You know what marks a film out as amateur more than anything else?  Shoddy, shoddy location sound.

I fully understand and have been guilty of this.  For a director sound is a difficult thing to get excited about. Every year the industry announces bigger and better cameras promising fantastic, breathtaking HD visuals.

Whilst advances in sound mean that it's... slightly clearer?  Maybe... if you really listen...

However from the moment I became an editor I have been forced to amend my ways.  Now whenever I meet a director as they are about to embark on a shoot I drop to my knees and beg them to pour their resources into the sound.  Usually to no avail.

Directors, these are the things that make me hate you.

1. Unclean Dialogue

My heart always sinks when I'm sat with a director, looking through rushes in the edit suite and I see something along the lines of the following:
Characters talking in front of traffic, running water, music, crowds and the list goes on.

You can just edit that stuff out right?

Umm. No.

But aren't there filters?  Ah yes.  Filters.  Sure, in some cases you may be able to clean it up a little but it still won't sound good. Just a different ever so slightly lesser kind of terrible.

And don't ever say, “We'll just ADR it”.  ADR, unless you have access to the right facilities or really know what you're doing, should always be an absolute last resort. It's not just about having the actor spout their lines in time with the picture. You need to get the right sound perspective, you need the right microphone and it needs to match the other elements that you're not adr-ing.  And who are you kidding?  You'll probably be too broke for that stuff anyway come postproduction.

2. Overlapping Sound Effects

Footsteps (high heels in particular) and any objects that your characters may be messing with throughout a scene cause endless headaches in the edit.

You might think that footsteps are ok.  You're going to need the footsteps there eventually anyway, right?  So what's the harm in leaving them in?  The harm is, it reduces options. With everything you leave in, it reduces what you are able to do with the mix in post.  Artfully applied sponges can be a quick fix here, or laying down a carpet depending where and what you're shooting.  If possible have your actors switch to a different, softer set of shoes for the close ups.  If you're inside it's as simple as just having your actors remove their shoes.

This same rule applies to all other actions in a scene.  If you're character is doing something out of frame that makes noise, such as making tea, fiddling with a lock or typing on a computer then have them mime it.  If I can't see it, I don't want to hear it.

On your typical Hollywood movie (and say what you will about them, they always sound awesome) all these sound effects will be added in post.  Why?  Because maybe you don't want the door to make that particular kind of creak.  Maybe you want the villain's footsteps to have a more ominous quality.  Every sound has a certain character or mood to it.  Clever use of sound effects can open up a whole new dimension of creative possibilities and it's something that new filmmakers often overlook.

3. No Atmos / Wild Tracks

The more your location sound sucks, the more I need this.  And unfortunately the more your location sound sucks, the less likely it is that you recorded one.

Usually this results in me foraging around for the tiny bits of ambience I can lift from in between dialogue.  Fun stuff.

What's an atmos track you ask?  Some people call it room tone.  It's a recording of the ambient sound (the Atmosphere) of the location.  In editing it is used to patch up gaps in the sound or to hide any undesirable noise.

4. No Forward Planning

Sound is such an after thought for so many filmmakers. Get a sound guy on board early on. Show them your locations. Figure out what the problems might be and start coming up with solutions. They need to be kept in the loop as they will need to know what gear they're going to need in order to deal with the challenges of a particular location.  They'll be able to flag up any potential problems and you may be able to alter your plan to get better results.

And even if you're not working with a professional, make sure you have someone whose sole concern is the sound from the get go.  Don't just thrust a boom pole toward whoever isn't doing anything on the day.

5. Loud Locations

People tend to choose locations based entirely on looks.  Which is fine for the most part.  However, you really need to spend a little time in any location you plan to spend a decent amount of time shooting in.  Just go there for maybe 10-20 minutes and listen.  Planes, wind, traffic, nearby fire station, next door neighbour's rowdy dog.  You need to know what you're going to be dealing with.
Planes and wind noise are a particular problem as they can be there in one shot and gone the next.

6. Not Respecting the Sound Guy

The amount of times I see ads asking for experienced sound guys with their own kit to show up unpaid on a shoot... oh and by the way, we're shooting tomorrow...
You have to ask yourself exactly what they get from it.  Unlike your DoP or your cast they aren't going to be getting showreel material from it. Whilst your DoP is presenting finished pictures and your cast their whole performance, the sound recordists work is the first stage of a long process.  It's more like getting a clean green screen shot for effects in post.  It'll be stunning eventually, but right now we just need it as clear and plain as possible.
Too much of the sound editors job in the low budget world is damage limitation rather than making your film sound the very best it can.  Make their job easier and they can put their time to far better use.

Here at Raindance we have the unique perspective that comes from being one of the UK's foremost film training providers and Europe's largest independent film festival.  We see filmmakers when they're just starting out and we see their debuts up on the screen. And you know what strikes me about the shorts and features that make it? They all sound pretty damn good.  Put simply:
Red Camera
SOUND IS VERY IMPORTANT

It cannot be stressed enough.... that...

You're not listening to me are you?  You're looking at that Red camera...

Christian Bell
A graduate of the Metropolitan Film School, where he made short films about tortured misunderstood artists, Christian Bell now devotes his time to the Raindance cause in the hope that he can somehow make amends for his crimes against cinema.
At Raindance he handles all things tech and probably built the website you're using. Read more articles from Christian Bell

65 thoughts on “6 Ways Directors Screw Sound Editors

  1. Very well said. I took a break from editing audio for a film just to read this so I could feel like someone out there feels my pain! The worst is when no room tones are provided. I recently discovered that if you only have tiny little clips of tone, copy them, reverse the copies and paste them back to back. And presto! This will give the illusion of having double the amount of tone. One of the most helpful tips I have found in a while.

  2. Lets here it for Production Sound mixers the unsung hero(ines). love what you said but lets change sound guy to sound mixer what do you think?

  3. But you can do this only once. And if the gap to be filled is longer and you use this trick twice or more, the loopy effect can be noticed by a trained ear

  4. Wow! Bell you have articulated so well the pain of so many of us location sound guys and sound editors. Its not only the actors, I have so many times heard the noise that the crew members themselves make behind the camera. With the kind of clothes or footwear or the klity-klaty things they carry on their bodies they seem to be totally unaware that unlike a picture frame, a sound frame has no boundaries, that unlike a lens, a mic can hear in all directions, that, before you point a finger at someone and shout 'Silence…!!!', your three fingers are pointing at yourself.
    The fact is that we are living in a 'Camera- centric' world, where visual is everything, because you can 'see' the picture. And since you cant 'see' the sound its very difficult for you to understand and sense what the guy wearing the headphones is going through. There is a general lack of awareness for sound, and worse…it's growing!
    While this fast paced, quick fix world with more and more accessible technology produces more and more filmmakers, how many of them have had time to pause and 'listen'? Worse… the noises of the world continue to grow, making us more and more immune, insensitive and deaf.
    But this brings added responsibility for us sound guys. We have to continue to bring awareness, keep trying to develop their sensitivity towards SOUND.
    In one of the articles I wrote for a film school mag had a line, "if the camera-person can also 'listen' and the sound-person can also 'see', we can make better films".
    Wishing everyone a healthy ear-sight!
    Asheesh Pandya

  5. PLEASE EVERY FILMMAKER ON MY FRIEND'S LIST READ THIS

    As a location recorder… on many occasions I've been the loudest thing on set because I'm shouting at people to shut the hell up and stop running around and making noise during a shot.
    Whenever someone says "fix it in post" when there's a sound issue on set I feel like punching them because 9 times out of 10 the editor (AND director) is going to blame me for getting crappy sound and not speaking up.

  6. Asheesh Pandya , a way to get around the loopy "dishwasher" effect can sometimes be easy when a bit of reverb and eq sculpting is applied to the trick above.

  7. Your heart is obviously in the right place, but combined with that title and a few of the comments scattered throughout the article, your list comes off as whiney and slightly condescending. I don't think that's the best way to get our collaborators. Sure, it will grab the attention of other sound editors….but that's not the audience you intended for this article. Right? We need to be more productive in HOW we talk to the people we work with if we're to have a hope of changing the status quo.

  8. I once had a tee-shirt that said on the front "Don't worry we'll fix it in post" and on the back it said "worry, this IS post"

    Working as a sound mixer in production and in post should be a prerequisite for joining the DGA

  9. As an ex-Dolby sound consultant, you really should read this and take all these points into careful consideration. Sound is certainly an important part of a film, more than 50% at times and great sync sound can make a huge impact on your film, budget, performance and general time for creativity in post. You wouldn't want to spend all your budget and time fixing dialogue and track laying footsteps when your should be sound designing and being creative in the mix. Well done Christian, some great advice, let's hope the more filmmakers appreciate sound and start work on the sound during pre-planning and have a plan for production and post. There would certainly be more happy directors and less stressed sound post guys out there, not to mention awesome sounding films. You can reach me @soundconsultant

  10. And another perspective. Once sat on the selection committee for a film festival. Had a very good prospect for the only 2 hour slot (we screened shorts with just a few feature length films) The visuals were wonderful, the sound was not. Loved the film but couldn't hear it so it was bypassed. They eventually fixed the sound but missed a lot of opportunities because they submitted prematurely with bad sound.

  11. Am coming to the end of a 12 month sabbatical taken out from my completing my film degree in getting location work experience where I have done lots of sound recordist role simply because nobody else ever wants to do it. All you state is so true – I have lost track of the number of shoots where the camera crew number between two and six people yet I am expected to both boom and record sound single handedly!

    Best joke on subject told to me by an exasperated director/sound engineer was" Question, Why does thunder always follow lightning? Answer, It is because even God has to wait for sound!" – now if only more directors and ADs thought that way plus pre-shoot thought about sound design as well as visual look they want to achieve!

  12. As a rerecording mixer, who's just completed an Indie movie where 98% was ADR due to sound recordist incompetence in an urban environment , I would BEG all directors to take heed !!

  13. As a rerecording mixer, who's just completed an Indie movie where 98% was ADR due to sound recordist incompetence in an urban environment , I would BEG all directors to take heed !!

  14. I feel your pain! When will they ever learn? Ultimately the responsibility is the director's. Film schools need to spend a lot more time educating directors about sound.

  15. (^ also, I think ultimately the responsibility lies in the producers, production managers, and assistant directors, etc to acquire adequate skills, gear and locations in order to let directors concentrate on telling the story!! ^_^)

  16. Very true! I worked on an indie film once back in the day and we finished at our first location… And I asked "aren't you going to get room tone?"… The director said "what's room tone?"… :S

  17. Two weeks ago I arrived on location, right in the middle of a busy street in the flightpath of Heathrow Airport. Then a dog behind the wall started barking, I could do nothing but laugh. I had to explain how we'll have to choose close ups or wides and that we won't be able to cut the two together. Was glad I brought Lavs too.

  18. Excellent article. I work as a dialogue coach and direct actors and groups forAdr.
    Have you any idea how hard it is to get "ambience" on a set when the director wants to get on to the next set up or the time has come to wrap? Never mind getting a wild track of dialogue that was covered in noise on the take. Try to get an actor to speak up – you gently suggest to the director that he will have nothing to work with in post. If you are lucky, you'll get a louder mumble. What's one of the most expensive phrases? "We'll fix it in post". Great article, which will fall on deaf ears! Constantine Gregory

  19. Thank you for the information.It is so true ,all of it
    I was a ADR mixer for 30 plus years and made a good living off bad location sound . My advice to the young directors are listen to your location sound mixer. Locations are just as important as the sound is.
    Yes we had to ADR action movies but that is understandable
    Ignore the line . WE CAN FIX IT IN POST

  20. This is exactly what I'm going through right now, I'm doing the sound mixing and editing on a low budget film. All the audio was recorded on the built in microphone on the video camera (so we're doomed from the start). The my only access to the film is a copy of it on a DVD, I have no access to the original software/computer this was edited with, so all the audio (dialogue, music) is one track so there is no way to mix the levels at all (which are bad to begin with). I had to add in some sound effects I found from the internet. Basically all I could do was remove excess noise, and while it's still not great it certainly feels like an improvement. This article is a great thing to read if you get into this kind of field.

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