How to mix great sound in the modern age

Julian Grant

As I sit here working with only one engineer on a deck outfitted with the latest of digital tools, I about how far we have come in mixing films – and how many things remain the same.

When I first started in this industry, we had actual film playback to concern ourselves with, locking sync and 2-inch tape decks to conform the pair.

Today, we work with less people and much more digital assistance – but the basics of good sound re-recording applies.   Here are some of my tips to maximize your time in your mix and make sure that you are getting all that you can out of the session.

WORK IN 10-MINUTE REELS.  This is the industry standard and conforms to approximately 1,000 ft of 35mm film. We would break the film up to correspond to this length (due to the size of raw stock reels) and it’s a good mixing practice today as well.

Working in 10-minute mixing reels means we can lock sound effects and audio needs on one section of the film while still cutting the other. While it’s nice to mix in reel order, this way you don’t have to if you are waiting for more detailed sound editing work or a reel is being re-edited due to picture concerns..

DIALOG/MUSIC/FX/AIR.  Pay attention to specific audio areas one at a time. Listen to the transitions and how the work sits together – but isolate your attention to specific elements in the mix. Start with dialog clarity and then music harmony and how it affects the final mix.

Does the music get in the way of dialog clarity?  The biggest concern you will have is making sure you can hear what the performers are saying. Add sound effects where needed and salt with atmosphere or air tracks to fill in the gaps as needed.

Low level traffic, the sounds of ‘room tone’ recorded on set, all are helpful when completing your final Mix as they can fill dead air or edit points between audio tracks.

KNOW YOUR SYSTEM. In the US, ProTools is the software of choice for audio editing and mixing. In Europe, Logic is used more often than not. Regardless of your system, you should be aware how your editors and mixer want their audio tracks delivered. Most will want an OMF delivery of your audio tracks from your picture editing system.

Watch out, as the new Final Cut X does not offer this function as of this writing. Sound editors will work with your original tracks augmenting them with additional dialogue recording (ADR) to replace dialogue that is marred by technical problems and add Foley elements (post-recorded synchronous effects) as well.

WATCH YOUR REEL AND THEN MIX IT.  Don’t start mixing until you’ve watched the reel right through to the end.  Put all the faders up and make notes on areas that conflict or don’t work. Don’t worry about sliding things around to fit as this is common.

It is true.  The mix truly is the last edit for your film. When you watch a reel in its entirety, you get a better feel on the scenes at hand and how they flow into each other. By having an overview of the next 10 minutes of the picture, you aren’t holding too much in your head, and you have enough overview to understand context for the work. 

BOUNCES, BACKUP AND CLOUDS. Finish a reel and bounce it out (mix down) for your lay back with picture. Backup the session on another drive and put a copy of the BOUNCE to your Cloud Service (I use Dropbox) for easy access by everyone as required.

The engineer will be keeping copies of the session as well as duplicates that are dated as well. It never hurts to have too many copies of your audio masters and your work on them at a specific date and time.

SCREEN FOR AN AUDIENCE. Once the picture is mixed, screen it for an audience as soon as possible –as big as you can in the best sounding environment you can get. Don’t be surprised if you have to go back in to adjust things after this event.

Hearing your picture with clear ears and with a group (without stopping and starting each reel) will definitely impact your final sonic decisions. This is an imperative step as it allows you to finally see your film as your audience sees it – and you’ll be surprised at the number of concerns you had and how forgiving a live presentation can be.

You will also be exposed to new areas to revisit and you have to decide if your budget, schedule and film can support these final audio edits.

TAKING THE PROPER TIME. Mixing is the final icing on the cake for most filmmakers and greatly enjoyable as it means you are almost finished. It’s the time to put everything together and see your film in its best light.  But  it also takes time – and long hours at the mixing console. If you can do 20 minutes in eight hours, you’re doing fine.

Don’t rush through your audio edit and mix,as it is one of the few areas where audiences are unforgiving. They may forgive a bad composition or weak cinematography but they will hate you if your film sounds bad.

ASSURE THAT SOLID MIX. Color correction and additional visual refinements will make your film look great – but without a solid mix behind you, your film will suffer. Pay attention to your mix and benefit from the best of today’s digital tool set by being clear, concise and dynamic.

Your audience will appreciate your diligence.