When we think of video, we naturally think of moving images as the main component. Yet a comprehensive study for the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society found that audio quality had a significant influence on how viewers rated a video. In the experiment, the study participants were more likely to dislike a video when the audio quality was poor than a clip with poor image quality. So, to achieve that high-production value feel, many directors opt to hire a sound stage. This allows them to cut out external sounds and gives them higher control (depending on the studio) over the acoustics.
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A soundstage is usually a large, indoor studio that has been soundproofed so that no external sounds bleed into production. The walls are often covered in thick, sound-absorbent material so that there are no reverberations of sounds. Floors are usually bare so that cameras can easily be wheeled around. Some sound stages are or have adjacent green stages allowing you to superimpose backgrounds. Like standard studios, many also have lighting rigs, rooms for cast, crew, hair and makeup, and offer catering.
The Backstage Centre, a soundstage studio in Purfleet, UK, for example, boasts an 875m²/9418sqft soundstage with a 60-ton rigging facility. John Sheehan, its interim General & Technical Manager, says
A sound stage is an acoustically designed and versatile space. It ensures that, whatever the project is, the desired results can be achieved. Our space is a blank canvas that can be used for anything and everything. Every aspect has been designed with flexibility and accessibility in mind.
Many directors planning to record the sound while filming (rather than dubbing it over the video later) opt for hiring a sound stage to ensure the audio quality is perfect. Other advantages are that they don’t lose time while pausing for outside noises to stop or spending money on removing unwanted sound in post-production. It also means there is no requirement to get filming permits, as is the case for most outdoor spaces.
We chatted with Saam Gabbay, an accomplished director and photographer based in Los Angeles, about why he uses soundstages.
The primary use for a sound stage is for projects that require uninterrupted, clean sound recording. So, the main difference between an average photo studio and a sound stage is that if you’re filming with audio and a plane flies overhead, in a photo studio you’d usually have to pause shooting. But in most sound stages, you won’t hear outside sounds unless it’s the grip truck crashing into the building. I still shoot on a sound stage even when sound isn’t essential, driven by price, size, location and availability. Some sound stages come with packages that really help our productions. In my two most recent shoots, we didn’t need sound isolation at all but used a big sound stage because it happened to fit our Goldilocks needs. Downside: No windows!
Thanks to his unique experience as both a director and photographer, Saam has worked on a couple of projects that combine both disciplines. In these cases, it is cost-effective as well as efficient to shoot the video and photographs in one location. Doing so on a soundstage ensures that you have enough space and the right setting to get all the shots you need.
Saam explains how the space of a soundstage can be useful for particular shoots,
Soundstages can sometimes be cheaper than their equivalent sized photo studio. So when clients need many setups in one place, we often end up in a sound stage. In my last shoot, I split a large stage in two where I shot green screen video on the left side and photographs over white on the right side. We made 24 master stills featured in entire subway station takeovers, bus stops, and billboards in six major US cities. For the video, I shot the talent dancing on green screen. I was actually physically dancing with them using a lightweight gimbal and it was a blast. We did 12 videos and 24 stills in one day. Jumping between the two stages was quite a feat and we definitely needed the extra space of a big sound stage. It was also the only way to do everything in one day.
It’s worth keeping in mind that especially larger soundstages are not always fully soundproof. In some, you can hear planes and even traffic. Also, the better equipped the soundstage is, the more you can immerse yourself in the creative process.
Max Berger, a Producer from MCM Creative agrees. He says,
The most important, perhaps, is to confirm that it is indeed fully soundproof and that the quality of the sound of the room is adequate. Additionally, if any windows let in natural light, make sure there are blackout curtains or something similar to control unwanted light.
Look for flexibility. The space should be a blank canvas. The studio staff should be adaptable and ready to assist with any project. Creativity should never be limited by the scope of a space.
As with hiring any service and venue, doing some legwork is crucial. You need to research the facility you are planning to hire and check recommendations, and, if possible, pay them a visit.
Jen Ubil, the director of studio development at Expressway Cinema Rentals, has extensive experience with soundstage productions. She says,
It is important to recognize that every production is unique and comes with a different set of priorities. When looking for a sound stage, consider what amenities best fit your content. For example, a shoot with a car may need special attention to ceiling height, backdrop width, and drive-in capabilities. And always make sure the house power can accommodate the needs of your production.
Sound stage studios can vary hugely in terms of what is provided — from the basic to the fully serviced and catered. Jen has some sage advice when it comes to looking for a space to hire,
The best way to figure out what studio works best for your production is to first come up with a list of the needs required and start your research from there. When making inquiries, don’t be afraid to ask questions about what is included in your rental or if the studio has a specialized product your shoot requires.
Here is a checklist to make sure you’re covered:
There is a vast range of soundstages, ranging from very small and basic, to stages at the cutting edge of technological advances with rotating floors. This is why the price range is also huge, and fully depends on the size, how soundproof it is, location, and equipment. Prices range from $20 per hour to $100,000 (think Hollywood sound stage) a week.
Especially as a photographer-turned-director, it’s easy to have a bias toward the visual aspect of a moving-image production. But good sound is just as important for the reception of a film, as good image quality, so it’s important to invest an adequate part of the budget in sound quality, including a suitable soundstage if necessary. Only a production in which the sound is spot-on will do the visuals justice.
No matter how much effort and resources you put into filming, bad audio can ruin a video or film, so it’s worth investing time and part of the budget to make sure the sound is also spot on.