Sound Mixing your film: Top Fifteen Tips For Working With The Professionals

A few weeks back I posted about getting the most from the final grade of your film after we did one for a production that Judy produced. And so I thought I would counterbalance that with the other final mastering stage every film undergoes, ‘getting the most from your final sound mix’ (or sound dub as it’s often called in the UK).

As with last article on colour grading, this is not about how to mix your sound, it’s more about how to ‘produce’ the final sound mix by working with established experts at the top of their game.

Of course you could do a pretty good sound mix at home, but for your ambitious projects, unless you are techy, I would recommend working with the professionals. You will hear things on their speakers that you will never have heard at home.

I wrote a post on doing a sound mix some time ago and that focused on how to do it – you can read that HERE.

profesional sound mixersWork with the best
Every facility has down time, so ask if you can slip in and take advantage of that free space. The industry wants to help new filmmakers so long as you are super prepared, flexible and not at all arrogant. If they see talent ‘on the way up’, they may help as you will likely repay that favour later with paid work, once your career has taken off. But you cannot announce yourself as ‘talent on the way up’, you need to BE that person authentically, so they can smell it. Confidence, clarity, courtesy, humility, professionalism, experts in your team, pragmatism… these are all qualities that will help get you a deal. But also be a little PPP too (post on getting stuff with PPP HERE).

Will you do the track lay or will they do the track lay?
One key distinction to make is that of ‘who does the donkey work?’ The soundtrack of your film is made in three distinct stages. First taking what exists (dialogue from set) and tidying it up. The second part is adding all the sound effects, Foley, atmospheres, replacing bad dialogue with ADR (re recorded dialogue) and generally building the whole soundscape. The final stage is mixing all the tracks into a single ‘final mix’. So who does the middle bit? In reality the editor should do a great job tidying the dialogue tracks, and a great editor can also go a LONG way to adding sound effects and atmospheres, even the final music. But there will likely be a lot more work still to do, adding even more sound effects, Foley and atmospheres. This is a massive job and I would argue YOU need to do it, especially on a feature film. It’s too much to ask for an a freebie or near freebie. If you have ten grand, then maybe, but it’s not going to happen for one grand, a smile and a bottle of whiskey. Find someone who wants to work in sound post production and get on with track laying your film at home. Allow four to six weeks to do this from scratch. Maybe more if you really want to do a stellar job.

Offer money upfront, no matter how much you have
When doing your deal with the people who will do your final mix, offer any money you have upfront and pay on the first day of the mix. This will create a good relationship. I have been told over and over by people who work in post ‘I helped that filmmaker and did them a crazy deal, then they made me chase them for six months to get paid a pittance’. Don’t destroy good will for those who follow in your tracks. Remember they are not doing this for the money, they are doing it to help the industry, to build new relationships and to train their junior staff. Don’t make them regret helping by making them chase you for payment.

How much time?
Mixing a feature film in a few days is possible, if you have done ALL the work upfront, but even then, it will be a rush. Negotiate as much time as you think you need, and then add 50% more and that’s how long it will most likely take. What will slow you down mostly will be badly recorded / edited dialogue tracks and a messy or illogical project layout for your tracks. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Track lay EVERYTHING so nothing is added in the mix
Absolutely everything that COULD make a sound, needs a sound effect, even things off screen such as dogs barking or helicopters passing overhead. There will be no time to plug acoustic holes in the final mix (though in reality this does happen, but more often to replace something that just sounds wrong or a creative idea that evolves in the mix). Be obsessive about creating a super rich acoustic world and add individual and lovingly considered effects everything. This is production value for your film that costs nothing more than your time and effort. The bottom line is do all your work BEFORE you get to the final mix as there will be no time to fix problems once you get into the theatre.

Get ready to be cancelled, moved and shuffled around
Getting a freebie or super-discounted deal will mean you may well get cancelled or postponed. When that happens, smile and thank them anyway. Remember they are not obliged to help you, the world does not owe you a sound mix. Be patient and above all gracious. Always take a laptop as often you may need to wait for hours in a coffee as their clients complete their job before you can slip in.

Check your tech workflow BEFORE entering the mix
Moving audio files is nothing like as challenging as moving video files as they are much smaller, possibly small enough to send via Before turning up for your mix, run a test to make sure your workflow is bullet proof, that everything appears where it should on the timeline and it’s all clearly labelled. This will avoid you loosing the first two hours of your mix to troubleshooting. It also means you don’t look like an idiot as soon as you arrive. And send your files ahead so the facility can get a junior to test it and make sure everything is as expected. Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Keep sound elements separate, checker-boarded and named
Essentially you need logic to your tracks, so the mixer is never hunting around the screen, trying to understand how your sound elements are organised. It’s not essential to checkerboard dialogue tracks (keeping one character on one track) but it will help mix more quickly and you will also force you to be more organised ahead of the mix too. Keep sound groups separate, for instance – dialogues tracks 1 to 6, atmospheres 7 to 10, spot effects 10 to15, Foley 16 to 18, music 19 to 20. The key is logic and orgnaisation. And name your clips clearly too.

Work REALLY hard on the Foley tracks
Foley tracks are created in post production by recreating and recording the movements of the characters but without any dialogue. Foley is performed by a Foley artists who is expert at making these human sounds. At the simplest level, Foley is footsteps. But in reality it’s so much more. You can do it at home if you like (I wrote an entry on it HERE), or you can go to a theatre and do it with a professional. They will be much faster of course, but you can do a great job too, if you put the time in. The benefit of a rich and fully populated Foley track is production value. Nine times out of ten, it’s the first thing people in the business will notice about a low budget film – the soundtrack sounds kind of sparse, and that begins with Foley. It’s also essential for the music and effects mix for you film (the M and E is the whole soundtrack minus dialogue, ready to be dubbed into foreign languages).

Sit next to the mixer
When you finally get into the mix, make friends with the mixer immediately as you will be going on a journey together over the next few days. Whoever did the track laying should also be present (assuming its not you), to offer real time insight into what is on the timeline, effectively what is coming up. This relationship is key to the final mix.  As you did the track lay over the last few weeks or months, you should also know exactly what you want from your dialogue, effects, atmospheres, Foley and music. If you have brought anyone else to the mix, such as investors, sit them on the big leather sofas and instruct them not to interfere.

Let the mixer do the first pass on the dialogues and be ready to answer questions
The first pass the mixer will most likely do on your soundtrack is to pre-mix the dialogue tracks. This is the hardest job to do at home and why I always use professionals. I would go as far as to say that it’s almost a dark art. The mixer will get all the dialogue at the right levels, make the loud bits less loud, the softer bits a bit louder, get the dialogue perspective right (a character talking from a distance is not just about making their voice quieter), and add reverb and other effects to seal the illusion that the world we are seeing is in fact real and consistent. Be ever present to answer questions or flag up issues, but fundamentally, leave the mixer to work their magic. And it really is magic.

Know your music and BITE THE BULLET!
The music for your film will be one of the last things to arrive, and most of the time, filmmakers have fallen in love with the temp score they have been using. So know two things. Your low budget score will sound different to the multimillion score recorded by Hans Zimmer, the one that you temp scored and LOVE. But unless there have been serious missteps from the composer, this new score will probably do a great job too. It’s not Hans Zimmer, no. Let it go. Second, almost certainly there will be too much music, so bite the bullet before the final mix and choose to pull out what is not needed. When you get to the final mix, be guided by the mixer as to how loud to mix the music – you will want it to be louder. They are almost always right when they say it’s too loud (and may even say there is too much music still). This is one of my bug bears that is usually most apparent in home mixed low budget trailers – the dialogue and music is badly mixed. Listen to the expert sat next to you.

Know what you need to leave with
If you have a clear path to ‘delivery’ of your film, you will know exactly what you need and in what formats. This may well include the final mix in 5.1, the stem mixes (that’s essentially all the elements of the mix but still separated), a stereo mixdown, and the M and E mix (music and effects mix). Make sure you also figure out how to archive the final mix, the media and the project, so that if you need to remix later, possibly years or even decades later, it remains possible. Make detailed notes to go alongside the archives too.

Do your Music and Effects mix there and then
It’s common to plan to do the Music and Effects mix right after the final mix, but then the mix runs over and the M and E gets pushed. However you engineer it, make sure the M and E is done as soon as possible after the main mix, at the same facility and using the same mixer. What often happens is it gets left, we all go to Cannes, we get to work on something else and then four months later we need the M and E urgently. Then we discover project is not archived, the facility it booked till Christmas, the mixer is on another job and we are now in a world of pain. What was a simple and cost effective job just got super complicated and expensive.

teamHave gifts ready for the end
Get ready to say thank you to the mixer and the account person who did you the deal and give them gifts to show your appreciation. You want to stay friends as there is a high likelihood that you may be back. Also, be prepared to celebrate yourself too. Your movie will never sound better than it does in the final mix, and experiencing it all come together for the first time is like magic. The end of the final mix will feel like ‘completing’ your film, so give yourself permission to celebrate.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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