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Using Production Sound

May 13, 2009

The film I’m working on at the moment is the first project I’ve worked on in a while that is a realist piece rather than a fantasy or action movie.  As a result, it’s the first time in a while that I’ve been able to make use of the production sound in my FX tracklay.

Very little of the film has been shot on sets, plus the sound recordist seems to have done a good job, so there’s quite a treasure trove of sound FX to nab for my library – from foley spots, like padlocks and zips, to chat tracks and vehicle passes.  Also, if the film was shot in a real location such as, as in this case, a council estate, you invariably come across all kinds of great, spontaneous city sounds like echoey shouts, dog barks and metal bangs and clangs which are perfect for evocative background spot FX.  The only problem can be finding the time to load, edit and label all the different takes of each particular sound you are trying to grab.  The extra effort is worth it though as the results can give a scene a much more natural feel – almost (though not quite) comparable to using production dialogue rather than ADR.  

Likewise, chat tracks are so useful for their unique character (namely their specific room sounds and the accents of the voices contained within them) which is so hard to recreate from your FX library, unless you’ve grabbed chat tracks from other films in the past which used similar locations.  If you don’t have these, you end up relying on crowd ADR, which is rarely a situation I relish.  

It’s interesting to read Walter Murch’s take on the use of production sound in relation to some of the films he’s worked on:

 

“On Apocalypse Now, there was not only no wild track but there was no usable production sound. So everything had to be recreated back in San Francisco – all the dialogue, and all of the sound effects. We were much more fortunate in that regard on Cold Mountain. That film was being shot in an environment that was sonically very ‘clean’ – the mountains of Romania are extremely quiet. The desert, and the Italian countryside, in The English Patient was similarly very tranquil, very clean. In both cases, we did get not a huge amount of wild track material, but enough to give us a leg up in the sound editing. It also helps to set a tone, if you can get the real sounds at the time. Whether you actually use them or not, is up to the sound designer and the sound editors. But at least they have an idea of, say, what that particular door really sounded like, and they can choose to use it or augment it, or find an equivalent sound that for some reason might be better.

I remember on The Rain People, which goes back to 1968, Francis [Coppola] had the actors, the sound recordist and everyone going across country in a caravan. After they’d done the day’s shooting, he had the actors repeat all of the motions that they had gone through during the day’s scenes, but without saying any dialogue. And he had the sound recordist, Nathan Boxer, follow the action around in getting all of those sounds as clearly as possible without having to worry about the camera. And without having to worry about the microphone being pointed at the actors. Nat produced a parallel soundtrack – very rich, very authentic – that could go along with the production dialogue recorded earlier in the day.”

(taken from the article, “Walter Murch on Sound” by Peter Cowie)

 

I totally agree that the use of production sound can help your FX tracklay “set a tone” for the film.  I would go as far as saying that in future I will make the production sound my first port of call as I begin a scene; checking for all useful “real sounds” before building upon them where necessary  with other sound FX that compliment their character and acoustics.

The comment about whether to use, augment or replace sound FX taken from the rushes also struck a chord with me, as this neatly sums up my own thought process while I’ve been tracklaying this film.  Most of the time, any production sound FX work perfectly well as they are, but occasionally I’ve improved upon them by using signal processing and/or additional FX.  Generally, if any processing has been required it has tended to be one of three things:

  • EQ – This has only really involved low frequency cuts to get rid of rumble, or a notch on a camera whine.  Everyone’s got their own favourite ‘go-to’ EQ but, I have to say, I’ve just recently taken to using Flux’s Epure 2 EQ.  I’ve had to do quite strong low cuts on a couple of sounds recently and, in comparison to the Digidesign EQ’s, I’ve found the Epure 2’s cut off slope is a lot more sympathetic in it’s treatment of the remaining audio.
  • Transient Shaping – Stillwell’s Transient Monster has come in handy on many occasions.  I’ve either made more of the attack if I feel a sound needs more of an impact, or I’ve used the ‘sustain’ dial to shorten the tail of a sound if I need to lose a bit of it’s room ambiance.  I find that this often sounds more natural than if I just do a short fade out.

 

Transient Monster

 

  • Compression – Since reading an article about Michael Brauer recently, I’ve become quite taken with trying parallel compression if I think something should be more aggressive or punchy.  This technique doesn’t seem to suit all types of sounds, but sometimes it can really help to add ‘thump’ or ‘crunch’ without sacrificing realism.

However, sometimes the rushes just won’t cut it.  If you find yourself having to do too much processing then there is a distinct possibility that you should be looking to your FX library instead.  Apart from the low cut EQ, I’ve only used the plug-ins I’ve mentioned to heighten a sound, not to repair it.  Used discriminately though, production sound can enable levels of detail and realism virtually unattainable by any other means.

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