A Faster, More Efficient Way to Work with Audio in Premiere

 This is something I see a lot…

You get footage from a shoot, let’s say it’s a documentary project. The main camera has a left channel and a right channel of audio, and on set the filmmaker plugged the boom mic into the left channel and a wireless lavalier into the right channel.

Which is a fine way of working. But then footage comes into Premiere without proper planning for the audio setup. The editor begins his/her dailies and selects, even gets into cutting some of the project together.

All of a sudden you are a few versions deep and you’ve got this odd thing happening—the audio in your left ear sounds different from the audio in your right ear. It’s subtle, but there’s a distinct hiss in the left ear and a very clear occasional scratching sound in the right ear. This is jarring to a viewer, particularly one listening on headphones. It just feels off, although many viewers won’t be able to explain why.

If you will not be finishing your project with a sound designer, it’s easy to not notice this as you do your final export. You end up exporting your video with your audio not sounding the best it can be. Listen below:

This happens surprisingly often, even from reputable companies.

Below I’ll explain a way to work with audio in Premiere to help you come up with your own ways of working more quickly when dealing with a variety of audio sources.

Here’s what happened

If you haven’t made any adjustments to your default audio import settings, they would look like this:

This is, in theory, just fine. However what you end up with is audio in your timeline that looks like this:

This means that the boom microphone is playing in your left ear and the lavalier is playing in your right ear. It might sound subtle, but you may not always be working with perfect audio, and you might find that the lavalier was a little scratchy or was getting interference, or that the boom was too far away and thus sounds too distant.

The workflow for fixing this problem right now can involve several steps and clicks, and is also a little bit confusing, so it’s best to fix the problem before this stage. If you have no choice, however, here are two methods for working with stereo audio.

Using “Fill Right with Left” or “Fill Left with Right” Effects

This is one of the tools I often see fellow editors using to solve audio panning issues like this one. It works fine, but it requires you to make several trips back and forth to the effects bin in order to fully create an audio clip for the boom and an audio clip for the lav.

The steps would be:

  • First, make a duplicate of your current clip
  • Go into your effect panel and grab Fill Right with Left and apply it to your first clip
  • Go into your effect panel and grab Fill Left with Right and apply it to your first clip

And there you go, you’ve got separated channels.

The problem is that this is a very visually confusing mess. If you are anything like me, you “read” your timeline like you would read a book, looking at it from left to right, investigating for key visuals that you remember (that L cut, that adjustment layer in between scene 5 and 6, etc.) to quickly land somewhere you need to be working. But having several layers of audio with all of these extra waveforms makes it very hard to do that.

This is an example of a timeline that I received:

I’m not sure which of these is the boom and which is the lav. And when you have a client or a director in the room and they hear a scratching noise they’d like you to investigate, those precious seconds count as you first look with your eyes to see if you can spot the problem audio spike.

The second method: modify the audio properties

This method is a little bit faster, and results in a more visually appealing timeline, but it still requires a few extra steps for every single edit, which can add up to a lot of wasted time.

Here’s the method for adjusting your audio in this way:

  • First, make a duplicate of your current clip
  • On the top clip, right click (or use your choice of shortcut key, mine is SHIFT + G) and select Audio Channels.
  • In the Audio Channels menu uncheck the tally under the R
  • On the bottom clip, right click and select Audio Channels.
  • In the Audio Channels menu, uncheck the tally under the L

Here’s what the audio channels menu looks like for a clip in the timeline:

It’s not terribly confusing, but it requires a few clicks in order to achieve the goals you have in mind, and that can take up extra unnecessary time.

Your results will look something like this:

This is a lot better visually, and although you’ve now become intimately familiar with the Audio Channels box (which is a good thing), you’ve still spent a lot of time.

So to avoid all of those manual steps, I make simple choices PRIOR to importing my audio into Premiere that save me several steps and precious time.

A better method of importing audio

Remember that this is what Premiere starts you off within your preferences:

And this is what I have my preference set to:

Now you’re probably wondering what that all means.

In a nutshell, it means that every piece of audio that I import into Premiere will be treated as a series of mono channels. So, audio from a 2-channel stereo mixer like a Zoom H4N (which is used very commonly in smaller documentary productions) comes in as two individual mono channels. Same with audio recorded on, say, an FS7 or a Canon C100.

Now when I take my audio clips and bring them into my sequence, I get this right off the bat:

I know, visually, immediately, that my left channel is my boom and my right channel is my lavalier, and I can begin cutting without having to make any further adjustments in the timeline.

This works for a majority of the audio I import, but some audio SHOULD be stereo, such as music, or some sound effects you find in a library. Since you typically import things like music and sound effects in separate imports, you can do one of the following:

  1. Quickly change your preferences back to the Premiere default before importing music or sound effects
  2. Leave your preferences as is (they are fine, don’t touch ‘em) and instead select all of your imported music and sound effect media after import, and right click on them, select Modify -> Audio Channels, then change the Preset to “Use File.”

Either way works. Keep in mind that anything you do to your audio files in terms of changing their stereo or mono arrangement, while in the bin, will not affect clips in the timeline—so do this before you begin throwing things into your timeline. Premiere will warn you about this if you do it.

Being organized at the beginning will make for a smoother experience while editing.

Here is what your audio will sound like now that the dialogue is all panned to the center, and the boom and the lavalier are not playing out of separate ears:

The advantages of working with audio in this way

Right off the bat, we can hear in this sample that there’s a little bit of scratchiness to the lavalier. I favored the lavalier audio in an example here:

The reason I like to have my audio separated like this is so that I can quickly lower the volume of that clip with my shortcut keys on the fly:

  • “[“ to lower the audio 1db
  • “SHIFT + [“ to lower the audio 6db
  • “]” to raise the audio 1db
  • “SHIFT + ]” to raise the audio 6db

So while listening to this audio, I noticed I had some scratchiness to the lavalier, and decided instead to favor the boom. I was able to make that change in a few quick keystrokes.

It’s a lot better this way. However, some mixture of the two with a little bit of audio clean-up is probably the right cocktail to make this sound great.

Here are the things I really value in this workflow:

It’s very clean visually and easy to read in the timeline

When you scan a complicated timeline full of audio, video, sound effects, music, etc., it helps to be able to fully expand your audio tracks and have a sense of your audio in a quick glance. Working this way allows me to do that.

Looking back to the timeline example I showed earlier, this is what it looked like after I had the chance to clean it up, make sure all of the audio was panned in the right direction, and remove unnecessary additional layers of audio. So much cleaner and more managable.

It’s easy to remove useless audio channels

I have seen completed videos that went live online with voice coming out of only one channel. This to me says that the audio was recorded with a boom mic, and nothing else, and the audio was set as a stereo pair, making the right channel completely blank. Even if you don’t actually go to air with single-channel audio, it’s an unprofessional mistake even for a rough cut.

With this method, you would have ended up with two channels of audio in your timeline, and the second of the two channels would have been blank. You could have easily deleted it from the timeline, saving you space in your timeline to keep things clean and organized, but also making sure that your only channel of audio was panned center and coming out of both speakers/headphones.

There’s no need to clean it up later

This method just works. At no point during my edit will I hear that my audio sounds kind of odd, or get a note from a producer that they can only hear out of their left headphone. By working this way, I am starting at a neutral zero point, and am able to be in control of every audio decision I make, whether I choose to pan audio myself, or let it all ride down the center.

Often I am finding myself taking over projects from other editors, and having to spend half a day cleaning up the audio in the project so that I can begin working with it. with this method, that is a process that no editor will ever need to do if I have to hand off a project. It makes me look that much more professional to everyone I work with.

It’s a time saver

Just like above, this saves me a ton of time as I’m working. I don’t need to apply effects or worry about duplicating a clip down a layer. As you work, any time spent fumbling around a technical hurdle is time taken away from focusing on creative decisions. Anything I can do up-front to remove future technical issues is time that I am spending on building the story.

Work more quickly

I encourage you to adopt and modify this method of working based on your own individual needs and projects. This works great for me for nearly every project I edit; but I edit a lot of work where I am provided audio that is connected to the video, and a lot of my dual system audio comes into my office from something like a Zoom H4N where two different audio recording devices were used in, say, an interview. There are plenty of editors out there who are currently editing something in the corporate or documentary space where this method would significantly speed up and improve your workflow.

It might not affect you if you are editing a film and have an 8-channel recorder with mono tracks, since those will all have imported as mono tracks anyway. So it’s all relative to the work you are doing.

Hopefully this, or some method like it, will improve the speed and efficiency of your workflows too.

Brian Levin

Brian is a director, producer, and editor based in Los Angeles. He runs a boutique production company called Forge and Discover, which works with brands of all sizes in helping to tell their stories. You can learn more about him at forgeanddiscover.com. He's also one of the trainers at filmeditingpro.com, where he teaches various editing techniques and conducts demonstrations.

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