24 June 2007

The Fifteen [drops tablet]...Ten! Ten Commandments of Sound for Picture! (Part Two)

Okay, kids, here is Part 2:

6. Thou shalt arrange/budget for a dedicated audio post mixer. (aka: Avoid being a Jack of all trades, master of none).

Granted, at the low/no budget level, you have to take what you can get, and many non-linear video editing systems have rather impressive audio features. But that doesn't mean that you can skimp and just be a one-person-band: writing, directing, shooting, editing, then mixing your project, and expect professional results.

There's a reason why you get a DP: they know how to shoot better than you do, and they worry about picture so that you don't have to. Same thing applies to audio post. While it's all well and good to do a temp mix for screening purposes, nothing screams "amateur" more than rough sound, no matter how pretty the picture.

Pro sound mixers fill in the rest of the picture with a full, rich sound track. They have access to more diverse sound effects, making your track fresh and dynamic. They have tricks up their sleeve that may end up saving you from having to loop that one line after all.

They are definitely worth it.

7) Thou shalt make an effort to commission an original music score.

Don't cheap out in the end. You created an original screenplay, got actors to create original performances, got a DP to create original images, and then at that critical final step, you shrug and say "just use pop music. They'll never find out. No one will ever sue us".

There are numerous resources for new, affordable and even legally free music out there. Use them. You crewed up through Craigslist; now keep going, and find a hungry music school student or a local band. There are plenty of talented musicians out there who could use the exposure, and would be willing to score your film, sometimes for little to no money.

And, for the bazzilionth time, there's a reason why that track you bought from iTunes won't work in your Final Cut Project: you're not allowed to use it. (Yes, I'm well aware of the myriad technical workarounds for this, which shan't be discussed here).

8) Thou shalt learn about "headroom" and "standards".

There's a very specific reason that mixers insist on making that annoying "bloop" tone when you record color bars at the head of each tape. This tone represents the nominal bus voltage output of the mixer, and thus must be generated by the mixer, not by the camera (I've had more than one heated discussion with many a DP on this issue).

WWCD: just as you must record the bars from the camera actually used in production (to get an accurate representation of the gear's output), so must you utilize the tone from your field mixer. The reason for this is that if any discrepancy is found in either picture or sound from a particular camera (too low of a red level, sound is 2 db higher on channel 1, etc), they can reference the bars and tone, and trouble-shoot to see if it's just a temporary issue, or consistent across the entire shoot, and then compensate for it if possible. Think of it as a Rosetta Stone for post.

Headroom: it can be a wonderful thing, if it's paid attention to. Just because you're not seeing every segment of your meter lighting up does not mean the audio level's too low. Your mixer will set the nominal reference level (usually -20dBfs for pro stuff), and then mix accordingly, giving you enough signal to have a clean recording without going "full scale" on loud or unexpected sounds (which, once reached, can't be undone, and sounds horrible).

Trust them, and it will turn out fine.

9) Thou shalt learn how to consider sound when scouting locations. (aka: "Well, they weren't using jackhammers here yesterday...")

I recently worked on a short where a dialogue scene was scheduled to be shot in a city alley at night. Good looking place, power nearby, permission from adjacent business owners. Everything seemed in order.

Until I asked about sound.

See, one of the neighbors to the alley was a nightclub, and right there on the front door of the place was a flyer for the reggae/dub band scheduled to play that night at 8 pm...precisely when we were supposed to roll. The band's prodigious bass (common to the genre) would have obliterated any chance at clean dialogue. Since this was a low-budget indie, there was little to no chance of guaranteeing the actor's availability for looping (or the money and facilities to do it properly, for that matter).

To their credit, they had the locations manger re-scout, and do a last-minute company move. At the end of the night, we had another location that fit their needs and ended up being just quiet enough.

Point being, you can avoid just this sort of thing by including your mixer in your pre-production and scouting process, just like you include your DP.

10) Thou shalt accept the fact that, once and for all, there is no such thing as a "remove echo" filter.

I've seen more than a few panicked posts on the boards out there asking about how remove the echo from their track. See, they used a shotgun, but it was at the other end of the room (or worse, mounted to the camera), rather than in close proximity to the subject, and now it sounds like everything's in a big bathroom. Guess what, Chachi, there is a solution: it's called the "shoot-it-again" filter.

Short shotgun microphones (easily one of the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in indie filmmaking) are not like zoom lenses. They do not bring the subject acoustically closer. Think of them more like a ring of Vaseline around a medium lens, with a clear circle in the center: the subject isn't any closer, but everything around the center of the frame, while not completely blocked out, is now "de-emphasized" and blurry.

The interference tube (the slotted "barrel" of the shotgun) filters sounds from the sides, and, in concert with the native directivity of the capsule, helps to "reject" (but not completely block) those sounds (and only at certain frequencies. Once you learn how complex short shotguns are, it's easy to see why they're so misunderstood).

If you want it to sound closer, you have no choice but to get the mic closer. You can't argue with the laws of physics (well, you can try, but the last guy who did ended up as the Incredible Hulk).

Whew. Rant over.

If anyone would care to submit addenda and/or criticism, please don't hesitate to comment...nicely. :)


Jasony said...

Ahhh! That sound you here was the simultaneous happy exhalations of a thousand sound professionals. I will print this list out and hand it out to any director I work with on day 1 (in as obsequious manner as I can muster, of course).

Good advice. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous list - I'm will send people here.

I'm a filmmaker but also a musician and sound designer who gets roped out to run boom/location mix for filmmaker pals.

I often find the "sound is more important than picture" argument falling on deaf ears. Have you see this great article from Randy Thoms:


syncsound said...


Yes, I've seen Randy Thom's articles before. They were a inspiration for starting this blog in the first place. :)

Thanks for reading, and please pass it along.

Anonymous said...

Well I wouldn't go so far as to say sound is more important than image. I would say that it is just as important.

syncsound said...


Agreed. :)


Unknown said...

Perhaps there should be a "use a hypercardioid indoors" commandment too. People ask about how to remove all sorts of nasty byproducts of simply using the wrong mic in the wrong situations.

syncsound said...


While I agree about the hypercardioid mic, this list is for people who are either so inexperienced or simply stubborn that they have to be convinced to use a something other than the camera's mic.

Something nuanced like indoor mic choice can be addressed in a later post. You know, after they've seen the light. :)


Anonymous said...

As an amateur, I've read as much as I can about how to improve my home movies, but hands down the /most/ improvement I got was when I bought a good quality Røde shotgun mic.

I can't believe the improvement! To me, I feel like sound is more important than picture for conveying that "feeling like you are there."

Anonymous said...

You know, I have to take issue with the comment by Ford. In my opinion sound is more important than image.
Here's why. Before I damaged my hearing I worked as an audio engineer for a few record labels. After I damaged it I moved to the picture side. But when merging the two there were plenty of times when bands would spend days getting just one part of an audio track right but then just kinda wing it on the video. The audio made or broke those videos. Think of 1980's MTV. Everything on TV looked like crap back then. But once surround sound came out, it was all about the audio, even though the image was still crap. Bands went multi-platinum even though their videos were horrible. For example, go look up the old "Queen; We are the Champions" video. In many ways I have to agree with pretty much everything in these "ten commandments" after working in film for a little while. It amazes me how little emphasis is placed on sound. Think about all the poorly animated crap shows on cartoon network and stuff like "Tim and Eric, awesome show great job!" Sure, they intentionally make the picture look amateur and cheap.But pay attention, they almost never skimp on sound. Good sound can make bad picture into a decent flick (Blair witch / Beavis and Butthead). It never really works the other way. Anyway, that's this first time posters opinion.

Anonymous said...

One other thing,
Actually there are some ways to remove echo from audio tracks, but they always render the final sound thinner and flat. But even these features are designed for music and usually only available in very expensive studios. Basically what you have to do is make the track so barely audible the echo disappears, but you still have a little of the main signal. Then comes the b*tch, trying to beef it up again. One cheap way to do this is to apply a slight chorus and/or very short delay to a track after "de-echoing" over and over again. Another option, besides chorus and delay, is to overlay with up 32 vocal tracks(yes I have seen 32 overlays on one vocal track). This only works if you keep pushing and dropping equalizer settings each time you re-overlay to try and get some depth and tone back. This ends up being a giant sadistic audio puzzle to mix. The attempt is usually only reserved for dead people that there is no hope for getting to sing again. Though your standard audio editing suite may have these features, these are just the things you do after destroying the audio removing the echo. In film, forget about it. You'll have birds chirping and trucks driving by and all kinds of ambient scene sounds.
The only way this could work in film would be for a monologue in a completely sealed off room, and even then, good luck getting it to come anywhere close to matching the tone of the rest of your feature. So when applied to this format, the commandment stands.

petra said...

Thanks for the commandments: I definitely fall into the category of ignoramus, as I just have started out filming live music gigs. One-system recording due to financial constraints ( ain't getting paid for anything ;-). Anyway, I fully agree to get sound separately, but can't find "simple" information on how to achieve it at the cheapest possible way.

I can plug into the pa's and have a basic audio editing program on my pc, Audacity. Do I assume correctly that straight to that will be better than into the 16 bit camera?

Any links, tips etc where to find plain english help for that stuff, and what sort of cables etc required will be very much appreciated!

A cheeky beginner with love for music,

Terrance Shelton said...

I've found a software that has been rather useful in removing the hallway or bathroom sound in video recordings. The name of the the software is called Sonar.