Top Ten Things To Consider When Mixing The Sound For Your Film In A Professional Dubbing Theatre or Mixing Suite


Last week we did the final sound mix for ‘Be Heard’ at a top facility in central London, inside a state of the art dubbing theatre. I have been present at the mix of many films now, features and shorts, and there are certain patterns and things you can do to get the most from a freebie or an over stretched budget.

  • IMG_9168Why do it? My tools at home are already very good.
    Yes your software and hardware is most likely great, and that’s all you may need for internet delivery. But if you aspire to broadcast TV and theatrical presentation, the tools and environment offered by a professional dubbing theatre are simply astonishing in comparison. Their kit and expertise will transform your final mix and ensure it meets rigid standards for broadcast and international sales. Call them, go see them, ask for help. You might just get it.
  • IMG_9152Sit where you need to sit
    When you get into the room there are usually three places to sit. Behind the mixing desk, at the mixing desk and in front of the mixing desk. Put all your guests (like visiting actors, investors etc) on the sofa in front of the desk and away from the decision making process. Producers and other important bods can sit on the sofa behind the desk (where they will spend a great deal of time on their phones). You should sit AT the desk, next to the mixer. Whoever sits at the desk and next to the mixer will have the most intimate control over the final mix.
  • startAgree on who will have a voice and who is a spectator
    Sometimes opinions are needed on the mix. What you want is expert advice with ideas and clear action to take. What you MUST avoid is amateur debate. You don’t have time for it. Agree before entering the mix who can offer opinion if a discussion about the mix begins. While you can be guided by the professional mixer, you may also find they don’t know the politics and so may listen to people whose opinion may not be helpful overall. Well meaning but they are not responsible for getting the mix done while underfunded and under resourced. Speed is of the essence.
  • mollyIt’s loud and it should be
    Most professional dubbing theatres will sound loud at first listening. And most likely this is the best environment your film will ever be screened in from a sound point of view. The additional volume and incredible fidelity means you will hear EVERYTHING, from bad edits to new stuff in then background that you have never heard before (as you have never played back in an environment of this quality). Try to adjust your ears to the extra volume and resist the urge to mix ‘down’ some elements. Again, be guided by the professional mixer.
  • IMG_9144Enter the pre-mix
    While you should have a chat about overall tone and feel of the mix beforehand, the first thing to be done is a pre-mix. The main focus will be getting the dialogue tracks knocked into shape, so they all sound clean and bright and appropriate. Some ADR may have been added so that will need some work to make it sound like ‘live sound’. During the pre-mix, while the dialogue tracks are sorted out. the mixer will also get to know the film, and at this point, it’s best if fewer people are present and creative input is minimised. You need them to get this somewhat technical job done fast and efficiently. By all means be present to answer questions and offer insight but remain a hands off for now.
  • Switch out crap sound effects and atmospheres
    Once played through a world class sound system, some of your sound effects may be letting the mix down. Most post production facilities will have access to networked libraries with tens of thousands of sound effects and you can switch out poor sound effects with new ones. You don’t want to make a habit of this as it can be time consuming, but if a sound effect is critical and it is badly recorded or not even present, most likely you can fix that by plundering their library.
  • Tell the story
    I have heard all manner of creative nonsense espoused by filmmakers in the final mix. The bottom line is, the sound should at the very least enhance and help tell the story. Sound effects play a huge role in this. Don’t get lost in the esoteria of sound mixing at the cost of simply telling your story. It may be art, but it’s story first.

  • IMG_9143Listen to the expert, listen to experience
    A sound mixer mixes sound every day and can most likely peg your level of experience within a few moments of meeting you. Don’t be a fool and try to be the smartest person in the room. Explain what you want and then listen to their expert advice.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence
    This is a trick I have used over and over. In some moments, where other filmmakers may crank the sound right up for effect, I have found that cutting the sound altogether can have much greater impact. Silence. I first saw this used in ‘Little Big Man’ with Dustin Hoffman, in a scene where a native American tribe is massacred – and it played out in silence. Boy did that pack some punch.
  • Resist over use of music
    I have said this over and over. Too much music, pushed too high in the mix can kill your film. Have confidence in your work, it does not need music to support every single moment. Use too much music and the audience will become numb to it to the point where it’s just noise and has no real impact. Choose your music moments wisely.
  • Know what you need to leave with
    Once the sound mix is over, be clear about what you need to take away with you. On ‘Be Heard’ we mixed in stereo, so we just needed a stereo wav file. We also shot at 25fps so as we knew we were to make a DCP for festivals, we also created a slowed down and repitched 24fps file too. Plus, get a copy of the entire project, in this case we mixed in ProTools (so all the audio files and the project files). This is essential should you ever want to revisit the mix.

I have written several other blogs entries on sound mixing, which you can read here…

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Chris Jones
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