Sound Bites

How Alberto Moreno makes noise for the small screen


In his 14 years at Idaho Public Television, Alberto Moreno has honed the skill of using sound and music editing to enhance the programs he directs. In an endless struggle to innovate, Moreno has become, in the opinion of his colleagues, one of the best sound editors in Idaho.

Moreno is a director and videographer for IPTV, most often for the multiple Emmy Award-winning show Outdoor Idaho. With each new project, Moreno feels the pressure to engage an audience that has been lulled into snobbery by multimillion-dollar TV shows and 30 second commercials with big budgets. In order to get the audience's attention, Moreno says he must not only compete on the same level of quality, but defy traditional expectations of sound effects and music.

One project Moreno edited unconventionally was the documentary Picturing Idaho, a profile of accomplished Idaho photographers like Steve Bly, Mark Lisk and Leland Howard. From the outset, Moreno promised himself that he would not use a certain sound unless it was really happening in the footage. Many documentaries would impose effects like a shutter click before showing a featured photograph. By refusing to do this, Moreno had to re-envision ways to punctuate and drive the show.

"I didn't want to do what was typical," said Moreno. "I knew if I gave myself a protocol, I would stick to it."

Moreno has been developing sensitivity to sound and music since childhood. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and raised in Burbank, Calif., Moreno grew up with a mother who practiced piano eight hours a day. He learned to play guitar and by the age of 16, Moreno was playing in bands around Los Angeles.

At the bidding of a band manager, he changed his name to Alan Austin, which he stuck with legally and professionally until last year.

In 1994, Moreno abandoned the life of a troubadour and turned to an education in communication and film to find another profession in which to settle down. He said that Boise appealed to him because of the "blue skies" and "puffy white clouds," and that the transition from music to television was not as hard as one might think.

"A show develops in the same way a song develops," said Moreno. "I wanted to use other tools of imagery and communication besides music."

Since joining the staff of IPTV, Moreno has gone from work on Idaho Reports, a news show, to hanging off of the edges of the Tetons to get the perfect shot. Sometimes he spends up to 12 hours straight mixing sound and adjusting colors. His tenacity and commitment to finding that ineffable mix of image and sound has earned the respect of award-winning colleagues, directors and writers Bruce Reichert and Jim Peck.

Reichert and Peck have worked with Moreno on Outdoor Idaho and documentaries such as West of the Basque and The Idaho Homefront: WWII and its follow-up, The Idaho Homefront: Of Camps and Combat. They admire his energy and his willingness to push back against their ideas and vision, bringing a perspective of his own. It is this perspective that Moreno happily passes on to interns and students, also offering them his golden rules of sound editing:

Rule No. 1: "Feel the sound." Though Moreno knows every technical principle of sound editing, he emphasizes that students need to understand not only the numbers and decibels of sound, but how to listen intuitively. Two hundred decibels feels like a car's rumble. Three thousand sounds like a baby's cry. There are frequencies that help people relax and others that will make an audience uncomfortable.

"There's a pulse to life, and I try to tap into that subconsciously," Moreno said.

In the documentary Idaho Homefront: of Camps and Combat, a history of the internment camp near Twin Falls and the Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned there, Moreno ended on an open chord with hollow wind pounding in the ears of the listeners. The sound leaves the viewer feeling cold and the music is suspended and unresolved. Moreno said that there was no happy ending to a story about people who were imprisoned and the music reflected the mood of an unsettling story.

Rule No. 2: "The most important thing is the final mix."

Sometimes it means blending several different scores to get the right music. At times, Moreno scraps the real sound from a shot and re-builds it, but with the right tempo and sonic balance to compliment the narration. Moreno used all local music in the documentary West of the Basque to the serene bucolic landscapes of the Basque country. When the viewer sees the city of Gernika on the screen, music native to that area plays.

"He keeps the tone going from start to finish," said Peck. "There has to be a consistency to it—not just on the technical side, decibels and levels—but from a feel."

Rule No. 3: "Know when to leave it alone."

The law of diminishing returns applies to sound mixing, too. Is the deadline a friend or enemy? "The deadline is my friend." Moreno said that the deadline keeps him from ruining a good mix with too much tweaking and adjusting.

"Once I hand the show over, it is done," said Moreno. "It'll take an act of God for me to change it."