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Audio Vs. Video

The ongoing struggle for supremacy will always exist, but convergence continues to bring the two worlds together.

Some pictures just don't need words. Those old enough to remember November 1963 will never forget the image of little John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's flag-draped casket.

Similarly, some words have echoed around the world with no image attached, such as when radio reporter Herb Morrison cried, “Oh, the humanity!” as he watched the dirigible Hindenburg burst into flames in Lakehurst, NJ, in May 1937. Pictures came later, but it was the voice — the sound —that became immortal.

Ever since “A” and “V” became “AV,” seasoned professionals have known that combining the best of both tools was the proven path to success. Dolby and surround sound have enhanced the movies. Large-screen video projection improves the concert experience. Educators, human resources executives, public relations practitioners, sales managers, and others throughout the arts and business worlds have long understood that bringing together excellent video and audio was a case of “one plus one equals three.”

So how come when audio and video people encounter each other in the real world, they tend to circle warily, snorting and pawing the ground?

“Audio guys don't get no respect,” says Larry Franks, a producer at Vertex Productions in suburban Washington, D.C., who specializes in enterprise-wide training and information programming for federal clients.

“Video has lights and action and motion,” counters Peter Utz, a consultant based in Stanhope, NJ, who started out in audio and expanded into video. “Audio was just something you did.”

Pro AV recently set out to discover if audio and video aficionados were shaped that way in utero — if there's something on a chromosome somewhere that marks its owner for life. “Yes, I think it's safe to say we have a different genetic makeup, but that's okay,” says Robin Parker, owner of Suffolk Audio in Suffolk, VA. “Each discipline has its own issues to address and deal with.”

Speaking of chromosomes, are video guys and audio guys...guys? “There are a lot more women in video, I don't know why,” says audio specialist Ron Sauro of Northwest Audio & Acoustics in University Place, WA.

Artists in other fields?

Do the specialties really attract fundamentally different kinds of people? “Most audio guys are musicians at some point in their lives,” Sauro says. “They're kind of trapped into it because musician-type people are usually working in churches, say, and the pastor comes to them and says, ‘since you play the organ, you must know all about audio.'”

Video veteran Joe Kane agrees there's something to the musician/audio linkage. “People who do well in video are artists in their own medium, but they don't necessarily share an art in any other medium,” he says. “In video, you need the ability to look at visual art and understand it, but there aren't a lot of people who can do that. Think of video in terms of a canvas. Art is created on a canvas, and really good people in video understand that. The best people are visual artists, but they aren't usually painters in the way that audio people might be musicians.”

This experience as musicians may account for why some people are drawn into audio in the first place —they're driven by the desire to make their own musical performances sound as good as possible.

That's a key distinction, Utz says. “People who go into audio are doing it because they need it for something, while people go into video for the fun of it,” he says. “Nobody says, ‘I want to be an audio person for video.' The pure audio people tend to be musicians.”

Who has to measure?

Aesthetic or artistic sense must go hand in hand with technical savvy, but experts can differ on which is more important to each specialty. Put another way, which field is more data-driven?

Audio, says Franks. Video, he comments, “is all about style. Audio can't just be about style. It also has to be about technical precision and understanding what's going on. People don't feel they need to understand the physics of a picture like they do the physics of audio. You can see the results on a video display right away.”

Kane's view is just the opposite. “The rules for video are far more solid than for audio,” he says. “It's easy to determine when video is right and when it's wrong. The rules for audio aren't anywhere near as well spelled out. The rules for displaying video are far better defined than in audio, and there isn't the room for opinions in video that there is in audio. Audio people are often envious of the fact that I can define things in video. If there are problems anyplace in video, if I can see it, I can create a signal that will define what's going on.”

On the other hand, Kane says, audio technicians are frequently at a loss to track down the sources of problems in their systems. “There are phenomena that go on in audio that they don't quite understand, and they have to work a lot harder.”

Sauro, though an audio specialist himself, also thinks video has more of a grip on its data. “Sound started out as a much more subjective thing, and has only become a science in the field in the last 10 years or so,” he says. “Video has been a science from the beginning. It has to be created scientifically, and all the transmission is done scientifically. We finally have instruments now that can quantify sound in ways that we couldn't before. In reality, right now the sound guys are having a harder time measuring than the video guys are.”

Adds Parker, “It may be fair to say that sound requires a bit more understanding across several disciplines. There's no such thing as reverb in video, is there?”

How do we learn?

The School of Hard Knocks has traditionally supplied most of the graduates staffing both video and audio jobs, though sources say the self-taught are more numerous on the audio side.

“Being self-taught in audio has been possible because audio has been so much cheaper than video,” Utz says. “The first expensive thing I ever bought was a hundred-dollar tape recorder from Radio Shack,” he adds, explaining that he disassembled and rebuilt that little machine repeatedly.

Parker also heard the sirens' song at Radio Shack, he says, though he had really gotten his start in self-education at age four, by ripping apart his mother's clock radio.

“A tape recorder will teach you all kinds of things, in its mix of the mechanical and the electronic,” Utz says.

Today, says Sauro, “There are very few schools in the United States that teach audio. We seem to value video much more than we do audio, which isn't the case in Europe. Learning audio here is very much an apprenticeship situation, in which you take someone under your wing and make sure they get a good education.”

Franks agrees that in audio training, “there's still a lot of mentoring going on. This seems to be more of an audio phenomenon. People regard video as such an individualistic thing that they don't want as much input.”

Working well together

Despite their differences in opinion, these specialists all agree on two counts. First, audio and video can both accomplish more and have more impact when they work together. Second, they're working together more often, and more closely, than ever before.

Whether in staged events, promotional videos, or business presentations, audio and video can work well together. Despite a large volume of research over the years, it's difficult to quantify just how much each element brings to a successful communication.

AV systems dealer Boxlight Corp. of Poulsbo, WA, cites a number of studies emphasizing what goes into an effective presentation. “For example, a survey of 250 educators, conducted by the market research firm IDC, found that 98 percent of respondents felt using visuals through projection technology significantly increased student attention. A majority of these educators also cited improved retention of information as a key motive for utilizing projectors in the classroom,” the company says.

In another study sponsored by 3M and the University of Minnesota, audiences who were presented auditory information with visual support were 10 percent more likely to retain what they had learned.

The best approach may be to value each element for what it uniquely brings to communication. Franks notes that while the old saying holds “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it's also true that “audio engages emotions that video may not be able to reach, as in ‘oh, honey, they're playing our song.'”

If A and V are working together more these days, does it mean that the people wielding the tools have to connect more closely?

“Up until a couple of years ago, video and audio were two different worlds,” Sauro says. “But in the last couple of years, everybody who's an audio consultant has had to learn to be a video consultant, too. It's been necessary in order to keep working. You have to learn the other side. People expect to get everything from one guy today. We're seeing convergences.”

An example, Sauro says, is Cedar Rapids, IA-based industry trade organization National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA): “It's systems, not sound contractors,” Sauro notes. “The divide is disappearing.”

Kane attributes some of this development to the consumer marketplace, and especially to the boom in home theater. “The emergence of home theater has done wonders for the entire audio industry,” he says. “Multichannel sound really became very popular. Home theater has done a lot to raise consumer consciousness of the quality of audio. Nowadays it's really difficult to be an audio-only business as far as consumer retail goes.”

In the end, both video and audio specialists must respond to the industry's highest law — the customer's needs — and they can do that better in tandem than either can separately. “Audio and video both require the skills of truly understanding the products and being able to match the right products to the needs of the customer,” Parker says. “The video guy may not know how to set up a parametric EQ, but then again, I can't program a video matrix. So, are we even?”

John McKeon is an independent consultant and writer based in the Washington D.C. area. He can be reached at jjmckeon@comcast.net.



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