The Sound

Once you have finished picture editing, you have to prepare and mix your various sound tracks. You may be dealing with five or more tracks, the most common ones being the narration and sync tracks, two music tracks, and at least one effects track. Ultimately, you mix them down into one master track for 16mm films, or two for stereo or video. In film, this is done in a dubbing studio; in video, most of the preparations are completed in the off-line stage. The art of preparing for a mix is the same in film and video, but the actual technique is a little more complex for the former. In what follows, the general principles apply to both forms, but most of the practical procedures discussed are geared to film rather than video.

Narration. As director, you should be present when the narration is laid in to make sure that the words hit at exactly the right spot. Sometimes you may have to do this by making small changes to the picture. Other times you will have to lengthen the narration by adding pauses (blank leader) between words or phrases or by shortening the narration by taking out extraneous words. You have to take care that your editing of the narration doesn't make the text sound awkward or peculiar. For example, you don't want to take out a word and then find that the text finishes on an unnaturally high note or that the sentence ends abruptly.

Also, look again and again at how much text you actually need. If you have a tendency to overwrite, see if you can lose some nonessential sentences at this point. This will help the film breathe.

Music. Music is usually laid on two tracks so that you can always fade one out, if necessary, as you bring up the other. It's also good practice to leave the picture slightly long until you have finalized the music, as you may want to cut the picture to the beat of the music. If your picture is slightly long, then there's no problem; you simply can cut out a few frames. But if the picture is too short, you may be in trouble.

One of the essential things to do, once the music is laid, is check how the music, narration, and sync tracks harmonize with each other. Try to avoid competition. If you have some beautiful music that is more than mood background, make sure it is not laid opposite narration. When this happens, the narration always wins and the music gets lost, because narration is given prominence in the sound mix.

A slightly different problem exists in finding the right balance between music and effects. Many editors put in excellent music and then create very full effects tracks to enhance the film's verisimilitude. That's fine, but make sure the two blend easily. If both are laid down in the same spot, you may sometimes have to choose one or the other, but not both. Either will work alone, but mixed together they may produce a dirty or muddy effect on the sound track.

Sound effects. Some of your sound effects will have been recorded in sync, but others will be wild effects recorded on location or effects purchased from a music library. You will probably lay in the first, together with dialogue, as you edit the picture; the latter are laid down when you have finished the music and narration tracks. In other words, the effects track is normally the last track to be laid. Effects bring the film alive, enhancing the sense of realism. If left out, you miss them immediately.

Effects used to be laid down very tediously on 16mm magnetic track. The standard procedure today, for both film and video, is to send the fine cut visuals to an effects editor who will lay down effects and music against the visuals via a computer using a program called Protools. Generally, we refer to this as the audio work station.

Effects are used in two ways: as spot effects and as general or ambient atmosphere. Spot effects are sync effects of doors closing, guns going off, books dropping, feet marching—effects that must absolutely match the picture. General atmosphere effects add to the mood but are not necessarily tied to a spot source. Thus, in films, you often hear a dog barking or birds singing without ever seeing them.

The main question regarding effects is how much you really need. We can put this another way: Not everything that you see in a film that makes a noise will require a sound effect. In fact, you may use very few. Your goals are atmosphere and realism, not necessarily authenticity. Laying sound effects is not an automatic process but one that leaves as much scope for creativity as choosing and laying the music. Hence, the current use of the words sound designer for the person in charge of effects.

You should always record a minute or so of wild sound on every location. When you lay the tracks, this wild sound can be "looped" either to fill in gaps in the sound or to provide atmosphere.

Dubbing cue sheet. The odds are that you may never even have heard of, let alone used, a dubbing cue sheet. Once considered a necessity, they are now only used in very large productions. In current practice, a good sound work station system will provide you with all the information needed to mix your film. Nevertheless, you might occasionally have to use the old system, with 16mm magnetic tracks, so I've set out the principles briefly below.

The system works this way. Once you or the editor have laid in all the tracks, you need to make a dubbing cue sheet or mix-chart. This is a diagram that shows the entry and exit of each sound on each track, its length, and its relationship to the sounds on the other tracks. The chart will then act as a master guide for the editor and the sound engineer during the mix.

The procedure for making the cue sheet is comparatively simple. The editor puts each track on the editing table, one at a time, and then notes down from the footage counter where each sound enters and exits. This information is entered into a chart, as shown in the following figure. A straight line represents a cut, a chevron a fade-in or a fade-out. Two chevrons side by side, with one inverted, is the sign for a sound dissolve. To make things easier, many editors color code their charts—red for music, blue for narration, and so on.

Studio procedures. The cue sheet for the mix represents your recording master plan, and I like to have two prepared, one for the editor and one for the sound engineer. The editor is normally in charge of the sound mix and tells the sound engineer the desired shadings. However, you as director-producer will have the last word. At the mix, the work print is







TR 4






FX 1

FX 2




















—___ =

Dubbing Cue Sheet projected onto a screen beneath which are running footage numbers, which you check against the numbers of the mix chart.

Projection print. In a traditional mix, only a few years ago, a work print of the film was projected in a dubbing theater where it ran in sync with a number of magnetic replay machines. The capacity for delays and error were extremely high. Today, a video print is usually made of the fine cut film (if one doesn't exist), and the sound is dubbed against the image on a computer.

Mixing the tracks. Your objective is to mix all the tracks onto one balanced master track. You can do this all at once, or you can do it in stages, through a series of premixes before tackling the master recording.

If you have a large number of tracks, say seven or eight, it is simply easier to premix a number of them before doing the master. Here, simplicity and ease are the rationale for your actions. But there may be a second reason that is just as important: You may have to make an "M and E" track before the final mix. "M and E" stands for music and effects, and you always make sure you have this track if you think your film may be translated into a foreign language. If your film is going abroad, say to a French or German television station, they will ask for two tracks, the dialogue track and the M and E track. The station will then translate your English dialogue track to French or German, take the M and E track, and, using both, create a new final mix. The French or the German will then appear to be fully integrated with the music and the effects.

In what order should you do the premixes? There are no rules. Where possible, I like to do a first mix of music and effects (the M and E track), a second mix of sync dialogues, a third mix of the above two, and a fourth and final mix with the narration. If there is time and money for only one premix, then it's customary to do music and effects as a premix, bringing in dialogue and narration for the final mix.

Mixing can be a tremendously tedious process. You must try to pay attention to the way all the elements blend together. Usually, you will screen only half a minute or so at a time; using the mix chart as a guide, the editor will tell the engineer how the sound should be matched and recorded for that section. The recording is rarely perfect the first time. The music may come in too loudly or a certain effect may be inaudible. The second time you try the same passage, everything may work except the music fade. So, as you can see, you bounce back and forth until you are all satisfied and can move on to the next section.

Where the original quality of sound is not very good, it can often be enhanced, or "sweetened," by the studio equipment. A filter can take some of the hum off your track, or an echo can be laid in to emphasize mood.

You are looking for quality of the sound and harmony between the tracks. When you have finished, you must listen to the playback of the final mix. If something is wrong, now is the time to redo it. In particular, you should check this final mix very carefully against the picture for sync loss caused by the picture jumping a frame in the projector during recording.

Film Making

Film Making

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