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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Simple sound tips

Sound is one of the most important ingredients in a good movie, but it’s often overlooked by novice directors. When you’re concentrating hard on what your film looks like, it’s easy to forget that you need to worry about what your film sounds like. Particularly for machinima films, this is often an area where many films suffer.

Here are six things to look at, just to achieve a basic level of quality.

Match levels: one of the most irritating things in a movie is when the sound level fluctuates wildly.  It’s most noticeable when you have different people recording their lines at home and sending them in; one person’s much louder than another, and as a result the scene feels fake.  It’s also noticeable when you go from one scene to another and the volume jumps. Spend time adjusting the sound levels so they’re consistent.

Consistent recording quality: another problem you get when getting people to record lines is that what they send in sounds different.  One person may be recording in a great acoustic environment with a decent microphone and classy recording software: someone else will be recording on their laptop mic in a noisy house.  The lines don’t sound like they’re recorded in the same place, so when you put them in the scene, it sounds artificial. It’s also disconcerting when your macho male character has a voice that sounds thin and weedy because the recording quality is poor.

Popper stoppers: one surefire sign of poor sound is when you get that horrid hiss on p’s and t’s. This is caused by the actor’s breath rushing over the mic and drowning out the other tones. Fortunately, the cure is simple and cheap. A popper stopper, or pop filter, is a mesh that you put in front of the mic to eliminate that noise. They’re cheap to buy (or you can make one out of old stockings and a coat hanger). The quality of your recordings will improve massively.

Add atmos: in the spaces between lines, what you hear shouldn’t be silence. Rooms aren’t silent. That’s why sound designers add atmos (short for atmosphere). It’s all the background sounds that contribute to the ambient noise; cars, hums, animals, leaves, people out of sight, and so on. Adding atmos not only makes your sets more real and believable, but tells the audience something about where they are. Atmos can also mask differences in the recording quality of the lines, and prevents that irritating jump in background noise as each character starts and ends speaking.

Foley: pretty much everything you do makes a sound. Sometimes - though not always - you want to represent that on screen, even if what you hear isn’t shown. Choose what you want the audience to hear, and treat the sound as part of the storytelling. For example, a character leaves the room, and then through the window we see the car drive off. It’s obvious to have some engine noise, but you could tell much more if you added in footsteps on gravel, the clink of keys, a beep, and the noise of a car door opening and closing. The audience knows what’s happening offscreen, even though they’re looking at something else. On the other hand, some sounds need to be removed. Footsteps, furniture squeaks and scrapes, and clothing noises can be distracting.

Music volume: when you add music, don’t forget to adjust the level when it’s got dialogue on top of it. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to hear what’s being said over what’s supposed to be background. This requires careful tuning so that it doesn’t sound like the music’s fading in and out.

When you’ve finished your movie, play it back, and shut your eyes, and just listen to it. All the inconsistencies in the audio will stand out when they’re not masked by video, and you’ll get a very different feel for your movie.

(3) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Ricky Grove on 01/11 at 09:27 AM

Excellent suggestions, Matt. These topics are all at the top of my list as well. I would only add that you can use Audacity to remove some background noise, but it really makes a difference where you do your recording. For example, I have a closet I’ve converted to a small studio by lining the walls with heavy blankets so there is no reverb. Also, a good source for foley sounds and effects is

Matt Kelland on 01/11 at 09:36 AM

Absolutely, Ricky.

We’re planning to cover some of these in more detail in separate posts - though if you want to write a guest post for us, we’d be honoured!

Sean Heimbuch on 01/11 at 02:11 PM

Great tips! It really helps as a moviemaker if you consider that sound is what immerses someone in whatever story you are presenting and brings your visuals to life.
A good guideline is to consider the camera as the viewer. It is the viewers eyes, and sound is their ears. What would the camera hear if it were there?
If I could add one more tip to the list…panning is a greatly under-used tool that really helps. If something is happening off-camera to the left or right, pan any appropriate sounds that way as well. It gives the viewer spacial perspective, and helps to make your soundscape even more immersive.
Looking forward to more!

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