The Sound Mix


That was hysterical laughter. I just needed to get it out of my system.

So, finally, finally, I get in the studio with the re-recording mixer. It’s about twenty after four on a Saturday afternoon and Sophie Cornet, the composer, is there too to make sure the cue points are hit exactly. When I arrive they are looking at a scene near the end of the film just after a van has crashed into some boxes at the side of the road. A wild animal is supposed to escape from a crate in the van at this point and the idea has always been to tell this part of the story with sound effects while concentrating on the actors. Instead of a lion’s roar and breaking, crunching timber, however, I hear ducks quacking and a sheep bleating. We are in for a loooooooooooooooooong evening.

Alex Joseph, the sound editor, isn’t there so I can’t ask where the hell the sound effects are. I point out to the re-recording mixer Michelle what’s needed and why and she obligingly digs out various growling noises from the effects library. I mention to Michelle that there are a few effects I would like to pull back to the rear speakers while keeping the music at the front in stereo. Without missing a beat she tells me that this is going to be a stereo mix only, there is no surround sound and they don’t have a licence for Dolby. Even if they did, the tracks haven’t been layed for a surround mix, she says. This sounds like what we in the trade call bullshit.

I realise that no matter what happens these people have just wasted a year of my life. I am ready to start screaming at this point, but somehow I remain calm and relaxed. Okay, inwardly I am screaming and my body language is getting a little tense but I haven’t started crossing my arms and legs. Not yet. Michelle adds a little pressure to help cook me by telling me there is a time limit and she needs to leave by eight o’clock. From the wisdom of experience I can already tell that there is no effing way on this God’s Earth that we are going to be out of that studio with a decent mix by eight o’clock. Dream on.

We look through the film. Let me tell you a bit about audio post-production. This will be educational.

Firstly, the sound editor (Alex in our example) is given a list of required sound effects to provide along with suitable background noise for each scene (atmosphere or atmos) and footsteps for people walking (foley). These are layed down on separate sound tracks (imagine three tapes or more running together in sync) so that in the mix, the audio levels can be raised or lowered, and panned left, right, front or back.

Other tracks are layed down too. These are the one or two dialogue tracks, an ADR track (audio dub recording) where an actor has come back to re-voice their lines, and the music tracks. The music should be in stereo provided by the composer.

Now, on the plus side, Alex has fixed all the holes in the sound so there is atmos running all the way through – traffic noise, birdsong, air conditioning, etc. It’s all there. Okay, almost. For some reason there is a heartbeat effect where I was expecting train interior, but I said to ‘be creative’ so he obviously has. There is also a fantastic evil whispering effect he’s created for the car showroom scene and all of this is excellent.

The foley work has also been done too (which means you can hear people walking, although it’s not something you’d be conscious of unless you were listening for it). There are some great thuds as people fall too and some other superb effects. These effects set the standard for the rest – but the rest doesn’t quite measure up.

The downside begins with there being at least five major sound effects missing, all of which are ‘plot points’ – items which drive the film forward and without which the story makes less sense. These include a lion growling on three separate occasions, children’s laughter, a lone child saying “Mamma?”, a wolf whistle, oh, and a loud train siren. Without that last there is no reason for one character to become startled enough to knock his hearing aid off and without that incident, half the action wouldn’t happen.

Michelle now has to find these things in the library and lay them down before we can get on with the mix. This wastes about an hour and a half. Leaving at eight? I think not. The eight o’clock deadline shifts gradually to eight thirty.

Then we come to the ADR. Conrad, one of my actors, came back last year to re-record his scenes so that we could get a stronger performance. Michelle was sceptical of this at the time, because it’s incredibly hard for an actor to match up their own lip-sync perfectly, let alone change the emphasis on words, and many can’t. Conrad, however, was brilliant and we got it down.

The other thing we did at that time was process the ADR with echo and reverb to match the room acoustic. When you listen to someone normally you not only hear their voice directly but you also hear the echoes of their voice reverberating from any reflective surfaces – walls and ceiling being the main ones. Without those indirect echoes, the speach sounds like it’s been dubbed on (which it has). We did all this during the ADR session. However, last night we find (I find) that Alex didn’t lay that processed sound down. Oh no. He layed down the straight ADR with no acoustic effects. We now have to recreate the effect of Conrad talking in a tiled kitchen.

This is the point where I really want to scream at the top of my lungs. I want to rip the screen down and shove it down Michelle’s throat and say, “What in frick’s name do you think you are fricking doing? This is a feature film facility house. Put the fricking sound through the fricking effects processor and dial up ’tiled bathroom’ or ‘small kitchen’ on the reverb unit!”

The first thirty minutes of the scenario actually seem to involve Michelle EQ’ing (equalizing – ie. adjusting the treble, bass and midtones) of Conrad’s voice. “No,” I say, “you need to add more reverb.” There has been no reverb at all as far as I can tell. Eventually a small amount reaches my ears. “More,” I say. But no more is forthcoming. I cross my arms very tightly and wince as I listen to Conrad over and over again, his face very obviously in the kitchen, his voice very obviously not.

After more blood curdling tolerant waiting, Michelle eventually dials in the effects processor. Hoo-fricking-ray! No. It’s not. The only effect she can create is of Conrad talking in what appears to be the Taj Mahal on a particularly quiet day for visitors. Conrad’s voice is everywhere. Michelle admits defeat. “It’s this effects processor,” she says. Like fricking hell is it. As I say, we are in a dubbing theatre used for 35mm features and commercials, so it’s not likely that something this basic isn’t installed. It is, however, likely that she doesn’t know where it is or how to use it.

An hour and thirty minutes after starting this exercise, we have got no further and I have had to go from extreme irritation to the director’s role of encouraging Michelle to get the best possible results. Sophie points out at this point that Conrad’s lips do not appear to be in sync with his dialogue for the opening shot of the scene. Oh dear. She is right. I am the model of calm as I suggest we drop the ADR and go back to the sync sound. Oh deary deary me. It appears Alex has not laid down the sync dialogue as an option.

The deadline for leaving for the evening appears to have slipped to 9pm and Michelle has phoned her friends to say she’ll be late meeting them. I am keeping the requirement for a second mortgage at the forefront of my mind, so despite the fact I’m not paying for this, I know it’s going to take me years to pay off the cost of a print. That means it has to be perfect. That means I have no sympathy for Michelle’s night out. And I am mad as hell at Alex.

Eventually, at about 9pm, the ADR section is ‘acceptable’ – though not perfect, especially in comparison to the quality work all around it. Michelle has added all the effects I’ve asked for and lost the farm animal sounds (under a bit of protest). Some of the effects (which really should have been there, fume fume) work so well it’s hard to believe they could have been missed. One in particular is a lion growl as the silhouetted head of an actress moves across a shadowy background. After this piece of misdirection, a light comes on her face to reveal that it isn’t the missing wild animal. I’m extremely pleased with this. I want the whole film to be that standard. And it mostly is.

We start mixing in the music track. Michelle has come out with some technical BS to explain why music will always “tend to be mono” (huh?) because “the instruments are mono to begin with”. I bite my tongue. The music is excellent. Well, with one exception. We hired a professional trumpet player and some of his performance is ‘weak’ in my opinion. To me, he sounds off-key in places and hesitant in others. I want to drown this out with loud atmos and effects. I actually want to find out where he lives and do evil things to the source of his livelihood. Then I want to re-record his performance with someone who knows what they’re doing. Other than that, it all works and works beautifully. I weep with frustrated delight.

It is now 9.30pm, however and we are rushing the mix. Some things need to be louder in some places than others. There is excessive traffic noise in parts and I want to get rid of it. We start again. I haven’t mentioned, by the way, how many times the computerised mixing desk has crashed during the evening, losing tracks for no apparent reason and failing to fade things up at other times. I have to keep reminding Michelle that she really IS doing a great job because that kind of thing can break your spirit.

After about ten minutes of the stereo mix, Michelle says, “Can I do you a favour?” I say, “Yes, sure. You are doing an excellent job, please go ahead.” And she is doing an excellent job, it’s true and I’m grateful. She’s sorted out the missing effects and Conrad’s scene is full of music anyway so you can’t spot the ADR. Well, not in a stereo mix. In 5.1 surround it will stand out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, I am feeling positive about it all again.

So, Michelle’s favour is to suggest she lays down all the tracks properly and we do the mix on another day. I readily agree. I can see where it’s going otherwise and I don’t want to spend all that money on a print for something rushed in the last five minutes. We all breathe a sigh of relief and I know it also means I’ll get a Dolby Surround mix because the studio will be licenced apparently by the time we come back. The only thing is, from what Michelle says, it will be four to six weeks before we can get in the studio again.

So I am relieved and tense at the same time. I am creatively fulfilled by some things which are working so well and adding comedy and depth which were previously missing. I am creatively unfulfilled by the fact we still haven’t finished due to all the technical and artistic problems we have had to overcome just in this one evening.

Michelle can now go out and meet her friends – it’s her birthday and she has diplomatically not mentioned it until just as we leave. I resolve to take a bottle of champagne or something in for her on Tuesday morning when she’s next in. It’s the least I can do and I need to keep her goodwill because I want her to continue doing her best work. Sophie and I head off, smiling foolishly in frustration and some satisfaction at seeing that it could actually work. We comment on the lameness of Alex for not getting the effects recorded and tracks layed properly. We say, “See you soon,” with no idea of what ‘soon’ means and we vanish into the night. Eventually I get home and pass out.

And this, my friends, is low budget film making.