When you’re all alone, flying by the seat of your pants, you’ll usually combine all audio jobs into one audio person.
Or maybe it’s sound editor. Or sound recordist. Or recording engineer, post-production mixing supervisor, mixer, sound effects editor, or sound designer.
On a big-budget production, each of these jobs would go to a different person. But when you’re all alone out there, flying by the seat of your pants-as in most industrial and semi-professional video productions-you’ll usually combine all these jobs into one.
What does the audio person do, and how does he or she do it? That depends-on the nature of the production, the budget, the video/film format, and pro-duction strategy.
The sound element of film and video production has two phases: production and post-production. The production phase is the glamorous part that most people think is the essence of film or video-making-the actual shooting and sound recording of the actors or principals.
Post-production is everything that comes later, including recording additional or replacement dialogue; sound effects; audio “sweetening”; addition of laugh tracks, applause, and other audience cues; and musical scoring.
Mike and Nagra
In film production, sound is recorded separately from the picture. The person selected to operate the audio recording equipment is commonly called a sound recordist.
The sound is recorded on an open-reel audio recorder made by a Swiss company called Nagra. This is a case of a specialized company creating and perfecting an extremely finee piece of machinery, producing the de facto standard equipment of the industry.
Many sound recordists work freelance, offering their services in a package of both labor and equipment. Besides the Nagra, recordists typically carry an assortment of microphones-a good quality directional mike, a clip-on mike, a rugged omnidirectional microphone, and a wireless mike, at least.
The sound recordist is expected to discuss the shoot in advance with the director, so any necessary additional equipment can then be purchased or rented before production starts.
In professional video production, sound is recorded on the videotape’s audio tracks. The job of recording sound on the VIE often falls on a tape operator, who also monitors sound with headphones.
Facing the Fishpole
Depending on the budget and the nature of production, an assistant sound recordist-or boom operator-will be in charge of microphone “facing” (also known as “pointing”). The mike is usually faced toward a spot just below the actors’ mouths for best tonal quality.
When recording dialogue, the microphone is suspended from a long pole, or boom, over the actors’ heads to get it as close as possible to the actors without invading the frame.
The boom operator must stay in touch with the camera operator to keep tabs on the frame line and keep the microphone out of the shot.
A “fishpole” boom is often used on location. The fishpole offers greater maneuverability in tight spaces, but requires an operator with strong arms, since directors can decree it be held
overhead for hours.
Meanwhile, back at the Nagra, the sound recordist sets the recording level for maximum signal strength. Matching signal levels is not a concern here; that will be taken care of later, in the mix.
In studio television production, a sound recording engineer may mix several microphones, music, and sound effects as theprogram progresses, requiring a great deal of preparation and rehearsal. Each microphone must be in the proper position to pick up each actor’s lines; all the sound effects and music must have been previously recorded onto cartridges that cue up automatically for playback.
The sound engineer receives cues from the director for the playback of each cartridge. Timing requires split-second precision, best suited to television programs with a predictable, repetitious format-such as game shows, news programs, soap operas, and situation comedies.
Even with fancy facilities and talented staff, studio-style production is always sloppier than the more thoughtful, painstaking process nearly universal in film and professional video production.
In filmmaking and film-style video, post-production is invariably a lengthier and more tedious process than production. This is because of the need for special attention to detail-particularly in sound.
A jungle war scene, for instance, might require the recording and mixing of dozens of audio tracks.
One track might be the original recording of an actor’s voice. Another track is recorded later, this time with the talent breathing heavily. A third track is the sound of his footsteps as he walks through the jungle. A fourth track contains the sound of wind rustling through the leaves.
Another two or three tracks feature the sounds of animals hidden in the jungle. There’s a track for the footsteps of the enemy. Hovering helicopters fill three tracks. Helicopter gunfire consumes four tracks (multiple guns require multiple tracks). Enemy rocket fire needs two or three tracks.
Not to mention the music. For the scene I’ve conjured here, there would be heavy emphasis on a heartbeat sound. But we could easily add a full orchestra swarming across dozens of tracks: kick drum, snare, toms, cymbals, bass, guitar(s), piano, violin(s), clarinet, synthesizer, glockenspiel, tuba, etc.
As should be obvious, the entire world of the recording studio is just a subset of the film industry.
Follow That Noise
It all comes together in post-production.
In film, the picture and principal dialogue are edited first. When the picture is “locked”-no more changes in the time structure of the film-the post-production audio people go to work.
The film is analyzed for every audio detail. If an actor places a mug of coffee on a table, a sound effect is planned for the “thunk” that occurs. Every footstep is noted. Every cough, sigh, scream, bark, squeal, quack, clunk, rattle, and hum of man, machine, and beast.
Then some combination of the post-production supervisor, sound designer, and sound effects supervisor consults with the director and supervising editor to concoct a plan.
For some sound effects, actual field recordings-called “wild sound”-may be required. Other sounds can be pulled from the “library”-collections of stock sound effects maintained by most major film/video studios.
Stock sound effects may be recorded on magnetic tape, CDs, or digital synthesizer samplings allowing for computerized editing and modification.
Looping the Foleys
Traditionally, Hollywood filmmakers have used “Foley” artists (named after Warner Brothers sound mixer/sound effects pioneer George Foley) to create audio illusions like galloping horses using mundane implements like sandboxes and empty tin cans. An art form dating back to radio’s early days, it’s now being replaced by more modem synthesizer techniques.
The director may also decide to replace original dialogue with Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR, or “looping” ). The actor repeats a line of dialogue again and again, until it matches the existing visual footage.
ADR equipment makes it easy to repeat the process, shifting the timing between picture and sound until lip synchronization seems perfect.
Music is usually the final component tossed in the mix, though a composer will often consider appropriate music before the “locked” film anives. The music director might create a completely new score, render a new version of a prerecorded work, or use an entire existing recording.
Sometimes this decision requires that the picture be cut to the music-that is, the music is locked and the film editor cuts to match the sound.
More often, music is composed and played to match the picture. This may require a symphony orchestra or a single musician working with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Usually, it’s something in between.
And In the End
Finally, the efforts of all the musicians, sound effects editors, recording engineers, and Foley artists come together in the mix.
A mixing engineer supervises the technical aspects of the mix. A track sheet is prepared to explain what’s on each track, and when and where it begins and ends.
Then, scene by scene, the tracks are mixed together. Each track is optimized for the cleanest possible sound, with a minimum of background noise. Tracks are equalized, and outboard equipment like compressors, noise gates, and reverb sweeten the sound. In television, laugh tracks are grafted on.
The result is an audio master. In video, the master ends up on the same tape as the picture. In film, it’s a separate roll of tape, sent to the lab with the picture. The final marriage of picture and sound results in the release prints shown in the local theater.
All sounds easy, right? On a big-budget Hollywood film, hundreds of people may labor on sound creation. In television, budgets are more modest and just a few people are involved.
But regardless of the people-power in your particular production, you’ll find that attention to fine audio detail always pays off.
Cliff Roth, a freelance writer and producer, teaches audio production at the Institute of Audio Research in New York and has taught video production at schools in New York and Los Angeles.