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The changing face of audio

blue’s three dubbing studios run on Avid Pro Tools digital audio workstations with AMS Neve digital mixing consoles.

There are several myths that make the rounds in the creative post industry. But, as with all good myths, the vast majority of them are completely unfounded.

The growth of DVD

One of the biggest of these is that audio is the poor cousin to video. In the past, this has perhaps been the case; the visual side, with its high-profile special effects, has tended to take the plaudits and the budgets. This has long been a bugbear of sound engineers.

5:1 — The be all and end all?

But the day of sound engineers — or as we're now more often called, sound designers — has come. There are several reasons for this. Expectations for audio effects are rising. In turn, this has increased our profile, so we're less of a back-office bit player and more an integral part of the whole production. Nowadays, sound recordists are often there throughout the whole production process.

The omnipresent DVD also has given audio engineers a big boost. According to recent research published by the UK Film Council, more than 60 percent of UK households own a DVD player. People are increasingly exposed to stunning video and audio effects. Today, content producers want these effects and quality in their own productions. As audio engineers, we're now working with directors who expect the same sound in their television drama as they've heard in “Gladiator.”

Another myth is that 5:1 surround sound is the be all and end all. As with any new technology, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon. We are seeing a steady rise in the number of home theater systems, and the assumption is that every production needs 5:1. But as sound designers, we need to recommend when 5:1 is needed and when it isn't.

For example, in 1999, Woody Allen had a huge success with his film “Sweet and Lowdown.” This was released at a time when everyone else was doing huge effects-based films, where stereo was standard. But for Woody Allen, his films are all about the dialogue, and mono worked perfectly for this. The moral of the story: Why introduce the complication of doing a film or program in stereo 5.1 if it's not needed?

My specialty is documentaries, and many of the programs I work on are fly-on-the-wall. This means that the quality of the raw material I am given to work with is often very poor. Sometimes, it can even be a struggle to make the audio audible in mono, let alone through six channels. So, although there is an increasing demand from the industry for 5:1, as a delivery requirement, the material has to lend itself to 5:1. This is why directors should involve the sound experts at an early stage.

Higher profile, more challenges

Obviously, when something is produced in HD — for Discovery HD, for example — then 5:1 becomes more of a relevant issue. We recently worked on a program called “Fat Fiancés,” a Cicada production for Discovery HD. Although the master had to be in stereo, we also produced a 5:1 eight-track, which Discovery wanted for possible future release in surround sound.

If you do go down the 5:1 route, then — just as with a big film sound — the audio is something that needs to be factored in from the start as it will require more budget, more time in track lay and more time for the initial mix. Once an initial 5:1 mix is completed, it is relatively straightforward to decode it down to stereo. So, if 5:1 is something you are considering, do it from the start, rather than suddenly deciding to have 5:1 after the stereo mix has already been done.

Planning ahead

As the amount of time and money set aside for the track lay comes under pressure, and the expectation for big film-style sound rises, the work of the sound engineer becomes ever more challenging. With a five- or six-week edit, the offline editor is usually working up to the wire, and audio often ends up being left until the eleventh hour. On top of this, the director will want to achieve a rich, feature-film sound. But to do justice to a production — especially where a sound track involves multiple layers and Foleys — there is no point cutting time off the schedule until the final mix.

Poor audio can really let a production down. You only have to look to the example of successful feature films and dramas to see the investment that has been made in the audio elements. Those producing for television need to sit up and take notice.

It's important to factor in audio and time with the dubbing mixer at the pre-production stage, just as you would at any other point of the post-production process. As a dubbing mixer, I like to try and get a head start on any jobs I am working on.

If I happen to know the directors well, I'll make time to see them in advance so that I know what they are expecting. Some of the directors that I have worked with on a regular basis will even send me dailies before the audio session is booked.

The end result is always better for it; if there is something that needs fixing on the audio side, then it is no good leaving it until the day of the actual mix. By that stage, there is only a limited amount you can do.

Here at blue post production, we use Avids, which means I can pop over and spend some time with the editor well before the audio session is booked in. This lets me get a taste of what's coming up and what might be needed. I can organize for effects, plug-ins and Foleys to be put together in advance.

A perfect example of how much difference a little bit of foresight can make is a program that blue completed called “Murder in Rome” for the BBC's Timewatch series. There was one section of the audio where one of the actor's dialogue was distorted.However, because I already had the tapes, I was aware of it and able to refer back to them to fix it. If this had not been the case, the actor would have had to come in and re-record those lines, adding more time to an already tight post-production schedule.

Sound effects

Basically, the more time you can spend in track lay, placing rather than sourcing effects, the better. This is all part of being proactive and interested in what you do. For their part, the clients feel that you are taking an interest in the job. Normally, you just get to see them for a day, so making an effort shows that you value them as a customer.

Sounding off

But quite aside from that, it is better for the production — and better for the sound engineer — as you're not walking into any nasty surprises!

Audio has come a long way since the days when artists used Foley stages to physically create all the sound effects. Now these are available to the sound engineer instantaneously. Having a wide range of Foley tracks adds a whole new dimension to a project. They can really bring the soundtrack to life by adding tiny nuances — adjustments to the sound of footsteps, the clink of jewelry as an actor moves or the rustle of fabric in the wind — that make a world of difference. We use Avid Pro Tools here as it allows the mixer to easily manipulate audio by providing an enormous range of plug-ins for anything from compression to EQ.

So, to get the best audio for a production and to get the most out of your sound engineer, start by setting aside the time and the budget for it. And then try to make some time to speak with the sound engineer beforehand. This will allow the engineer to do the groundwork first and make the most of the time available for track laying.

In a nutshell, the bigger the sound you want to achieve, the more important the audio process becomes. And so the role and profile of the humble sound engineer moves up another level, which can only be a good thing.

Matt Skilton is a dubbing mixer at blue post production in London, a division of the VTR Group.