Monday, March 30, 2009

Audio for Short Films Part 3: Post-Production Sound

One aspect of filmmaking that has taken me quite a while to get a good grasp of is post-production sound. Great audio is filled with its own subtle challenges. Just as many talented people dedicate their livelihoods to working in cinematography, editing, lighting, set design, visual effects, and any of the many other specific areas of the filmmaking process, there are plenty of reason why individuals do the same with sound editing and mixing. The truth is, you may have a great picture, but if your sound isn’t very good, audiences will quickly become annoyed and either emotionally or literally abandon your film. That’s never a good thing.

As new filmmakers unable to afford professionals for each of these areas, we’re reduced to having to figure out how best to pull off something workable on our own. While this sounds like a bad deal, there is an upside. When starting out, we should want to learn as much as possible about the various areas of filmmaking, gaining at least a basic understanding and appreciation of the skill and talent it takes to do any one of those jobs well. Beyond that, if you want to make a living in movies, the more you know about each aspect of filmmaking, the better equipped you will be to make wise creative and business decisions as a director and/or producer.

This being the case, I have been heavily involved with the sound editing and mixing for all of my short films, often being one of (if not the only) sounder editor and mixer. However, on the last two short films I’ve had the privilege of directing, I was able to enlist the valuable help of my brother-in-law, Heber Hernandez, whose audio awareness has really made the difference. While I did much of the audio editing, the actual mix was performed with Heber, in an environment he customized for optimal sound. To conclude the three part series on audio for short films, I asked Heber a few questions and thought I would share those here.

Mikel J. Wisler: What experiences did you had before working on mixing sound for Cold October and Always Reaching that helped you?

Heber Hernandez: Definitely the most useful experience was recording and editing radio spots for variety of purposes on different radio stations, and second would be the producing and editing of A/V material for a Hispanic Missionary Church.

MJW: What are some of the most important things to make sure you can create a good sound mix?

HH: First of all, not being hungry. Then once I’m thinking straight, I ensure that the environment is as interruption free as possible. Something that is very important too is that I need to be very familiar with the acoustics of the room, and of course check all the technical stuff like, speakers in-face. Balance is important. I used a decibel meter to ensure that the mixing brain is right in the middle of all the action. [Also important is,] well synchronized audio vs. video. I make sure that there is not an audio enhancement turned on, like an EQ, on the PA system.

MJW: What kind of sound system did you use to mix the sound?

HH: We used a iMac [2.8 GHz Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM] running Soundtrack Pro [2], with a Harman Kardon Amp with EV S-40 series Speakers, and a homemade Pioneer subwoofer system.

MJW: How important is well-recorded audio from the set to you as a sound mixer?

HH: In my view there are two aspects to sound mixing: the technical and the artistic. The technical oversees the “audio-glitches” that some how made it through the recording, also keeps an eye on the frequencies, decibels, etc, etc. And the artistic side will ensure a smooth connection between audio mix and the story being told.

For the technical aspect it is critical to have a good on-set recording, as that is the foundation of the mix. Having two or three recordings of each scene from different sources is always a good thing. This will save technical time and will allow the artistic side to have more freedom to be more creative, especially when you are working on a tight schedule.

MJW: How much sweetening do you do to sound (adding sound effects, and layers of environment noise and such)?

HH: It really depends on the scene. Here is more or less the process that we followed when mixing “Cold October” and “Always Reaching:”

First there has to be a clear understanding on what is the message that the director of the film wants to portray. Having that in mind, we took a look at the film and made mental notes of what the end result should sound like. Then the fun stuff begins. Each scene will present its own challenges.

There are three types of audio sweetening that we used. The first, is when we added sound to enhance the mood or message of the scene, this could be anything from music, distant rain or thunder, to a loud bang when someone is getting their head banged.

Second, is to cover for original audio glitches or unwanted noise, this one is very handy but we only used it them when it was near impossible to get rid of the bad stuff. Normally we used ambience noise.

Third, is the one that we didn’t think we needed until by inspiration or mistake we run across something and thought, “WOW. . . that sounded really cool, let’s leave it there!” Usually this doesn’t happen but once in the whole project, but when it does . . . it sure feels good.

MJW: Was there a difference between mixing ADR dialogue and dialogue recorded on set? What do you prefer to mix?

HH: Both present their challenges. Mixing ADR for the most part is very clean, easy to manipulate. ADR is very helpful when there is a scene where the circumstances of the set or the nature of the scene makes it near impossible to have a good on-set recording. But other than that, on-set recording will always end up having a very natural, effortless feel to it (of course, unless you are working for Pixar).

MJW: What are some things about mixing the music into the final sound mix that you try to accomplish?

HH: Depending on the project, sometimes music is a character of it’s own, it’s telling the story, and it should be accentuated through the film. Sometimes it is just there to accentuate a mood or to prepare the viewer for what is to come. Either way something that I try accomplish is . . . to not over do it.

MJW: How did you work with the director in creating the sound mix (be honest, if there's areas I should do better in, I'd like to know. That's why I'm writing these articles, to help me learn more about the craft of filmmaking and improve)?

HH: Working with the director was a huge help, when it comes to setting the mood for a scene; nobody has a better feel for that than him. Certainly for all the clean-up work and the technical part of the mix I feel there is no need of him to be involved, however in this case, I was not familiar with Soundtrack Pro, so his help was needed.

MJW: What were the differences between mixing sound for “Cold October” and for “Always Reaching?” There was a difference in gear used to record the audio on the sets for these two films, did feel this made a difference during the sound mix?
HH: “Cold October” was more technically challenging, we had to deal with too many variants in the environment sounds and the recording gear had its limitations too. So we had to get very creative to compensate for those variants. But when working on “Always Reaching,” the on-set recording was so good that it allowed the artistic side to have more time to come up with those happy accidents.

MJW: What did you learn through this work?

HH: The biggest technical challenge occurred before we started the mix, the interface between Soundtrack Pro and iMac optical output would not work right, we wanted to use a optical output from the Mac to get a 5.1 audio mix output to the receiver, but we could only get a stereo DD signal. I learned quickly that all those people writing in blogs saying that “in theory it should work” . . . they do not know what are they talking about.

Also working with the director enlightened me about the artistic side of the audio mix.

MJW: If you were giving advice to someone about to shoot their first short film, what would you tell them about sound mixing, what they should and should not do, and how to get the best results?

HH: If your budget allows it, rent or buy a decent microphone, it will save a lot of time down the road and even if you don’t have great audio mix software you should still have good results.
Second, keep it simple but with quality.

MJW: Do you have any other comments you would like to share?

HH: When most people are exposed to a film the audio aspect gets overlooked, even though it is fulfilling one of the two senses being exposed. Some regular moviegoers don’t even think about how good or how bad the audio mix was, but that is not a bad thing at all. It is actually a good thing. A bad sound mix will become a distraction. Normally, if it is a good mix, the focus will stay on the story and at the end it is the overall experience that will keep the viewer engaged to the film.

Happy Mixing!!!


My thanks to Heber for being a part of this. Again, he stresses the importance of good mix has on the viewer’s experience of your film. He mentioned as well that we tried to do an actual 5.1 Surround Sound mix for the two films, but ended up defaulting to Stereo due to our inability to monitor all six of the channels separately and accurately during the mixing process. This actually worked out to our advantage in two ways: Simplicity and cost.

Let me explain those two: First of all, there is so much to accomplishing a good sound mix that adding surround to the equation means a whole lot more work and a whole lot more potential for problems. A great stereo mix can be quite effective. In the interest of not overwhelming yourself the on your first sound mixing efforts, it’s probably best to just stick with stereo. Keep in mind too that many film festivals playing short films may not have actual 5.1 Surround Sound available. Or, you may be asked to provide your film on a format that doesn’t support Surround Sound, such as BetaSP, DigiBeta, Mini DV, and so forth. In which case, you’re back to a stereo mix anyway.

The second reason I listed above, cost, has to do with the fact that, as I understand it, technically you need to pay a licensing fee to Dolby for distribution of a film in Surround Sound. So . . . should your short film garner some distribution (which “Cold October” now has), you’d have to pony up some serious cash for that right. And given that most short films end up being sold to TV stations over seas that want to play the film from a Beta or Mini DV . . . well, we’re back to reason one now. So keeping it simple was a great idea.

I certainly hope to get to do a Surround Sound mix at some point. But I also hope that it is for a project with a budget for that. Until then . . .

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