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I’m in the Isle of Man at the moment, working on the sound mix and Foley on two of my short films, Host and That Day, with good friend Dave Armstrong.

It’s amazing just how many short films I have seen over the last few years that lack in quality when it comes to sound. I know we can’t all afford spend thousands on hiring experienced Foley artists and dubbing mixers, but there is no excuse for poor sound. Getting your hands on a digital audio recorder and decent microphone isn’t difficult, and there are plenty really good and affordable audio editing software out there.

Your film sound will be made up of tracks of dialogue, ambiance, sound effects, Foley and music. All equally as important when it comes to telling your story, and some would say even more important that the quality of picture!

Hopefully you will have recorded the best quality dialogue during filming, preferably with a professional Sound Recordist and usually on a separate recording device. The quality of microphone is essential as is the skill of placing the microphone in the best position to get best sound. Do not, under any circumstances underestimate the importance of sound on set. Ever.

You’ll then more than likely want to clean up the dialogue in post. This isn’t to say that the quality isn’t any good, cleaning up the dialogue will just remove any unwanted sounds that couldn’t have been prevented during filming (i.e. wind, animal noises, room ambiance etc). Powerful sound editing software can perform miracles on some of the more challenging background noises, programmes like Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Adobe Audition and so on.

I like to edit with a clean (or dry) track of dialogue. So all you can hear are the actors voices and nothing else. The rest will be added later in the mix.

After cleaning up the dialogue, I like to then add set ambiance. This could include wind and rain for exteriors or a hum, or room tone for interior shots. My sound recordist will have recorded several minutes of clean ambiance during the filming process, and most of these will be used in the mix. Various effects and processes will be added to get the desired sound. If I need anything else I’ll use one of many sound libraries that are available online.

One of my favourite online SFX (Sound Effects) libraries comes from Digital Juice.

Sound Effects
These are usually the sounds that are harder to be reproduced with Foley and therefore end up being made digitally.

Footsteps, keys being placed on a table, doors being closed, the creaking of a chair and so on, all usually reproduced for film via Foley. I sit through my film and make a long list of everything that needs foley, I then go on the hunt for items that will give me the desired sound. You’ll find thousands of items around the house or in the garage that will give you that sound – you just have to develop an eye for finding them.

Then, set up a corner of the house or a small room for your recordings. Grab a decent microphone, a stand, a professional sound recorder (something like a Zoom H4N with XLR) and a laptop to playback your film and you are away.

I like to keep detailed notes of every track I record as there will be hundreds of tracks when you finish, even for a short film. On my notepad I’ll have the timecode reference and details of the foley. All of the audio files (usually recorded at 48khz, 16 bit, mono) will also be well labelled.

If you’re lucky you’ll have a composer on board who’ll produce a totally bespoke soundtrack for your film. I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m working with Niklas Aman on ‘That Day’, and Richard Bodgers on ‘Host’.

If you don’t have a composer, spend a few days looking around the Internet as there are some incredibly good music production libraries out there (I like Niklas Aman’s site, Beatsuite and Audio Network)

Sound Mix
The process of bringing all of the above together. Putting audio elements in their right places (i.e. stereo left, stereo right, 5.1 surround position etc) and setting them to the right levels so that they all marry together perfectly to tell your story.

If you have the budget or contacts, get a professional dubbing mixer to do this for you!

I like to play things by ear when it comes to setting audio levels for the various tracks in the film, I’ll listen to the mix loud and also with the volume on my studio speakers turned right down – it’s amazing just how certain sound elements can get lost. There’s another technique I use to make sure that the dialogue cuts through all the other stuff in the mix, I’ll plug in my headphones, turn them up and place them on the desk in front of me and then playback the film.

Sound plays an essential part in film, it tells a story, it’s there for a very good reason. It’s a fact that an audience will forgive slightly dodgy images and video, but dodgy sound – they’ll be less forgiving.

If you have any additional sound advice, please do leave a comment below.

NEWS: A new The Filmmaker’s Journey Facebook page has been set up, taking advantage of the cool Timeline feature. Please do take a look if you get chance, and scroll back to 2009, the start of my journey as a new filmmaker.


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