There’s a reason why your Grandma’s apple pie tastes so much better than the pie you purchase at the grocery store. The reality is that both the store and Grandma have the same ingredients: sugar, flour, apples, etc. Nevertheless, Grandma’s apple pie seems to melt in your mouth, while the store-bought pie seems stale. The difference is the quality of the ingredients and the way that they are mixed together. A soundtrack is very much like making apple pie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not as easy as pie, but the philosophies are very similar.
If you have the freshest ingredients to start off with, you’ll have an advantage, but that’s not always a deal-breaker. Often, the elements that you have to build your soundtrack are out of your control. This could be for many reasons; limited access to the talent, a live event that does not allow for re-takes, budget constraints, etc. Sometimes, you have to live with what you’re given. Other times, you have to improvise. Million dollar post-facilities don’t produce stellar soundtracks because they have the best of everything, but because they know the secrets to mixing the elements together to make it work – just like Grandma. While mixing is truly an art form and can take years to perfect, there are some simple right-now strategies that you can follow to help give you a polished piece.
Mix The Soundtrack As A Whole
As you build your soundtrack, you will need to create a rough mix of the elements as you go from scene to scene. This is the normal order of things. Avoid, however, the pitfall of thinking that you can mix your project as you work on each scene and end up with a finished soundtrack after you work on the final scene. The end result will almost always be disjointed levels that will sound inconsistent. Instead, work with rough mixes as you build the soundtrack and mix all of the elements as a whole unit and not multiple scenes pieced together.
Don’t Touch That Dial!
Last month, we discussed the two undisputable rules to follow when mixing a soundtrack: intelligibility and consistency. We also discussed that the dialogue should be the base line to build your sounds around. All other elements to a soundtrack are based on their relationship to the dialogue. Once you have consistent dialogue to work with, find a level for that dialogue and leave it alone. Build the rest of your track around that dialogue. Be careful not to fall in the quicksand trap of thinking, maybe I should raise the level of the dialogue. Just like quicksand, the more you move the deeper in trouble you’ll find yourself. Instead, ask yourself if it is the music (or whatever) that is intruding on the dialogue. From there you can back those elements down instead.
Focus The Audience’s Ears
In the filming process, the cinematographer will focus the lens on a specific area of a shot. This draws the audience’s attention to what the filmmaker has intended to highlight. While the other elements in the shot are still visible, they are soft or blurry – out of focus. The same is true of the soundtrack. By raising or lowering the volume of an element in the soundtrack, you can affect the audience’s audio focus. Yes, this includes the taboo of raising or lowering the dialogue that I have been preaching not to touch. Remember, rules are meant to be broken. When you understand the rules, you will understand when they can be bent to breaking point. For example, if you have a train wreck sequence that cuts between characters on the train and bystanders nearby, you will want to shift the sound to match perspectives (i.e. loud for those screaming for their lives on the train and softer for the bystanders who are separated from and merely reacting to the event).
Use The Magic Button
Do I believe in magic? Yes. It is called compression. Using a compressor on the master bus of your soundtrack can make your project pop. The effect is that the overall perceived volume increases while the overall peak levels stay pretty much the same. This is particularly effective when your end medium will be television, radio or the internet. Care should be taken not to over-compress the mix which can give it a pumping, squashed sound commonly heard in radio. It is also important to mention that the more compression you use, the more dynamics you lose. Less is more.
If you’re in the middle of a mix and you find yourself struggling for balance, have someone else listen to what you’ve done. There is a phenomenon known as being ‘deaf to a mix’. This happens when you’ve heard the same thing over and over again so much that you loose objectivity. It’s kind of like looking for your glasses and not realizing that they’re on your face. You are so used to seeing through them, that you forget you are wearing them. Being deaf to a mix is a natural occurrence. There is nothing much you can do to prevent it other than taking frequent breaks or revisiting something the next day.
A simple trick to check your perspective on a mix is to use another set of fresh ears as a sounding board. My favorite sounding board is my wife. She knows absolutely nothing about sound. For me, that makes her the perfect candidate to listen to a mix. If she tells me that something is too loud or soft, I take heed. This is because she isn’t focusing on the soundtrack, she is just listening to the production for content. If something pulls her out of the production that causes her to comment on, then I did something wrong. More often than not, I agree with her.
The key to having someone listen to your mix is to have an objective set of ears. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting what might be wrong with the mix before they’ve listened for themselves and made their own opinion. You’ll only make the problem worse by poisoning their perception with a preconceived opinion. Instead of asking if the music is too loud, just ask if they will listen to it and tell you if everything sounds alright. You’ll get better and accurate results.
Fresh ears are great to use when working on dialogue. When you work on a mix and have a script, you already know what the character is saying, especially when you’ve heard the same line five hundred times over and over again. Many times this makes the problem worse. Since you know what is said, your brain hears that line of dialogue despite the fact that fresh ears might struggle to understand what is being said.
Finally, simply ask yourself “does this sound good?” Listen to the mix as a whole when making this decision. In the end, you’ll have to go with your gut. Despite the levels I’ve recommended for dialogue, there is no ‘right way’ to mix your specific production. You could bring in ten different sound mixers and you’ll only end up with ten different mixes - just as no two Grandmas make the same apple pie.
The approach to the recording process (the gathering of all the sounds to use in your mix) is very technical, but the mixing process is more art than science. Much of recording is spent monitoring the mix with your eyes fixed on the meters. However, much of mixing is spent monitoring the mix with your ears fixed on the relationships between the sounds.
Mixing is more about fudging with the faders until you’ve found the sweet spot. The sweet spot is not a number on a dial; it’s a feeling of mojo, of magic, and of pixie dust. This is why your mom’s apple pie doesn’t taste as good as Grandma’s. Sure, Grandma wrote the recipe down on an index card and gave it to your mom, but there are certain steps that Grandma takes that can’t be described in words. She just ‘knows’ when it’s sweet enough. You can try to follow a recipe of sound levels for your mix, but it’s not going to be as sweet as if you go with your gut (think of Luke turning off his targeting computer when he was barreling down the trenches of the Death Star as Ben Kenobi urges him to ‘trust his feelings’ and not rely on the technology). In the end, Danielson, it’s all about balance.
Ric Viers has worked in the film and television industry for more than ten years. His location sound credits include nearly every major television network, Universal Studios, Dateline, Good Morning America, Disney, and many others. His sound design work has been used in major motion pictures, television shows, radio programs, and video games. In 2007, Viers launched his own label, Blastwave FX, to celebrate the release of his 100th sound effects library. To date, he is considered to be the world’s largest independent provider of sound effects, with more than 150,000 sounds and more than 150 sound effects libraries to his credit. He has produced sound libraries for numerous publishers, including Apple, Blastwave FX, Sony, Sound Ideas, and The Hollywood Edge.