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Some Things About Sound
By Carmen Borgia

I was at a screening of a documentary that I had mixed for HBO a while back, enjoying the free drinks and feeling pretty darned proud of myself. I asked the editor of the film what projects might be ripe for mixing, and he said, ďNone. Everybodyís mixing in their Avid or Final Cut systems.Ē I asked how that could be, and he told me that buyers werenít budgeting for sound work because editors can just mix in their own systems. Any expenditure for sound would be coming out of the pocket of the producer.

After a theatrical bout with anxiety about my career becoming obsolete, I skidded into a place of some perspective. I mean, just because the insurance company makes dentistry an elective procedure, you still have your teeth cleaned. You do have your teeth cleaned, donít you? Letís review.

Sound is half of your film.
Good sound makes your film viewable. Slow scenes play faster and dialogue is comprehensible. Itís one thing to keep your audience hanging because they are meant to realize a crucial plot twist at a certain moment, itís entirely another to expect them to watch your leading lady move her mouth unintelligibly while buses pass on the street behind her. There is also an effect known as ear fatigue, where a listener loses focus on the film while listening to sound that is distorted, overloud, noisy, inconsistent or marginally intelligible. In a movie theater, where the viewer is captive, it is rude to stress his ear. In front of a TV, one may leave the room or just turn it down.

Good sound is not just a neat addition to an otherwise completed film. Sound works with picture to produce an overall effect on the viewer. You can prove this by playing different music, effects, narration or dialogue along with a given image and observing the varied results. Sound and picture combine to create a single impression at the moment of viewing.

Bad sound is a veil between the viewer and the viewed. Sound is not only half of your film; it is half of your actorís performance (or your subjectís interview). Whatever lets us get closer to them gets us closer to the soul of your film. A good microphone in the right position before a great performance is the best thing in film sound. If your film concerns itself with pain, suffering and alienation, it is a sign of artistic achievement to evoke these emotions honestly, through story and acting, and not with a distorted dialogue track. A joyful scene recorded well is more joyous; pain, recorded beautifully, is more painful still. Good sound brings the viewer closer to your film.

Other artists involved with a film may allocate attention, care and budget to sound in proportion to how much light it catches on screen. The twist here is that sound is important because it is invisible. Sound works continuously on each of us, even when we are not paying attention. A sound will draw attention to a point on the screen, or cause the viewer to relax or be viscerally startled, will modify the tempo of a scene or distract in a subtle way. A well-placed sound will make a viewer shift attention without being aware of having done so, and it doesnít have to be very loud to accomplish this.

My favorite misconceptions

It sounds fine on the Avid.
Not really. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Youíve memorized your film in the course of editing it. It is difficult to judge how the sound is playing when you already know all of the dialogue.

  2. Your room is not optimized for listening. Noisy computers, drives and ambient sound in the room mask problems. Itís like doing a color correction with the sun shining on your monitor; you just canít tell whatís going on.
    Visiting your local sound professional for an evaluation (at the very least) is a good reality check for your project.

Sound people are too picky.
Letís be clear, Iím not talking about audiophile-grade sound. I donít mean liquid cooled speakers, that big fat wire, a particular recorder, the exact mic on the stick, 5.1 surround, or whether it is analog or digital. Any decent system operated competently will deliver good quality sound. A skilled operator will compensate for lesser equipment better than great equipment will make up for poor engineering.

For the sound in your film to function properly, the basic production sound of the film must play smoothly and with the proper amount of ambience. Think of this quality as sonic continuity, which in most cases you can only can craft in post-production.

The finished sound plays differently over different speakers, over different systems and in different rooms! Itís true! Itís confusing! But over the years, sound people have developed means of achieving a final mix that plays as well as possible on the widest variety of systems. We say that such a mix holds up well.

Just clean it up.
This is the most popular request I get in post, it implies that the sound was soiled in some way, and all I have to do is sort of hose it off to be ready for consumption. In fact, itís more like making a quilt. I take a bunch of pieces of separately recorded audio and arrange them in a pleasing and sturdy pattern to sound contiguous. I evaluate each piece by itself, and in relation to the sound around it, processing is applied and levels are set as needed. Itís not exactly a mystery how I do it; I listen, I adjust, I check the meters from time to time, I ask the client if it suits to taste. I know what my gear does, and what knob to turn.

Itís mystical.
No it isnít! It is a learned skill that uses tools to achieve a desired outcome, which determines how your film plays. It tends to be a labor-intensive process; an accumulation of overall effect attained by adjusting a myriad of small details. I obtain best results by this approach as opposed to processing a poor mix through a special box or program. We win an inch at a time.

Itís too expensive.
Sometimes it is. Although each clip of audio must be evaluated and either fussed with or left as is, digital audio workstations (Pro Tools and others) do make the meat and potatoes work go more quickly. Also, there isnít necessarily one perfect mix for a film. Most sound mixers will be happy to discuss options to fit your budget. You must have reasonable expectations; it wonít sound like Star Wars for a thousand bucks, but that budget might be enough to keep the audience in the film.

The mixer will scorn me for the poor quality of my sound.
No! Sound people are like surgeons. We love a juicy injury! If it didnít sound worse, we couldnít make it better! We blend the unblended. We turn it up. We turn it down. We filter out the crud when we can. We add things to hide problems and enhance the film. We tell you when no more can be done. Thatís our job.

Care and feeding of your sound mixer, techno-social relations:

  1. Come prepared. If you are on a tight budget, do as much preparation in your picture editing system as possible.

  2. Ask for a pre-mix screening of any sound editing you have done. Some mixers will do this for nothing, as long as you are respectful of their time.

  3. Lock your picture first.

  4. Those who will sign off on the mix should hear it before creation of the final master. A variety of people may have to approve the work, some have opinions about sound and some do not. Adjustments to a mix after creating the deliverable elements will cost you money, as a potentially large number of masters and clones will have to be amended and checked.

  5. A mixer is not as familiar with your film as you are. This is a good thing, because of the perspective she can provide. If you feel that your mixer is not qualified to comment on your film, you should find another mixer. If you are not comfortable getting input from skilled engineer working on your film, you may not be ready to mix, or perhaps you should mix it yourself.

The simple and final truth is that we sound artisans are like you: we want to do a good job, we want the filmmaker to be satisfied with the result, and we want the film to spring forth into the world to succeed financially and artistically. If your film does well, we all benefit; if for no reason other than this, weíre on your side.


Carmen Borgia is the head of audio services for DuArt Film & Video in New York City. He oversees a post production sound department that provides mixing, sound design, restoration, transfer and printmastering. His department caters to independent projects in all formats from mono optical up to digital 5.1.

Editorís note: Part 2 will be in our October issue. If anyone has any questions, please submit them to cborgia@duart.com. Carmen will do his best to answer your queries.


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