Composing : Composing Is Part Of The Audio Track by Joel Irwin

Joel Irwin

Composing Is Part Of The Audio Track

While I am only a composer and do not function in the role of 'audio engineer' or 'sound editor', I and my work are part of the film soundtrack. As a member and collaborator, my work will be heard as part of the soundtrack and so in my opinion, I sink and swim with that team. With that thought, and through my last few films, I have learned 'a thing or two' I wanted to share here. While a lot of it is not related to process of composing, what I have learned is composers need to be more aware of the issues and be able to discuss them with other audio participants and the management team (especially for independent filmmakers). Everybody is often 'learning' and video is often given significantly more 'attention' than 'audio' in independent filmmaking. In all likelihood, films are not created in totality by a single person. It's a team effort. As there are multiple functions and roles, there are many various ways to 'look at' and 'group' these functions/roles. For this post, I want to consider organizing the film into two parts - video and audio (with associated roles/functions). Both are created in production. In post, video is almost always done first though some of the video such as special effects, compositing, etc. are handled during the post audio creation and assembly. When all the audio tracks/files are created, in most cases it is the job/role of the audio editor to combine them together. There are many ways to deliver the audio - various dolby's (5.1 or 7.1) or stereo. And it may or may not get 'mastered'. But even if it is simple stereo and not mastered, there are some things that are normally 'expected' or 'constant' (though they may get changed for 'artistic purposes'). 1. Dialog comes from the production mics and is normally put in the 'center'. If at all possible, all the mics should be the same and set the same. When not possible, they should be processed to sound the same in post - especially the sensitivity for the background noise. Sometimes the hissing can be covered up with other sounds from the other tracks (especially with music). What I have heard often by locally made films are significant variations in the background hissing which either the editors could not or did not have time the fix. 2. The audio quality of ADR is often significantly better since it often but not always made in a studio environment. If it is used, care must be made to the differences when combining the two together so that the various audio clips do not sound disparate. Some filmmakers do ADR in the same environment with similar mics as the original though that is not always possible. 3. The video and audio in production are recorded separately and need synchronization. I have worked on films where the synchronization is not good and even to the average viewer, the lips are not moving appropriately with the dialog. The synchronization is crucial - no amount of audio/music except perhaps large sound effect noises can distract the viewer from this issue. 4. While the resultant film audio track may not have special processing such as mastering, compression, etc., it is very important to create a track that is as loud and as high quality as possible. If you have to turn you TV volume up to 90 out of a 100, or your computer volume is at 100% and you still can not fully hear the sound or it does not sound too loud when you are at max volume, there is a problem. I have scored films where the audio mix sounds like it was created either below 16-bits or the bit rate was below 128 kbps. We want to shoot for at least 320 kbps and often I have seen a film created at 24-bits or 32-bits. No matter how good your composing track sounds, when it is mixed with everything else, it will be made lower/quieter. That is understandable, but if the overall quality of the soundtrack is low, your music will sound poor as well even when it is the only thing that can be heard. 5. Sound team members and often even composers, create sound on high quality and expensive studio speakers. Nothing wrong with that - I do that myself. But that should not be the only way to listen to the audio track during creation and mixing. I often listen to my music tracks with a high quality pair of Bose Noise Cancelling over the ear headphones. I recommend doing that for my team members. There are just things that are easier to 'pick up' with the headphones that you can not hear on studio speakers - not to mention that the quality of the speakers used when the film is watched may be 'closer' to the headphones than the studio speakers. I can say that many many times, I have heard things on the headphones that I totally missed on the studio speakers - especially while I am synchronizing my music to the film. Things like errant noises in the production mics or even directors saying 'action' :). Many times I will mention what I heard and they were already aware of it - other times they would have missed it had I not said something. When the film is large budget, more than likely much of the above is mute - the studios have expensive and high quality professional sound equipment and the audio editors are highly technical and experienced audio engineers. Such is not necessarily the case for low/no budget or not as experienced filmmakers. They often do not have experience doing audio editing or hire those with little experience or software that is either incorrect or under utilized. However, this is often the environment that composers start in. Again, composers are part of the audio team and so it is incumbent on them to help the audio team succeed. What I have seen are success-driven participants/players that are willing to accept guidance and help from those with whom they participate. So my message here for composers is that you need to learn your craft, but also learn and be involved in what surrounds you. You do not have to be expert in everything audio, but when you are on an independent filmmaking team, your background and expertise in anything audio is welcomed often. Learn about the other audio parts and processes and be willing to find a way to participate in and provide feedback to those other people on your audio team AND do it in a way that does not inhibit their creativity or threaten their parts/participation. ============================================================= Postscript - one thing I forgot. Whether the audio soundtrack in the film is stereo or Dolby 5.1/7.1, normally the dialog comes from the place where the people are which is probably in the center. For that reason, a composer tries to minimize the amount of instrumentation that comes from the center (so as not to 'step on the dialog' if there is dialog going on). The whole stereo spectrum is often used. As such, it is probably never a good idea to mix in the composer's score in Mono (or to have the whole soundtrack in Mono).

Tobias Jäck

Thank you Joel, very interesting and useful!

Matt Milne

great article joel: i write my music to sound good at low volume. In sound editing I have found that notch filtering or sample filtering (where you get a sample of the hiss and scrub it from the track) are effective in reducing noise. and you're quite right that even though good equipment will have an excellent resolution and good SNR, you still need the skills to operate it well. A high audio resolution is important to avoid artefacts. And I know a lot of people on sets of major film and tv productions (think game of thrones, mission impossible etc) who use off the shelf sony headphones. what you're after is a broad frequency spread with an even response across the board (the full range of human hearing preferred), and a good pair of off the shelfs for 100 bucks will do it just as well as a $1000 studio monitor, i'm on my third set of sony mdr 5s by the way, those puppies do everything :-).

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