Bad Sound is Obvious, Good Sound is Invisible
It’s no secret that a lot of my time in the studio is spent cleaning up dialogue. In fact, for a longform documentary I will generally spend more time on the dialogue tracks than on the sound design and mixing. This is mostly because the dialogue tells the story. It’s the main focus of a film introducing characters, setting the scene, and gives context to the content. This applies to films as well as talking-head/interview style docs. The trouble is that dialogue (as opposed to voiceover) is almost always recorded on location and depending on that location, determines how easy my life will be in post production.
In a movie, there is such a thing known as ADR. Automatic Dialogue Replacement. This means that if a scene was shot and there was a lot of background noise or the delivery of a line wasn’t perfect but they didn’t pick up on it on set, they will re-record the lines in a studio after the fact (post). This may be shocking to a few, but around 70% of audio in a movie is recorded or designed in post production. It just allows for a better delivery of lines and an overall more pleasant sonic experience for the viewer. It can often give a mix engineer more flexibility when placing dialogue in different environments and essentially ‘faking’ the room or location acoustics. A green screen scene where the character is supposed to be in a canyon but in actuality is in a studio for example, will obviously not sound like they are in a canyon naturally. This has to be done in post with reverb and EQ etc.
With a documentary this is rarely an option. Most docs and reality shows use ‘real people’ as the storytellers and characters where the producers try to capture the in-the-moment actions and reactions of each person. This results in one chance to capture that moment and more often than not, the acoustic environment is not ideal. Cue the post production audio mixer. In this case…me. To resolve a lot of the issues of background noise there are third-party plugins within Pro Tools that really assist with removing unwanted audio. A lot of them work fantastically by analysing the noise in question then removing as much of it as the user dials in. This works to a degree depending on the sound and the consistency of the sound. If there’s a nice steady AC unit in the room the character was being interviewed in…easy peasy. Analyse the AC tone, apply to the parts with dialogue and it’s usually seamlessly reduced/removed. The trouble comes with inconsistent sounds. One doc I was working on involved most the interviews being located in the pit of a Formula One race. Not only were there revving engines at spontaneous times, but also clinking spanners (wrenches), fans, tires, hammering…an audio nightmare.
When watching a show like that, and here’s my point, most audience members would only notice when something was wrong or they couldn’t hear the dialogue. If there was a strange buzzing happening or other sonic unpleasantry, they may even notify the TV channel of the problem (yes, people still reach out and complain about TV shows). If the dialogue sounds normal and present I guarantee they won’t be writing or even tweeting about what a good job the mix engineer did. Good sound is invisible.
This doesn’t apply to just a dialogue mix either. It applies to sound design. Let’s just simplify this for a minute. A scene at a party where the characters are having a conversation…do you think it was filmed with the music playing loudly and the crowd yelling? It’s all added after. They do that for two main reasons; you wouldn’t get a clean dialogue recording and, at the time of filming, the decision as to what music will be used most likely hasn’t been made or licensed yet. You’ve probably even seen outtakes and bloopers at the end of a comedy movie where something sounds off. There’s no background noise. Every environment has to be created or re-created. That party scene doesn’t sound right without the appropriate acoustic surroundings. Not only is music added, it’s treated so that it sounds like it’s in the room it’s supposed to be in. Are you still following? You don’t even have to be the best sound designer or engineer to add these simple sonic solutions to creating invisible sound. Again, if that music and that loud crowd (not to mention glasses clinking, feet shuffling etc.) weren’t there it would be noticeable, yet you don’t notice when it is there. Invisible sound.
Look at the clip below from the movie Everest. It has dialogue only and it makes the scene so much less dramatic without the music and SFX…
Often production companies overlook the audio budget. It’s usually the last link in the chain of a lengthy production and most the production team have been working on the project for months prior to getting to my studio. Too frequently a weary looking producer is sat next to me overwhelmed by an inbox of a million emails and probably doesn’t care how the project sounds at this stage. Any budget that was assigned for audio post may have been eaten into by other production costs ultimately reducing time in the studio, or unfortunately for me, the post audio being cut all together and the project ‘making do’ with the video editor’s audio. Not to belittle the skills of editors either, I’m amazed at the audio edits I receive sometimes. However, I can often tell when something has not had the audial attention it deserves. When a piece of content is not being aired on TV, it doesn’t have to go through the gruelling quality control process therefore making the Internet a little like the sonic Wild West. And it shows!
I’m going to be a little bias of course but imagine baking an incredible cake and there was little to no attention paid to the icing. It could be the most delicious cake but you would notice if the icing looked bad. I see audio post as the icing on the cake (what an analogy!), it can be present and if it’s done well it isn’t noticed. If it’s bad, it will be noticed and the cake becomes less desirable to eat despite the contents remaining delicious.
In conclusion, audio is an afterthought in many of the projects I work on. The “we’ll fix it in post” attitude is a blessing and a curse in that it provides me with necessary clients but also makes my life difficult when there is a small budget left for audio. After talking to a sound recordist recently, he mentioned that he sometimes purposefully drops the boom microphone into shot on takes he knows have flawed sound. This is at the expense of his own reputation but is in fact doing it for the greater good and ultimately saving time and money in the post production studio. Knowing most people on set will say “that take was great” and not ask or listen to the audio person’s opinion, forced him to sabotage takes. It sounds a little unprofessional but something that I agreed with him about in order to cut down studio time.
Sound will make or break your project, let’s just think about audio a little more…
Send it to a professional folks, that’s all I ask.
Email Kieran@fullenglish.co for rates. ;)