.
- Press Shift-/ (slash) to play around the area again. The offending noise is removed, and the woman’s voice appears unaffected.
- Press Shift-Z to zoom the Timeline back out to show all clips.
Setting Levels in the Inspector
You can also adjust audio levels for any selected clip in the Audio Inspector. One advantage to making changes here (as opposed to the Timeline) is that you can change clips that are in the Event Browser but not yet added to a project.
- In the Event Library, open the Lesson_04 Event, and in the Event Browser, click Shot_06 to select it.
- If the Inspector is not visible, press Command-4 to open it.
In the Inspector, click the Audio button to open the Audio Inspector.
Dragging the Volume slider in the Audio Inspector has the same effect as adjusting the volume control in a waveform in the Timeline. For clips already placed in a project, both controls affect the same data.
- In the Event Browser, click the green Favorite bar for Shot_06 to select it.
- Press E to append the clip to the end of the project.
- In the Timeline, click Shot_06. The Inspector updates to show the audio level for the current playhead position of the selected clip.
In the Inspector, drag the Volume slider down by 4 dB.
The volume control in the Timeline moves down by 4 dB.
Drag the volume control down to –5 dB. The Volume slider in the Inspector also updates.
You can also use the Inspector to change the level of multiple clips simultaneously.
In the Timeline, Shift-click Shot_05 to add it to the selection.
Now, both Shot_05 and Shot_06 are selected. The Audio Inspector no longer shows an indicator for the volume (since more than one clip can have more than one value) but you can still modify the clips’ volume by a relative amount.
- Position your pointer over the dashes to the right of the Volume slider and drag up or down to change the two clips’ levels simultaneously.
Animating Levels in the Inspector
You can also add, modify, and navigate between audio keyframes within the Inspector.
In the Timeline, select Shot_03.
The Inspector updates to show the values for the selected clip at the current frame (either under the playhead or the skimmer, if enabled).
In the Timeline, drag the playhead and watch the Volume slider in the Inspector move as the existing keyframes affect the clip’s volume.
Keyframes are represented in the Inspector by the diamond-shaped Keyframe button to the right of the Volume slider. When the playhead is parked on a keyframe, the button turns orange.
You can navigate directly to keyframes by clicking the arrows on either side of the Keyframe button.
- Click the left arrow to jump to the first keyframe to the left of the current playhead position. Click the right arrow to jump to the first keyframe to the right of the current playhead position.
If no more keyframes exist either before or after the current playhead position, the appropriate arrow is dimmed.
Keyframes can be deleted in the Inspector. To do so, the playhead must be positioned directly on that specific keyframe.
With the playhead parked on the keyframe, click the orange Delete Keyframe button.
The keyframe is removed. Final Cut Pro automatically recalibrates to interpolate the audio based on the remaining keyframes.
Resetting Audio Levels
The Inspector also contains an essential control: the Reset button. Clicking this button allows you to remove any keyframes or audio volume adjustments made to the selected clip, and restore the clip to its default volume.
- In the Timeline, select Shot_03.
- In the Inspector, click the Reset button for the Volume and Pan section.
The volume (and pan) settings are restored to the default, removing any keyframes.
Setting Levels Using Keyboard Shortcuts
You have one more way to change audio levels: Select a clip (or portion of a clip) and press a keyboard shortcut to boost (raise) or attenuate (lower) the level by 1 dB.
These keyboard shortcuts are especially useful because they allow you to change the levels of a clip while the video is playing back, which means you can hear the changes dynamically, creating a more organic workflow.
- In the Timeline, select Shot_01.
- Play the project.
While the first clip is playing, press Control-= (equal sign) several times.
Each time you press the keyboard command, the volume for the clip is boosted by 1 dB.
- Press Control-– (minus sign) to lower the level by 1 dB.
When you have created audio keyframes, you can select an individual keyframe directly and move it up and down 1 dB at a time from the keyboard.
- In the Timeline, Option-click the volume control for Shot_01 to add a keyframe.
- Click the keyframe to select it. The keyframe turns orange.
- Press Option-Up Arrow to increase or Option-Down Arrow to decrease the level of the selected keyframe.
- To deselect the keyframe, press Command-Shift-A or click anywhere outside the keyframe.