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Vocal channel: Dealing with poor quality sound

Sarah Sharples 21 December 2016
Vocal channel: Dealing with poor quality sound

Someone once said that the difference between a recording engineer and a dubbing mixer is that the former creates their own s**t while the latter has to deal with other peoples’. Come to think of it, it might have been me! Anyway, due to budgets being squeezed in the glamorous world of post production, we professional audio plumbers are often presented with sound that appears to have been laid down either by accident, or possibly by someone who can’t vote yet, has been on a 2-week course and now possesses a diploma. But they’re cheap! Often their attempts are not good enough to broadcast in whatever medium is the project’s target market, so I’m brought in to ‘polish’ their work. Out-of-phase content, distortion, over-compression, sibilance, lighting buzz, clicks, out-of-sync dialogue, ADR that doesn’t match the location sound, extraneous background noises (dog barks, pigeons cooing, director’s mobile), are just a few of the delights I have had to deal with on an all too regular basis.

[An aside: Why do we call it ADR – Automatic Dialogue Replacement? There’s hardly anything ‘automatic’ about it!]

Occasionally I have found that what has been recorded is usable once it has all been mixed properly. But it’s a rarity. Frequently I find myself thinking the best course of action would be to start again, seldom a winning formula as far as producers are concerned! So I keep schtum and tackle what I’ve been given. Where to start?

I focus first on what tells the story. In most genres, dialogue is king. So the first thing I do is position all the dialogue, ADR and any voice-over tracks next to each other: a simple concept but it amazes me how often the dialogue tracks are scattered around the track layout. I assign all the voices to a ‘DIAL’ group fader. I play the project through, solo-ing the voices, making sure each track contains one person’s dialogue, not a cast of thousands with totally different sounding voices.

I have to admit I don’t have a Colonel Sanders secret recipe for dialogue or mixing. I use my ears! I delve into my plumber’s bag of tricks and using combinations of EQ, Noise Filters, De-essing, Compression, Level, room sound reverbs and delays, try to match the sync sound and ADR in each scene. Then I pre-mix the dialogue until it’s as good as I can possibly get it. Only after painstakingly repeating this process for all the other usual suspects – spot effects, foley, background atmospheres and music – can I begin a full mix.

In conclusion, production companies could save a lot of time and money, and get a better result, if they’d employed someone experienced like me from the very start. Maybe I should say something!

David Hamilton-Smith is a sound engineer working in post-production.

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