Techniques for ADR: How to record dialogue in post-production

You’re watching your favorite action flick. The hero has rescued the hostage and they’re blasting through rush-hour traffic on a motorcycle. Close behind them, the bad guys follow in a souped-up SUV, shooting hundreds of rounds. Cars flip and explode, engines race and yet, you can hear every word of dialog. How is that possible? In real life, it’s not. They used ADR.

ADR has many names. Some use it as an acronym for automatic dialog replacement while others prefer additional dialog recording. Still, others call it dubbing or looping. Regardless, ADR refers to the process of re-recording dialog in post-production.

ADR is used for many reasons. The most obvious use is the replacement of noisy audio from the day of the shoot or situations where dialog recording simply wasn’t practical. ADR techniques can eliminate profanity for a television audience, or completely replace voices for use in other countries. In fact, if you watch TV or movies at all, you hear ADR all the time. Feature-length films, TV dramas, reality programming and animation will all use ADR at one time or another.

The typical ADR workflow

Here’s a typical workflow: after a rough cut is established, the talent comes to a special studio called a dubbing stage. The producer or director shows them a clip of the scene and the actor rehearses their lines along with the clip. The goal is to recreate the emotion, setting and intensity of the original shoot — or possibly improve on it. An engineer hits the record button and, as the scene plays on a large screen, the actors hear their original take through headphones as they deliver the same lines. When everyone is happy with the take, the process repeats for all of the required replacements. Every actor in the project may visit the dubbing stage before completing the process.

The goal is to recreate the emotion, setting and intensity of the original shoot — or possibly improve on it.

Once the producer signs off on the final recordings, the editor or engineer edits the best takes to make them fit the visuals. It’s a long, drawn-out process that often takes months to complete. 

So, why go to all that trouble? In a word: control. By recording dialog in a controlled studio setup, the producer and director can get exactly what they wanted in the first place. Plus, ADR gives them full control over volume and clarity in the final mix.

D.I.Y. ADR

Believe it or not, you really can do this at home with a short equipment list. The first item on the list is multitrack audio recording software, often called a DAW or digital audio workstation. Don’t let the fancy name scare you. This can be any audio editor, like Adobe Audition or Pro Tools.

Next, you need a decent microphone. This can be a shotgun, studio condenser mic or even a lapel mic. Just be sure you have a windscreen to minimize breath pops.

Finally, you need a way to plug the mic into your computer. Some computers have a mic input, and now, there are input cables with an XLR on one side and USB on the other.

Once you get everything hooked up and working, you’ll need to identify the clip or clips that need dialog work. Take detailed notes on what changes are needed and which part needs to be re-recorded. Keeping all the details written down will help with workflow as well as keep you organized. 

Working with actors

Now, it’s on to working with the talent. We’re not going to cover best directing practices, but once you’re confident with the actors’ performance, record a few takes and listen to the results. The ability to see the video clip is a bonus for the talent, but watching the existing waveform on the timeline offers excellent visual cues, too.

Not all ADR sessions involve full dialog replacement. Sometimes, you’re blending existing dialog with bits and pieces from the studio. In this situation, do everything possible to replicate the audio from the original shoot. Use the same microphone at the same distance and angle if possible. This will make the edit transitions smoother and maintain the illusion.

Once you’ve got something everyone is happy with, it’s time to clean things up a bit.

Editing ADR

If you are truly fortunate, your talent will nail the performance perfectly and you won’t have to edit. In the real world though, you’ll probably have to repair a few things. Using the original dialog as a visual guide, line up the first phrase or word. As you look further down the timeline, some phrases will match timing and others won’t.

To repair the timing, split the phrases into pieces and slide each one around until it lines up with the original lip movements as a guide. If you recorded in a quiet environment, the only sound on the recording is the talent. This leaves you some wiggle room to cut up the track and move things around until the timing matches through the entire clip.

This is like any other edit job and there is nothing sacred about using only a single clip. If necessary, feel free to bring in words and phrases from any or all of your takes. You may find that one little change in inflection or delivery really sells the edit. In short, use everything at your disposal. 

Sometimes, the visual reference isn’t enough, so play your edit alongside the original take to verify the pace and timing. The talent may slur some words and run words together, so listen closely to make sure everything flows well.

When you’re happy with the edit, open your video editing software and place the audio. Mute the original audio track. If all went well, you’ll have a clean, clear and perfectly synchronized dialog track.

Adding in space

Once your ADR session is done, you will now have a clean, well performed and very dry dialog audio track. For most situations, the very qualities that define good audio track will give it away as having been recorded separately. To fix this, you’ll want to add back some of the ambiance of the original location. Always record a few minutes of room tone during production. Layering this in will make the ADR seem like it was recorded at the same time.

Give ADR a try. It’s a little tedious, but with practice, you can patch the dialog in your productions just like the big studios and at a fraction of the cost.

For more audio editing techniques, see our course on Advanced Audio Editing.

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