I am very proud to have been the audio mixer for Walking Out, a feature film shot in Montana, written and directed by Alex and Andrew Smith. I knew it was a great script when I read it and with the help of a great cast and crew, we made a great movie. It’s going to premier at Sundance in January, 2017 as part of the dramatic feature competition!
Here’s a commercial I recently did sound on called Innovate Montana.
Three years ago, I started grad school at The University of Montana. On Saturday, May 12th, I received my MFA in digital film making from the school of Media Arts, College of Visual and Performing Arts. Although production audio is my main love and specialty, my experiences writing, directing, producing and just making movies really help my understanding of the “big picture” of film making.
I worked an interview/doc type shoot today and when I got home, my wife asked me who was interviewed. I told her and she asked my if he was interesting. I told her I really didn’t know. I didn’t know because I was listening with my sound man ears, not my director or producer ears.
If I actually listened to what was being said I might be distracted by an interesting statement and not notice things I should be listening for such as background noise, conversations, cars, air handlers, airplanes, trains, etc. I wouldn’t be doing my job.
One of the most basic things a sound mixer has to do, obviously, is listen but it is very important to know HOW to listen and what to listen for. A huge part of listening correctly means NOT listening to what someone is actually saying. That’s someone else’s job.
originally published on filmsound.org
written by John Coffey, with help from Randy Thom, Jeff Wexler, Noah Timan, Mike Hall, John Garrett, Scott Smith, Rob Young, Mike Filosa, Wolf Seeberg,Darren Brisker, Charles Wilborn,Todd Russell, Brydon Baker, Larry Long, Glen Trew, Dave Schaaf, Charles Tomaras, Klay Anderson, Brian Shennan, Hans Hansen, David Marks, Bob Gravenor, Von Varga, Mark Steinbeck, Carl Cardin, Eric Toline, Joseph Cancila, Stu Fox, Peter Devlin, Matt Nicolay and many others.
This letter is being written by audio professionals to help directors and producers understand how good sound can be recorded on the set. We want to help you make the best film possible.
For this piece, we will not discuss the topic of mixing itself, as this is the “hocus pocus” part that you trust us to do so well.
We want you to have information that will enable you to evaluate what is interfering with good sound, before a hasty decision is made that can harm the quality of your film’s sound. To help you make your decision you need to know about some of the obstacles that we sound people face, before we can even begin to get usable production sound on the set.
This is after all, the age day of digital sound. Theaters have wonderful THX (the audience IS listening) and SDDS with 5.1 surround. Home audio is often better than many theaters as a sophisticated audience demands DVDs with 24 bits. Yet, today’s sound at it’s source on set is suffering like never before.
We, the sound crew, are the ones that you depend on to create and protect YOUR original sound tracks during production.
Unlike the work of the majority of the people who are working for on-camera results, the mixer’s efforts can not be “seen” on the set. Almost no one hears what the microphone picks up. Too few are sure just what we do. Only the most obviously bad noises are even brought up for discussion.
Included in our job is to monitor the sets for unnecessary, accidental, ignorant and sometimes even malicious actions or lack of actions that may compromise your sound track. To emphasize this point: WE DO THIS SO YOU WILL HAVE THE BEST TRACKS POSSIBLE; IT IS NOT FOR US.
We are too often frustrated by the state of conditions that now exist on most sets. Many times we are expected to solve all sound problems alone. Instead, this should always be a cooperative effort with the assistant directors and other crafts.
Sound mixers are often perceived as pests or even a hindrance to the film’s progress. We don’t like being put in this untenable position because it is humiliating and unnecessary. We don’t like to be considered adversarial to the rest of the production and we certainly don’t want to be the “sound police”!
A mixer on a tough show, who fights alone to get you good sound, stands a good chance of burning out from all the excuses and defenses put up. It’s hard to put it all out there without support. The temptation is to cave into the pressure and just go with the flow, and no good can come when that happens.
The problems that we face may lead you to believe that good sound cannot be achieved without set disruptions and added costs. This would not be necessary if reasonable measures are anticipated and endorsed by you both in pre-production and during production.
We know the limitations of our equipment. For example, microphones are just tools, they don’t make miracles happen. If on-set audio problems are not dealt with immediately, they will only be back to haunt you again in postproduction.
You can help us do a better job for you. Good sound can most often be achieved by using reasonable preparation to avoid pitfalls.
We need your understanding and your backing.
Getting good sound is not a secret. It’s simply understanding everything about your role and performing your role very well.
The sound recordist’s role:
- Placing the microphones.
- Operating the recorder.
- Making sure the recording quality is good.
That’s it, really. If you do those three things right you will get good sound. The problem is doing those things right takes a hell of a lot of knowledge, experience and skills. The other problem is what works on one shoot doesn’t necessarily work on other shoots.
1. Placing the microphones:
- In general, you need to place the microphone as close to the talent as possible. This is very important.
- Start with the mic in the frame and make your DP yell at you. Move it slowly out of frame so YOU know where the frame ends.
- When booming, boom from above with the microphone angled downward aimed at the talent’s mouth.
- Know and follow the dialog.
- Know the blocking.
- Line up the mic with some reference point so you can keep it close to the talent through whatever blocking happens in the shot.
2. Operating the recorder:
- Use balanced cables for your connections
- Bit rate set to at least 16 bits, 24 bits is better
- Sample rate at least 44.1, preferably at least 48kHz
- Set the level as high as possible without clipping. Peaks should be about -6 dbFS
- Know your recorder
If your recorder doesn’t have these capabilities, you need a new one.
3. Making sure the recording quality is good:
- LISTEN. To everything. Most important.
- Good headphones are a must. (closed ear pads)
- Play some of the clips back, verify levels.
- Communicate issues immediately.
Simple, right? Not exactly, but that’s the secret in a nutshell. Use the right mic, get the mic close, set the levels correctly, follow the dialog and communicate issues.
Upcoming posts are going to go into specific details about:
- What microphone to use and why.
- Recorders, mixers, accessories.
- Boom Technique.
- Headphone reviews.
- Acoustic properties of rooms and treatment.
- Audio theory 101.
- Synching second system audio.
- In-camera audio recording.
- Audio bags and accessories.
- Editing audio.
- Audio Software.
And, of course, anything else you want to see discussed on Production Audio Pro.
I think in some way DP’s (Directors of Photography) have it easier than sound recordists although I know all my DP friends are shaking their heads right now. But consider this – if you don’t like what’s in the frame, you can just move the camera or come in tighter – problem solved. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a zoom microphone. You still hear what’s not in the frame. Even though bad sound can ruin a move MORE than bad video, no one really notices or appreciates good sound. They only comment when there is a problem. So why do it? That is a great question. Here’s why I love production audio:
- It’s an art – you have to be an artist.
- It’s challenging, every set has different issues.
- Audio equipment doesn’t become obsolete every three years.
- You are right in the action with the director, the camera operator and the actors.
- Good sound can make or break a movie and good directors and producers know this.
The other thing about audio I love is it is often a one-person job. Although you are part of a collaborative production unit, on a small production or indy film, a single skilled person can boom and mix at the same time. You have great responsibility for your work, since there is no one else to blame which I find very rewarding. You have to be good to survive.