As a sound editor and designer, the most important thing
is re-enforcing the visual landscape presented to the audience; providing
an audible focus, and creating sonic cues to match the pictures.
The vast majority of low and mid budget film & TV productions are
set in the real world, or in everyday life that we see around us, so the
sounds in the final production should be sounds that we should all have
heard before in some way shape or form.
This article is about some basic principles to follow and techniques
to apply in creating the sonic landscape to complement a director's vision.
It's about faking what people perceive to be real, as opposed to creating
new sounds from nothing, and it assumes you are in a position of limited
resources and don't have the time and money of a hollywood film budget
to get the sound mix done. I have deliberately avoided talking too much
about working with dialogue or ADR as it's a subject that really deserves
an article in it's own right, even though many of the principles here
do still apply.
In real life, people have an incredible ability to filter out a huge
amount of the surrounding sonic landscape and zero-in on what they need
to hear. We all do it unconsciously and we only really appreciate it when
we're challenged with doing the opposite, such as trying to listen to
two conversations at once (see cocktail
party phenomenon). In the world of reproduced audio with dynamic range,
harmonic content and spatial awareness all dramatically reduced if not
gone, it's your job to be the "human filter" and help decide
what the audience needs to hear in order to make sense of the world they're
The two key priorities which you should remember to help you do this
- Create a world which has distractions removed as much as effects
- Create a world which is believable as opposed to "real".
A director of photography uses light, framing and depth of field to get
the audience to focus on the most important part of the picture. The basic
principle of mixing sound is the same: The focus should be clear, crisp
and sharp while the background is more indistinct, helping to create the
required sense of space and time.
Backgrounds stop becoming backgrounds if they have sounds which too
readily pique your conciousness. Everyday sounds like ambulance sirens,
construction, airplanes, car horns, even the unnecessary rustling of clothes
should all be removed if they're not part of the story, as they and many
other sounds can potentially divert the audience away from the action.
You may be limited by what got recorded with the dialogue but you should
do all you can to get rid of potential distractions. This often means
creating a soundscape from scratch and layering sounds together; a bit
of ambient wildtrack, with a few footsteps and a couple of bird calls
may be all it takes to recreate a lot of outdoor ambiences. But it's important
to remember whether it's background or foreground sounds you're creating.
A shot of people going down a flight of stairs can be a noisy foreground,
but the moment two people on the steps come into picture and starts having
a conversation, the footsteps must be part of the background and not intrude
on the dialogue.
The other key to a realistic soundscape is to think of the one or two
"key sounds" that help the audience very easily and quickly
identify the environment. Airports and trains stations have distinct tannoy
sounds; coastal areas have seabirds, offices have phones and photocopiers,
shops have cash registers and scanners, cafés have an FM radio
on in the background. Throw in just one or two of these in the right place
(particularly with the establishing shots at the beginning of a scene)
and it's often all you need to help convey the location and atmosphere.
Use people's preconceived expectations of how something should sound to
your advantage. But be sparing and don't intrude on the pictures.
This segways neatly onto the second principle of believability. People
often expect things to sound a certain way for film / TV, even when they
don't in real life. I have a really old pair of Nike sneakers which make
a "clip clop" sound when I walk on a hard surface, but if anyone
were to see a close up of them and hear that "clip clop" sound
alongside them it would be pretty off-putting; the audience expects trainers
to sound like Michael J Fox's sneakers in Back to the Future, not like
a pair of high heels! Similarly, if I ask you to imagine the sound of
a car being remote locked, you'll all conjure up the same one or two sounds
that everybody knows they make. Except in the "real world" most
car locks don't make that sound, they make a rather boring "thud",
so in order to maintain the audience's expectations you need to get your
shot of the car being locked to make that sound. Especially if the car
being locked is relevant to the story. The obvious exception would be
if you had a close up of the lock moving, then you could use the "thud"
because it sonically matches what the audience sees.
No prizes for guessing what he's doing...
or what sound this is going to make!
The other situation that is never real but has to be faked for the sake
of the story is when you're witnessing the receiving end of a phone call.
In real life someone standing from the Camera's point of view could never
hear the other side of the conversation, but for the sake of the audience
and the story you have present that "unreality" so people understand
what's going on.
Actors can't keep phone calls secret from the audience
Get some perspective
Where a sound occurs in relation to the action can have as much effect
on it's believability as the sound itself. This is where having sounds
recorded from multiple perspectives really helps, but often you don't
so you need to improvise.
Degrading a sound and making it more distant sounding is much easier
than doing the opposite, so it's important to get hold of the cleanest
and closest version of a sound available. Then it's a case of matching
the perspective to the picture. Take for example a phone ringing on a
desk. An establishing shot with the phone 3-4 metres away needs to sound
different than a close up.
Changing the volume is the first step, but there are other tricks to
help fake the positioning. A bit of reverb on the phone sound (to match
the room accoustic) will help; a "wetter" reverb for the more
distant shot will help shift the perspective. It may be that the story
demands that even the distant sound is relatively "clean" in
which case changing the predelay more noticeable from one shot to the
other may help more than dry/wet.
The other thing that also helps change perspective is EQ. If a sound
is further away, it's generally perceived to have less prominent lower
frequencies. Try using a high pass filter or parametric EQ with a node
around 100-200 Hz and subtly change it from one shot to the next, with
more removed for the more distant shot. It should produce a noticeable
difference which is immediately more subtle yet more believable than reverb
Sometimes what you can see in a picture necessitates a less rigid adherence
to perspective, and more simply what's in the shot. The two shots below
show two POV's of a busker in an underground station. In one you can see
the cavernous background but in the other all you see is the the busker
against a wall.
It looks like a big reverberant space from here...
but what about from here?
Even though the distances from the camera are similar, it makes more
sense to have the front shot "cleaner" because there's less
visual information to back up a more echoey sound.
The great outdoors
Another tricky problem with faking perspective is when you need to take
a clean studio sound and make it sound like it's outdoors. Reverb becomes
a big no no because it immediately creates a sound associated with interiors.
But EQ is still a powerful tool and most outdoor sounds naturally come
across as less bass heavy than their interior counterparts. Exterior spaces
are generally a little rougher and less apparent, and the sense of greater
space naturally creates a feeling that sounds don't need to come through
as clean as an enclosed indoor environment.
If the action takes place in an environment surrounded by hard or reflective
surfaces adding a small delay to the sound to helps it to become part
of the nearby environment. But be very subtle and don't overdo it. As
with interiors, it's more about the change of perspectives to match the
action. Be led by the pictures and go with what feels right and doesn't
jump out as "wrong".
A tiny bit of delay helped place the violinist in a world of concrete
Sound from boxes
An often required trick is to take something that's clean, like a piece
of dialogue or music and make it sound like it's coming from something
else, like a radio, mobile phone or PA system. Most of these sources are
fairly straightforward to mimic. Phones, radios, answer machines and other
such devices need generous amounts of EQ, with most of the lower and higher
frequencies removed, and the midrange frequencies cranked up. What also
helps is heavy compression or limiting and sometimes some overdrive or
distortion to help create that sense of poor quality playback you expect
from small speaker devices. If you are doing a lot of this kind of compression
just make sure you're adjusting the final volume to compensate.
It's not subtle, but it works. Typical “Small speaker effect”
With louder sounds like PA systems, it's not that different. Use similar
EQ & compression but add lots more distortion and finish off with
delay / reverb to match the environment's acoustics.
You'll often find digital editors have dedicated plug-ins (such as "phone
effect") tailored for these kinds of effects. By all means try them
out but I find doing it from scratch is just as easy and generally more
Sounds from other rooms
If you've got dialogue or sounds that need to sound like they're coming
from rooms not directly shown in the picture then again, EQ and reverb
are the tools of choice.
Start with reverb and use a fairly neutral algorithm like a plate reverb.
Get rid of any predelay, move the wt / dry mix to around 50% and use a
short decay time of between 150-300ms. If you have a diffusion option
I'd recommend switching this off and using your pan controls to dictate
where the sound should be coming from.
With your reverb working, use a low pass filter on your EQ to get rid
of higher frequencies. The more you remove, the more it will feel like
it's behind a solid wall, but if the story necessitates easily distinguishable
dialogue then it's going to have to be subtle. Again, losing some lower
frequencies may also help, especially if you need a change in emphasis.
And finally, go back to your reverb's wet / dry control and adjust it
till you've got the right level of "distance".
No digital audio workstation has an infinite number of tracks so when
you're working on processing lots of sounds in multiple different ways
you'll have to decide on a workflow to deal with it. The main choice is
whether to keep effects as real time or to render them off as processed
audio files. It's a trade off between track count (processor demand) and
future flexibility to make changes, and it's a result of not having the
perfect sounds in the first place.
Systems like Pro Tools and Soundtrack Pro give you the ability the automate
just about every parameter of every plug-in and automation can help you
stay in a real time environment when otherwise you'd have run out tracks.
The drawback is the increased complexity in dealing with automating several
parameters of many plug-ins across multiple tracks, which if you're not
very attentive to detail can get very confusing.
If you're less keen on going down the real time route then an option
is to use a clean project and create around 4 - 8 perpectives for each
sound you'll need in each environment, or scene. While this sounds straightforward,
you've got complexity issues here too; you'll need an efficient method
for labelling and accessing sounds, and the quantity of audio in your
project is going to increase quite a bit.
My preferred option is to stay in a real time environment for as much
as possible. Coming from a predominantly audio background I've got comfortable
with having every parameter adjustable with instant real time results
in a way that the processing demands of video still struggles to keep
up with. However if you have more of a video background you might be
more at ease with the "render off and import" style workflow.
One big benefit of keeping processing real time is when you have to
gradually transition a sound from one perspective to another. For example
a tracking shot that follows a subject entering a kitchen with a boiling
kettle, or a change in atmos due to a door being opened / closed. This
is where plug-in automation comes into it's own, giving you the ability
to fluidly track the perspective with the action.
As he walks away, her playing gets wetter
If you don't happen to work next to a foley studio or haven't got the
kit to record sounds yourself there are a number of sites that allow you
to search, download and preview sounds you're after. Here at www.Shockwave-Sound.com
we have a rich and varied library of professional, royalty-free sound
effects for instant download. Visit our Sound
Effects Overview page to get started with that.
Another great site for instant download of royalty-free sound effect
WAV files is www.1Soundfx.com.
Mixing real world environments can be a time consuming but rewarding
process. I think the trick is not to get too hung up on obsessive attention
to detail but get the "feel" right. Spend the time on the things
that are going to make a difference to the audience; the backgrounds that
will subconsciously help them know where the scene is and the foregrounds
that leave them in no confusion as to plot and direction.