Obtaining solid sound design is essential to a film’s success. So what steps can you take to craft the best audio experience for your film project?
There are a few misconceptions when it comes to what sound design for film is, so let’s get that out of the way first…
- Sound design is not about assembling neat effects, loud gunshots or using a car crash SFX for every bang or crash in your film.
- It is not about having the loudest film.
Sound design is a process of experimentation to create an audio environment that supports the on-screen action and engages the audience. The true sound designer is constantly listening, learning and experimenting.
Getting a good mix starts with clean and healthy signals from your sound recorder and boom operator. The dialogue to your film is an essential part of what’s going to translate the pictures to your audience in an emotional direction.
So let’s dive in and explore the principals and techniques of obtaining a good mix for a film:
- Gain staging and Volume
Gain Staging And Volume
Proper gain staging is important to the fidelity and cohesiveness of your mix. As previously stated, obtaining clean and healthy signals for each track is perhaps the most important part of structuring a mix; as every decision you make from here on out is directly affected by your choices in gain staging.
As a quick aside, it’s important to capture wild tracks on-set when possible (audio intended to be synchronized later on). This will save you from a great deal of ADR in postproduction (a few extra minutes on set could save you countless hours later).
As you structure your mix, it’s imperative to create sonic depth for the picture. This is done by adjusting and fine-tuning each track’s dB control; creating a sonically rich and diverse atmosphere. You can further create depth and separation in your mix with the addition of reverb sends, but we’ll get to that later. This is where your mix should start to shine; before any compression, EQ or reverb effects have been used.
You generally want your master channel to be peaking around -15dB to -12dB in it’s loudest moments, as it’s important to leave plenty of headroom for mastering. Generally speaking, it’s better to reduce the volume of all the other tracks, rather than boost any one volume. Don’t be afraid to drastically reduce the volume of a track only to gradually bring it up again to find that “pocket” where it belongs. Personally, I find this method much easier than reducing the track’s dB starting at a high volume.
Applying compression to your dialogue tracks, as well as the rest of your mix, tends to be a subjective matter. So let’s explore that for a moment…
Most every engineer uses compression; with a few carving themselves into this niche. Compression, gating and expansion all represent the dynamics family of processors by altering the dynamic range of your signal. When squashing your signal into a narrowed dynamic range, the audio is better controlled: it will fit into your mix easier and appear to sound more full.