What is a “clean break” and how long should it be?

Edge Studio

In our December 2017 Monthly Audition Contest, the Director’s Notes asked for a “clean break” at punctuation. The direction didn’t say how long a break, just that the producer will add time between phrases, in order to match up the video. When a client or director says to pause for “a second” or whatever amount of time, it’s clear enough how long a break to give them. But if no interval is specified, what then? How “clean” should a clean break be?

Note: Sometimes a Director will just say “a break.” You can assume they mean a clean break. Now, what do they mean by that?

See for yourself.

The best way to grasp this situation is to do a bit of editing in your workstation software. Record a sentence that consists of multiple clauses, and pause at a comma, or wherever a tiny pause is logical. Before or after the sentence, leave the mic open for a few seconds but remain silent. This will give you a sample of your space’s ambient (background) noise. (Almost every home studio, and even many commercial studios, have a slight bit of background “presence.”) We’ll call this your “silence.”

After recording, look at the sound image in your audio software, and see where the volume level goes down to zero. (Or, if your space is not totally silent, this will look like the silent part you recorded.) Ideally, you’ll see a flat line. That’s a clean break.

Hear for yourself.

Now, let’s test it out. Copy your recording (paste the copy after the original … no need to make a new track or new file). Then copy half a second from your “silence” section. Position your cursor at the break, and paste the silence. When you play the result, the word before the pause should sound naturally spoken (not artificially cut off), and the word after the pause should sound normal, too. If the first word sounds cut off, then either you didn’t properly place the cursor for pasting, or the break was not “clean.”

Also notice how much effort is required to place the cursor precisely in the break. If it takes a lot of fidgeting, or massive zooming of your display, or trial-and-error, then it’s too short to be considered “clean,” even if it is technically silent for a millisecond or two. The engineer wants a point where the silence can be easily seen, and the cursor can be easily positioned on the first click.

But does it need to be longer than that?

Sometimes you’ll have to think for yourself.

When you’re working live with a director or engineer, this is a non-issue. It’s clear from a single instruction or question. And when you’re working alone from printed direction, instructions often specify how long such break(s) should be. If they don’t, you might even ask for clarification, if there’s time.

But, what if the direction says only “clean break”? Apart from being easily editable, how “clean” should it be? The answer to that might depend on the script.

For example:

  • A list of telephony or Interactive Voice Response prompts:
    1 second
  • A narrated scene:
    1 or two seconds between long phrases, where there will almost surely be a pause of some length inserted when mixing, matched to the video.
  • Reading different characters’ lines (as parts, not finished audio), or separate lines by a single character:
    1 or two seconds between each character or line
  • A “continuous” read (e.g., a radio script) that will require some breaks for timing, but you’re not sure where:
    Pause normally at punctuation, just taking care not to slur words together.

You could leave longer breaks (e.g., a half-second) at the punctuation, but then if the engineer doesn’t want to insert space there, he or she may have to close them up, which is extra work, and may or may not sound natural. Longer breaks can also make you sound choppy, or mess with your character or your own mental focus and spontaneity while reading. (Especially if it’s an audition, there may be a fine line here – the audition screener will want to hear that you’ve followed instruction, but, psychologically, they may be affected by choppiness.)

By the way, if your break is a half second or more, try not to smack your lips or tongue. But mouth noise may be unavoidable sometimes, so consider editing out the mouth click, leaving the desired amount of silence, of course.

And, when the answer just isn’t clear, what then? For example this last sentence from our contest:

“Fun people, too!”

Did the writer put that comma there because it is grammatically correct? Or did they want a pause, even there? There are two possible solutions:

  1. Pause ever so slightly before “too”. If you take the extra split second to finish saying the “L” sound in “people” – let the breath cross your lips – that will allow a clean edit before a sound like “T,” yet it won’t be perceived by listeners as a pause.
  2. Pause just a bit longer, about half a second.

If still not confident about what’s desired, read it both ways, and submit both.

This recording demonstrates three approaches to the phrase “Fun people, too.”
1. Said quickly with no pause.
2. Just as quickly but with the shortest possible clean break after “people”.
3. A short pause after “people”.

What would happen if you were to paste “silence” before the word “too”? In the first of these, the edit would be apparent, because the word “people” would sound unnaturally cut-off. In the other two, it would simply sound like a pause.
Guessing that the client doesn’t need a pause before “too” for matching audio to video, the second is the best choice. It has a clean break that sounds natural, and doesn’t waste the caster’s or engineer’s time, and if “silence” were pasted into the break, it would still sound naturally spoken.

The bottom line: Make the engineer’s job easy.

When duration hasn’t been specified, use context as your guide. Remember that it is almost as much work for an engineer to tighten breaks as to expand them. Ideally, every break and pause will be exactly the right length for the task at hand, whether it be finished audio, or words to pick from a list. (Don’t waste the time of a producer or audition screener by making them listen to extra silence.)

Everything is relative

This is an important skill to know, but it’s not rocket science. Rather than overanalyze when giving your engineer a break, give yourself one, too.

Except for a direction like “pause one second,” none of the terms used here are mathematically described. Their definitions are relative, and if a director or engineer says, “We need more of a break there,” then a longer clean break is what to give them. As the interpreter of the copy, it’s your job to take their instructions – whether vague or very specific – and, working within those parameters, still make your read sound natural.

Is a “clean break” the same thing as a “beat”?

Sometimes a director will ask for a “beat” instead of a “pause” (or will say “pause a beat”). Is that clear direction?

Yes. But a beat is not necessarily a clean break.

A “beat” is a very short delay of some sort, just long enough that the listener notices the hesitation, or (if you would have paused there anyway) the listener expected you to resume sooner. Think of a “beat” as a basic unit of measure, just as in music. But, as in music, the length of a beat will vary, depending on the situation (e.g., the overall pace of the sentence or read, or the reason for pausing, or the character). It might be just noticeable, or maybe a bit longer. It depends on your own internal sense of rhythm, and that of the director. And the director’s own definition of “a beat.”

It’s not even necessarily a pause. Suppose for the line, “Let’s wait a minute,” the Director says to “hold up a beat before ‘wait.'” You can pause very briefly there, or instead you could extend the word “let’s,” or even draw out the “S” sound before “wait.” Any of those would insert a beat into the read, but only a silent pause would be a “clean break.”

So if the Director says “put a beat there,” you’ll have to use your judgment. But if the Director says “break for a beat,” or “pause for a beat,” you know what to do!

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].


Monthly Audition Contest ending Tuesday, January 2, 2018.

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