Audio Budgeting For Visual Media: "To Spend, Not To Spend and How To Spend?"

February 7, 2018


Audio budgeting for visual media projects(Films, Games, TV and Advertising) has always been a point of contention. There's always the talk of: How much is appropriate? Is it worth spending? How to allocate? Do we need to spend so much on audio? Can we spend less? Why spend so much for audio?! etc For those who understand the audio production processes and work flow would know that audio isn't just...."sound".


There're many facets and technical roles involved in audio production. First, we have the 2 broad categories of MUSIC and AUDIO POST PRODUCTION. In music alone, we have talents roles such as: Composer(s), Arranger(s), Orchestrator(s), Score Mixer(s), Recording Engineer(s), Mixing Engineer(s), Musicians. And in audio post, we have more: Sound Designer(s), Foley Artist(s), Sound Editor(s), Music Editor(s), Dialogue Editor(s), Recording Engineer(s), Dubbing Mixer(s) etc. It's not complete, but you get my point - It's quite the party in the house.


It takes a dedicated and passionate crew to craft beautiful sonic experiences into visual media projects. As with everything in life, good things that adds tremendous value don't come cheap. And with a sizable crew, the bills often add up. Whenever someone decides to cut back on audio spending, what they don't realize is that less people gets hired, quality talents are out of reach and few have to handle the task(s) of many. With tight deadlines and a heavy workload being commonplace, the end result can be often far less than satisfactory.


Therefore, it's very important to know what are some of the audio budgeting practices that are out there, and the types of outcomes that are typically expected to come along with it.


In this article, I will discuss the 3 most common budgeting methods being used and elaborate on them as comprehensively as possible without getting overly technical. It's important to note that there's no right and wrong to this, though some are more effective than others in attaining good results.


Result Focused Budgeting


Result Focused Budgeting is when a budget is worked out based on a pre-determined end result. A development team can decide early on what they're expecting audio wise and design a budget around it.


For example: If a film director knows very specifically that he/she wants to engage composer A, orchestra B, studio C and a cello soloist D for his/her project, he'd work out the cost for the aforementioned and factor them into the overall budgeting.


The advantage of this method of budgeting is that there are few to no unexpected surprises down the production pipeline, and talents engaged are usually selected for their creative/artistic suitability without as much consideration about prices as compared to other methods of budgeting. Good examples of this type of budget practices would be almost every highly acclaimed project you can think of. The directors/producers/financiers of these projects understand very well the intrinsic value of well crafted audio experiences and its role in delivering a wholesome entertainment experience to their audiences.


Of course, projects that can afford to do this are typically those that have the financing power to hire whoever they want, but I would beg to differ to the argument that this can't be practiced across the board. A dedicated content creator should be able to hire talents of their choice(within reasonable means) if they have the adequate ability to raise the money to realize their creative vision at any cost.


Left Over/Afterthought Budgeting


Left Over Budgeting is when a development team allocates what's left over only after allocating everything else. With this path, the budgets left over are typically very meager and options are often limited. The talents are usually scouted and hired primarily for price and not creative/artistic suitability. This type of budgeting is often practiced by teams who are inexperienced and/or have very little regard/understanding for the audio end result.


I'm sure everyone has been taught to "live/spend within your means", and applying this into the realm of audio budgeting is not a bad idea at all. But when audio is left towards the end as an afterthought and only spending what is left over usually sparks a series of issues. For starters, instead of having the focus on hiring someone who can fit into the creative vision of the project, the focus is shifted to "Who can we afford?" or "Who is cheap/inexpensive?" Some may be lucky enough to be able to find inexpensive talents but I'd say most of the time the end result is quite deplorable.


I've encountered many projects(high production budget with big named actors) with stellar acting, captivating screenplays, beautiful imagery but plagued with horrible music and audio - And most of them fall into this budgeting practice, mostly due to little/total disregard to audio. It could also be bad hiring choices but mostly it's because of the unwillingness to spend what is needed to attain a high quality audio experience.


Rule Of Thumb % Budgeting


Most people are taught about this as the general rule for allocating budgets for the different aspects of production needs. A certain % for actors, set design, equipment, extras etc etc. There is also a rule of thumb % for audio, and that golden number is set to between 10-15%.


To me, this is actually the best budget allocation method there is...when it's done right. Why do I say so? Because this is a very honest and fair way of distributing funds with the goal of creating a wholesome and proportional end result.


For example: A $100,000 budget project will have a maximum audio budget of $15,000. And although $15,000 doesn't sound like a lot of money, the value and quality of audio produced with that budget is proportional to the overall budget of the project. Smart hiring of the right people can still deliver tremendous value and result. And if we bumped it up to a $10,000,000 production budget, hiring options will be adjusted to the budget of $1-1,500,000. The former's budget may only allow the hiring of a string quartet, but the latter's opens up the possibility of options ranging from string quartets to a 100 piece orchestra.


Of course, doesn't mean that if you have a $1,500,000 audio budget means that you absolutely need to spend it all. All it does is opens up a lot more options than it did when the budget was smaller - In simpler terms, it just means with this method you get to "work within your budget"!




I'll have to emphasize again that there's no right or wrong with practicing different budgeting methods. It can either be situational or personal. Ultimately, the goal should always be geared towards producing a project with high creative as well as commercial value - Which, in a perfect world, means that both the visual and audio components are equal in quality, presentation and execution. And a good budgeting practice is the first step towards that direction.


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