Audio: Getting Sound Right
Film and video have progressed rapidly into the digital age, but they still have a long way to go to catch up with the capabilities of audio.
By Tom Inglesby
“I believe audio is the most important aspect for moving an audience.” Naturally, those are the words of an audio producer, director, and engineer. With more than 25 years of writing and producing musical scores, re-recording, mixing, developing sound design, editing, writing and directing, Mark Edward Lewis has a unique perspective on how to create high production value for independent productions.
Lewis’ mastery of all aspects of audio production has numerous showcases. One of a new breed of directors who approaches storytelling from an “audio first” context, his projects have an emotional impact that few other directors exhibit. His mantra is simple: “Post-production begins in pre-production.”
When not on the road, Lewis works in Los Angeles as a filmmaker and a post-production supervisor. This gives him a chance to oversee and develop creative audio content whether in sound design, mixing, music, or sound editing. His most recent work includes episodes for Star Trek: New Voyages including “Kitumba, The Holiest Thing,” and “Mind-Sifter,” which he also directed. He is the post-production supervisor on Space Command, and will be directing Star Trek: Torment of Destiny in July, 2015.
Lewis also has a passion for education. He has presented training sessions on sound production and is part of MZed’s Sound Advice Tour with his friend Frank Sarafine. In these day-long classes, the participants study the hows and whys of film/video sound, scouting locations, choosing mics and placing them, field and studio recording, stereo and surround sound, and minimizing problems during the recording to speed up post-production.
When we spoke with Lewis, we asked why he was so involved with educating the next generation of audio producers. “People don’t understand much about audio,” he lamented. “In order to really create the kind of powerful media that most independent directors and producers want to create, it’s imperative that they investigate and develop skills around audio. On the Sound Advice tour, we go for eight hours into just about every intuitive and non-intuitive aspect of producing audio, editing it, recording it, mixing it, and fixing it, including music and Foley work. These are things that big-budget films use every day of the week, but independent films usually miss.”
Audio has been a concern of filmmakers who have entered, usually very enthusiastically, into the digital age. “How will audio keep up with the 4K and 8K movies we are making?” is a common question. Lewis has an answer, not necessarily one those producers want to hear. “We talk about this in the tour, how your brain can be fooled into thinking that animation occurs at about thirteen frames a second. In audio, your brain won’t be fooled unless you get above 32,000 frames a second. For the last ten years or so, we’ve been working at what is, in essence, equal to 8K for video. So it’s actually video that’s catching up with audio.”
That decade Lewis refers to saw an explosion of new technology on both the video—and film—and audio side. Is the audio recording and mixing equipment keeping up? “There are always new manufacturers that are very happy for you to spend your money on their technology. On the tour, we’re sponsored by some of the most prestigious and well-respected manufactures of that gear in the world—Roland, Zoom, and Sony. In fact, we have giveaways for some of that stuff. We’re talking about the Roland R-88 field recorder, the Zoom H5 and H6, and all of the UWP and DWR Sony wireless equipment. It’s the cutting-edge stuff, and we’re taking it all around the country, demonstrating how to use it to best advantage.”
The basic piece of audio equipment is and always has been the microphone. Like the saying goes, it’s right in the actor’s face. Lewis gets technical when asked about the evolution of microphones for digital. “If you’re going digital, not using film, not rolling tape, then we have to have some kind of digital transduction. With video, it’s gone to all kinds of digital devices that basically capture photons. In the audio world, we’ve really yet to get better than the simple diaphragm for transducing voltage—in other words, the microphone. Sound pressure, what sound really is, only does a few things and if you can capture the waves of sound pressure and do it very well, that’s all you need. The rest of it is all about how you’re processing those signals once they’re digitized. So we’re still using microphones.”
He continues, “We don’t have any kind of weird technology to record audio. It’s still microphones, whereas cameras have gone in all kinds of different crazy ways to try to capture all of those photons, all the waves and particles of light. We really don’t need that. We are using shotgun mics; we’re using lavalier mics; we’re using big, large diaphragm studio mics; and we’re still using ribbon microphones, not necessarily on set, but certainly in the studio. And that’s about it.”
The world of mixing and post-production audio has gone a long way from the analog days. Now everything seems to be done on computers. “Well, yes, that part has completely changed. The production side hasn’t really changed that much, but the processing of audio in post-production, that’s very different—every day is a new breakthrough. We’re demonstrating some of the most outrageous and magical, for lack of a better term, series of plug-ins from manufactures such as iZotope and Zynaptiq. Not only that, we’re doing three-dimensional audio and 3-D audio in headphones on our tour, as well as in production.”
Lewis adds, “Audio has almost daily breakthroughs. Frank talks about when he was on Brainstorm, Natalie Wood’s last movie. They had a really, really noisy camera, and when Frank complained, ‘You’ve got this noisy camera. What are we going to do?’ the director said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We’ll have her come in, and we’ll just replace all of her dialog in ADR (automated dialog replacement).’ Well, of course, Natalie was no longer available—she died! So what Frank and the team had to do was literally take cotton swabs with alcohol to the audio tape portion of the film to rub out the camera clicks.”
How many hundreds if not thousands of hours that must have taken! “Well, it’s still a problem,” Lewis admits, “but we actually show how we can change that with today’s technology. We just open a plug-in in Adobe Audition or Pro Tools, and it pretty much takes care of it in a few clicks and in a few minutes, the problem is gone. It’s a wild new frontier for post-production in audio.”
He is quick to acknowledge, “As far as I can tell for the foreseeable future, we’re going to continue using microphones and recorders much like what we have now, just with more bells and whistles. But in post-production, boy, it’s very, very exciting.”
Lewis goes on to explain, “We’re seeing the advent of 3-D audio. Today, I am doing a 5.1 surround mix for a production and I will be doing it in headphones in my hotel room—and it will sound just fine because I have the ability, through 3-D audio, to mix in headphones anywhere I want. We’ll take the mix to a studio in the end and do a final check, but the idea that, if we have good headphones, we can mix anywhere—in a hotel room, in a car, in an airport, and, of course, in a nice studio. That really changes the workflow because now, as a director, I can be on set mixing and making sure that the audio is going to be what we want it to be, and that’s very exciting.”
We’ve come a long way from the old “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the mix.” Or have we? “We always worry about it. On the tour, we spend three hours in the morning telling people, ‘Don’t say fix it in the mix, because if you don’t have to, you’ll save thousands of dollars.’ It still takes time. It’s not immediate. There’s no magic button that you click. We still haven’t developed a ‘sound-good button,’ especially when the original track is recorded badly.”
We’ve come a long way since 1966 when Ray Dolby introduced his noise reduction processor, or 1971 when A Clockwork Orange was the first film to use Dolby’s invention. In fact, we have come farther faster. As Lewis says, “In the last five years, the world of post-production audio has completely changed.”