Creating a Great Soundtrack for Your Photo Slideshows

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Slideshows have come a long way since Aunt Phyllis plopped you down in the living room and fired up the projector to show you 500 snapshots of her vacation in Salt Lake City. While Phyllis was limited to physically narrating the nuance and foible of each slide, today's technology allows you to transform your images into an immersive, multi-sensory experience.

A multitude of creative tools are available that allow you to synchronize the visual and sonic elements of your content into your own unique vision. This article was created to introduce you to some of the tools and techniques you can use to maximize the impact of your presentation.

Make your own audio recordings and easily incorporate them into your work.

One way to add a palpable dimension of reality (or fantasy) into slideshows and installations is to utilize a portable digital audio recorder. You can bring the natural sonic ambiance of your photography's subject matter directly into your slideshow, or create a dramatic effect by layering in sounds that contrast it. If you've never used a portable recorder before, don't fret, they're fairly simple to operate. Many are small enough to fit in your shirt pocket and most allow you to plug in an external microphone. It's possible to hide the recorder from view and attach a small, inconspicuous lavalier microphone to yourself or to your subject. For more information you can read this B&H educational article, and for a breakdown of smaller handheld recorders that capture professional quality sound, check out this B&H Buyer's Guide.

The Edirol R-09 HR recorder includes a remote

Collect all of the visual content before you start working on the sound.

As with most things in life, content is everything. The flat screen TV in your home isn't very entertaining without content, and the same is true for your slideshow (and the B&H newsletter, for that matter). Ultimately, a slideshow tells a story. Whether that story is linear or abstract or somewhere in between is up to you. An important first step is to review all of the images for your slideshow and decide whether or not you have everything you need to tell your story. If something is missing, it's recommended that you go out and shoot some more before you start brainstorming what audio accompaniment will suit the images best. This isn't a strict rule, just a healthy workflow suggestion.

Use a separate digital audio workstation in addition to a compositing application.

There are lots of free slideshow applications available on the Internet, but if you want total creative control over your product then utilizing professional-level production programs is the only way to go. Applications like Adobe's After Effects will give you the ability to zoom in and out of your images, control the speed of the motion, pan across images, rotate, animate, and open up powerful possibilities of expression. Having the ability synchronize the flow of the audio with the visual effects can really take your work where you need it to go. This variety of audio software is often referred to as a digital audio workstation, or DAW.

AutoComposer in Adobe Soundbooth automatically generates music

Instead of using someone else's music, consider creating your own.

There are lots of digital audio workstations available that have gone to great lengths to make the composition of new music as simple as possible. Adobe's Soundbooth (which comes in two versions, one for Mac and the other for Windows) has a unique tool called “AutoComposer” that will generate dynamic musical scores for you with the adjustment of a few simple controls. Programs like Garageband (for Mac) andAcid (for Windows) come with libraries of royalty-free music loops that make it super easy to arrange and compose soundtracks.

When tastefully placed and mixed, sound effects can add power to transitions.

Another plus for using a separate digital audio workstation is that it's easy to place sound effects precisely where you want them in your soundtrack. A bounty of sound effects libraries and royalty-free music beds are available on CD. If you just want to buy sound effects as you need them, you can get a Sonomic Library Card. The card enables you to download sounds from the manufacturer's website al a carte. A sound effect from the Sonomic library is used in the intro of the B&H Web Videos. Listen for the swooshing sound when our logo dissolves at the beginning of this video.

You can remix any song with Ableton Live

It's possible to remix someone else's music to customize it for your slideshow.

A common need during the creative process of making a soundtrack for slideshows or films is the desire to take elements of a pre-existing song and rearrange it to your liking. There could be a short section of a song that you want to loop, or perhaps you want to use the verse of a song and get rid of the chorus. Maybe you're like me and you want to take a familiar piece of music and transform into something completely different. Basic remixing tasks like cutting and pasting can be carried out with any DAW software, but the most powerful audio application for remixing is Ableton Live. Live has unique tools and functionality that cannot be found elsewhere. Once you get your head around some of its basic concepts, the creative potential is unmatched.

Only compress the resolution of your audio when necessary.

In today's iPod dominated world, people tend to forget that MP3 compression strips away a fair amount of the depth and quality of recorded sound. Compressing audio to MP3 (or other compression formats such as AAC, Ogg Vorbis, etc.) has developed into a habit for many people. It's important to maintain a higher level of production quality when the medium you are creating the slideshow for can support it. If your slideshow is going to be burned onto DVD (or any other medium where file size isn't an issue) make a point of not stripping away audio quality unnecessarily. If your slideshow is only going to be used as a stream or a download from the Internet, then it's a good idea to compress.

Ultimately, the mark of a good slideshow soundtrack is that it serves to give your images more power. With all of the creative potential that computer based production brings, it's critical not to distract your audience with digital acrobatics. Tell your story with lucidity, and transport the viewer into the little world you've built.