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Taking the Aural High Ground: Successful Sound and Mixing for Your Film

By james LeBrecht

James Lebrecht. Photo: B. Doug Jensen

Whether you are a seasoned documentary filmmaker or in the throes of your first film, your project can rise or fall on the sound of your film. There are many things you can do to improve your chances of getting a great sound mix. What follows is my advice from the standpoint of experience as a sound designer and mixer.

Record the Best Sound You Can

The fast-paced, tight-budgeted world of documentary filmmaking is not the best breeding ground for capturing great audio. The lack of a good sound recording can make it impossible to use an otherwise wonderful moment or, at best, make its sound stick out like a sore thumb because its imperfections are so obvious. Often in this case, the change in sound quality can pull an audience out of the film.

I believe that it pays for itself to include a seasoned location sound recordist on your team. These people have the experience and hardware to compensate for the most challenging recording circumstances. An added bonus is that there is one less thing for you to worry about, so you can concentrate on the other tasks at hand.

If you're unable to hire a recordist, all is not lost. Be sure that you know how to patch together and use your microphones and recorder. Do a test with all of your equipment before you go out to shoot. Make some test recordings and listen back to make sure that the sound is clear and not full of noise or distortion. When you get to your shoot and have your equipment set up, you should perform a confidence check. It's not enough to trust what you are hearing in your headphones. Record a short test section of material and play it back.

Many filmmakers augment their lavaliere and boom microphone setup with a small, portable recorder. Units like a Zoom H4n are used as a backup recording in case something goes wrong with their primary setup. Who knows, it might save the day if your subject hits the lavaliere microphone or the boom operator isn't pointing the microphone in the right direction. (Don't laugh; I've heard this.) Be sure that the recorder is placed close to your subject and is hidden from the camera.

While you are on location, be sure to capture wild sound and room tone. Especially if you are recording in an exotic location such as a tropical island or isolated rainforest village, spend some time recording the ambience of the place. Establishing shots can be greatly enhanced by an accurate, unique sound bed. Your sound designer is not likely going to have that Bolivian Masked Gnatcatcher in his library, nor is that going to be easy to find. And if you are going to film an old bus passing by for your B-roll, please record sound at the same time.

Room tone is used to help smooth out edits in the production sound. Your sound editor will want you to provide an organized collection of room tones. Simply naming conventions like "Flaco in red shirt" or "Dr. Conroy's office" will help your editor to quickly match up the room tone with the appropriate scene. Not everyone remembers to record room tone, and to be honest, it's not always a good match. Often, a background will change over time. Traffic outside the window may increase in intensity, as it gets closer to the evening commute. The same can be said for insects. As night falls, many insects (and frogs) become very vocal. The best room tone can be captured during gaps in the production sound. That is why you give your sound department long handles when you export your OMF (open media format) or AAF (advanced authoring format) file from your editing system.

Find the Right People to Work With

Just as some cinematographers are better for certain films than others, the same holds true for the sound team and composer you choose. Ideally, your composer and sound house should be experienced at working on documentaries. Although there are similarities to working on narrative films, there are aesthetic differences that apply to the sound for a documentary.

Narratives, typically, have clean dialogue and surround-sound ambiance. Many documentaries are shot vérité style and have a rougher, "as it happened" quality to their sound. Actually, a few imperfections can legitimize the audio as being just "like it happened." Stereo or surround ambiances, if not presented the right way, can tip your hand that you are embellishing the audio, making it seem less realistic and less legitimate.

There are other audio skills that are utilized more often in documentary films. An experienced documentary mixer will be familiar with the art of creating and mixing sounds so that they sound like they were part of that footage. This is useful when a film uses a lot of vintage or newsreel footage, because the sound that accompanies archival newsreel footage is often married to an announcer's voice. Perhaps the most valuable skill a documentary mixer can have is being adept in salvaging bad production sound. As much as you can try, there will be times that your audio is less than studio quality. Problems like a noisy environment, wind noise or distortion can make it hard or impossible to use important sound. A skilled mixer will know what is possible to fix and will know how to do so quickly.

Collaboration and Communication

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. It's imperative that you find people who are a good fit for you. Talent and experience are important, but it's crucial that you find folks with whom you can communicate. They need to hear what you are saying and should have something to say in return.

A thorough and lively communication between the filmmaker and the sound folks can go a long way toward getting a great sound mix for your film. The more you understand what they will do with and for your sound and the more they understand the desires and needs for your film, the better. To paraphrase Martin Mull, talking about sound isn't quite as difficult as dancing about architecture, but it can be hard to talk about something that you can't see.

Who will you be talking with? On some films, the same person is the sound supervisor, sound designer and mixer. Each job has its own set of tasks.

A sound supervisor's primary responsibility is hiring the crew, managing the budget and making the arrangements that keep the sound machine rolling forward. Many times they are also the lead artistic connection that the crew and filmmaker has before the mix. When that is not the case, it's usually because there is a sound designer on the show.

Most people think that a sound designer only creates new sounds such as the vocalization of a dinosaur or the mechanics of a robot. And that might be the case on some big-budget action narratives. In documentaries, it's more common for a sound designer to look at the film as an overall concept, and look after the artistic choices made in all of the sound departments. However, their greatest influence can be heard in the sound effects and the mix. This focus on the added ambience and sound effects is one reason that a lot of sound designers are also mixers.

The final interpreter of the filmmaker's vision for the sound is the mixer. The mixer executes the presentation of the sound, keeping in mind the emotional and technical needs of the film. Each film has its own character. Some documentaries are edited aggressively, some are sumptuous (full of lush landscapes and ambiences) and some can be realistic and gritty. The mixer needs to treat the audio with the visual and editorial style of the film in mind.

The mixer needs to find the right balance among all of the audio elements in the film. I tell people that my job as a mixer is to make it effortless for the audience to hear the film. In fact, I need to be their advocate. Here's an example: By the time of the mix, a filmmaker will know all of the dialogue by heart. The audience, on the other hand, is hearing the words for the first time. I have to listen and mix as if I am hearing it for the first time as well. This means making sure that the wonderful music that has just been added to the film doesn't overpower the audience's ability to make out the words. On the other hand, that wonderful score needs to be present, otherwise it can't do its job.

The mix should be a time of artistic satisfaction and excitement (the good kind). You should always feel like you are well supported and that your ideas have been given the opportunity to be heard. You aren't there just to say whether it's too loud or too soft, but to consider all aspects of the mix. You want to pay attention to things like how gracefully a sound is introduced, whether or not it's the right sound, or if something is missing or could be better.

The time available for a mix is often short, but with good preparation and a competent mixer, you should see (and hear) your film gain a level of completeness that was missing before. If you start off with good production sound and find people to work with who are capable, you are bound to be happy with the final mix.

James Lebrecht is president and lead designer of Berkeley Sound Artists.