Mixing Board
Oftentimes when people ask me how my week is going or inquire into how my weekend was, my answer is “I have been/was mixing all week/weekend”. However, I almost always get a common response, after they tilt their head like a confused dog does, “What kind of mixing?” or “What exactly is it you do?”

I sometimes forget that people outside this field may be foreign to what I do and what I consider common sense. Even people in my industry have very limited knowledge as to what goes on during the postproduction (post) audio mix phase. So I will do my best to give a layman’s overview on what mixing entails and what my general process is.

What do you mean by sound mixing?

The basic definition of sound mixing is taking all the elements of the film’s soundtrack, i.e. dialog, SFX, Foley, and Music, and mixing them together to create something that sounds good. (For the record, SFX means special effects like gunshots, cars, etc. Foley means more “person” noise, such as footsteps, clothing noise, eating noise, or the kinds of noises caused by a person.)

In more specific terms, mixing/editing is taking the dialog and making sure it is clean and usable. Any dialog that is not usable will need ADR (Automatic or Automated Dialog Replacement), which is recording the dialog in a studio during post with the actors. In addition to the dialog being clean, it also needs to be leveled so your dynamic range is not jumping all over the place. Basically this means bringing the quiet parts up and the loud parts down.

SFX and Foley need to have this same process done. SFX and Foley need to be placed at proper volumes so you don’t have footsteps louder than dialog. Music needs to be added or composed and its level needs to be automated so the music is not too loud or too quiet.

Once these aspects are done, everything needs to be mixed together as a whole so that in the end there’s one seamless audio track that allows every aspect of the film’s audio to live in its own proper space.

Process for Sound Mixing

English: An-Najah University media room

English: An-Najah University media room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing I do when I start working on a new film project for post is to watch the picture lock edit, where the video edit is final. From this I can learn a lot about the amount of work that will be involved and what I’ll need to do. I like to make notes of what kind of ADR I will need to schedule, and what kind of environments in the film I will need to portray sonically. At this point I also talk with the Director/Producer about any sound design that may be needed.

Once that is done I usually get an OMF file of the film audio track from the editor and import that into the DAW I am using. This is where I spend quite a bit of time organizing. I take all the dialog clips and put that onto its own tracks. I do the same thing for all the SFX, Foley, and Music(if any). I then create a Aux track(Stem), and have all the like tracks funnel into one track. By having all of these items tunnel into one track, it allows me to have control over the dialog or SFX as a whole. For example, if I want to make an entire scene’s dialog louder I can with just make a couple of adjustments to the stems rather than the individual tracks.

Important Equipment for Sound Mixing

As far as equipment, other than having a quality computer that can handle the processing of audio editing/mixing, the most important thing to have is quality reference monitors. The difference between monitors and speakers is that speakers can be slightly EQ’d to make music and movies sound a little better. Monitors usually have a flat EQ to them. So you will hear things exactly as they were recorded. This allows you to mix so that your project will sound its best regardless of what kind of speakers it is heard on in the end.

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Issues involved with Sound Mixing

For the most part I find the mixing process very creative and satisfying, but there are sometimes issues to be overcome. One issue I encounter is when the production dialog was not recorded properly. Having a skilled Sound Mixer on set is key to make postproduction sound mixing much easier. One of the benefits of being someone who does production and postproduction audio is that it allows me to record the audio on set that I know I will need to save time in post.

In addition to that, environment noises can be challenging at times. Dealing with environment noise like crowds and planes can create a lot of time-consuming work. Sometimes uncontrollable environments can change from take to take so that when you edit a scene together, you may find that one shot has airplane noise and the next doesn’t.

But the biggest and most consistent challenge I have to deal with is time. Big budget Hollywood films have a team of post sound people and can spend six months or more in post for audio. In the indie world we don’t have this luxury. Sometimes I have a weekend to get a short done or only a couple of months to complete a feature. Trying to do what teams of five or more guys do in only two months is very frustrating and difficult at times.

However, the satisfying aspects of mixing far outweigh the challenges for me. I realized I enjoyed mixing the very first time I was hired to do it, which was for an indie feature film. Coming from a background in music recording and live sound, I felt little to no creative control in these fields, but film was a whole new ballgame with endless creative possibilities. Being able to put my stamp on every project I work on gives me a bigger feeling of purpose than I ever had before in other fields.

Why I love what I do

When I started post sound mixing there wasn’t any solid info out there on “How to mix audio”, so I kind of went into it blind. I approached it as if I was mixing a song for a band, and it had a lot of similarities, but it was also a lot more work than I ever anticipated. However, the mistakes I made on that first project put me on the correct path to where I am today.

I continue to work in this field because I have a lot of control over the feelings and emotions that are portrayed in the overall film. I have a say in the types of SFX used and designed. I have influence over the music that goes into the film, or at least an opinion, as well as how soft or loud this music is. It is surprising how much one song can change the entire feeling of a scene.

It’s also interesting to note that because sound and what you hear in daily life becomes second nature, it’s a special challenge to replicate that in a film. People will be aware of loud sound in their day-to-day life, but for the most part we don’t even acknowledge what we hear throughout our day. Even if you were to sit and listen to everything around you at this very moment you would probably pick up on a lot because you are focusing on it, but if asked to name everything you heard in the last 10 minutes, you would probably only be able to recall what you are currently hearing.

Mixing desk during a album recording.

Mixing desk during a album recording.

When it comes to mixing, it is my job to create the same feeling. If dialog is out of sync, a footstep too loud, or the environment doesn’t match the visual, the brain will pick up on this immediately, but if it is all mixed well, unless you focus on it, you won’t notice it.

Sound people usually don’t get recognized for exceptional sound, but it is always pointed out when it is bad. I always go with the philosophy that when sound is not mentioned in a review, that means I did my job.

Most moviegoers probably don’t realize how much of what is heard in a film is not from the original production audio but is added in later. How much of the audio is replaced all depends on the type of film. In big blockbuster Hollywood films, very little of what you hear was probably recorded on set. In fact I remember watching something about the sound team for “Life of Pi” and they mentioned you could count on one hand how much of the production dialog was usable for the film. Which means most of that film was done in a studio.

Smaller scale indie films are a different story. For most of the independent films I work on, I try to use production audio as much as possible because it will sound the most natural. ADR is not the easiest thing to make sound like the original environment. However, sometimes I will use lines from different cleaner takes to keep from having to do ADR.

But no matter what, I am always learning and advancing my skills. Sound is something that is always changing, whether it be with new formats or techniques. It is a living thing. No two films I work on are ever done the same way. Each one is better than the last because I take knowledge and experience and build upon it. Just recently I mixed my first indie film in Surround Sound and it was quite the learning curve. However, now I will take what I learned and the mistakes I made and correct them for the next one.

And that’s it. That’s “What is Sound Mixing 101”, and why I personally enjoy it as much as I do. The next time you see a film, I hope this gives you an added appreciation for how much of your enjoyment of film comes through your ears as well as your eyes.

Post Written by James Alire

An accomplished musician and consummate professional, James Alire brings education, passion, and a wide range of experience to the sound table. He has excelled as an IT specialist, recording engineer, and sound mixer/ editor in many arenas. His company, 5J Media, has steadily expanded to include a broad range of web design and audio/sound services for musicians and filmmakers. His stellar reputation is well-known in the film community, as evidenced by the multiple awards James has won for his work. His unique expertise and cutting edge knowledge and technical resources result in 5J Media consistently innovating with creative solutions for every challenge. For quotes to engage James for audio and/or web services, contact us.

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