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The Seed&Spark Blog

Connecting Audio with Audience: Expert Tips from a Sound Engineer

November 29, 2012

• Hollis Smith

Every filmmaker should remember that they aren't just making a moving picture, they're crafting a work that is just as auditory as it is visual. Sound is half the sensory experience of your film, and when a film sounds bad, your audience will notice. But if they notice good sound design at work, that's when you push a moment into real greatness. Here are ten tips that can help you reach that threshold.

1. A production sound mixer is an essential part of your team. They don’t have to be a pro, but you’ll need to have somebody there to really focus on the sound; just tossing a mic on set isn’t going to cut it. (In times of real desperation this task can even be managed by the director, but whenever you give a job to somebody with another role to play, ask yourself what that will mean for the focus being put on the rest of the film.) So put on some headphones and listen to the recording device.

2. If you're wondering if that noise you heard made it on to the take, it probably did. Getting another take or two is how you create the space and options for a crisp and professional sounding film.

3. It might go without saying, but always log your takes. When it comes time for mixing and you want to replace a word or two with one from another take, having a log of takes by date, location, and scene will make all the difference.

4. Once the film is edited, try to eliminate the sound sources that aren’t optimal. If you used more than one mic in a scene, try to decide which is the best. Then when it goes to mix, the engineer will be able put all of their energy into just what you think would sound ideal.

5. Try to remove any stacked or doubled audio that was used by the editor to get a stronger level. It can be extremely time consuming to have to fish through all of those red herrings to find what is actually useful. You know that it’s always best to handle issues at the stage when they’re at their most manageable, and that’s just as true here as it anywhere else!

6. If you want your film to sound professional, go professional! Why put so much time and effort only to have your whole vision set askew by skimping on the very last step? A decent audio technician has years of practice, and if you’re only offering “Credit” as payment you probably won’t end up with the immersive soundscape your film deserves. Go pro. It will be worth it!

7. When you start the interviewing process for post-production audio professionals, try asking around for referrals. If you post on the usual sites, you are going to get absolutely overwhelmed. So much so that you will want to close your email account, change your name and phone number, and go in to Witness Protection. Try watching the end credits of a film that you thought had great audio. Then track them down. Trust me... they want to be found.

8. The person you chose should have examples of their work. Even if there isn’t a lot of it, there should be something. If not, that’s like going to an interview and not taking a resume. Ideally, they should have at least a short film under their belt.

9. Once you begin working with your sound designer, tell them beforehand about any creative moments that you have ideas about, then they can begin formulating how to achieve your vision well in advance.

10. Finally, if you chose someone and it isn’t the match made in Heaven that you hoped it would be... walk away. Don’t hang in there out of guilt. This is your film, there’s no room for behavior you find counterintuitive or somebody who’s just plain out of their element.

Of course, while these suggestions are based on experience, they’re still just that: suggestions. They aren’t set in stone, but anything that can make your film the best that it can be while taking less time and costing less to produce should be paramount.

Hollis Smith is an Audio Mixing Engineer and Sound Designer at Alphanumeric Sound.

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