Nathan AshtonNathan Ashton

The Three Parts to Big Sound

The Setup

A little while ago I was talking to a young filmmaker about how to get that “Big Sound” associated with movies.

This particular enthusiast said that he took extra care to be sure his on-camera microphones were tracking the action “at a good level” because he wanted to capture “every detail” of the action. He said he was going for an organic “reality” so the boom operator was there for “spice” and to “highlight the main actor.” He refused to use EQ because he didn’t want to “color” the audio image. What he couldn’t understand is why everyone who reviewed the movie said it sounded hollow, thin, and brittle.

I apologize right now to my fellow compatriots and champions of the audio world. You can stop banging your head against the wall now.

Such a conversation is not uncommon. Maybe this one was a little extreme, but I have already received several phone calls this year which progressed along the same lines. I will be very glad to talk to anyone about good production techniques before the first day of shooting. I’ll even make recommendations on top-notch location mixers. Just shoot me an email.

Let me make one statement before we go further: The smaller your budget the LESS you can skimp on location audio work. You can pay someone like Teddy Hallaron an arm for it up front, or pay me an arm and a leg on the tail-end.

 

Big Sound

Big sound is a combination of three primary components:

  1. Clear, clean, and present DIALOG
  2. LAYERS of sound including detailed backgrounds, foley, and sound effects
  3. Well crafted MUSIC composed with holes for other sounds to shine through when appropriate

None of these steps are easy.

 

Dialog is king. If the dialog sounds bad then people will walk out of your film. Since every line of dialog must be heard and must sound like it is coming from the scene, it needs to be captured properly. This means that the dialog needs to be recorded without non-dialog noises getting mixed up with the voices. Everything else is added back in later.

Ideally your location Audio Mixer and Boom Operator know what they are doing and are quick to troubleshoot potential problems. Sometimes this is simply unplugging a refrigerator or asking actors to wear booties on their shoes to minimize foot noises. Other times it means tagging a line to be replaced from an alternate take or ADR.

The decision to replace dialog (known as Automated Dialog Replacement, or ADR) can be because of technical problems like an actor yelling louder than the microphone can handle, or artistic issues when the director wants a line delivered with a different emphasis to change an angry line into a bitter one. Every film should plan on a certain level of dialog replacement, but ADR is time consuming for both the actor and the studio. It can take 6-10 minutes to replace each line of dialog. Then the Dialog Editor has to make the new lines fit with the old. This process can take days. When an unexpected amount of ADR is needed, the budget can quickly hemorrhage and bleed out onto the floor.

So, since dialog is king, treat it as such during the filming and post production stages. You will be well on your way to the Big Sound you crave.

 

Layers create the illusion of reality, but its not just quantity we are aiming to achieve. With 24-48 tracks of sound effects playing simultaneously things can get dicy very fast unless careful attention is spent on how each piece fits together. Sound does not only have duration, it also has pitch. Think in terms of three ranges: Low, Mid, and High frequencies. Stacking sounds on top of each other within the same frequency range do not usually result in a bigger sound. However, stacking some solid bass rumbles with midrange metal crunches and some of high frequency glass shattering could yield a pleasingly large bolder rolling over a car.

Even simple elements benefit from layers. Multiple ambiance tracks help create a unique sense of space. Mixing engine roar with road noise can add character to the road trip. Mixing different low, mid, and high elements can transform your actor’s gun into Clint Eastwood’s pocket cannon.

 

Music must be intentional. It must be crafted to fit the needs of the film. Big music doesn’t always translate to BIg Sound if it has to be turned down low to allow the dialog to be heard. A good filmscore knows when to shout and when to get out of the way.

When you sit down with the director for your spotting session be sure to talk through which scene (or even part of scene) will be championed by music and which will be carried by sound effects alone. It is the director’s job to make these decisions and it is best to get them nailed down early. Creating complex soundscapes which will never be heard is a waste of time.

And, just to be sure I am clear, dialog is still king. The music must surround and fill in the holes between words by design. It must wed with the sound effects instead of compete with them. Yet it still must inspire and transparently  pull out the audience’s emotions. This is why an original score by a film composer who knows their craft is far superior to using popular music or even library music from a CD.

 

An Example

I invite you to read the Pendragon Post blog and watch an old video I created on how that movie achieved Big Sound

 

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