• Three Easy Ways To Improve Your Sound Mix

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We all have two ears.

Together, the two of them work to give us a sense of the space surrounding us.

Meaning… if you hear a loud crash to your right (with your right ear), your left ear hears the sound the a little differently. It not only hears the crash at a slightly different time compared to the right ear but also hears more of the reverb (echo) of the crash off the walls surrounding you at the impact.

It’s kind of like surround sound… only it’s just the way our world naturally functions!

Mono or “monopohonic” sound is when one microphone records into an audio file and comes out of one channel (or the same one channel played simultaneously through left and right). If we make a recording with only mono sound we don’t get that sense of space. Sound is no longer surrounding us… it’s just there. Mono sounds can be “faked” into a more stereo field in a number in post, but it still will not attain the immersive experience that well recorded stereo sounds give.

With a stereo or “stereophonic” audio, we have sound captured by two microphones recorded into separate channels (a stereo file). This allows us to do much more with our sound in post and really invites our audience to feel like they’re experiencing a space.

This brings your audience into an entire world and connects them deeply with the film, making the story feel that much more real.

If you’re looking for a few practical ways that you can start adding more depth to your sound mix and make your audience feel more immersed in the action, we’ve got three here to get you started — straight from Stillmotion audio guru Jeremy Bircher!

1. Stop mixing your audio with only headphones.

It’s not uncommon for an editor to basically just live inside of the edit by throwing the headphones on and shutting out the rest of the outside world.

But the outside world has something very valuable to offer when it comes to mixing sound: air!

It’s important when you’re mixing sound that you can listen to the audio in open air and process the sounds like we do in real life.

This means referencing your mix on a set of audio speakers in addition to headphones.

Play the audio file in your stereo at home, or in the car if you have to — the point is to make sure you are taking the time to listen to all the sounds in an environment where the air is actually influencing the sound.

2. Record natural sounds in stereo.

It takes two dedicated microphones going into one stereo audio file to make a true stereo recording.

You can do this by recording with:

  • Zoom H4N
  • Tascam DR-40
  • iPhone

But can’t I just copy and paste the mono recording in post?

No!

The point is that you want the sound to be deeper, and more three-dimensional. This means that you need two microphones to pick up sound from different directions (just like your ears do). This is how you get a sense of motion in your audio.

If this is still kind of confusing, here’s an example…

Listen to the sound of Jack Black’s motorcycle as it bobs back and forth next to the car — and as the scene continues listen to the cars whizzing by.

Recording those nat sounds with two microphones simultaneously is what makes the space sound real, like it’s happening around you rather than just a single point.

3. Add ambiances by recording air and natural spaces.

When you’re recording your pickups after a shoot, take a minute to record the air around you.

If you’re shooting at a playground, you’ll want the sound of kids playing in the background. Record the air and pick it up!

If you’re shooting in a kitchen, you’ll want the soft humming of a refrigerator, perhaps the buzzing of the lights or a nearby wall clock. These are subtle sounds to capture but adding their natural ambiance can do wonders for you mix.

When these sounds are balanced, you can add a great sense of space and authenticity to your mixes, enhancing the realism of your story.

Now get to mixing!

Well there you have it, the three things you can start doing now to add more depth to you sound mix…

  • Stop using headphones all the time.
  • Record natural sounds in stereo.
  • Add ambiances — record the air!

All of these tips are meant to serve one purpose: to help you tell deeper stories that real people can connect with. There are always a million things that can pull your audience out of the story — and audio is definitely one of them. Just like lighting, composition, movement…. every little detail of your sound mix matters, and making it more detailed and intricate is going to help you tell a better story in the end.

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10 Thoughts on “Three Easy Ways To
Improve Your Sound Mix

  1. I belonged to a Recording Studio that provided sound tracks for commercials and other small movies and docs. We used digital instruments when we had to, but the strings were always instruments; we wanted the sound of the fingers moving up and down the neck as they scrubbed the strings.

    We also recorded every other sound we could find anywhere and everywhere we were. I carry my H4N with me most of the time.

    We once did an audio play with moving sound and great sound effects. You could actually see (feel) the sound moving past your face and through your head. We even recorded “Music for Weight Management” that was tested by many in that industry and discovered that it actually worked. This falls into “Music Therapy.”

    I edit my sound through a Pioneer 424 stereo and a single pair of two-way Fidelio speakers. These speakers have wooden cases and are very, very heavy. Their dynamic range is 20 – 20,000 Hz. Better than many human ears. The speakers are in an open room with people and furniture.

    I never use headphones except to audit the recording with the H4N.

    My only advice is to pay attention to the sounds around you. Study the situation and all of the ambient sounds. Every one else hears the same sounds as you do in the same situation. Create those sounds within the scene of your movie/video and the atmosphere will be “familiar” with the audience, and it will disappear and leave the story in the forefront.

    No one will look at their phones.

    Best regards,

    Brian

    • Definitely not — any decent set of speakers will do. The reason we say to try listening to the audio at home or in the car is to make the point that even if you don’t have really nice speakers, it’s important to find a way — any way — to listen to the audio in an environment where the air is influencing it.

    • Just make sure that you have a flat equaliser curve though. If you have your bass rocked up normally for your “swinging tunes” and then edit/mix your sound with that profile, you’ll hear enough bass (because you have it boosted. Then if it plays back on on someone’s system with a flat or flatish equaliser curve it will sound weak and pithy.

  2. Great read and great reminder. Nothing sucks more than having a great sequence that´s lacking that something.. called ambience. Then you find yourself searching through sound libraries and fail to find exactly what you´re looking for..knowing that just a minute of recording ambience on set would have saved you that time..

  3. +1 for ambient sounds! Adding foley (environmental sound effects) goes a long way towards selling a shot. Its easy to go overboard isolating talents’ voices from “distracting” background audio, only to have the talent end up existing in a vacuum. Foley is not hard to record, and you can find a lot of ambient sounds at sites like freesound.org. As foley is often very low in the mix, you can get away with less than perfect sound quality and mono sources.

  4. One thing I’m finding is helping me out lately is turning out the lights and just listening to the mix once in the dark. Really helps me focus on the sound.

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