Unsung Heroes of the Film Industry: Sound Mixers

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Sound Engineer in studio during live recording | location: Sound Studio, London, UK  It’s not shocking that you didn’t notice how good the sound mixing was during the last movie you watched. Most people don’t – at least, not consciously. What is sound mixing? It is the entirety of the combined sounds in a movie – spoken word, music, and sound effects – and how they blend together into a smooth, effortless whole. In fact, if you HAD noticed the sound mix, the mixer probably did a bad job.

Birdman, the recent Academy Award-winning film, featured the impressive acting skills of Michael Keaton. What you might not have paid attention to is how clear his speech could be heard. That was the territory of the film’s sound mixing team.

Sound mixing is a profession so important, it even merits its own Oscar category and award. Didn’t know that either? Probably because the sound mixing awards are given out in the semi-private broadcast usually held before the official televised Oscars ceremony. The job has probably stayed under the radar for so long because audiences are not even aware that it exists – much less the artistry and complexity it involves.

The job of sound mixing can be divided into two major categories: on-set and post-production. While films are now made in an environment increasingly created and enhanced virtually and digitally – including great leaps in audio technology – there is only so much that can be achieved in post-production (dubbing in re-recorded dialogue, reducing distortion and background noises, etc.). The beginning of film sound is on set.

Sound mixers watch and track audio recordings as they occur on set, all the time overseeing the relevant crew, including boom operators and various sound technicians. There are tons of kinds of film microphones. The mixers choose the audio equipment best suited to each scene, as well as its positioning and method of use.

Production sound mixers must catch and record all the sound a director wants in his film, as well as eliminate all the unwanted noises that occur on set, which can emanate from noisy equipment, outdoor locations’ natural environments and humans alike. Scene-spoiling noises can come from things as seemingly benign as a wristwatch or the camera itself.

The real talent in production sound mixing gets tested when scenes get more complicated in terms of their sound dimensions: imagine a scene in which multiple groups of people can or should be heard speaking, in different discussions, with one needing to be highlighted, all among the traffic noises of a Manhattan street.

After a film has been completely shot, it goes into a studio for editing. The post-production audio team will usually be made up of a few people. It is this team’s job to break down the film’s audio elements into three basic layers: dialogue, soundtrack and effects. At this point in the process, the focus is on building the film’s sound elements into a unified, continuous whole which fits the visual element and expresses whatever a director wishes – in each scene and as a whole.

There are many questions the team and director must contemplate before making technical adjustments: is a particular scene dialogue driven? What music will best fit the mood of a scene?

Birdman400Many sound mixers claim that their guiding factor when working on a film’s “soundscape” is balance. A properly-balanced soundscape will not take over a scene and will be structured of complementary, rather than conflicting, elements. An audience should easily digest the audio elements in a film, often without noticing them, unless a director wants them to. Some of the best sound mixes will never be noticed by film viewers.

Often, a scene will require a disjointed, confusing or challenging sound story, rather than a subtle one. One example would be 2015’s Interstellar, in which dialogue is many times drowned out by sound effects – reflecting the mood and imagined reality of humans in the middle of the vast expanses of the cosmos. Technically speaking, the dialogue in these types of scenes took a back seat to other sound elements.

“Symphonic progression” is another sound mixing term that describes the quality of a successful mix, made up of “peak and valley” parts, that drives a film narrative forward, as well as complementing it. The concept comes, much as its name suggests, from the composition of symphonies. Much as musical compositions in classical music can tell a story in and of themselves, the score and sound elements in a film should be able to explain the story they are woven into.

Next time you’re watching a movie, don’t miss out on important dialogue or visual information by trying too hard to focus on the soundscape – it is designed to be an element of the film which is passively and casually enjoyed. On the other hand, it might be interesting to, once in a while, pay attention to how the music or sound effects of a scene relate to the story or what’s taking place. If, however, you forget to even pay attention to the noise and thoroughly enjoyed the films, it can be assumed that the sound team did a great job.

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