Whenever people ask what I do, I usually reply “I’m a audio engineer”. Usually that satiates their curiosity, but occasionally we’re stuck on the elevator for long enough for a follow up.
“Oh nice. For bands and stuff?” or something similar is often the reply.
“For film and commercials,” is usually what I go with, although that might lend people to think I’m mixing the next Star Wars or Avatar 4. Actually, it probably gives them images of me playing on an old casio keyboard and making fun little dance songs for kids cartoons—that I also animate in my mom’s basement.
And while I do love writing and recording bands and writing Bowie-esque podcast bumps for my video game podcast (check out Men Of Low Moral Fiber HERE!), neither one of those is a very accurate depiction of what I do for a living.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
I specialize in audio repair; things like getting rid of the reverb when an interview was recorded in a large room that the CEO just had to feature in the video, or taking out the sound of a large plane flying overhead because the best take of the outdoor audio just happened to be during takeoff. It’s things like this can often make or break a film, that can make a scene between two actors that’s really cracking…start to show the cracks. When the audience begins to think about what it was like to film that day, or if that bird chirping in the background was supposed to be so distracting, why that musical cue is overpowering the dialogue… That’s what I try to help prevent.
But pretty soon, after helping out on a few short film projects, those small gigs turned into mixing entire videos—not just fixing small scenes here and there. Projects like trailers for independent films, compilations of interviews for corporate clients, one giant celebrity wedding, and even a few short films.
So without further ado, here’s a quick breakdown of what I do, a snapshot of my process, as well as some fun ear candy. Enjoy!
I get a call from the project lead (sometimes the director, sometimes the editor…sometimes both) who says they need the film foley-ed, mixed, and mastered in (insert too few days here). OKAY! Let’s do this.
This is the video file they sent, and honestly I’m usually kind of impressed with it at this stage. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’d sound fine on social media, on someone’s phone, or even just as a rush job sometimes. In this case, it drastically needed some foley for all of the moving parts, people, and action, as well as some EQ on the voice over (VO), plus some score ducking. Give it a listen…
That being said, it only takes one listen to realize a bunch of ways it could be drastically improved. In the case of this GameWorks commercial—which was my first broadcast mix—they also wanted foley added to the project. And while occasionally I’ll get my outdoor gear and record live audio in the field for my own custom foley catalogue…I have plenty of foley libraries I love looking/listening through, and I also see that as one of the most fun parts of the job.
This is probably the silliest one to watch and listen to, as all of the actions are just over-the-top loud and exaggerated. Keep in mind, this is without any voice over or score in the background, just all of the foley right on top of the mix, so it’s going to be a little weird. The goal here is to make sure that I produce sounds for everything that makes sound on the screen. I can always mix them down later, but having the ability to hear everything not only gives a little texture to each shot, but also some reality and weight to every action the characters take on screen.
Anyway, after a few hours of adding and tweaking some sound effects, here’s what I came up with…
ADDING VOICE OVER
And while the VO might not sound like that classic, robust NPR-like voice, that’s because the music is so powerful and dynamic and has such strong bass frequencies, that to get the VO to stand out above that, it’s essential to keep the mids a little higher than normal, and even take away some of the bass from the male voice. If I kept all of the bass in the VO, as well as with the original score, they’d overpower the other frequencies and make it sound like the whole place was underwater.
Here it is with the VO added…
One of the main goals to my job is audio ducking—which is the art of bringing down the volume of the score when the voice over is happening. The “art” aspect of it is doing it in a way that helps the voice over stand out a bit, but also subtly and almost subconsciously, so the viewer/listener doesn’t feel like the volume just got turned down. It should be dynamic, not distracting.
Once the audio ducking is complete, it’s time to methodically go through and listen to the whole thing, a bunch of times, adding a few monitoring plugins to help make everything consistent from start to finish, as well as to make sure it’s all at a suitable level for whatever medium it’s being delivered (in this case: broadcast television).
[Some of that is done through the mastering process as well, but I left that out because it’s such a subtle change that on phone or laptop speakers it’d just be perceived as a volume change anyway.]
Someday I’ll have a post (maybe a whole video) where I go through a project file and point out all of the actions I go through to start a project, as well as the specific plugins and processes I use to go from start to finish. For now though, I just wanted to do a high level overview of what I do for a living, so the next time someone says they’re an
audio engineer for film and commercials” you’ll at least have a better idea of what that might mean.
Thanks for reading, watching, and listening with me!
[You can check out more of this company’s projects, as well more of the videos I’ve mixed on West’s website]
One thought on “A Sound Mix Evolution”
An outstanding explanation of the audio engineering process for video and great examples of your steps. Thanks Ben for sharing your craft!