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How To Make Your Movie Sound Like A Real Movie

How To Make Your Movie Sound Like A Real Movie

by: Sam Longoria

I get a lot of questions on if I can "do" sound sweetening,

usually by frantic filmmakers, calling in the middle of the

night. They are frantic because the sound in their movie or

video is bad.

They've used a cheap mic, plugged into the camera, or worse,

have used the on-camera mic.

They had a friend aimlessly point the mic at the floor, or the

sky, anywhere but at the actor muttering his lines, and moved the

mic randomly during shooting.

Some, from the sound of it, have pointed the mic directly at the

whirring camera, or rumbling electric generator, or humming air

conditioner, or buzzing fluorescent lamp. They've bumped the mic

against the wall, or the ceiling, or trees or bushes.

They're far away from what they're recording, not even in the

same vicinity. There's so much "room sound," you can barely hear

the actor mumbling along.

So, the Sound Guy (whoever they can get for a few minutes -

usually a well-meaning person with no experience) turns up the

level too far, which just makes the sound distort horribly, or

too low, which buries the good sound in the mud.

Sound Editing adds more mistakes, and compounds the problem.

The filmmaker has the equipment, and wants the film to be good.

You'd think he'd read a book on the subject. You would be wrong.

He chops the sound when he chops the picture, and that's it. He

doesn't split it into tracks, or replace bad sound, or finesse

the tracks, or otherwise spend time exerting care and craft on

his precious film's soundtrack.

Essentially, when he's done shooting and cutting and laying

music, he thinks he is done, without spending the minimum of

time and care and money it takes, to have a good sound track.

So the filmmaker shows his movie, with its bad sound, to

lukewarm audience reaction. Ouch!

People don't know why the movie is bad, actually. Not one in ten

can recognize "bad sound," they just think the movie stinks.

If the filmmaker is very, very lucky, somebody will tell him the

sound is bad. Otherwise, he has no clue.

He's disappointed, but he still wants to maybe fix it. Somebody

says "sweetening" the sound will help. So he comes to me.

He wants to know if bad sound can be fixed. I have to tell him

the bad news - no.

At this stage, unless he has a great deal of time and money, and

is willing to start completely over and take the proper care,

nothing can be done.

Bad sound is the product of negligence. If you spend the time

and care, from the beginning, there is no reason for your film or

video sound to be bad.

You've probably seen many commercial movies with good sound,

so why doesn't your movie sound like them? You probably don't

really know how a good movie sounds, and what effort went into

making them sound good.

Take some time, and actively listen. After a while,

you'll notice what a good movie sounds like.

I was very lucky when I was starting out.

I read a book by Ivan Watson from England, who

spelled out precisely what it takes to record and edit

and mix good movie sound.

You can still find "Uncle Ivan's" books, either online,

or at your library. If you haven't read any filmmaking books,

you need to. Get going!

What can you do to make your movie track sound less like a video,

and more like a real movie?

Maybe a better question is, "Why does video sound so bad?"

I think that's a fair question, because frankly, most video

sound, (all elements music-dialog-effects), sucks. I've heard

exceptions, so I know it's not just the video itself.

Film does sound very different than video, I am certain of that.

Real movies are rich-sounding, with only the sounds and music

that move the story along. Video, even shot by filmmakers who

should know better, often is tinny and muffled, with thumps and

noise on the tracks.

How is film sound different from video? Making a movie sound

like a movie starts with the production sound.

Film sound is recorded on analog machines (yes, they still

exist), or on cool new 96Khz/24bit sampling recorders.

Mini-DV camera sound is uncompressed 48Khz/16bit sampling.

That's better-than-CD audio quality, but camera makers save money

by using cheap audio circuits in most under-$5k video cameras.

Cheap-and-dirty analog-to-digital circuits add noise and

distortion to your high-quality mic's crisp analog sound.

The best video camera sound I've found is on the Panasonic

DVX-100A. Its audio section is good as most DAT or solid-state

flash memory recorders. Shooting with one is like recording on a

separate digital recorder.

Film sound is recorded with a midrange bump, and an

EQ raise above 6KHz.

6KHz is the high end of the human voice. "Midrange" is around

2.5KHz. The film sound "EQ raise" at 6KHz increases dialogue

intelligibility and online movies perceived crispness.

In video, sound is recorded without pre or post EQ. Video sound

also usually uses inferior mics to those used in film sound.

Film sound mics have a cleaner sound, and flatter response,

sounding better than the mics used to record video sound.

They are highly directional (rejecting extraneous noise).

Give your video sound's midrange an EQ bump, and a raise at 6Khz,

and it will be more like how film sound is recorded.

Get some decent mics, not the cheapies. A Sennheiser ME66, or an

Audio-Technika 835b, is mid-level, not terribly expensive, and

really works well. Those will give you a rich and full sound.

You may not want to record double-system (sound recorder

separate from the camera), but if you can, do it!

If you have a Nagra or other analog tape recorder, use it. They

just sound better.

35mm mag film to edit? Sounds great. It should - it's a 1/4" magnetic

track at 18ips, and if you fill empty spaces with slug stock, it's self-gating.

In film sound, the sound designer matches sound to the look of

the film. A sad movie has mood lighting, and the sound will be

designed to match it in emotional tone. Its dialogue is EQ'd

less crisply, with a lower-frequency boost.

In a happy comedy, lower frequencies are rolled off, and it's

EQ'd and mixed to be "brighter."

Film sound is "sweetened" by manipulating room tone, premixing

audio levels, and carefully considering dialog, music, and effects for

their proper audio EQ.

Film sound expects post-production sweetening, which makes film

audio sound so different from audio for video. Video sound can be

sweetened, but Indies use it pretty much as it is recorded. Yuck!

What can be done about it? How can you make your movie sound

like a real movie?

First, notice how video procedures are designed for quick-and-

easy operation, and not really for quality.

I think most video sound sucks because the camera operator is

also the sound recordist, and the camera op doesn't care about


He wants the framing and focus and color and bla bla bla.

Sound is not his priority, and he's not really listening to what's

coming through the mic and mixer and headphones. He can't.

For your sound to be good, you must care about it being good.

That care will force you to listen to your track, something most

video hobbyists, and many filmmakers, simply don't do.

Until they've lost a film festival, and notice the winner has

good sound. Or they see the one Indy film that comes along in

a blue moon, the one with good sound.

If you actively listen to your track, you'll start hearing (it

takes time to train your ears) all the junk you're recording.

You'll take the steps necessary (filtering, mic placement, EQ,

editing) to discard everything that is extraneous. Get rid of

anything that doesn't create a mood, or push your story along.

You will put the mic just as close to your subject as you can,

and roll off the wind noise, and use a fur piece on the mic, and

only mix in enough room or ambient noise, and only when it's


If there's a single "most important part," I would say it is

"gain staging." Set your levels carefully - at every stage!

When we recorded in analog, there was a certain forgiving quality

to the recording process. Overmodulation would "saturate" the

tape, limiting levels before actually distorting.

Now everything's digital, and if you're recording digitally (to

DAT, CD, Mini-disc, or Flash Memory), there is very little

"headroom," and much less tolerance for clipping, than in analog.

If your meter goes "into the red," the sound becomes a chattery

digital nightmare. It is ruined forever. So make sure you use

"-6Db" for your "0Db," to keep it clean.

Always "expect the unexpected" when setting your levels. I've

noticed actors always "perform" 6Db louder than they "rehearse,"

and musicians do too.

I always feed one mono signal to both stereo tracks, with L at

the "proper" level, and R backed off 6Db or so.

If the sound gets too loud, L will distort, but I'll still have a

chance to salvage that section of R, when I'm editing.

How much is enough? Experience will teach you. Listen!

The major difference between how film dialog sounds and video

dialog sounds is the EQ and compression that is used to make it

intelligible and "fatter." With practice, you will learn how to

get that sound. There is no shortcut - you must practice!

You will learn what distortion sounds like, and you will learn to

set the gain properly, and boost the midrange or add compression

in recording or mixing, when it's necessary, to push the

important signal up out of the mud, and into your audience


How much boost? Again, experience.

That's why you need a Sound Mixer with sound as his only job,

one who cares, with enough faith in his ears, and experience at

setting the gain and EQ, and also a trained and experienced Boom

Operator, with necessary skills to point and move the boom.

Make it clear to your sound crew that you consider sound just as

important as the picture, and you expect good work from them.

Insist they yell "Cut!" if it distorts, and tell you when they

need another take.

Don't make the mistake of letting "just anybody" volunteer to

record sound. Make sure they've done it before.

Just hanging a mic on a boom stand is better than nothing,

but not very much better. Care must be taken at every stage.

Get the best sound you can, when you shoot, so your editing

will go smoothly.

Few things are worse than an edit session that becomes an audio

salvage operation. It detracts from the creativity, replacing it with

an air of desperation. You want to edit, when you edit.

After your picture is locked, start the sound edit. Split your

tracks, so you can vary the gain on any element. If two

characters are talking, you should have each on his own track.

Cut your dialogue, and then effects. Use your audio editing

program to "normalize" your levels, and clean up the sound.

See what needs to be fixed, and fix it. Some stuff can, like Boom

mic crashes, and ambient noise, but if something is bad and can't

be fixed, replace it with ADR, looping, and foley.

Foley is extremely subjective, that is, it's not realistic. You don't

notice footsteps at all in real life, but in the movies, if you need

to know somebody's purposefully walking along, the footsteps

are loud and pure and pristine.

Tik, tik, tik.

Papers or clothes rustling, same thing. There are persons who

make their living making clothing rustling noises, and walking

and all those noises. They're called "Walkers," or "Foley


I don't mind having to record every footstep and line of

dialogue. I've done it enough, I know how to make it seem

real. How? From doing it and doing it, so if you want to

learn how, get started, record something.

In fact, I much prefer replacing location dialogue. This

frees me to shoot with literally any camera, noisy or not.

Eyemo? Arri or Cameraflex? Mitchell, Eclair, Konvas?

All quite delightful results, if you record a track just to

use as a guide track.

Or shoot two takes, one with the camera running, one without, but

recording sound both times, and cheat the camera-less sound over

the camera take, and cut it into sync.

Looney, but it works, and that's what I do, and I get good sound.

The harder and longer you work on your sound edit, the better

chance your mix has to be good.

In my experience, looping or ADR are not all that expensive,

when you have a vocal room in your house, and some good mics.

In a pinch, a closet full of coats works fine, or a tent

made of carpet, hanging from the ceiling. Just put the mics

away from your computer fan or open windows.

My friend Jimmy O'Brien, Editor and Dialogue Director at

Universal for many years, told me he'd flown to NY and far-off

places to record a few lines on occasion, if it would fix or

change a line reading, or even change the whole plot line!

I know much of what I know about film sound from a long-ago

interview with Walter Murch, in an issue of "Filmmakers

Newsletter," where he advised to replace all the lines, rather

than just one, so they'll all match. Die-hard attitude, but his

tracks are lovely.

One of those that comes to mind is "Apocalypse Now," which had

virtually no usable sound when they entered post-production.

Think about that - everything was ADR and Foley!

Which brings me to the point in "making your movie sound

like a real movie."

Real movies have real good sound tracks to start with, and are

willing to replace most, and sometimes ALL the sound, to make

it really good.

Use your imagination, to determine what process might make your

sound "sound right." Create a sound space for each scene that

serves the story. Use EQ and reverb and sound effects to create

that space.

Compression is still a useful tool, even in these days of digital

audio. It makes the "louds" quieter, and the "quiets" louder,

raising the overall perceived level. That makes the track easier

to mix, because it is "pre-mixed." The mix flies itself.

Use compression sparingly, so it doesn't make overall changes you

don't want. Rather than compressing everything, use your audio

editing software to draw in your gain changes.

This is actually a manual type of compression, with intelligence,

(yours). Drawing in your level changes makes the track fatter

and more intelligible.

Take all the time and care your movie requires, with only one

outcome in mind, to make your movie tracks sound better.

Have the picture scored by a composer who knows what he's doing,

and get the very best mix you can.

Good audio takes as much planning as good picture, from start to

finish. Good audio doesn't "just happen," it is the result of

careful listening, and time, and care.

Most video hobbyists don't give sound the attention it deserves,

and that's why there's such an astonishing difference in quality

between video and film sound. Be different.

Start listening! Take care!

About The Author

Sam Longoria is a Hollywood producer, working in film since 1970, in a variety of jobs. His work graces several Oscar-nominated films, and one Oscar winner.

Sam teaches Independent Producing at, and

writes for his Filmmaking Blog.

2006 Sam Longoria, All Rights Reserved. You may forward this in its entirety

to anyone you wish. Hollywood Seminars, Box 2449, Hollywood CA 90078 USA

This article is available for reprint in your ezine, website or ebook. You MUST agree not to make any changes to the article and the RESOURCE BOX MUST be included.

This article was posted on April 12, 2006

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