This episode of Inform & Connect—the American Foundation for the Blind’s ongoing series created to foster togetherness and camaraderie within the blindness community through informal storytelling and learning about relevant, interesting topics—features a duo who work in the technical aspects of sound creation in film and television: Jeff Ross, Sound Engineer; and David Porcellino, Audio Mixer.
“I was immediately drawn to both Jeff and David’s desire to produce quality sound to better include the blind and visually impaired community,” said Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist. “They are true advocates for inclusion.”
Melody: We are going to have so much fun. No worries, this is going to be so much fun. I'm so excited you are here. So we have Dave Porcellino and Jeff Ross with us today. And guys, if you can just go ahead and jump right in, I'm going to let you introduce yourselves. If you could just spend... Dave, why don't you go ahead and go first, just two minutes about a little bit about your background and then how you got into audio description and then Jeff we'll have you do the same.
Dave: Jeff you can catch your breath and [crosstalk].
Jeff: I'm just glad to be here.
Melody: We are too Jeff.
Dave: Alright I'm wearing a stopwatch, because if I go long, just give me the hook sign. I started in audio really young. I started when I was about 17 and went to recording school early. I've worked in post-production pretty much my entire life. I only started doing audio description about six or seven, maybe eight years ago. There was a mutual friend at a company that does audio description that needed someone to consult, and they called me in to help streamline and fix some issues they were having.
Pretty much from that day forward, I started working with them and dealing with what they do with audio description. Helping them handle best practices and figure out exactly what technical issues they went across. Handle mixed duties, edit duties and working a lot on trying to solve the problems that come up and handling a lot of the mix sessions for television and some motion pictures. It's been a real interesting journey through audio description. Like I was telling you before we started, it was not something that I knew literally anything about. I'd never heard of it. It did never cross my plate until I actually went and interviewed with this company, but I'm glad I'm doing it. It's really something that I like doing. It's a single-minded focus as far as when you're doing the work, but it's good. It's fun. I enjoy doing it, so...
Melody: That is awesome and we're glad you're doing it too.
Melody: How about you, Jeff? Oh, no.
Dave: We lost Jeff. You want me to talk with Jeff?
Jeff: I think I've got you now. Okay. Sorry about that.
So, I took a long route to audio description. I had started as a musician and really that was my focus that I wanted to be a musician, as a teenager. As my schooling and career progressed, I realized I wasn't going to make any money as a musician, but sound always fascinated me and I worked in television pretty much from the very beginning, right out of college.
I produced a TV show with a group of people and eventually ended up in LA. I was from Chicago, moved to LA, continued working in sound mixing shows and doing sound design for various things. I ended up editing dialogue for a couple of network TV shows and through that experience ended up at CVS mixing promos for TV shows where I met Dave. Dave, his side hustle also became my side hustle, which was audio description. Honestly it wasn't something that I was familiar with at all at the time. I didn't know what he was talking about when he was first introducing me to the job. He was completely foreign to me. I'd had very little experience with people who have no vision in my life, it just wasn't something I was familiar with at all.
Immediately though I could see the value of it. It was obviously a tool for people who aren't seeing the picture to be able to understand exactly what's happening when the words aren't being spoken. A lot of emotion is conveyed from facial features or colors or all kinds of different elements, but it's not always explicitly spoken. That was a light bulb moment for me. This is something I had never even thought of that it is just a new way of looking at audio for me. It happened to coincide with my career, which I was very happy with it, it was a way that I can use my skills in a completely different way.
Melody: So, I want to move into that. Pardon with Jeff, thank you guys both so much for telling us about that. One thing that I'm curious, and I think our audience members might be curious about is... we've heard from narration side of it, we've also heard from audio descriptive writer. When it comes to this sound and engineering portion of it, how does that play in? And when do you guys get started on that? Let's have Dave go first.
Dave: If you are talking about the process, it gets script written then when it gets to us the script has already pretty much been edited. We sit in with the narrators in another room and we basically mix edit and record pretty much all in real time. We'll go back and do pickups if they misalign or flub a line but you're really just moving in real time. A two hour movie doesn't take two hours, it actually takes about six to eight hours but you are recording along with the production track and you have to consider the balance. The most important thing that goes into what we do is that balance between the actual narration and your production track. It's probably the most consequential but it's also up for the most debate as far as where the level of that should sit.
Some people think it needs to be a little louder than dialogue, some people want it to be unobtrusive and almost hidden below the dialogue. It's difficult to say that there's a right or wrong methodology for it. That's one of the things that comes in with being an experienced mixer is that you can stand by the way you work it and say, "I think it should be this way, if you, as the production house or editor want it differently, we can approach it that way". That's one of the most important skill sets, is being able to morph your thinking from, "How am I approaching this? How did they want it?" Because like I was saying, there's no right or wrong, but you have to be able to deliver product based on whatever house you're working at, what their sets of specs are.
You're doing all this in real time. You don't usually have what would normally be a record pass, then you don't have an edit pass or a mix pass where you're running this movie two, three, four, five times. It's very get it in and get it out, but you have to have the skills to get it in and get it out cleanly and so you can hear everything. Obviously that's the important part but there are some I know, from listening to some audio description that coming from other houses that I haven't worked in, that don't treat it with the respect it needs to be. They treat their narration as just set it on top and let it go. There is no finessing it where you get an action sequence and your narration may be loud enough, but then you get to a quiet sequence and your narration is way too loud. It's disconcerting for the listener because it's jarring and you're trying to keep them involved in the movie. Those are the things that are most important when you have to deal with audio description.
Melody: Thank you so much. That is really awesome. I can imagine how, since you guys are doing it real time and you don't get that do over is just crazy. I can imagine. I can see now why both of you have said that you're always learning in audio descriptions.
Jeff, can we talk to you a little bit about that portion of it? You and I have spoken before and you were telling me your passion for audio description but what are you always learning when you're working in audio description?
Oh, no. Did we lose him again?
Jeff: Okay now it's unmuted. It says tap to unmute but it wasn't unmuting. I'm sorry. I was distracted there.
I'm constantly learning. Dave is great to work with too, because he's somebody who is always pushing, looking for something new. He's made me aware a number of times of new ways to do things. Honestly, when I started in audio description, we were doing things that I didn't always see as the optimal way to do them but I was coming in as an outsider, as a freelancer, so I didn't feel like it was my place to institute new rules or institute new processes.
In the beginning, I wasn't necessarily doing my best mixes, but I was following the process that had been already set up. I think just in the few years that I've been doing it, alongside Dave, we've made big improvements in how we're doing it. It is a subjective thing but I think it's pretty easy to me to tell when it's right and when it's wrong. It is subjective, but there is a sweet spot where you want to be able to hear the narration, you don't want it to overpower the movie because you don't want it to take you out of the movie.
I think we have narrowed down the process to where we're not just laying the voiceover on top and letting the... As Dave said, letting it ride for the whole movie. There's places where you definitely hear that kind of product being put out and honestly, I don't think it sounds good. I'm sure there's a number of factors that go into that. Budget and time and all that stuff.
Honestly, in the BBC, I know maybe not all their programs, but they use computer software to ride levels and stuff. That doesn't take into consideration everything, the dynamics of the movie, the way that we're doing it now. You're carving a hole in the production track and that hole is only being created when the narrator is speaking. To me, that gives the optimal way to hear it where you're cutting out the frequencies from the movie as the narrator is speaking, which gives the perfect blend.
Melody: That is a really neat way to describe that Jeff. I really liked it.
Because I want to make sure we have enough time for Q and A, and I really want to ask this question, I know that both of you have worked... When you work alongside someone like myself who is blind or vision impaired and you're getting their feedback, how does that elevate the quality, or how has that educated? You can answer either or. Jeff, I'm going to have you go first.
Jeff: Well, I hate to say that I wish I had more experience in that area.
My experience in audio description, I think needs more inclusion. I haven't had that much direct experience. In speaking with people recently, including you Melody, this is the thing that really gets me excited about it. When I hear people's feedback about what we're doing, I want to include that, just in my knowledge to inform myself to do better mixes. I think there is a lot of value in that but unfortunately the company that I've worked for doesn't have a lot of that happening and I think it could be better. I know there're companies that are focused on that and I really applaud that. I think there's a lot of room for that inclusion to be expanded throughout the whole industry because I don't know that that's happening everywhere.
Dave: Yeah. I haven't worked alongside with anyone who has vision impaired issues. It was one of the first things that I did when I first started working in audio description was I tried to find out what the consumer perspective was. When I was literally starting to learn, the only perspective I had was from the company I worked with and they were all sighted. You can approach it there, there's no wrong approach if you're sighted to it because you're approaching it auditorily You don't have that perspective, it's not just a matter of close your eyes and pretend to picture [inaudible 00:15:30] and it was very difficult to find a resource for how is this being used? Because again, this was eight or so seven or eight years ago and I couldn't find a lot of resources to tell me "This is how we use it, this is how we like it.”
Those are the things as an experienced mixer, like Jeff was saying, you just got to find that sweet spot and say "This is what I'm going to work with" but it's also nice to get that feedback. The only other pitfall is like we were saying earlier, everyone has a different sweet spot. Especially with audio, it's so completely subjective. We can find five people, play them the same mix and blend of elements and they might all have five different opinions on it. That's where having some experience comes in and I can try and take all of this, boil it down into one set of my approach and say "This is how I'm going to do it". It's open for interpretation and you have to be open for people to say "I don't like it this way or I do like it this way". It's just how working with audio is and if you can take that feedback, great. If you can't, you might not be in the right business.
Melody: I really appreciate your roles, honestly. I was going to leave with one question but I love this part because we are very close, we are at the Q and A session. I think you guys are going to have an audience that can give some feedback.
I first want to say before we go into the Q and A that, we at the American Foundation for the Blind are always looking for [inaudible 00:17:06] to you and finding those sweet spots or areas of where we really can tap in for inclusion. We all have voices and you are creating what you're doing, and I applaud both of you so much for your passions, I hope that when you answer some of the questions for the Q and A we can also talk about your passionate about why you love [inaudible 00:17:25]. You touched on it a little but I can tell with both of you, it runs deeper. I really appreciate what it is that you do and staying open for these conversations.
Suzan, if we could go ahead and start the question and answer process.
Suzan: Sure. We have a question from Roy. What is the best way to let companies be receptive to know that audio sound mix matters?
Jeff: That is the age-old question. I guess I'll start.
I was told by a teacher in college, and this is in the eighties, so it predates that. I'm sure I was told, and I didn't believe this at first, I went to a college that had a heavy video production side and film production and audio was like a secondary program to even radio or to film. Audio is like a sub-program of that and it was always looked down upon as being lesser, which didn't bother me at the time. Then I had a teacher warn me "When you get out in the real world, this is how it is, just be prepared, audio gets no respect". I hate to say it, but it's been proven. True. I don't know what to attribute that to, because it really tells half the story, at least half the story. So try watching a movie with no audio.
Dave: Sorry, sorry. If there's an age-old adage that you'll never notice a good mix, but you'll notice a bad mix.
Jeff: That's true. I make that appointment all the time but if we've done our job, you shouldn't notice that we've done our job. Unless you're really enjoying yourself and you're focused on audio but most people aren't focused on the audio. I'm speaking as a sighted person but most people are focused on the picture and the audio comes with. Sighted people aren't necessarily focused on audio, it's a weird phenomenon to me because I've always been focused on audio, but I know that's not the case.
Dave: Yeah. I would say the best way to have your voice heard is literally emailing, writing campaigns, letter campaigns, representation, because it needs to be, it needs to be called out when it's not being treated with at least the modicum of respect.
I know there are some companies out there that are beginning to use artificial voices, AI, and unfortunately that may be one of the areas that it's going to progress into for a lot of factors. AI is only going to get better but letting people know we don't like this, it's a problem, it makes it an unpleasant process. The only way to let them know is emailing their... I believe every network has a department for descriptive audio. I know CVS does. I don't know if it's actually presented that way but every network, you should be able to find someone who represents that segment and just voicing your concerns, letting them know.
Have specifics about what you did or didn't like just calling up and saying, "I heard big bang theory and I hated this voice". That's great but again, we're in subjective terms, if you can tell them the voice content was fine, there were a lot of points we couldn't hear the narrator or the narrator was loud in parts that it wasn't. Having specific complaints about it is the only way to get it changed and notice the things that stick out to you.
Melody: Dave that is excellent feedback. To be very pointed.
Jeff: On KevinsProcess.org there's a list of places you can write to, to specifically do a writing campaign.
Melody: Thank you. I think we have another question coming in.
Suzan: We have lots of questions. You guys are a hit today. This is from Marsha. She has a comment and a question. Her comment is "I think a focus group with those with low vision or are blind could be helpful". Her question is, do any colleges or schools teach classes on audio description?
Dave: Not as far as I know. The reason it's not a specific field is because being an audio engineer covers a much wider range. As far as how you approach it as an audio engineer, you approach it in the same manner you would in a lot of other programs but you have a specific goal you're trying to reach. You need to understand mixing Pro Tools compression dynamics, overall level. All of that is inclusive under the audio engineering umbrella, a lot of the decisions when it comes to scripting that wouldn't be counted in an audio program. I know that's a lot of the issues when it comes to some of the audio description is people have issues with how some things are described. Also, like I was talking about earlier, that balance between narration and dialogue is a mixers job but the end determination of how that balance fits really comes from the house. There's no specific, like I was saying earlier, as to how to do it. So, there isn't really any specific courses I would know on how it would be done.
Jeff: I don't know of any specific audio description courses either, but I have done a little bit of research. I was anticipating hopefully somebody who was interested in sound engineering through this conversation. I found a couple of resources for any budding sound engineers who are not sighted one is just a YouTube page, SteveBaskis.com on his site. He has links to his YouTube page and he has a whole thing about Pro Tools access and different ways for blind users to access Pro Tools. Natively, Pro Tools has accessibility options through the voiceover software on a Mac. There's also something called Flo Tools and different software tools that help the Create a Macros and stuff to do multiple commands at a time, stuff like that for blind users.
Melody: That is awesome. We'll definitely share this with everyone, to you Jeff, thank you for providing that.
Jeff: Yeah. If I could just mention one more as well, there's a school that specifically reaches out to blind users, Pro Tools and other software, but we're pretty much talking about Pro Tools. It's called iseemusic.org and they have courses specifically designed for blind users.
Melody: Thank you so much. I was going to ask that these tips of the end but thank you. That is great. I'm going to check those out myself.
Dave: You know what actually sorry, let me piggyback on that. There's one thing I was thinking if your question is more of, "How do you get into the industry?"
One of the good ways is I know on a lot of the audio description at the very end, usually after the credits, a lot of the houses that produce the description will say this was produced at whatever the production company or that production houses name is, for a credit. You can always contact them and say "I'm a mixer or I'm learning to get into this or I'm trying to get into this". Is there a way I can come in and watch, sit in, do a session? A lot of times they'll be open to allowing people to come in and watch. They're also always looking for pools of people that they can call on emergency basis and keep their Rolodex filled with people who are eager to break into whatever type of post-production. If you have a specific interest in something like that, it might sometimes be easier to get in because you set yourself apart as opposed to, "Hey, I just want to come work in your business.”
Jeff: I think that's a great point because that's how I came up too. I didn't have a job when I was a teenager and early on in my training, so I went door to door to studios asking just "Can I sit in?" Just that enthusiasm for it will make you more attractive to people.
Dave: Yeah. Opens doors. Yeah.
Melody: That's great you guys. Suzan, can we, just time for one more question and then we can take the rest and send them to these guys?
Suzan: Yeah, we can. This is another comment and a question. This is from our friend Steph McCoy. First, thank you for the work that you do. It sounds like input from the BVI consumers is something that is definitely needed to work in [inaudible] with what you and Jeff do. Her question is, "How many, if any BVI folks are within this line of work?"
Dave: As far as the access that I have, I don't know of any. Unfortunately, the post-production field is not something that has a lot of visually impaired people working in it. I couldn't even guess what that is. I just know from my experience, I have never run across anyone in my field that has any issues, visual or sight impairment issues. It's unfortunate. There probably would need to be, I would hope that in coming from most of the post houses that do this, the handshakes should be reaching out from them to find people to bring into the fold to give them input on this.
Jeff: I don't know of anyone specifically that I've worked with either in television. I've encountered blind engineers in music but right now I think is a good time, speaking as a sound engineer, I've never been in management or anything, but it seems to me, just all the changes happening in the television industry right now and everything going to streaming, now would be the time to push for these things. There's so many changes happening right now, if everyone can speak up and make their voices known, I think it will only help all of us.
Melody: I agree. I mean, [inaudible]. I have had a blast. I can't believe we're a little over time but you guys have been so fun and given us so much information. I think I speak for all of us to say we really appreciate what you do and you are right. Together, we will all work together and have our voices heard. Just by the information you've shared with us today gives us action and we all need to have that. Thank you so much and for the resources. If people in the audience want to reach you, how could they do so, Jeff, you want to go first?
Jeff: Sure. You can reach out from my website, which is [inaudible] or you can find me on LinkedIn but [inaudible] is probably the best way to get ahold of me.
Dave: You can find me on LinkedIn. It's just Dave Porcellino or I don't know if it's David or Dave, either way. I'm the only one of the only portion Leno's on there. It's not a common name. So you can find me on LinkedIn or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melody: Great. Thank you guys so much. Just remember you guys, if we work together, we're better together at creating a life of no limits. If we do it together one time. Thank you so much for being here with us today. If you want to learn more about AFB and our programs, just visit us afb.org. Thanks so much for being here. Everybody have an amazing day. David and Jeff, thank you so much for being with us today.
Jeff: Thanks for having us.
Dave: Thank you so much, take care.
Melody: Take care.
Jeff: Bye, bye.