The FixersTips and tricks for restoring sound and images in videos that didn't come out as you intended.
Richard Baguley, special to PC World
Richard Baguley is a freelance writer who has made more than his share of video mistakes. Fortunately, he's managed to fix most of them before anybody noticed. Contact him by e-mail.
I try to take good videos, but they don't always work out the way I want. I've got loads of footage that I can't use because either the sound or the images have problems, ranging from over- or underexposure to annoying background noises that drown out the dialogue. You might have experienced such problems, or you might have an old video recording that's deteriorated over time. Fortunately, there are tools available to deal with these problems, and in this column I'll look at a few.
If your video is too dark, too light, or just too unpleasant to look at, the first place to start should be your video- or DVD-editing program. Most contain filters that can do a reasonable job of improving the video.
For example, VideoStudio 9 from ULead, which I reviewed recently, has AutoExposure and AutoLevel filters that can improve underexposed or overexposed video. (Underexposed images look too dark; overexposed images are too pale.) These filters do a very creditable job: They were able to rescue some seriously underexposed video. Most modern video- or DVD-editing programs contain similar filters that can often do a good job of helping to rescue dodgy footage.
EnhanceMovie in action, with a split screen showing how a video looks before and after a filter is applied.
If your software doesn't include filters like these, try a program such as EnhanceMovie from Movavi. This $40 program can deal with a range of common problems such as exposure, blurring, or lack of contrast--which is often a problem with video shot in low light, such as the example in the screen shot attached to this paragraph. EnhanceMovie did a good job of cleaning up my test videos, although it did tend to be somewhat heavy-handed with the filtering: Very underexposed videos came out looking excessively noisy, meaning the filtered images were speckled and looked something like a badly tuned TV signal. Plus, there is no way to control the amount of filtering that the program applies. There is, however, a nice split-screen mode that shows you before and after versions of the filtered video.
In video, images are only half of the story; audio is the other half. Problems with sound can ruin the whole experience. Unfortunately, the microphones on most camcorders are pretty awful, picking up every sound in range except, in many cases, the ones you're most interested in.
One way to deal with this is to add a better microphone. Most camcorders allow you to connect a directional microphone, which picks up sounds from in front of the camcorder only, avoiding noises from the sides or behind. These can be a real godsend if you are trying to record dialogue in a noisy environment.
Alternatively, you could use a wireless microphone such as the Hisonic HS919 to capture dialogue. Clip the wireless microphone to the subject's lapel and plug the receiver into the camcorder. Professional wireless microphones are expensive, but Hisonic's is only $40--cheap enough to buy and throw into your camcorder gadget bag for when you need it.
But a new microphone won't help if you're trying to rescue a video you've already recorded that's marred by annoying background noises like PC fans or the roar of a car engine. Some video-editing programs include basic audio filters that can get rid of some types of noise, but these tend to be less effective than their video counterparts. In these situations, I usually recommend an audio-processing program such as SoundSoap from Bias.
The way this $99 program works is very clever: You find a piece of the sound that contains only the background noise that you want to remove, then click the Learn Noise button. SoundSoap analyzes the noise and then tries to remove it without destroying the sound you want to keep. It is very effective for situations where you have a constant background noise, such as the hum of an air conditioner or an engine revving. With some tweaking of the program's settings, such as the amount of noise it tries to remove, SoundSoap does a great job of stripping out the noise without removing the dialogue. It's less effective for intermittent background noises like bangs, crashes, or cars driving past, but it can still do a lot to clear up the sound and make it easier on the ears. To hear what I mean, listen to my demonstration (it's a 567KB MP3 file).
All of the programs and techniques that I describe this month can improve bad video, but none of them are perfect. The results are never as good as a video that didn't have problems in the first place--which is where the old maxim comes in. Practice, practice, and then practice some more. Many of the problems that I've had would never have occurred if I'd been more familiar with my equipment or had thought more about what I was shooting. But hindsight is always 20/20. It's nice to know that there are tools and techniques to help you fix video that you just can't shoot again.