The Microbudget Conversation: Tips From The Mix
This week I give you a bonus post and contest. In keeping with what seems to be our “Do Your Homework” theme, we have Grant Edmonds from MixMyFilm.com with some quick sound tips from a sound mixer’s perspective. Sound is always the microbudget killer, often transforming a wonderfully acted and shot film into something no one wants to see or hear. We’ve talked about its importance and ways to get good sound in the field, but we have yet to discuss the value of a great sound mix and how to prepare for it. In keeping with the Microbudget spirit, Grant is also announcing a contest of sorts for our readers. The winner gets the full MixMyFilm.com treatment for their short film of 10 minutes or less. Grant’s company works with filmmakers of every budget and skill level to take your present sound mix and elevate it to the next level. Interested filmmakers should send an email to this blog’s email below with a link to a 10-minute or less short film in progress, or already finished, but in need of a sound mix. Nothing over 10 minutes will be accepted, and you must have full rights to all of your material. I will go through the entries with the staff of MixMyFilm and we’ll select a winner. The deadline is December 1st and we’ll announce the winner December 13th; hopefully posting a link to the finished film at some point in the New Year. Good Luck!
Some of these tips almost come as common sense… yet everyone reading this is guilty of committing these sound crimes…it never hurts to brush up and sharpen your skills.
Sound is often perceived on an emotional level. It can be subtle, where the audience isn’t aware of some ambient background tones steering them emotionally in a particular direction, or it can be not so subtle, when it sounds terrible, and the audience’s emotional state is such that they want to leave the theater. I think most humans are visual people, so as human filmmakers we tend to create films from a visual perspective first and leave the audio to be figured out later. If you are making a micro-budget film, figuring out the soundtrack at the end of the process can be expensive and frustrating, so the following is a couple of words dedicated to helping micro-budget film makers avoid horrible audio.
“We’ll Fix it in Post”: How to tell if your field recordings are good enough.
The first step in trying to judge whether your sound has been recorded well is to listen to it. Sounds simplistic, but you’d be surprised how often we get full-blown distorted audio that no one has checked. We’re not in the business of recording field audio, and I can’t advise how to determine, via field recording gear, what steps to go through to tell if the audio is acceptable, but listening back to what’s on the tape has to be a good idea.
So the question is what can be tolerated and what can’t.
Hums are easy – if there’s just one tone, it’s pretty easy for us to take it out. So if the shot or the scene is perfect and the only problem is a constant hum running through it, let it go. But if there’s a whole choir full of hums then that’s another issue, which brings me to the next item.
Noise that is greater in volume than the desired sound.
If you listen back to your source and your dialogue is surrounded in equal (or greater) parts by noise that you do not want, then you should re-shoot or be prepared to ADR the scene. There are several ways to pull noise out of dialogue but if the noise is greater than or equal to the desired sound, then the noise reduction processing is going to beat the dialogue up and leave it sounding somewhere between slightly odd and tremendously horrible.
Notwithstanding the rule of thumb above, hiss is likely manageable. Hisses sit on the top end of the EQ – often above the dialogue frequencies and can be pulled out. You may lose a bit of the character in the top end but often it is workable.
Most indie filmmakers will be using digital equipment with digital sound; if it distorts, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. I’ve got a couple of tricks that can fix 10% of the problem 5% of the time, maybe a bit more. When a digital recording gets too much level, it gets all brittle and unfavorable; if you hear this in the field, do the take again. We can take the edge off of a couple of syllables but it will never sound good.
Outdoor Sounds (Traffic and Cicadas).
The above mentioned “noise is greater than…” rule of thumb applies here as well. But if the scene is outside, and that has been established in the film, you can get away with a bit more. There are many examples of scenes where characters are yelling passionately over the din of a passing train or the wash of the ocean. That being said, some noise is tolerable if you can establish where the scene is taking place (e.g., a shot of the train overhead). Other outdoor noises are more difficult, like cicadas. Cicadas are amazing in how loud they are and they are pretty hard to extract from a dialogue track. The sound (song) they make shifts in pitch so we can’t just EQ it out. It is also generally close enough in pitch to dialogue that if you try and cut it out you’ll lose the quality of the voice. So, if at all possible, shoot in a cicada-free area. Traffic is a 50-50 sort of thing – depending on the level of tolerance dictated by the establishing shots and how much traffic noise is on the tape. But, as a general rule, we should be able to improve it by 10%.
Nope – can’t take them out. If you’ve got a scene and there is the sound of someone else’s voice in your track, it’s likely going to stay. Unless there is a massive tonal difference between the two, like James Earl Jones interrupts an interview with Mariah Carey – that sort of thing.
Reverberant or Echo-ey Dialogue.
15% (roughly) of a reverberant sounding dialogue track can be dialed back. So if you’ve got a track that sounds really roomy – and that is not your intention, think about re-shooting or ADR-ing the scene. Reverb isn’t horrible sounding, but it may make your film sound less professional.
Wind noise is like anything else – too much of it and the techniques used to remove the noise will leave the dialog sounding thin. We should be able to deal with a single low-end rush of wind every minute. We’ll end up making your character sound a little thin for an instant. It will sound like a natural ebb and flow of depth of voice.
Things to do in the picture edit to help make post sound easier, faster and cheaper.
We’re going to assume here that picture editing is being done by someone close to the project, and that they are hopefully not charging by the hour.
Unless the scene was recorded in an ultra-quiet environment, the dialogue editors are going to need to splice tone in between lines and through the scene. If you come across a one second piece of silence (no breaths, no creaks) lay it in the time line…it comes in super handy.
If you have to edit music in the film, try to make sure that the beats line up so that the music still works rhythmically. It becomes difficult to fix bad music edits if the music event is tied to a visual event.
If you organize your audio tracks within your picture edit, it will save time for the audio people. Break it up into sections – dialogue, narration, music, backgrounds, and sound effects.
-Use the same mic/recording system on the same character within a given scene (all scenes if possible). If not, we may have to spend time matching all of the takes and different mics used.
-Use the best possible equipment. It is not within the focus of this article to discuss the types of gear you might use, but allocating as much money and research as possible will help.
-Try not to use the built in camera mic. This mic can sound pretty bad, has the possibility of introducing noise from the camera itself, and might not always be able to be next to your actor/subject the way a boom or lav would.
-If possible have occasional QC (Quality Control) sessions with material already shot. Assuming that you have more than one shoot day, it could be beneficial to hear the material in a good listening environment where there isn’t a computer ‘whirring’ near by.
– Get as much as you can in the field. Create an opportunity for your sound people (or yourself) to get the best sound possible. Turn off appliances and machines that make noise, move away from the highway, wait until the plane overhead passes – that sort of thing. Also if you have the time, gather sound effects you may need while in the shooting environment. The sound of doors opening, footsteps or whatever unique sounds your set has to offer.
-Anticipate on-site ADR – If you think you may have an issue with the sound of a take, record the actor on set. This will only take a few minutes as opposed to setting up an ADR session, which logistically would be much more complicated.
-Have a redundant recording option. Stuff happens, especially in the digital world; if there’s a back up, it could end up being invaluable.
-Get in touch with your post sound crew prior to shooting, and discuss the project. Get them thinking about how to make your film better. I’d imagine the same would apply with anyone you’d like to bring on board – create a dialogue, get creative input. People work better when the creative parts of their brains are engaged. Have sound effects references for them to look up.
-Hire people who’s work you like and let them do it (subtle note to promote non-micromanagement).
-Gather room tone. At the start and end of a scene, ask everyone on set to be quiet for a minute and record the ambient tone of the environment. Also it’s a good idea for the director not to yell “Cut” or any instructions at the end of takes. One of the main tasks in dialogue editing is filling clean tone between edits to cover unwanted sounds in the track. The pitch of any given furnace, room tone or outdoor environment will change over time. So a piece of blank space at the end of a take can be like gold when dialogue editors are trying smooth out a scene. Even though the “blank” bits at the end of takes are preferred, a minute of room tone in the shot can come in handy.
Overall, what makes sound most difficult is that you obviously can’t see sound, making it somewhat less intuitive to critique or work with. Often when we do our job as sound designers well, our clients have nothing to say; it is the absence of anything wrong that makes for good sound. – Grant Edmonds
It’s interesting how some of the tips Grant gives at the end are overlooked just in the heat of the moment. We often forget to work with our sound crew the way we work with our DP, and we have all failed to get enough tone, extra FX, and ADR on set. It’s time to slow things down, hire more good sound folks, and double check our daily sound just as much as our daily dailies. MixMyFilm.com is a web based post-production sound service launched this fall. It is an outlet for filmmakers and production artists whose budget or surroundings make traditional post sound facilities less feasible. Here are the parameters of the contest if you win:
– Under 10 minutes (give or take)
– User has to give us feedback on the interface
– Must have locked picture by 12/1/11
– Must be able to deliver an OMF (or aaf) with handles + a Quick Time movie (with window burn time code)
– Short summary of what you think your film should sound like, or what the sound issues are in the film
We’d never turn down the chance to hear from you, especially microbudget fans and filmmakers. To become part of the conversation please send us your thoughts, responses, and questions.