A Conversation Between Sound Production and Sound Post
Though today’s production sound mixers have elegant tools at their disposal, they work at a serious disadvantage: they have little or no connection to the post people. The production sound mixers rarely have any idea what they truly have recorded. Almost all monitoring is done via headphones and many production sound mixers don’t hear their product on loud-speakers until their films open! If there is no dialogue with the post, how can production mixers understand their work? How can they know what they can get away with? What are the standards? What is usable?
To explore these questions, Gotham held a panel dicussion sponsored by Sennheiser and Sound Devices, with Eileen Horta, supervising sound editor of Rescue Me and Gilmore Girls, John McCormick, sound mixer of Rescue Me, and Chris Newman, production sound mixer of Amadeus and What Happens in Vegas.
How often do you speak to the post-production people?
How often do you speak to the post-production people on a job that you're on? Once a day, once a week, once a month, once a year? How often?
I don't think you can be a really good production mixer without understanding the post. You [turn] in really good tracks. You can do much better. Production people rarely know what they truly have recorded because many of you never get to see your work until the movie is released. That's your fault as much as it is the fault of the process.
In my very idealized world of proactive behavior, I think it's incumbent on the post people to speak to the production people and incumbent on the production people to speak to the post people.
I mean, how the hell are you going to know what you're going to get away with? How will you know when too much noise is too much? When the camera noise is an issue? How much clothing noise can you deal with? What other criteria? How can you possibly make those judgments?
We're very fortunate. We have Eileen Horta, who has 35 years of experience doing nothing but post, post-sound, feature films, TV shows, the gamut. John McCormick is a production mixer, [who] did the original recording [with] Larry Hoff on the [ Rescue Me] scene that we're going to look at.
So without further ado, Eileen Horta, tell us what you do.
Eileen Horta: I'm the sound supervisor, so my job is to work with the producers and the picture editors. They'll bring me into a spotting session, we'll go through the show, and we'll discuss how each scene is going to sound, what type of effects, where's the location of it, especially if it's a new location, how they want it to sound, what needs to fixed, what's OK, do I need to find another take, and so on and so forth.
I have one dialogue editor and one effects editor that I work with. I'll tell them what I want, how I want the scene cut, dialogue-wise. I will sound design every scene for sound effects, how the scene should play and then I also cue the Foley. I work with the Foley artists. I cue, record and cut all the ADR and I supervise the mix.
So what the picture assistant will deliver to me is this thing called an EDL, an edit decision list, and it's every edit he made in the show. I won't have the picture side in this. My assistant gets this EDL and there's a program called Titan, and you load this in and you have the DVD ROM's that the discs are on that I've received from the production mixer, and it assembles.
And then I get my assembly tracks. So then my sound assistant gets that, he assembles the show, which takes about a day and then, because Titan is just a little bit off from the guide track, he has to go through every single clip and make sure that it's phasing against the guide track that we get from the picture department and then I start working on it. That first day that a show has been turned over to me is lost to me for editing, so I end up with only four days to cut.
Now the thing about a lot of television shows do, you only have time to do one or two takes, maybe three. Hopefully, [the actors] will do similar performances. I go look for alts before I ever think about ADR, because that's always preferable for everybody. It's preferable for me. It's preferable for the producer. It's preferable for the actor.
90% of the time, I can fix stuff. I will get [the "f" sound] of something from somebody. I manufactured a T from another character for somebody just to be able to fix a word properly.
ON THE SCENE
Eileen screened a very complicated Rescue Me scene from the season six episode "Comeback" with two fire companies meeting a strung-out junkie and a plethora of complicating issues for sound: lots of speaking characters, ad libbing, fighting, and screaming. For the curious, the episode can be bought from Amazon or iTunes or seen in part in the Three Minute Recap.
Eileen: [Rescue Me] is the type of show that is rough; it doesn't have to be really slick dialogue, really clean. They're looking for more authentic, so I'll use a lot of the booms more than the isos because that's the style of the show. But in a scene like this one on the outside, I will use more isos than the boom, because it just gets too crazy.
[This] is an unusual type of scene because not every show is going to have a setup where I'm out 16 tracks of ISO's, but this scene was that scene. A lot of different problems arise with that, and you've got 18 principle actors with dialogue that you need to capture on a street environment like this.
Chris: What goes through your head when you're sitting down and you see that for the first time?
Eileen: Panic is where I start. I figure out for me what's the most important, because some of the banter that was going on through this scene was extraneous, so, even though I had it in the isos, I didn't keep the isos up all the time. But then a lot of the banter when they have the two probies put the ice packs on the guy, there was some stuff that got lost in the wide, but I was able to retrieve from the iso.
So, when you look at it you got to see where are the pieces that you need and what you need to concentrate on. The line where Garrity says, "Oh, feisty. I like that!", there was a huge mic scrape on that track. That's in a line that I need, so that's when you go find an alt from another take.
John: This was the day for episodic [which is as] hard as it could get. Gus Makris, the director, gave me the best piece of information I could have asked for. I read the script and there's 15 guys talking,. I have seven inputs. I said, "Gus, how do you see this breaking down?" He goes, "I don't know." I said, "Well, that's a great answer." So now I can go to the producer and say, "There's no way I can do this alone."
So I got a hold of Larry Hoff, and he brought his Cooper in and I had my Cooper in. He iso'd his, I iso'd mine and made a double mono mix out of that. We gave [Eileen] the two-track and then the editor cuts the scene with our mono mix.
Eileen: Everybody was wired individually and there was a boom.
Chris: How much of the open mic do you use in [this situation]?
Eileen: It would depend. Probably very little on the street, especially in an environment of this nature, because there's too much going on. So I really wouldn't use too much because the noise ratio would be too great, and would limit me what I could add for effects-wise, in traffic and sirens, and stuff like that.
Chris: Because this is a big, big issue. If you spend all of your time wiring, and making wires as good as they can possibly be, which I presume most people would do, then the issue is, why add an open mic at all?
John: Because you got to get the truck in, you got to get the door slams.
Julie Wilde [the boom operator for the scene]: You got to get the junkie in the rest of the scene because [of] the action of the junkie; He was falling down and it was just too physical..
Eileen: Right, right. You couldn't have wired him.
Audience Member: John, when you have all these tracks going on, and they are all isolated, all this banter and all the improv, I know you're pretty much monitoring from the mix, but when you are doing the mix to mono, are you trying to guess who's going to talk and keep the mics open? I know at some point they start screaming in the pre-fades.
John: Well, that's where the boom does get in. If Dennis is there, you're right. You don't know, they might ad lib something. And in a situation like this, we were probably leaving them open. Not as hard of a mix as we might have normally.
John: I called [Eileen] when we started. I knew you weren't on the clock yet, but we had this scene. I called her after we shot it. I said, "You got a lot on your plate."
I called her after we shot it. I said, "You got a lot on your plate."
Eileen Horta: And I had already read the script. I said, "I figured."
Chris: I think the minute you make the phone call to the post people or the re-recording people, and you introduce yourselves, you are already...
Eileen: Already ahead of the game.
Eileen: One of the issues is you can't [always] find out from the producer who the post person is. If it's a new series or if it's a feature, they may not necessarily have chosen that person yet.
Chris: I think that one has to be absolutely realistic about this. For example, suppose you don't know any sound editors. There are people.
What do you do if you're working on a job, and all of a sudden there's this incredible 18K hum bouncing off a tin roof? If you don't know the sound editor, or if you don't know Eileen, perhaps you know a re-recording place that you trust.and you send it up, and you say, "Can you get rid of this?" Because you have to shoot there for three more days.
Eileen: Right. And should you make a stink, or should you be OK?
Suicide is not an option.
: And in some cases, even if you make a stink, they still won't change it. So, do you change your technique? Suicide is not an option, and so what do you do? And you get the information as quickly as you can, and you breathe a sigh of relief, and you move on, hopefully.
Eileen: Some producers, will ask the sound supervisor and the re-recording mixer for recommendations on the production mixers. Have you worked with this person before? Do you like this person? How are his tracks?
LISTEN & LEARN
Chris: How many of you production mixers have been to hear your material, particularly dialog pre-mix? Moment of truth, how many of you have gone to a dialog pre-mix of your own material?
Audience Member: We're not usually invited.
Eileen: I'll tell you, that's true. [laughs]
Chris: But the reasoning is not correct. You're waiting for the invitation. I would go to Dick Vorisek, rest in peace, and I'd introduce myself, and I'd say, "Can I come? Can I listen?" And he permitted it. We didn't talk. I didn't ask him about the film. It took two years to even give an opinion about a film. Tracks, he would talk about it. But why are you waiting for the invitation?
Chris: You've all been disadvantaged. Dailies have gone away. You don't get to go to the lab and see your stuff, even if you're doing TV. There was actually a time in television, [when] you would go to the studio screening room, and you'd see your stuff unvarnished on loudspeakers. And it's horrible, because you can't make excuses. [laughter]
You can't hide, but you also get a chance to learn.
But you also get it.
John: You can't hide, either.
Chris: Yes, and you can't hide.. But you also get a chance to learn. What can I get away with? Because the big deal is, everybody knows that sound's a pain in the ass. But you don't want to be the pain. So you've got to know minimal standards, you've got to know what you can get away with. And that's what separates, pardon the expression, the men from the boys.
Eileen: It's true, it's absolutely true, even on my end. What is going to play on the stage, and what's not going to play? And what's going to be able to be, ultimately going to work? When you're in a spotting session and the producer goes, "This is really bad." And I'll go, "It's not really that bad, and I can do a lot with this.”
Chris: That's sensational, yeah.
Eileen: "It'll be better. You'll be able to live with this, it'll be OK." It's knowing the tools that are out there.
Chris: Don't you think it would be really useful for the production people here to know Pro Tools?
Eileen: I tell you, for sound, everybody needs to know it. Re-recording mixers need to know it, and there is a lot that don't.
Chris: You don't need to know it perfectly, but to at least understand.
WHEN TO BE A PAIN IN THE ASS
You can't do it perfectly. The object of this game is not to be a pain the ass.
: When you're running, and you're laying stuff down, if you have a [thump] and it's off the lines, it doesn't exist. You don't even think about that if you have any experience and you have to retrain to think that way. The same thing is true with the hums and the buzzes and the tongues; you can't do it perfectly. The object of this game is not to be a pain the ass. Pain in the ass is what happens at the entry level when you're crazed and want to do perfect work, and then finally after 100 years you realize you can't do perfect work and that you are recording for the fixing that takes place in the post. If you want to continue working,you have to make your process invisible. We do an invisible job and the more visible it is, the worse we are considered by most of the people who want us to be invisible.
John: We're involved in the one non-visual aspect of a visual medium. I was trying to boom for the great Bill Daly on the first season of Law and Order Special Victims Unit. There was a scene they were lighting and there was nowhere to go that there wasn't a shadow. I was perplexed, and I didn't know how to even talk about it. The actor was going to be shirtless and the wife was going to be in a negligee on the bed, and there were just shadows everywhere.
And this electrician looked at me and he goes, "You look lost or something." And I said, "Well, from what I gather, we have a Great Aunt Gert shot here." And he looked at me and he goes, "What's a Great Aunt Gert shot?"
I said, "Well, the first person in my family involved in the sound industry, the sound department of the film industry, was my great aunt Gert, and she played the piano at a silent movie theater. I think what you've got to do is shoot some cue cards and cue Great Aunt Gert, because there's no way to get a boom over this fucking set."
So then I went to Bill. Bill came out and looked at it. He went, "Oh, my god," and then he went to the producer, and the producer went to the DP and they gave me one little spot to work. I was at the top barely with a little boom and a Schoeps hyper down off of a GVC, and we got the sound. But I lost about eight pounds of sweat up there. But all I'm saying, you're right. This is not an easy business. When do you go to be the pain in the ass?
John: Here's the thing, I think, especially if you're doing episodic, you're going to get a scene where you just get — on "Third Watch" especially, maybe it's just because I'd matured some by the time I got to Rescue Me — but there are days where you just turn the page. It's kind of like you're the all-star shortstop and the ball goes through your legs and then you go, fuck it. [laughter]
John: Guess what? There's another scene coming and you maybe call [post] and say, look out, you got one coming, I got beat, and at least she knows it's coming. But then you can't lose. You've got to turn it over and go on to the next page.
Chris: I feel the thrill of doing this kind of work, and it is thrilling, is in the problem solving. I think the thrill is that you walk away at the end of the day you say, "fooled 'em again."
John: That's exactly what [Bill] Daly would do. He'd rub his hands together and go, "We fooled them, didn't we?"
WHAT PRODUCTION CAN DO FOR POST
Audience Member: What are you looking for in post from a mixer?
Eileen: Well, I like to have, like the signal to noise ratio. I want to have a voice to be able to work with. I am not so concerned about ambient sound because with a lot of the plug-ins and outboard gear you can filter a lot of that out, to a certain extent. I don't want it overpowering. And that's where the signal to noise ratio with the voice and the ambience becomes very important. I like a lot of warmth in my voices. I don't want them thin. Because then I can do more work with the plug-ins and I don't degrade the voice quality so much. I like more air.
But you're still limited to what you were originally given. So you can only go so far. Like you can only go so far in cleaning out anything if I don't have enough voice to expose it, because it's going to thin out and be brittle. And, you know, nobody likes that, really. So, you know, I was talking about the one scene in the show from the Everglades, where they were in an alley way next to a hotel, and you had those large industrial air conditioner vents. There wasn't enough level to the voice, so I could only go so far without really making them sound like a bunch of chipmunks. So then I had to put a lot of the noise back. And then to help even it out, I had to add even more noise from my [Backgrounds], to make it consistent.
So the more voice I've got, the better. And the more warmth to the voice the better, because then I can do work with it that's going to make it be thinner and not now become too brittle.
Audience Member: What can we do to help give you guys what you need?
Eileen: What it really comes down to is them not stepping. It's the actors not stepping on the lines, so I don't have the ambience to be able to make a fill loop, or to make a fill extent.
Dialogue needs to stand on its own, without any effects or any music to support it.
My approach to dialogue editing is that it doesn't need any effects to help it. Your dialogue needs to stand on its own, without any effects or any music to support it.
I'd like to address the issue of [riding the gain on] the isos. I don't want you doing [it] that much, going up and down. Because when you come back up, you don't always come up at the same time.
And if I need to find fill, now my levels are different for that mic. And my fill is going to be different. And I'm going to be in a corner somewhere. I'm going to be stuck. So, I don't like this too much.
Audience Member: How much should we be doing or not doing effects-wise on the set? We have this one 120 or the tone that's really annoying and now actually goes on and off. Doesn't affect the vocal range, though. I tend not to do it, but I know I can rid of it. Should I leave it in there for you guys to deal with? Or do I just get rid of it?
Eileen: No, get rid of it. That would be my opinion.
Audience Member: The other question is what to do [in terms of] compression?
Eileen: I don't like too much compression to be done beforehand. Only because the dynamic range of everything else that I'm going to be bringing in, I don't want that to be affected by too much. But a certain amount, of course, is great.
Audience Member: Regarding problems with hum and noise, do you ever go to the plug-ins in Pro Tools and try to take the time to take the sound out? Or is that too labor intensive?
Eileen: It's not too labor intensive, and I do do it. iZotope is a great plug-in [for Pro-Tools]. I do use this and it works really good. Now I'll only go to a certain extent, because I don't want to leave the re-recording mixer with his back against the wall. I'm going to leave him room to do some more work on it.
Audience Member: I'm sure you can't get rid of it completely, but do you have any techniques for getting rid of mic rustle or clothes noise?
Eileen: What I'd start to do is I'd get some fill, room tone, from that angle that was clean and try to fill around it, to get rid of it as much as I possibly could. And then I'd tack the words as much as I could with one of the plug-ins that would help me get rid of it, and minimize that.
Chris: So, you'll try to clean around the syllables.
Peter: I think this is also an opportunity to remind people. If you know that you didn't get a clean take, then get wild track. Get the scene wild.
Eileen: Wild track would be great. It's the same mic. It's in the same environment. It's close to the performance. And give me four or five different versions. I can make things. I can take pieces and just fit them in.
Chris: Give them the feed line. Actors work much better with a cue than they do in the abstract, much better.
John: [Directors] have a lot of power, tremendous amount of power, when it comes to us. If we're doing one side of coverage, and there's a plane, but it isn't so offensive that we have to stop, and the plane is still there, [once] the dialogue is finished, if you don't say "cut," and you just let a pregnant pause hang there, we've got a piece that post will take. When we do the other guy's side, and there is no plane at all, they'll have something to make it all smooth out. And you're going to love it later on. That's the most perfect bloody tone on the planet at that moment.
So don't say "cut" just as soon as the dialogue's over. Let it hang in the air for a second because these people take it and do wonders with it.
Audience Member: Do you read a sound report anymore?
Eileen: If I'm given them, yes. The other really big thing, what I read more, is the script supervisor's notes.
Audience Member: What's the most helpful thing to you in observing written sound reports that you're getting, that you wouldn't be getting necessarily from the file information?
Eileen: Oh, if the mixer noted that, say, "Lines 10-12P distorted."
Eileen: You know, one of the keys to my job is to learn what the producer wants. Inevitably, especially for television, it's the producer‑writer, some of them are like, 'Oh yeah, sure, go ahead, loop it.' Others are like, 'I don't care. I do not want it looped.' Sometimes every word is golden to him, and he wants to hear every 'the' and 'a' that he wrote. And another writer‑producer, as long as the essence of the scene is delivered, he doesn't care if he misses, or it's not quite as clear as the rest. So every project, every producer‑writer‑creator is different. so that is part of the key in learning. I would have probably looped it, but they didn't want to loop it.
Chris: One of the big mysteries about looping is, you never know exactly what you're going to get. You don't know what the actors are going to do.
Eileen: Or how good they are. That's absolutely true. Well, looping and ADR are the same. Now looping, for the younger people, actually came from the process of looping. What I would do ‑‑ and I did this on the original 'Hawaii Five‑O' series, which I did, the last year of. I'd get a one to one of the mag. And I would cut out the line that needed to be re‑done. And then I would get a fill leader, and I'd have it be the same length as that. and then I'd count another foot and a half, which is another second. And I'd make a loop. And then that would go. I would make a quarter inch, and I'd run the loop ten times. And then I'd go to the next line, and do that ten times. And the next line. Because then they would hear the line and say the line, hear the line, say the line.
Chris: Did you give them beeps also?
Eileen: No, they didn't get beeps. It was way before any of this. They would hear the line, and then they would just repeat it. Hear the line. So they would be listening from the quarter inch that I made of the loops. And be recording onto another quarter inch. And then I would just go through it and I would get 10 or 20 takes, and I'd just figure out which one is going to be the closest.
Chris: They didn't look at the picture when they did it?
Eileen: No, they didn't have pictures. Because in Hawaii, they had a little shed with a metal roof. If it rained for any period of time, you wouldn't get any ADR for days. [laughter]
Eileen: I was trained with the belief that I make the re-recording mixer's job as painless as possible, and to make him be able to work efficiently and quickly. Because dubbing stage time is way more expensive than my time. That's what it always comes down to, in my opinion.
John: Of course, the point of all this is that when you are recording production, you're recording for the post.
When you are recording production, you're recording for the post.
Always, you are recording for what the post can do because the clock that runs in the post is different than the clock that runs on the set.
Eileen: It's much faster. [laughter]
John: Like an infielder [who] gets a ground ball and knows how much time they have to get the double play, you have to have this clock in the back of your head that goes, "My sins are going to start piling up." And the point is, is that in the beginning everything's hunky-dory because you're not getting any calls from [post], because they aren't there.
John: But you know that they're going to be coming, and the actors start disappearing, and you haven't got them to shoot something because they're over in ADR, then everybody's going to be piling up.
You have to have this clock in the back of your head that goes, "My sins are going to start piling up."
And so then you could sometimes wrangle an extra take or something. But there's that little clock, because when you're shooting a show and it's on the air a week and a half or two weeks after that, that doesn't give her much time for magic.
Chris: It's also about giving the director who's under the gun, enormous alternatives. Because no one can predict, no matter what they say, what the cutting pattern will be. Not Alfred Hitchcock. Even [Sydney] Lumet does not know the cutting pattern. He knows what he intends, but that doesn't necessarily happen. So the more alternatives you can give the director, the easier it is for them, for Eileen and the other people who do this level of work, to work this stuff out.
Chris: When one records for motion pictures — and that includes television, indies, everything — what's the goal of the recording? It's all about signal to noise. Nothing more, nothing less. It's all about, not if you got the greatest sounding microphone in the whole world. It's about how much signal you got and how much noise you don't want to get.
Chris: [You have to think] like a director. Not like a technician. Because you can't quantify how much noise you'll put up with. There are some scenes that can be noisy as all hell and they tell the story and you're thrilled with them. And there are other scenes that you want to be very quiet. But that decision can't be really quantified, because the real question that you're asking is, what is this scene about? And I don't mean the sound. I mean, what is this moment in the story about?
Eileen: You get the storyteller in sound.
Special thanks to Sennheiser and Sound Devices for their generous support in making this seminar possible.