Sometimes getting a really good project is all about being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it’s about cultivating contacts, or about building a reputation through your portfolio. Most of the time though, it’s about a combination of all of those – which is how I was asked to be the Sound Editor and Re-Recording Mixer for “Cathedral Canyon.” This was one of those projects that started out like any other, but over the next five months became one of the projects I’ve been most passionate about. Not only did it allow me to advance my craft as an audio professional, but I became friends with a talented group of filmmakers who will be doing incredible things in the future.

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Cathedral Canyon began filming in 2012 and was written and directed by Paul Davis, and produced by Diana Davis, Lorenzo Lamas, and Winsor Harmon. Lamas and Harmon also star in the film, Harmon playing the main character, Ryan McBride.

For the last few years I’ve worked with many independent filmmakers in Arizona on a combination of short projects and full-length features. I met local film critic Bill Pierce early on in my career at a screening of “The Big Something,” a feature-length film I worked on with Running Wild Films. A year or so, and many projects later, Bill gave a great review of the audio for another feature I worked on with Running Wild Films called “The Detective’s Lover.” {link} Based on what he had seen of my work, Bill recommended me to Diana Davis when she found herself in need of assistance with audio in the post production phase.

According to Diana, they had gone through three different post audio mixers. One told them they would have to ADR the entire movie, one quit, and the third maxed the gain of all the dialogue, making the entire movie way too “hot.” After watching the film the first time I was a little concerned with the amount of work I felt was needed. However, I am always up for a challenge and saw the passion Diana had for this film when she initially told me about it, so I jumped on board.

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The first thing I had to do was gather all the video and OMF audio files. Usually that is the most annoying part of the process for me since file formats are not something most people take the time to learn. Luckily the editor on this project, Scott Robert, was the easiest editor I have worked with when it came to file sharing and the overall process. The collaboration was a great relief, especially since he is LA based.

The film was broken up into five reels of about 20 minutes each, so my first mixing session was spent organizing all my files and folders. Once that was completed I had to set up Pro Tools to make sure all my audio tracks, aux tracks, and stem tracks were labeled. Then it was time to dive into mixing the film.

Most of the mixing I do is on a basic “in the box” setup running Pro Tools 10, and for my mixing, editing, leveling and automation I use an Avid Artist Mix Control Surface and an Avid Artist Transport. It’s not as prestigious a set up as I would like it to be, but I have always lived by the motto, “It’s not the car that wins the race, it’s the driver.” In fact, the results I can get with standard equipment rival what I have heard come out of some high-end, expensive studios. Sometimes what’s most important is working with a conscientious and talented sound engineer.

I always start editing dialog before anything else since it is generally thought to be the most important aspect of a film’s soundtrack. Most of the dialog for this film was recorded well, but since I had no production notes on what mics were used in which scenes, I had to listen closely to figure out what track was boom mic, lav mic, or both and adjust levels according. I also went through each dialog clip and added cross fades manually as well as tone to fill in those gaps where there was no audio. I estimate this process alone took me about 50 hours for the entire film.

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Once all the dialog was leveled to match, I found I needed a fair amount of ADR. From early on, I understood that getting ADR would be difficult. Most of the actors were from all over the US, and there was no remaining budget for studio time or travel. Diana told me of a trick she heard of where some actors did their ADR on an iPhone for the film “The Avengers.” As a sound guy who is picky about audio quality, I originally had no faith in this option. In the moment though, it was worth a shot. I prioritized a list of ADR scenes for the actors to work on in their own time. Most of the recordings I received were in fact done on a phone, and some were done in the actors’ home studios. Admittedly, I couldn’t use all of what I received. In order to get quality ADR, many variables come into play regarding microphone type and placement. I have learned though, that if done properly and with a good audio engineer consulting, using the iPhone ADR trick actually works in a pinch. In fact I used it to record quite a bit of the SFX for “Cathedral Canyon.”

I placed some of the ADR audio I received into the film after a little editing, but most of it was scrapped because the quality wasn’t there. Then I had a new issue; how do I clean up the production audio? When it comes to audio engineers these skills separate the men from the boys so to speak. What I will say about the process is that the people who work at Waves and iZotope have created some great tools that allowed me to clean up almost all the production audio of this film. Between cleaning up the production audio and getting a few alternate takes from the editor to use instead of the ADR, I wrapped up the dialog and was able to move on to the next phase.

Just cleaning up the dialog made an amazing difference for the film. At first the audio mix was way too distracting, which was primarily caused by too much gain and not having the proper pans and cross fades where they were needed. There are a few projects I have done in the past where all I did was pan the dialogue center and the music to stereo and it sounded 10 times better. This project wasn’t that easy – there was a lot more to be done.

My favorite part of mixing this film or any film for that matter is doing the SFX and Foley. If I was able to find a proper SFX in one of the many libraries I have access to I dropped that in with some simple edits. One of my favorites is the scene where Ryan visits Tommy And Zebo at the bar. Zebo smacks the little kid and makes him cry. I spent about 8+ hours listening to SFX libraries of different kids crying to try to find one that I felt sounded natural for the scene. It got to the point that it made me sad listening to all those kids crying. I ended up finding one of a young toddler and added a little EQ and pitch shifted it down to make it sound more like the age of the young actor in the scene. Another SFX that stands out to me is the gunshots when the cop shoots his gun in the air in the very first scene of the film. Initially I just used a standard hand gun sound with a little echo, but the director asked if I could make it a little more impactful. The reason this stands out to me is because earlier that day I had just watched a behind the scenes video of the sound design of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and was feeling creative. So I took the initial hand gun sound, put a hi-pass filter on it, used the low end of a rifle shot, then added a stereo recording of a shotgun, using only the echo and decay of it. Ultimately it was a very subtle change, but it definitely gave more power to the scene.

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There was plenty of SFX and Foley I had to record myself. In fact, a lot was recorded in and around my home. I love to record SFX in places personal to me because it gives me a unique connection when I hear it in a film. When it came to music, I didn’t have much to do because it was all mixed and automated by the Composer David Grossman, who did a great job. The only thing I really had to do with the music is import it into my session and adjust overall levels if needed.

Once the separate reels were mixed and then screened twice with the Producer and Director for their approval, I combined everything into one Pro Tools Session to send off for syncing to the final edit. It might sound like an easy task, but I was trying to compile 40+ tracks, each at 1 hour and 40 minutes long, into a single Pro Tools session. Things repeatedly crashed when I tried to bounce it down. I ended up having to record the stems to separate disks and keep only those tracks active before my Mac would happily bounce everything.

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All in all it took me 200 hours over the course of five months to complete the audio mix for Cathedral Canyon. As always, there were small delays here and there, but they were mostly due to waiting on others’ schedules to free up. However, waiting for the ADR and final music scores to be sent allowed me the extra time to put more fine tuning on the project. From the reactions I have heard, the extra work paid off in the end.

The film’s World Premiere was on June 14th, 2013 at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival in Jerome, AZ. In my opinion, there was no better setting. The film premiered in an outside theatre with mountains framing the screen, and the film began once the stars came out for a serene backdrop. I was asked to run the PA system for the night and was a little worried about it being outside. With a basic PA system, a lot of low end is lost outdoors. Once the film began, I was able to put a quick EQ mix on the mixer and made it sound pretty good on the fly. I’m thankful for all those days spent mixing for live bands, as it has helped me to be able to adjust quickly for live events!

I heard nothing but good things about the film after the premiere, though very little of it was about the audio. For an audio professional, the less we hear the better we did, since bad sound tends to stand out and good sound isn’t always noticed. The Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival was an incredible backdrop for several performers that weekend, with many talented artists giving feedback and sharing projects. I am proud to have been part of a feature film on the level of “Cathedral Canyon,” and I look forward to future projects with Paul and Diana Davis, and Movies Making a Difference Productions.

Blog Edited by Holly Foreman

Post Written by James Alire

An accomplished musician and consummate professional, James Alire brings education, passion, and a wide range of experiences to the sound table. He has functioned as an IT specialist, recording engineer, and sound mixer/ editor in many arenas. He lives in Chandler, AZ, where he is expanding his company, 5J Media, to include web design and audio/sound services for musicians and filmmakers. For quotes or to hire James for audio and web services contact 5J Media.