November 8, 2013

Important Concepts to Learn if You're Going to Work in Sound

Understanding the limits of what you can do when recording sound will help inform your decisions from the very beginning -- making your job easier and your work better in the end. Lights Online Film School is currently open for enrollment in their online film courses, and they've shared some material to give filmmakers a taste of what the coursework looks like in the form of several sound tutorials. Check them out after the jump.

If you're just starting out in sound, it's important to make sure you're learning best practices. One of the more important things to understand as you prepare to work on a film is that your job as a sound mixer (if you're a part of a skeleton crew, your title might just be "the sound guy/girl") starts in pre-production.

The first video talks at length about preparing for recording sound, which starts with reading the script. Some sound mixers, especially when they first start out, show up on the first day of shooting and haven't properly anticipated the possible sound issues that could be present at the location -- often having the dreaded "fix it in post" mentality. In fact, as the sound recordist, you should have the foresight to let the director know if a location he/she has picked for a scene is going to work or not, since oftentimes those details get missed by directors and DPs. Your insight is so incredibly important in every stage of production, as the video below points out:

So, now that you know a few things about how to work and prepare as a sound recordist, perhaps another important thing to consider is this idea of acoustic perspective. In the same way that a camera captures a point of view for an audience see through, a microphone captures a point of -- sound for an audience to hear from. This concept is important when deciding how and from where you're going to record sound, or how you're going to filter sound in post.

An important technical skill to have in your arsenal is how to reduce noise. Whether it's as overt as a helicopter flying overhead ruining your love scene or a subtle hiss from some pipe somewhere, it's important to know the limits of what you can do in post. Of course -- a helicopter is going to ruin that shot forever, but a hiss or hum might be able to be isolated and changed without affecting your desired audio. Though we can't embed the video, Lights Film School offers a great tutorial on how to isolate and reduce noise here.

If you're interested in enrolling in Lights Film School, check them out here. They offer a lot of great tools to filmmakers for free, but their in-depth lectures and programs cost $399 - $549 for 1-year access.

What do you think? What have you learned as a sound guy/girl? What important concepts would you pass along to someone who is just starting out?

Link: Lights Online Film School

[via wolfcrow]

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34 Comments

LOVED this post. Sound is something I've had a really hard time finding good education on online. It's easily one of the top things I need to grow a better understanding of. Keep the sound posts coming! :)

November 8, 2013 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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if you can't get it on the set….adr...

November 8, 2013 at 3:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DIO

Historically, many non-Hollywood productions were all ADR/looping. One advantage is that you don't have to worry about framing the shot to avoid the boom mic or its shadow, which can give you a lot of semi-wide shots containing dialog. Another is that the director can serve as a sideline coach and give points live during the filming. (Nathan Lane was once talking about his experience with Sergei Konchalovsky on Letterman. During an action scene, he said, Konchalovsky would keep giving commands/directions, something like, "Move your head up. Pause at the X-spot for two seconds, then knock at the door", etc. and the actors were at first aghast until they realized that the audio would be created in post) The third is that you won't need as many takes because you're neither worried about the sound nor a perfect performance from actors.
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The negative side effect here is that the audio can sound too sterile when spoken into a mic from a few inches away and the proper mix takes too long to finish. Then, of course, you have to make sure that Mr. Ed can talk.

November 8, 2013 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Check out the old Sergio Leone westerns - completely ADR. It's not always pretty, but it can be done :-)

November 8, 2013 at 4:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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In Leone's favor was that he had no dialog! ("Once upon a Time in the West" allegedly only had 15 pages of it ... John Ford was also known for turning a 110 page script into a 40 pager ... "too many words for a western")
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PS. Yes, I know. Sound is more than just dialog.

November 8, 2013 at 6:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Bela Tarr's films are also completely ADR.

November 9, 2013 at 12:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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GE

And not just the dialogue, but the soundtrack as a whole is constructed in post-production.

November 9, 2013 at 7:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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GE

I used to work in post production sound at Universal Studios (look my name up on IMDB) for a number of TV shows. Before that I did pro boom operation for various small jobs in LA, and I worked at USC film school as a sound mixer and score recorder. Here's what I would recommend to any aspiring sound people.

- Always, always, ALWAYS go for a dedicated good boom microphone on set. Every. Single. Take. I don't care if it's hard, I don't care if it pisses off the rest of the set, make it happen. Advocate for your role on set and get in there. Insist on going to any location scouts. If the location is no good for sound, say so. So many times sound is give the short shrift and told they can fix it in post, and sound people need to speak up and assert themselves as valued members of the crew giving their expertise. If you really really can't get a boom in the shot, talk to the AD or the DP and see if there's some way sound can be accommodated. Remind producers who tell you about wasting money or time about the extra time it's going to take to ADR this scene in post because of a few simple steps people didn't take on set like turning off a fridge or AC unit or covering a generator with sound blankets. It's amazing what a few conscientious steps can do to reduce on-set noise, even having actors remove their loud shoes (that aren't on camera) saves so much hassle later on.

- The fellow who said "if you can't get it on the set...adr," well I have to disagree. Most of the time even if you think you can't get it on the set, you can at least get something to use as a guide track for the ADR recording, and hey, on some low budget stuff ADR is not an option. On some episodes of the shows I worked on the guest stars were a little tough to get a hold of after shooting so it was a bit of an open question as to whether we'd get 3 lines or 15 lines out of them when they eventually came in. A lot of ADR is worse in performance, is recorded with a different mic (which is a dumb idea) and then sticks out in the mix. ADR is not a cure-all, and usually is an option of last resort. Don't rely on it.

- What about body mics? On a pro set, every actor in the scene has a body mic, and there are 1 or 2 booms to cover the action. The mixer can mix all this into a cohesive comp track that is stereo, and then use extra tracks for the individual microphones. You can use metadata to label which character has which track, which is awesome. When I worked on "Life," our fabulous sound mixer Steve Teebo was so meticulous, and all the metadata on the HD recorder was perfect, so when I wanted to switch to a specific boom or body mike for a line, I just right clicked on my comp track in Pro Tools and it was all there and assigned and ready to go, labelled perfectly. Made my job way easier. Again, a little meticulous care by the production sound mixer can reap insane benefits down the road. And it's rare to see production mixers coordinate with the post people to ensure this synergy. Steve was a diamond in the rough. On some shows I've had production mixers flat out refuse to give me the original raw mic tracks when I've asked, insisting their crappy comp mixes were way better and easier to use. Don't be that person.

- Let me reiterate - Boom. Every. Shot. Even the stupid little inserts where someone hands someone a book for one second or whatever. Even if you don't plan to use the sound - the sound you do get can be a scratch track for foley or fx. There is no such thing as MOS. Ever. If you can, augment your boom with 1 or 2 body mics to get people who can't be gotten with boom, but don't rely on the body mic to save you, they sound fundamentally different than booms and you will hear the difference in the mix. It's hard to even them out and make them sound like the same source.

3) In post, a good dialogue editor is worth their weight in GOLD, and to me it is what separates a shoddy low budget sound post job from a quality post job. Effects editors are very talented and creaive but Dialogue editors make magic. Dialogue editors are like photoshop artists for the production track, they go in and massage the production sound, remove unnecessary clunks and noises, smooth out background noises so it sounds like a continuous track, find alternate takes of specific words or syllables that can be used to replace words that have noise over them (invaluable for reducing the ADR load, which is always a goal). It is a difficult but learnable skill, and it's a skill that there will always be a need for. If you can do it well you will work consistently in the biz. I was a dialogue editor and it was the best decision I ever made about my sound career. Not only was I in demand all the time, but the best part was because my job was so technical and specific, I never had to deal with a producer coming in to give me notes about the sound, which my effects editing brethren often had to deal with. A good dialogue mixer on the dub stage is also a great asset. Like many things in sound, dialogue is one of those things where the best work is not noticed because it is meant to be invisible.

Any other questions? I love talking about my old job. :)

November 8, 2013 at 8:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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This was awesome, thank you!

November 8, 2013 at 8:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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brent

Double awesome.

November 9, 2013 at 12:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony Marino

Triple Awesome.

November 9, 2013 at 12:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I have an AT hypercardiod mic and a AKG shotgun, I do quite a lot of interviews for docs. Sometimes we interview on the street and sometimes indoors. I've used both mics in both situations, but I almost always prefer the hypercardiod to the shotgun. I'm just wondering if the shotgun is not sonically up to the job. The AT seems to achieve really good results, even in a street situation. Is the hypercardiod really only an indoor mic and I should look for a better shotgun?

November 9, 2013 at 7:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robbo

Depends on the situation. For me (and this is only me) a really great cardioid shotgun like a Sennheiser 416 or the warmer MKH-60 can do just about anything. You only bust out the extreme hypercardioid like the Senn 816 when you're just so far away you need to record from 20 feet away.

Again, this is just my opinion, if you have the money to invest in one great microphone, I'd get the Senn MKH-60. Used it for years, would use it anywhere. Different folks have different opinions, but that's where I'd go.

I work with young people now, mostly in middle school, and we use a Rode NTG2, which is fine and dandy for their needs.

November 10, 2013 at 12:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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It's also possible that it's that AKG mic specifically that's not that great, and that it's not the pickup pattern but the microphone itself that's the problem.

November 10, 2013 at 12:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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comboooo awesome Marcelo!

November 9, 2013 at 8:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Alex Mand

Wonderful post … I have Bill Oliver to thank for the little I picked up working with him. He was from an old Hollywood family and (I'm not sure if he's still with us?) a very good soundman and editor.

November 12, 2013 at 9:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Quad awesome thanks.

November 14, 2013 at 7:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gary

Time to author some articles for NFS, Marcelo. Seriously.
NFS staff… recruit this guy!

November 20, 2013 at 11:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Great advice! I can absolutely attest to the pre-production preparation. Another great tip if you're starting to work with larger groups of people is knowing and respecting the chain of command. If you're on set and you notice something that could help obtain better audio or get a better take in general, approach the director and let them know your advice, or if the director is busy then tell his/her assistant to relay it to the director. When you are working with larger and larger groups of people, breaking the chain of command gets confusing even for something that might seem as simple as telling an actor or extra they made too much noise and not to do so next take. Let the director know as perhaps those nuances are something the director would like to keep, ultimately the choice is up to them.

I just finished post production on a short film that I was also production sound guy on. It was a really small crew but we were doing a shoot in an old-fashioned railcar for a western themed story and the seats were all really old leather and wood. This led to a huge amount of "fart-like" noises when the actors would move in the seats, and lots of wood creaking noises. My first instinct was to just let the actors know they're making too much noise and moving around was the culprit, but I also didn't want to start directing the actors on how they should play out their scene. Instead I let the director know after the first take, and he was able to discuss with the actors a solution that fit everyone's performance so that the dialog track and other audio channels would still be able to capture useable material.

November 8, 2013 at 3:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Don't forget that for every guy doing video on this planet there are a dozen guys out there doing music or something related to audio who already have a head start with sound recording (and the jump to location sound is not a huge leap for them). Many of whom are keen as mustard to get involved with film. I'm all for learning skills, but instead of wasting 6 months learning how to do something you could just collaborate and get shooting.

November 8, 2013 at 3:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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totally agree. I'm a big fan of focusing on one skill and become really good at it, and letting other people be really good at other things, and then all working together.

However, I think as a goof filmmaker you'd ought to at least understand all aspects of it so that you can communicate intelligently with the other departments.

November 8, 2013 at 4:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Totally agree and especially post production audio, there are lots of recording studios in your city with guys who are experts at audio. My personal suggestion is going to someone who is experienced with the MODERN style crisp RAP vocals to re-run your dialogue through their dedicated compression and eq chain to give you those stand out vocals that would differentiate your film from the other Indies at festivals or theatres or just online

November 8, 2013 at 4:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

Have to disagree on this. Excessive compression on dialogue is a big no-no in the theatrical space. A little bit to even out some of the inconsistencies in vocal performance is fine, but juuuuust a little bit.

In general I think that while there are many people who are talented at audio, being talented at film sound post is a completely unique skill. I know a LOT of great musicians and recording engineers who can go in and record a band in no time who would flounder and die on a film dub stage. I myself couldn't record a drum kit to save my life, and I've been on some of the biggest dub stages in LA doing just fine. They are different skills and while some basic principles are transferrable, a lot of them are not. They just have different aesthetic goals, and so the creative decisions you make are going to be different because you're going for different things.

November 10, 2013 at 12:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Very fresh post. Thanks V Renée!

November 8, 2013 at 3:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Travis Jones

One more lil tip - the big secret to boom operation is to use your legs to move the microphone, not your arms and shoulders. What I like to do is to make a check mark with my front hand (using my thumb and forefinger) and rest the boom pole on that, right at the balance point where the microphone will tip downwards. Then with my rear hand, I gently push down on the back end of the pole until the mic is where I want it. Once I'm set, my upper body doesn't move, I use my legs to turn my whole body back and forth if I need to cover different places in one take.

November 8, 2013 at 8:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Fantastic comment, Marcelo.
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A question - why not wire a set with a bunch of overhead/boom type mics and then have the lavs on every actor with a speaking part anyway? It'd sort of reminds me of an old (l50's - early 1960's) drum sound recordings where a 3-mic or a 4-mic type of a setup was basically the only option due to the only 3-4 tracks being available on the tape machines of that era. (as the tape recorders went to 8-16-24 tracks in the late 60's-early 70's, every drum/cymbal in the kit got its own mic and was one of the reasons the rock drummers went from a fairly simple 6-8 piece kit to whatever each drummer felt like putting together)

November 9, 2013 at 12:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Cost, for one. That's a lot of gear. Logistics too, that seems very complicated. Also because fewer and fewer films are being shot on stages, and those that are, the stages don't belong to the crew, so why go through the trouble of wiring a space like that for sound when you just have to strike it at the end of the day? Production sound these days is designed to be mobile and nimble, to adapt to any set or location using the same rig. This makes the production sound mixer's job super easy.

In the old days they did this because the mikes were just too heavy for dedicated boom operators. Now that mikes are light and boom poles are made of carbon fiber you can follow an actor no problem.

Also it'd be annoying to have an actor walk across the room and have to switch to different audio tracks to capture him. Much easier to have a boom operator follow him.

In general good production sound crews do something similar to what you describe - they cover every actor who is speaking with a lav, and then run two booms to follow the conversation as needed. It's like a mobile version of a room wired for sound. On the indie circuit you're lucky if you have that kind of luxury. More often you get a boom a two lavs, make of it what you will.

November 10, 2013 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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the audience does not forgive bad sound

November 9, 2013 at 4:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DIO

Hi! I would like to ask for opinions and perhaps tips on this.. I have been doing a technique I call "Reverse ADR(I called it that because I dont know what to call it.. or maybe this had already been used.. idk really xD)" for quite some time and have pretty much worked a lot for me and some of my films.. The idea was to replicate the concept when doing a music video shoot.. where they play the song on set and the actor would just sync his/her lips with the pre-recorded audio.. The key is proper planning.. I do this a day or a couple of hours before shoot so that they wouldnt forget what they have said on the recording session.. Now with this, Iam able to not just able to direct a dialogue and its mood ahead of time but already be able to cut and add ahead of time.. Plus, I get more of vision of how the shoot would go and get few reminders as well.. Also we could mix in the dialogue and decide on how soon the actors would speak for more dramatic points.. Its like pacing but with the way of sound.. Then when its time for editing, I get 100% sync and have a very clear and dialogue then I could just add in some room tones, extra noises, additional sfx and all of them good stuffs..

.. Now I was wondering if this is actually a good idea or not and was hoping to get advice from pros :).. Thanks :D

-Impactor

November 9, 2013 at 10:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Impaczus

I'm not sure I completely understand what you're saying when you describe your technique. Do you mean that you record the ADR before the shoot, then play the recording back on set so the actors use it as reference for the actual take, then sync the pre-recorded ADR and the visuals from the take in post?
If that's what you mean, I think that's a terrible idea. I can't imagine any situation where this would enable you to get a better performance out of your actors, and at the end of the day that is much more important.

November 9, 2013 at 6:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brian

Agreed. Priority 1 is the performance of your actors. ADR destroys that performance and should only be a last resort. In many cases I've had directors go back to bad production sound after hearing the ADR, deciding that it was better to have dirty production sound with honest performances than clean cheesy ADR. And that was totally the right call.

November 10, 2013 at 12:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I was with you until the part about removing the fan noise. While this is mostly true, lately there is the technology to do so to a much greater extent. One of many current options is Adobe Audition. See http://tv.adobe.com/watch/learn-audition-cc/using-the-sound-remover-effect/
We still should strive to make the original recording as clean as possible. But as we know in doc films especially, you don't always have the luxury.

November 9, 2013 at 2:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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ronn

No no no no no no. Sorry, dude, have to disagree.

Noise reduction is NOT an answer to your problems. Noise reduction has indeed been improving, but it still eats into the organic nature of the human voice, makes it sound hollow and robotic. A little bit just to clean out the edges is not a big deal, but if you have a fan in the room, figure out how to deal with it on set.

I understand that in stuff like docs you may not have the luxury of doing it, but honestly, in documentary the main goal soundwise is that the dialogue is intelligible. As long as you meet that standard you can leave the fan in without eating away at your dialogue with lots of noise reduction. With narrative fiction films, the standard is a bit higher - dialogue must be intelligible AND clean and free of background noise so that the sound editors can add their preferred soundscapes in.

And look, sometimes you're gonna have a little AC. It's okay to have some room tone in there. Don't obsess about having the most pristine crystal clear sound. Just do what you can on set to minimize, record well and intelligibly, and then edit judiciously to smooth it all out. In the mix, you don't necessarily hear low background noise if it's constant and level throughout. It's when the level changes from shot to shot and you have to ramp in and out of it that it becomes a problem. So as a production sound mixer as long as you endeavor to keep your background noise at the same low level from take to take to take you should be fine. Don't be playing with the volume knob like you're a DJ.

And noise reduction is like truffle oil - use sparingly. There is no plugin or magic mix formula that will save you. What will save you is good prep on set, good recording practices, and solid editing and mixing that focuses on clean, intelligible dialogue and clear artistic decision-making. Sound is like Zen in this way - less is more, and forcing it often makes your tracks sound worse.

November 10, 2013 at 12:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marcelo, excellent advice, and I agree with everything you've said. I'm new to movies, but I have been an audio engineer since the days of razer blades and grease pens. Digital noise elimination has been a pain in the butt since FOREVER. (Remember Dolby B, and C?) I have some of the best best noise plugs on the market, and even with surgical tweaking, there is a HUGE compromise to whatever they are applied to. The iZotope stuff is the best, IMHO, but should be used as an absolute last resort. I like your idea of TWO boom operators, because we have had nothing but problems using one. (balance and distance issues). My question: you mentioned heavy compression as a no-no on dialog, and I understand this, although I had to learn the hard way: heavy compression makes the noise floor go higher, and all of the sudden the actor sounds like they are in a wind tunnel. But what about EQ? When I am mixing vocals of ANY musical genre, applying a hi pass filter is the first coarse of action. But in film I have noticed that so much dialogue I hear has all of this energy in the 100 Hz range, is it common to leave the bottom end intact?

November 17, 2013 at 7:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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