If you make beats or mix music professionally or as a hobby, chances are the hardware and software you have will be sufficient for film audio mixing and sound design. The aim of this article is to somewhat demystify the tools for mixing audio for film and television, perhaps giving you confidence knowing that the tools required for film mixing are within reach!
Digital Audio Workstation
Firstly, the DAW. Pro Tools has long been the industry standard (I bet you’re tired of hearing that, eh?) for film and television post audio. There are lots of reasons for this, but it doesn’t mean that you have to have Pro Tools to do a film mix. Any DAW that has the ability to work with a video track will be sufficient.
The other requirement of the DAW is for its ability to import either an OMF or an AAF. If you’re working on a film project, even if it’s a 5-minute short film, not having the ability to import either OMF or AAF will be severely detrimental to your ability to get started in the first place. Figure out if your DAW has the ability to import either of these and communicate with the film editor you are collaborating with to ascertain the best course of action. For example, if the picture editor is on Adobe Premiere Pro, and you’re using Logic, a quick Google search will yield results for how best to receive files for that or any other combination of software.
Hardwire Signal Processing
The good news is that, quite unlike the cork-sniffing world of rock music engineering, hardware processors such as outboard compressors, EQs and so on are not commonly used in film/TV audio. This is fantastic news as it means you don’t have to worry about whether or not your mixes are ‘missing out’ on ‘analogue warmth’ or anything like that. Of course, I’m sure there are sound designers out there that run their stuff through LA2As or Distressors or god-knows-what-else, but this isn’t industry standard and it isn’t expected of you! Generally speaking, film mixes fall into the category of ‘in-the-box’ mixes, using plugins and extensive automation.
In terms of hardware, the most commonly used piece of hardware for film post are big control surfaces for their DAW of choice. But, if you’re getting started you definitely don’t need this straight off the bat, just stick to your mouse and your shortcut keys and you’ll do great.
Plugins? Hmm … difficult topic to tackle! The good news is that a lot of the stock plugins in your DAW will be perfectly sufficient for film postproduction. Your EQs and reverbs that come with your DAW will be able to perform most of the required tasks. An important addition would be a good convolution reverb, most DAWs come with a good one.
The biggest software difference between film and music production would be the need for audio repair tools, such as de-noises, de-clippers and possibly spectral editing. If you’re coming from music production and you’re serious about getting into film post, I would say this would be your first big expense to consider.
In terms of EQs and compressors, my advice would be to keep it surgical. Meaning, most EQ requirements in film call for a clean digital EQ rather than a plugin that models a famous bit of hardware. This is good news since you don’t have to obsess over different brands’ Pultec or Neve 1073 clones. There are many options for good clean, surgical EQ plugins, and often the stock EQ in your DAW will do the trick.
Regarding compressors, it’s worth noting that compression is used much less in film than it is in music production. Compressors are used very sparingly; some of my mixes didn’t even use a single compressor! They are a handy tool, of course, but if you’re just starting out with film post it’s not a priority to look into at this stage, in my opinion.
What do we use a microphone for in film post-production? Two things, recording your own sound effects and foley, and rerecording dialogue in a process known as ADR (Additional Dialog Replacement). A third thing would be recording voice-over or narration if required.
Let’s start with the ADR. The aim of ADR is to mimic the sound of dialogue recorded on a film set, part of the way we achieve this is by using a similar type of microphone to what they might have used on set. This is quite tricky since there are many models of microphones and different techniques used. Globally, however, there is a standard on-set dialogue microphone, which is the Sennheiser MKH416. And since this is considered standard, it is commonly used in post-production ADR recording as well! The reason is, that if the majority of on-set recordings use this mic, then our ADR recordings will match the majority of on-set recordings – makes sense!
Another option for a shotgun microphone is the AKG C747. These come with a gooseneck-style arm which makes it extremely convenient for foley work (see below); allowing you to quickly adjust the angle of the mic.
Regarding these microphones, I would highly recommend obtaining a shock mount for them. If you’re shopping in the second-hand market, these microphones often come with shock mounts, so keep that in mind.
Next up is a voice-over recording. This can be treated in a similar way to lead vocal recording in music production, so if you have a vocal mic, use that! If you don’t, good news is that either of the 2 ‘ADR’ mics I mentioned above will be great for voice-over as well, just bring the microphones closer to the talent and you’ve got a voice-over sound, ready to go.
Lastly is foley and sound effects. For foley, we typically want a condenser microphone, so any condenser microphone you happen to have, whether it’s a vocal mic or otherwise will do the job. When it comes to foley, the sound quality is 99% attributed to the sound of the prop or item, and 1% the gear (in my opinion); if you have the wrong prop, it doesn’t matter how expensive your microphone is.
More good news is that shotgun microphones are great microphones for foley too. They capture a lot of detail, are highly directional, and are generally quite resistant to vibrations and thumps.
Speakers and Monitoring
The philosophy behind monitoring is similar to music production but with some slight differences in requirements. In terms of speakers, we like to have flat-response speakers (of course), so if you use speakers for music production, chances are they will be appropriate for film mixing as well. Something I’d like to point out is the use of headphones for film editing, especially closed-back headphones. One of the things we do in film editing is that we are listening very intently to the unwanted background noise in our dialogue tracks and closed-back headphones are perfect for this.
So, there we have it, a run-down of what I believe to be the most important points regarding getting started in film post-production. As you can see, if you’re coming from music production it’s quite accessible to get started on the tech side of things!