Remember, no matter what anyone says, you probably will only get one chance, and when it leaves your hands, that's how it will be … forever.
David Barber, MPSE, rerecording mixer,
supervising sound editor
I intended this chapter to focus on the chasm separating film sound and television sound, between mixing on a console and mixing in a workstation. I approached this research with the expected prejudices. “Films are mixed on giant consoles in big rooms, they consume a huge amount of time and money, and they naturally sound better than TV. Projects worth talking about are finished on real consoles, while modest (i.e., unimportant) projects are done in the box.” All of this seems reasonable until you start to scratch the surface.
The first problem is one of definition. What exactly is the difference between film sound and television sound? While it's easy to distinguish between the sound of Harry Potter and a TV gardening show, the lines blur when you compare a low- to mid-budget film with an HBO or BBC miniseries. Television—whether script, direction, photography, sound, or scope—no longer plays second fiddle to cinema. Of course there is some horrible stuff on TV, but when it's good, it's good. It's no different for television dialogue sound. Much of what you hear on television is as good as or better than much of what is played in cinemas.
And then there's the problem of discerning what precisely is an “in-the-box” mix. Common sense says that a dialogue editor working entirely within a workstation, controlling it with a mouse, is mixing in the box. But what about mixing on a console that's completely integrated with a workstation? The console is no longer a console, but rather a control surface for the DAW. What about playing and rerecording with a workstation, but mixing on a console with limited control over the box? Are these in-the-box mixes, console mixes, or something else? And does it matter?
You're not going to mix in a room without a workstation. And it's unlikely that you'll mix in a workstation without some form of control surface. One way or another you have to mix the dialogue, so let's get on with it.
Each day during the premix, the producer will spend a couple of weeks' worth of your salary, so the pressure to perform is high. There's a balance between getting it done well and getting it done at all. Moments when you think you're a genius are sideswiped by self-doubt when you realize that you misjudged a scene. It's your last hurrah, and there's never, ever enough time. In short, the experience is thrilling, rewarding, scary, and overwhelmingly enjoyable.
A film's dynamic continuity results from the dialogue premix. In this sense, dialogue editors have to guide the rerecording mixer. The editor chooses the mic tracks that will define the “style” of the dialogue continuity. This choice will shape the perspective's continuity and from this the dynamic continuity. From these continuities will arise the final mix continuity (e.g., style, genre). If, while premixing, I foresee how all of this will sound in the final mix, I am very happy.
Patrick Ghislain, rerecording mixer
Secret Life of Words
Two conflicting goals guide the premix: (1) to see that scenes are smoothed, perspectives are established, sound is shaped, and ADR is matched; (2) to ready the dialogue for the final mix, so that it sits well in the soundscape and is easy to control. Options must be held open for the final mix, when all of the other sound elements are available for comparison. That's when the director absolutely, positively must make decisions—when the buck finally stops.
Given its schizophrenic mandate, what exactly are we hoping to accomplish in the dialogue premix?
With all these objectives you have to become part artist, part traffic cop, and part perpetual cheerleader and facilitator. There are as many flavors of dialogue premix as there are films, dialogue editors, and mixers. Sometimes you'll be a major player in the process, and sometimes you'll be little more than a pair of hands. But the objectives remain the same.
The tracks delivered to the mix should be able to play practically as they are. After all, if you, the editor, can't “mix” it, how do you expect someone who isn't nearly as familiar with the tracks to figure out what to do? If lots of notes and comments are needed to understand what the intent was, then the edit should not be considered complete.
Ken Hahn, rerecording mixer
The Hours; Damages
Why are you in the mix? You're there for three reasons:
The rerecording mixer has the skill, experience, and (hopefully) taste that your dialogue tracks need to make the film work. He also runs a very complicated room, without which you cannot finish your job. But mixers are human like all of us and occasionally require a bit of maintenance.
Figure out right away how to get the most out of the mix and mixer. On one hand, you represent the client, so you have power. On the other, the mixer sits at the top of the audio postproduction food chain, far above the dialogue editor. None of this need be a problem if you keep two goals in mind: (1) finishing the dialogue premix more or less on schedule and (2) getting what you want from it.
Don't be too shy to say, “That was really great, but I want one more shot at it to see if we can nail it,” or “It's just not working. Let's see what's keeping this scene from being what it can be”—or words to that effect. I've experienced recalcitrant mixers who fought every suggestion of “let's do another pass and fix this little thing.” Things improved when I changed my tack. When we got through the scene, I'd say in a matter-of-fact voice, “Yea, it's OK.” As a matter of pride, he'd often try to make it better.
You worked hard on your dialogue and it's your reputation that's on the line. Push as hard as you reasonably can and give in only when you're convinced that the tracks just don't have it in them. Still, there'll be times when you feel the tracks aren't getting the love and attention they deserve, and that the mixer isn't addressing all of the problems. You have to deal with this, or you'll never rest.
You will have several days together with the mixer to figure out how to get what you need from this high-octane situation. Apply the same skill and creativity that went into your editing to get the most out of the dialogue premix. There's a magic within all rerecording mixers waiting for you to discover and make use of.
Before you begin, spend a few minutes with the mixer to concoct a plan for the mix. Compare what you have to accomplish with the number of hours available, and decide what you must have in the can at the end of each day. The first reel will undoubtedly take longer than the rest, since there'll be a certain amount of unfinished setup as well as some stabbing in the dark for the best way to address the tracks. So count the first reel as two reels' worth of work when making up a schedule.
Just as I prefer to edit dialogue out of film order, beginning on an interior reel and working my way out, I like, when possible, to premix the dialogue out of sequence. If you don't have a lot of time, you won't be able to return to your first mixed reel once you've cracked the film's code. In that case, don't cut your teeth on reel 1, since it's during the picture's first few minutes that viewers decide if it's worth watching.
If you start on a middle reel—but not the one where you began your dialogue editing—you can hide some of your learning curve in a “softer,” less exposed section. Of course, if you make a huge mixing discovery on your second or third reel, you'll have to go back to your first finished reel and apply your new found wisdom. Even so, by mixing in a sequence different from the editorial sequence, you'll diminish the weaknesses of the “first-off-the-rack” reels. However, many mixers don't like to work this way. Don't fight it.
You saw in Chapter 2 how a technical problem in need of a solution leads to an innovation from industry, which opens the way for artistic expression that takes the new technology to its limits, which creates more needs and innovations and solutions. The circle continues. The dance between mixing room needs, budgets, industrial innovation, and creativity has been going on as long as film has had sound. This section looks at recent developments in film rerecording (mixing) and how they affect the way we work.
It wasn't long ago that dialogue premixes—all premixes for that matter—were recorded to six-track magnetic film. Split to several tracks for better control, these multitrack recordings carried the dialogue to the final mix. As rerecording moved from film to multitrack tape and finally to hard disk, mixing procedures didn't much change. Playback and rerecording formats evolved over time, but most mixers continued to record their premixes to something solid. Imperfect automation, inadequate communication with outboard gear, and habit kept things the way they'd always been. It's only recently that most mixers have moved from rerecording physical tracks to making a virtual, automation-based dialogue premix. Although it's unlikely that you'll record a dialogue premix to film or tape, or disk, it's worthwhile to understand how it's done, since this method is the foundation of the way we do it today.
Dialogue is overwhelmingly mono. Nevertheless, you'll premix it to several record tracks. Remember, a lovely dialogue mix is only one of your goals. The other is providing quick, easy, logical options for the final mix.
During the mix, you'll be playing your 20-odd dialogue tracks from a workstation. Each output—analogue or digital—will be routed to a channel input of the console, run through outboard gear, mixed, and finally recorded onto hard disk or something more physical. There are many ways to design these recording tracks, and unless you have a very good reason to object, defer to the mixer—he's the one who'll have to live with the consequences. Table 20.1 shows an example of what he might come up with if you're recording onto 14 record tracks.
The wider you spread the dialogue premix recordings, the more flexibility you'll have in the final mix, but you'll pay for it in the time it takes to reroute the mix to different record tracks, especially if your outboard processing equipment is limited. It's easy to print to separate record tracks when all of your processing is within the console. Just route each channel to the record track you want and record everything in one pass. (In some premixing printing models, the number of record tracks is the same as the number of playback tracks.)
If, however, you're matching shots using the console's EQ and dynamics but bussing the entire scene through one external noise reduction device, each record track must be printed separately. This is time consuming and a common birthplace of mistakes. What's the “right” number of record tracks?
|Record Track||Record Track Name||Description|
|The primary record tracks. Some mixers use Dialogues 1 and 2 for the bulk of the work, saving Dialogue 3 for off-screen or “weird” sounds that may cause trouble in the final mix. Track 4 might be saved for the odd “to-be-panned” dialogue event.|
|The production effects tracks, which the mixer may choose to separate at this point to facilitate the international (M&E) mix.|
|Postmixed ADR, which whenever possible is recorded onto separate tracks. Two ADR characters talking to each other shouldn't be recorded onto the same premix track so as not to diminish the final mix options.|
|ADR reverb return 1
ADR reverb return 2
ADR reverb return 3
|The ADR's reverb return, often not mixed with the ADR but recorded separately. Splitting ADR reverb return onto several tracks provides more options in the final mix for changing or deleting loop lines.|
|14||Dialogue reverb return||Mono reverb return, used to match dialogue shots to each other, isn't mixed into the dialogue track but kept separate.|
Of course, the only answer is “it depends,” so talk with the mixer and the supervising sound editor. The following are a few guidelines.
As always, ask the mixer how to plan the recordings. Even if he decides to take care of the routing and track-arming plan, your input on how to efficiently record the dialogue premix will prove helpful because you know the film and probably have some pretty strong ideas about the focus and depth of its scenes. You are also likely to know the director better than the mixer does, so you have a good idea of where to cover your bases.
From modest workstation controllers to glorious digital consoles, comprehensive automation now allows mixers to capture every fader move, every EQ and dynamics setting, and parameters on most outboard kit. Full automation is nothing new. Released in 1985, the Harrision Series Ten1 is generally considered the first fully automated console. Meanwhile, digital consoles have changed the way mix rooms are run, and workstations have revolutionized how dialogue tracks are played in the mix. But the shift away from recording premixes has been slow going.
Now with this power of recall, there are fewer reasons to print dialogue premix rerecording tracks, or for that matter any tracks. Mixing is mixing, so technical, aesthetic, and storytelling matters are dealt with as always. What's different is that at the end of a scene, the mixer does, well, nothing—nothing is recorded, perhaps not until the print master is made. Virtual mixing may or may not save time, but it unquestionably pushes back the director's moment of “Now you've got to decide.” Mixes stay open, so it's massively easier to change the sound or the dialogue element of a shot. This is a mixed blessing. Last-minute changes that make for a better film may be frustrating, but are hard to criticize. However, open mixes can also empower insecure directors to delve into ADR lines or even production outtakes, long after they originally signed off on the matter.
Audio workstations have long made for faster, better, prettier editing, but they always faced a huge obstacle: a sensible way for a human to interact with them. Mouse and keyboard were good enough for editing, but poorly suited for mixing. Early external controllers enabled command over DAW faders and assignable plugin parameter controls. But they couldn't compete with large consoles. Historically, communication between workstation and controller was managed with MIDI, a long-proven protocol. But MIDI's bandwidth limitations create a trade-off between responsiveness and the number of controls. Its resolution is too small for accurate mixing and its control options too limited for effective control.2 What makes the new generation of controllers worth using are new communications protocols, such as EuCon. They are fast and accurate, and can manage many parameters simultaneously. So mixing in the box with an external controller is no longer laughably crude or disastrously time consuming.
For TV nowadays, we mix “in the box.” I do a sort of dialogue predub at the same time as my FX partner does an FX predub. We then marry up with music on my side and Foley on his/her side and play together linearly.
Larry Benjamin, rerecording mixer
Think of the premixing process—whether in the box or in a console—as having three faces: matching shots and making scenes flow; noise control; and shaping the color and texture of a scene.3 In a perfect, moderately quiet world, where voices are on-mic and acting projection is strong, and where reflections capture the mood of the space, the dialogue premix would consist of … more or less nothing. Just because you're sitting behind a zillion-dollar console or caressing your newly purchased EuCon controller, it doesn't mean you need to start turning knobs. But our world is famously imperfect, so you'll likely have to do some work. Within a scene, there are processing issues that all of the elements have in common. In a gross sense, overall noise reduction and sound shaping are similar for all tracks, so they can be treated together. Conversely, each track has small, or not so small, quirks that will usually be individually sorted out in the console with the EQ and dynamics processors on each channel strip. And since a dialogue premix is about much more than just making the dialogue “not horrible,” there are countless issues of color, perspective, focus, and depth that you and the mixer will explore. Together.
Here the mixer works primarily with faders and the channel EQ of the console (or DAW) to minimize room tone differences from one shot to another. First match the volumes, and then make tiny adjustments in dialogue levels to help shots better fit together, and to control transients. If you're going to compress the dialogue, now's the time. (More later on dialogue compression.)
Where microphone distance and location are distinctly different between shots, judicious use of an automated mono reverb will likely help to bridge the gap. If you're saddled with one shot of a scene that's much noisier than the others, you'll likely have no choice but to tame the noisy side as best you can, and then consider this your noise floor. Process just the troublesome track, and then mix the other sides of the scene around it.
When balancing shots, you're dealing with two conflicting interests. You must smooth changes in room tone between shots and you must make voices match. These two often pull in opposite directions, especially when you must use a high-pass filter to manage rumble. My advice: If you must make a choice, save the voice match. Clever SFX editing may solve the tone issue without destroying flow. But a quick change in voice quality will stick out and derail the scene.
Sometimes EQ alone will not sort out background noises. Tonal noises like generators can be notched, traffic rumble can often be reduced with a highpass filter, and narrow EQ cuts will remove some high-frequency buzzes. But when these fail you, you need broadband noise reduction. Before charging in, listen to the scene after the mixer does his best with shot matching. Pay attention to where the scene takes place and to its level of intimacy. Does the scene need to be very quiet, or can it handle some noise? Do you miss any words? If so, is this good or bad? If the tracks demand noise reduction, the mixer will usually send the whole scene to an outboard processor, such as a Cedar DNS. If mixing in a DAW, he can, if needed, apply a broadband de-noiser to every track, each with a different setting. This will provide much better control of noise reduction, but may encourage an over-focused interaction with the scene.
Listen again to the background noise: is the offending sound primarily low frequency, or high, or both? Since you want to process as little of the recording as possible, limit yourself to the bands that really need it. As with offline processing, know where to stop. With each parameter change, ask the mixer to play a before/after. There is a very good chance that you are damaging the track. If so, back off. (See Chapter 14 for an exhaustive discussion of noise reduction.)
Shot balancing and noise reduction may have altered the color of a scene, either because you messed with it too much, or because cleaning unveiled a recording that was flawed in the first place. Unlike the steep, narrow cuts you used to rid the track of ugliness, now you'll likely use wide, gentle boosts and cuts to add warmth, diminish nasty elements of a voice, and in general make it all nice. Refer regularly to the original sound, lest you lose your perspective.
Now that the scene sounds good, this is your chance to make tiny adjustments in level, EQ, or reverb to focus the scene, to establish the pecking order of those on the screen, and to emphasize certain words while making the viewer work harder for others. This is the fun part.
One of the great traps of dialogue premixing is that you're usually working in a vacuum. No backgrounds, no sound effect or Foleys, no music. All of those can mask some of the dialogue's background noise. Underprocess—within reason—at this stage and you'll likely be fine. The other elements will probably sort things out. If not, you can always clean more aggressively in the final mix.
Compression in dialogue premixing is a very touchy topic. The style of a film, the style of a mixer, and the peculiarities of a film culture all play parts in determining how dynamics are applied to dialogue.
At one end of the compression spectrum is the “no compression on the dialogue” dogma. This style yields great shape, a natural room sound, and lots of “air.” The downside is that it's easy to lose control of such free spirit sound, resulting in a track that's occasionally hard to understand and unmanageable. This technique can be effective in chamber films, where the room itself is an important element.
At the other pole is aggressive dialogue compression that pushes everything up front. Mixed this way, the dialogue is usually easy to understand, but it may be painfully blocky. It works well with action, as it cuts through anything.
The middle ground is, of course, in the middle. Moderate pre-fader com -pression can tighten up the sound and minimize ear-splitting transients. There's no right or wrong, so you just have to experiment with it. However, even if you know you're going to compress aggressively, don't overdo it now. Wait until the final mix, when the dialogue will have other sounds to play with.
Which is the “right” compression? Who knows. Respect the film, know the market, listen to your gut. But whether you compress a little or a lot, or not at all, compression is not a replacement for fader moves!
Some mixers forgo premixes altogether, instead stringing up all the film's tracks and interactively mixing one section with another. They argue that because all film sounds are interrelated, any change in one section of the mix necessarily affects all others.
This is undoubtedly true, but I'm still a holdout when it comes to diving headlong into the final mix. For me, the dialogue premix is about focusing on the details. It's when you can really dwell on the tiniest of matters, without the burden of the rest of the film weighing on you. This is your chance to find those sublime moments that are rarely directly heard in the final but that collectively make up a masterpiece. During the final mix, everyone is more concerned with balance and image than with detail, with telling a story than with minutiae. But odds are you won't have a lot of say in how the mixer works, so find out in advance the mixer's plan and adapt your own.
In Chapter 10 you saw the advantages of creating dialogue session templates when working on multi-reel projects. Why, after all, create and label all those
tracks, and why set up your comfortable editing universe over and over? The same goes for television series mixing. Once the dust settles after the first few episodes, the post-production team (or at least the post-production supervisor) can establish a template that will serve as the holy book for the rest of the season.
This template will include the standard mix geography, including sends, inserts, and plugins. The mixer can import the contents of a predetermined number of dialogue tracks, and with his standard toolkit of processors, he can get to work immediately. Figure 20.1 shows a detail of a television mix template.
There's a lot to be said for having a workstation in the mix. Constantly updating views of the tracks, easy fixes and changes, plugin processing to complement or even replace the console—these are but a few of the advantages they have to offer. However, it's all too easy to spend the mix staring at the computer rather than the movie. Perhaps it's the comfortable familiarity with the tracks, perhaps it's fear of seeing your weaknesses on the big screen, perhaps it's just habit. But remember: Your job as an editor is essentially finished. You're in the mix to help make it work. From now on, your business is on the screen. As much as possible, deal with dialogue flow rather than dialogue detail.
Many directors want to go to the dialogue premix—it makes sense. But after a few minutes of fidgeting, most of them come up with excuses to stay away. It's much easier on all concerned if you keep them out of the daily blow-by-blow, bringing them onto the stage only when you've finished a reel. If possible, ask the director to remain quiet and take notes while you play an entire reel. If you're always stopping and starting to address her issues, you'll never get a feel for the premix and you'll never finish. Ask her to attach timecode or footage to her notes since it's difficult to tell a machine control to “cue to the shot where Roxanne coughs.”
When you've finished screening the reel, listen only to the opinion of viewers who have any business spouting one. If you can, keep ex-spouses, accountants, boyfriends or girlfriends, and personal trainers out of the screening—one tiny bomb dropped by an outsider can poison an evaluation and the damage may take hours to rectify. Take good notes on who says what, and review them before dismissing the audience. Look for any conflicts, such as the director wanting scene 3 more blue and the producer wanting it more red. Don't let anybody go until you have a plan for the fixes you intend to make.
As you address criticisms, decide with the mixer which ones can be fixed painlessly in the final mix and which require getting back into the premix. Normally, most issues raised by the guys in the back of the room are of the “Louder here, softer there” variety, which can be addressed in the final mix.
It's likely that you won't be at the final mix unless you stick around for your own enlightenment (a good idea from time to time). Even if you aren't there, it's important to know what happens to your work down the line, after you've left the job, just as you had to know what happened to the dialogue tracks before they got to you.
Dialogue is almost always the first premix, since in most narrative films it serves as the foundation of the soundtrack, with other mixes referring to it. The number and sequence of premixes depend on the film type, the console size, and the mixer's habits. Obviously, an action film will demand a lot of time on SFX and Foley, whereas on a dialogue-heavy film, with only atmospheric sound effects, the mixer may bring the nondialogue elements directly to the final mix.
The final mix is where all elements finally meet each other. Music, more than likely already mixed at another facility, will appear as a set of 5.1 (or wider) elements, and sound effects, backgrounds, and Foleys will show up raw or as multitrack premixes. As you would expect, monitoring the final mix depends on the format it's being prepared for. The final mix is not only about story, style, balance, and emphasis, but also about sound image.
The final mix is recorded onto discrete multitrack groups called stems, which provide for flexibility. As the mix progresses, the final mixed dialogue is recorded on 5.1 stems. The same goes for SFX, BG, music, and Foley—to preserve flexibility during the final pass and, more important, to facilitate the creation of print masters in various release formats.
When the mix is finished, two tasks remain. First, it must be mastered in a format that enables shooting an optical negative for film release or the creation of a DCP.
The only surviving analogue format, except for mono, is Dolby SR; it requires the most exotic mastering process. During the mix, and later in cinema playback, it's a four-channel format but the four channels are stored on the film print as a two-channel analogue optical track. Although seldom heard as a film's principal playback track, you encounter Dolby SR far more often than you'd think. Each Dolby Digital print includes an SR analogue backup track. Whenever the digital processor can't reproduce the soundtrack, it switches to analogue playback until the digital stream stabilizes.
Dolby Digital is a discrete format, so no matrix is required. The print master is recorded to a Dolby-owned magneto-optical recorder.
SDDS and DTS each have their own special mastering requirements, so if a film is to be distributed in several release formats, separate print masters are needed.
DCP does not use any data compression or proprietary encoding. Audio is delivered as discrete, uncompressed 24-bit, 48 kHz soundfiles.
Once the native language mix is complete, it's time for the international mix. Wherever possible, this is a combination of SFX, Foley, and music stems, plus whatever you were able to extract from the dialogue during the premix. Many dialogue-based sounds in the final mix can't be salvaged for M&E, usually because the dialogue steps on them (how ironic that dialogue editing requires excising nonverbal sounds from the track, while in the international mix it's the words that ruin everything). The sound effects editor will undoubtedly have to add many new effects to cover the loss.
It's much more efficient to create the M&E mix just after the main mix rather than weeks or months later. The sound crew is still assembled, the elements are easily available, and the supervising sound editor and mixer are familiar with the film's quirks. Moreover, the automation is still loaded in the console and whatever outboard kit was used for the main mix is still connected.
There are times, however, when the international mix has to wait, usually because the production has spent its last cent on the mix and the lab, and they're waiting for a foreign distributor to commit to the project. Only then will the M&E mix take place. It's an inefficient way to work, but at times it's the only option.
Most films will eventually make it to television, and in the United States there are some unusual laws and conventions about television language. Even if a film meets FCC standards for violence and nudity, it could still require dialogue cosmetic surgery to play, for example, in Peoria. Anticipating this, the ADR supervisor recorded alternate TV versions of all problematic dialogue while tracking the primary loop line. You added these alternates when you prepared the ADR for the dialogue premix. You didn't need them in the regular dialogue premix, but you or the supervising sound editor will now use them to replace the offending lines. This new, aseptic dialogue will be folded into an otherwise acceptable final mix.
The airplane mix is the most castrated of all sound jobs. The way the airlines see it, going to a cinema is a choice and you can walk out if the movie offends you. Likewise, you can always turn off the tube if you find a film objectionable for you or your family. However, it's pretty difficult to ignore the screen on a 15-hour flight from New York to Tokyo and harder still to keep the kids from watching Lenny while you sleep.
So, according to some rather draconian standards for film content, an airplane version will undoubtedly have undergone picture censorship, which means that you'll be faced with a new print version. You will have to make the mix stems conform to this new print, and any ADR language expunging that's beyond the scope of the TV version will have to be mixed in too.
I began this chapter with hopes of defining the borders between movies and television, between console mixing and mixing in-the-box. My quest didn't work out so well, and I've learned that these borders more resemble the line between Brooklyn and Queens than that separating North and South Korea. Mixing is mixing is mixing, and all mixes have far more in common than not. Faders must move, processors must be set, automation must be written, and thousands of decisions must be made. It's only how we interact with the machines that differs.
Having said that, there are some things to consider when mixing entirely within a workstation.
The sea in which dialogue editors swim has changed. Gone are the days when every film is mixed by someone else in a big room with a big console and a corresponding budget. Sometimes you will edit the dialogue, and nothing more. The film will be mixed by someone else in a big room with a big console and a corresponding budget. Or, you will cut the dialogue and premix it in a workstation. Or anything in between. You now must be flexible: know how to manage a big mix, but also how to create a good dialogue premix within your workstation. Flexibility is no longer an option. It's the key to thriving as a dialogue editor.
3. A mixer may approach these three aspects of dialogue premixing as separate steps or work on more than one at a time.