GDO is an audio post-production company specialising in independent films, drama documentaries, TV commercials, radio and direct broadcast. Their core equipment comprises of a Logic One AMS digital console, which is a fully automated desk. This means you can store all your eq, compressors, gates and other settings. The editor is the Audiofile, which is a 24-track playback digital non-linear editing system. "Although it's been around for ten years, it is still the Rolls-Royce in the industry - GDO's founder Nigel Glynn-Davies explains. "There are a lot of smaller PC systems challenging the Audiofile, but they are not as sophisticated ". On the surround side, the console has a joystick control which will allow you to sweep sounds around: in the old days you had to work on four different levels, front left, front right, front middle and your rear surround, all on different faders. There are 26 hours of memory on the hard drive, coupled with a DA88's (an 8 track digital recorder using HI-8 cassettes) for premixes.

Some production tips
The whole process starts with location sound. If this has been recorded badly the job is a nightmare. This accounts for a lot of the problems with independent films. "In the main you have people who are very creative visually but do not take into account the importance of sound. So they ask their mate who is going to go along because he/she is helping out and ends up being the sound person. They don't know where to point a mic, nor what the post-production process needs; whether it is a close micing situation or using a boom mic; they do not record atmosphere beds and wild tracks. I always tell anyone: shoot as much wild track as you can, try as many different angles on the sound as you can, and ... listen. If the director doesn't give you enough run up stop the shoot and say that you need 30 seconds run up. If you give yourself those 30 seconds at the top of everything you'll save yourself 20-30 minutes in audio post per hour. Also if you want to do any cutaways you've got long enough atmosphere beds to cover the shots. Loops can be heard and they distract people. A lot of sound is subliminal. The audience suddenly realise they have missed a piece of dialogue because of an irritating sound in the background. Also things that you can do while on a shoot cannot be reproduced in studio with the same feeling. When you are shooting picture you need to shoot sound, they are not separate".

The approach on the micing is also quite significant. We have got quite a few different micing techniques which should be used in different situations. As far as mono is concerned: Mono Mic, Radio Mono Mic; Boom.

For recording stereo there are other, and more complex, techniques. M-S (Mid and Side), a stereo microphone technique, where you can alter the mono signal against the atmos track. Split Mono, which is two mics either radio or boom, which give good separation between two situations. And Finally, Coincidental (or X-Y), for creating stereo by crossing the mics over. With Coincidental the best stereo sound can be achieved by using a pair of cardioid mics separated by about 20cm and at an angle of 110 degrees. The sound arrives at the two capsules at different times, creating a phase shift and a better stereo effect. However, X-Y recording is not always suitable for dialogue. M-S in drama is used rather than X-Y. Also, M-S recording reproduces the sound coming from the centre with more clarity than the X-Y technique, and it can be manipulated more easily in post-production.

All stereo recordings, unlike mono, can suffer from phase problems which will weaken the sound. Some would argue, therefore, that properly recorded mono dialogue is more valuable than stereo dialogue, provided that good stereo sound effects and music are available.

Recording stereo requires more equipment and more tracks. Post-production time, as well as recording time, are increased, and you need to account for that in your budget. Using the correct technique would save, for example, time on the ADR (dialogue replacement), which can be a very time consuming process.

"Once you've got your mics and you've got your mixer - Nigel suggests - pay the money and get a trained sound recorder, it's about 140 a day, which is a lot for a low-budget short, but it is worth its weight in gold. It will mean you've got clean dialogue, and if your pictures are good you are half way there."

Make sure that the time code rate you are shooting at is the same for pictures and sound ie 24fps or 25 fps.

DAT vs Nagra
Do we record sound on the Nagra or on the DAT? "The Nagra is built like a battleship - Nigel explains - the most robust machine for recording". DAT was never meant to be a professional device, it was brought out as a semi-domestic machine. However, the price for digital at the time was so high that studios bought them as an inexpensive alternative. We adopted it because we wanted two tracks of digital sound, and the only way of doing it at the time was PCM701 or F1. The audio quality on DAT is vastly superior to anything that analogue can offer. DAT can have built in time code and you can record time and date, time code and a unique time code for the roll number. The traditional Nagra is a quarter inch analogue open reel tape record machine and is heavy and cumbersome but extremely reliable. There is a new four track machine which is digital but still has not been adopted as regular location format. The great thing about the Nagra route was that people did sound notes, because of time codes now there are hardly any sound notes coming with a DAT. It used to be standard common practice that the sound person logged everything: now no one is doing it any more. That can be a real nightmare: it saves a huge amount of time in previewing if you have sound notes".

Track Laying
Once the synch process is over, the DATs are transferred, digitised into an off-line non-linear editing system. The digitised-sound has, of course, the same time code as the DAT.

Track lay as you would expect it to mix. All dialogue on 1 & 2; synch effects on 3 & 4; atmos beds on 5 & 6; your music on 7 & 8. "It is important to respect this common practice because the mixer, at the end of the day, will want to know where things are, track 2 a female voice, track 12 a high end spot effect, it saves on the process time, gives the filmmaker and the dubbing mixer a better relationship and improves creativity, because when you begin freeing people from the actual technicalities you get a much better job".

The most complex tracklaying involves: dialogues (4 or 5 tracks); possibly some ADR (getting the artists into the studio, creating a loop and re-recording the lines). Unfortunately, if you are replacing a dialogue, once you've changed the dialogue you have to replace everything else; every piece of foley, every sound of the room. For example people like to use dollies and they make a noise, you have to be very careful, shoot again for sound, get the person in situ to say the lines again, sometimes, if you ask to deliver the lines straight away again they match perfectly. You put the two together and with the benefit of a few cutaways, you get the picture cut you want plus you are not compromising the sound. Once you've got your dialogues right you then move on to foley. Foley is everything from footsteps, to rustling, to noises and human effects. It can take up to 16 tracks. It may seem secondary but it will add a lot.

When you've got your foley, move on to spot effects. (A door opening, a telephone in the background). In a piece of live action film it can be the whole scene.

Then there are atmos beds, they thicken up the sound, give a different texture, cover edits, help in a lot of different ways. For example you can alter the seasons just by adding a few seconds of specific sound, a cricket in the background and it is summer etc. You may use them to give an extra emotional angle to the film. You can record them on location or build them from scratch in the studio.

Finally we have the music. People now, even in low-budget films, expect to hear a good music track. You can now get very rich soundtracks from inexpensive equipment.

When everything is in place you then premix. You seperately premix the dialogue, the foley, any ADR, etc. and then bring it all back onto the desk as stereo premixes. At this point you will decide how you are going to balance the effects within the Dolby Surround.

Surround sound mixing needs sound design, and it is a new dimension to the process: it's a cross over between a dubbing editor and a dubbing mixer who do not create sound, they tracklay and mix to the final sound. Sound design is now tending to move closer to musicians who are becoming sound designers. "They have the advantage of working at home, they have all kinds of sequencers and synchronisers, they've got vast libraries of effects, keyboards with which they can pitch and alter sounds. The dubbing studio is not the place to have sound design". Surround sound can make you rethink how to use your images. For example, by moving a sound around you can draw the attention to specific areas of the picture.

At the end of the whole process your final mix will be on DAT with timecode to match picture and a sync plop 48 frames before start of picture...

Full article published in Filmwaves - Issue 3, February 1998. Subscribe now!